Iraqi museums, art and the values of the market place - Capitalism: a threat to culture

In the present epoch, the bourgeoisie is no longer capable of advancing human civilization, but the decay of the capitalist system threatens to poison every aspect of social life. The most heartbreaking example of the way in which capitalism is destroying the cultural heritage of mankind is what has just happened in Iraq.

In the epoch of capitalist decay, the bourgeoisie is no longer capable of advancing human civilization, but the decay of the capitalist system threatens to poison every aspect of social life. The most negative effects of this decay are to be found in the world of culture. The present period in the history of capitalism is characterised, among other things, by the absence of any great artistic creations, original thinking or philosophy. It is a period of extreme shallowness, intellectual poverty and spiritual emptiness - a period in which a George W. Bush can become the President of the most powerful nation on earth and Jeff Koons is considered to be an artist of stature.

The American pop-artist Jeff Koons may not represent the pinnacle of artistic genius, but his productions certainly make a lot of money. Recently somebody sold a statue of Koons called Michael Jackson and Bubbles which depicts the famous pop singer in the company of a monkey. The purchase price of this modern masterpiece was a mere $250,000 in 1991, but it was later sold for $5.6 million. Thus a shrewd investor made a handsome profit over just ten years for a modest outlay. With such profits to be made from "art", why should anyone in their right mind bother with productive investment?

Reporting on this outstanding achievement the London Evening Standard (March 28, 2003) wrote: "Contemporary pieces are by far the best performing sector of the art market at present." The recently published Zurich Art Market Research Art and Antiques Index shows that "contemporary art" has doubled in value since 1996 and by 26 percent in 2002 alone. The interest of the capitalists in art increases in inverse proportion to its desire to invest in the development of industry, science and technology and to create things that are of real use to the majority of the human race.

There is a thriving international art market, where investors eagerly buy up anything available, often for the most absurd prices. For anyone interested there is even a website with a database including details of some 290,000 artists and worldwide auction records from 1700 onwards. Its economic department provides price indices, price levels by category, trend of bought-in lots, number of transactions, breakdown of artist's turnover between markets and between types of medium and sales compositions. There is much here to delight all those who love graphs, charts and diagrams, though nothing at all about art itself. Art is here presented as just another saleable commodity - like chewing gum, underpants or Iraqi oil.

Britain, which has lost most of its manufacturing base and become a largely parasitical rentier economy, now accounts for some 23 percent of the world contemporary art market, because it produces a large quantity of shoddy productions of so-called art which, in the present speculative climate always find a buyer. In this way, one branch of parasitism feeds upon another.


Michael Jackson and Bubbles by Jeff Koons

A typical advertisement for this branch of "production" asks: "How would you like to turn £5760 into £7152 in the short term?" The short term is nowadays all that the capitalists are interested in. British capitalism is no longer capable of producing cars, but it has cornered the market in shoddy "art". What a devastating comment on the former workshop of the world! Is it any wonder that Britain has ended up as a mere satellite of American imperialism?

The biggest centre of this trade is, naturally, the USA, which accounts for no less than 56 percent of it. Needless to say, this huge expenditure on works of art has precious little to do with aesthetics. Most of the works thus purchased are not intended for display but as an economic investment - or, to call things by their right name - as speculation. They will not be seen by the public, and most of them will not even be seen by their purchasers, which tend to be the big banks and corporations.

Some of these works of art (the cheaper contemporary variety) will be leased for display in company boardrooms and receptions. Most of the good stuff, however, will be locked up in the vaults of banks until the price is right to resell them. In the case of such works as Michael Jackson and Bubbles, this is probably the best place for them. But among the works of art that are thus disposed of are real treasures of world art. Priceless old masters that ought to be the common property of all humanity are concealed in a miser's hoard where they will never see the light of day. In this way the human race is being robbed of a precious part of its heritage.

The looting of Iraq

The most heartbreaking example of the way in which capitalism is destroying the cultural heritage of mankind is what has just happened in Iraq. This vast treasure house of human civilization dating back for over four thousand years has been systematically looted, smashed and destroyed as a result of the Anglo-American rape of Iraq.

The obscene orgy of plunder of some of the richest archaeological museums in the world must have filled all civilized men and women with a feeling of disgust and indignation. The criminals who performed these acts of vandalism were not just disorganised mobs. They acted so quickly and their activities were so thorough that it is impossible to believe that they were just the usual city poor acting spontaneously. The museums were systematically targeted, not just in Baghdad but also in Babylon, the cradle of world civilization. The Sunday Mirror (April 13) reported:

"Yesterday Nabhal Amin, deputy director of the National Museum of Iraq, wept after seeing mindless vandals loot and pillage the building.

"It housed nearly 200,000 priceless antiquities, spanning 8,000 years - irreplaceable sculptures, inscribed stone tablets and carved reliefs from half a dozen cultures, including the Sumerian, Assyrian and Babylonian empires.

"Mr. Amin broke down as he said: ‘They have looted or destroyed 170,000 items from antiquity […] They were worth billions of dollars."

The dozen or so individuals who performed this act of cultural vandalism knew what they were doing. They were seen hauling away an ancient doorway, while others searched through items including a 4,000 year-old silver harp from the ancient kingdom of Ur. This was not blind looting but a purposeful action, planned in advance. Probably the items that were smashed were wrecked by other, less conscious elements, or damaged by these gangsters in their haste to get what they were looking for. It is unthinkable that this was the work of ordinary Iraqis. It is also clear that whoever these people were, they were highly organised and were aware of the value of the stolen objects and where to dispose of them. Their final destination must be outside the frontiers of Iraq.

Zainab Bahraini, an Iraqi-born professor of Mesopotamian art now living in the USA, warned: "Many of these pieces will disappear into international art markets and never be seen again. If these mobs start going into other museums and looting them, the loss will be horrendous." And so it was. The curator of the museum in Babylon attempted to preserve his priceless treasures by bricking up the museum's entrance, but to no avail. The organised gang that broke into the museum cut a hole in the side of the building and looted everything except the heavy stone friezes they could not carry. The museum's curator wept at the spectacle of his desecrated museum, and the whole world will weep with him.

But some people will not weep. Some people will be very happy at this rape of an ancient civilization. The gangs that stripped the museums of Iraq and stole its ancient treasures were organised by a ring of international art dealers. These vultures were waiting for the opportunity of a lifetime once the forces of American imperialism had battered Iraq into submission. Their agents were prepared to act quickly, and were sure that the occupying troops would not interfere with their activities. Nobody would ask what they were doing. Nobody would interfere with the transportation of the stolen goods. Nobody would stop them at the frontier with Jordan. It was all so childishly simple!

It cannot have been easy to transport big statues without being detected. It is entirely possible that there was some kind of collusion on the part of the Americans. At the very least they were responsible for criminal negligence in the matter of looting, standing by while hospitals were smashed and robbed of their medicines. They displayed an attitude of callous indifference to the suffering of the Iraqi people they claimed they had come to liberate. And their contempt for the dignity of Iraq is also shown in their indifference to the destruction of its culture. These attitudes show, not the human concern of genuine liberators but the arrogance of imperial conquerors.

Rumsfeld and the freedom to loot

The most revealing comments came from Donald Rumsfeld. When asked about the looting and mayhem in Baghdad he replied with supreme tranquillity that freedom was a very fine thing, and that free people sometimes do bad things. Because they are free they may loot, rob, burn and smash museums and hospitals. But surely this is a small price to pay for the achievement of liberty? Mr. Rumsfeld's fervent commitment to free market principles, including the sacred right to loot, evidently do not extend to the oil business. American troops immediately moved to defend the ministry of oil and the ministry of defence, while abandoning hospitals, schools and museums to their fate. This little detail accurately reveals the values and priorities of the capitalist system everywhere.

To the capitalists art, culture and education have no intrinsic worth. They are only of interest insofar as they provide a source of enrichment to those who are already obscenely rich. If they can get away with closing schools and hospitals in Europe and the USA in order to save on taxes, they will cheerfully do so. If they can make people pay for public services like museums, libraries and art galleries, they will privatise them. If that does not provide enough money, they will close them.

The cultural world of the early 21st century is a desert in which everything is subordinated to a single principle - profit. Donald Rumsfeld is not perturbed about the disappearance of a large part of the common cultural heritage of humanity because he does not believe in common heritages but only in private property. Why should all those old statues be left to moulder in a museum in Baghdad when they can be put to profitable use by an efficient art dealer in New York?

For people like Rumsfeld works of art are only of interest when they become transformed into commodities. If he had his way the contents of every museum and art gallery in the world would be put on sale and given to the highest bidder. These are sound market principles. This is the stuff of which democracy is supposed to be made!

The fact that this peculiar brand of "democracy" signifies the untrammelled rule of a handful of giant corporations run by tiny unelected cliques of billionaires is unimportant. The fact that these "free market principles" mean the systematic dismantling of all the gains made by the working class over the past 100 years and a return to the dark ages is a trifling detail. The fact that these "principles" constitute a threat to culture and civilized values is to be disregarded. All that matters is that Capital rules and is allowed to carry out the plunder of the whole world without let or hindrance.

Bush's morality

In the ancient civilizations of the Middle East there were many barbarous features - though never as barbarous as the conduct of our present day imperialists. They worshipped barbarous and bloodthirsty gods. Among these was the god Moloch who demanded a constant stream of human sacrifices, usually little children. Devout Christians like George W. Bush and his lieutenant Donald Rumsfeld take this as proof of the moral superiority of their religion, which they now seek to foist on the people of Iraq through the services of an army of evangelical missionaries from the Bible Belt of the USA.


Cartoon originally published by "The Independent" on April 10

We doubt very much that these missionaries will receive a warm welcome in Iraq, despite the fact that they will be well equipped with money and food with which they hope to bribe the hungry population into changing their religious allegiances. The people of Iraq have had plenty of opportunity to observe the moral superiority of Christianity as practiced by Bush and Rumsfeld and will have drawn the following conclusion: that this is the most bloodthirsty, the cruellest and most barbarous creed that the world has ever seen.

In the last twelve years the barbarous economic blockade of Iraq killed over a million children. Nobody knows how many innocent men, women and children have been killed in the recent fighting. But it is clear that many more will die in the coming months as a result of the destruction by bombing of what was left of the infrastructure. In comparison with the conduct of the American imperialists in Iraq, Moloch seems like a benevolent deity.

The real religion of George W. Bush and the class he typifies so well is not Christianity, but the worship of Mammon, the god of wealth. They are willing to sacrifice any number of men, women and children to this pitiless god. This is a religion that has no heart, no soul and no mind. It is entirely dedicated to the piling up of riches in this world. The next one will then take care of itself, for a rich man is said to be pleasing in the sight of the Lord.

Capitalist decline

In its period of ascent the bourgeoisie played a progressive role in developing the productive forces and pushing the bounds of civilization and culture forward. But in the period of its senile decay, the capitalists are no longer interested in developing the productive forces. The narrow limits of capitalism cannot even contain the productive forces that have been already created. The world economy is in crisis because there are too many cars, too much steel, too many shoes, too many computers. In a world where 35 million people are starving, farmers in Europe and the USA are being paid not to produce food, because there is said to be too much grain, meat and milk.

The wars that constantly devastate one country after another are a symptom that the whole system is in a deep crisis and is rent by insoluble contradictions. Fault lines and cracks are appearing everywhere in the capitalist world order. In a system that sets no value on human life, that is wholly indifferent to the sufferings of millions of little children, what chance is there for culture? Who can talk seriously about the beauties of art, music and literature, when we are everywhere surrounded by barbarism?

We are in the midst of a general regression of what used to be called civilization, and this is the inevitable result of the fact that the present socio-economic system has outlived its historical reason to exist. Civilization is being held back by two gigantic fetters on progress - private ownership of the means of production and the nation state. But the bourgeoisie is not capable of recognising that it has become a reactionary barrier to human progress. It is clinging to power like a dying man clinging to life. In so doing, it has condemned the world to a prolonged period of convulsions, wars and chaos. All its attempts to save itself are ultimately doomed to fail. Its decline is irreversible, but it nevertheless threatens to drag society down with it.

At the start of the 21st century, the bourgeoisie has become completely reactionary, rotten, corrupt and degenerate. This fact is written on the faces of its foremost representatives in the government of the United States of America. The actions of the class of people who now rule the world constitute an appalling threat to the future of human culture and civilization. The events in Iraq have exposed this fact with the utmost clarity.

The struggle against imperialism and capitalism has now become the struggle to defend the gains of human culture against a destructive force that threatens to crush them underfoot in order to satisfy its insatiable greed. The working class cannot be indifferent to the fate of culture. This is the foundation upon which the future socialist edifice will be built. We cannot allow the bourgeoisie to wreck it! The accumulated gains of 4,000 years of human civilization must be defended, valued, treasured and preserved for the benefit of our children and grandchildren.

This is a hundred times truer of the youth. The youth has more to lose than anyone else from the depredations of capitalism. We must halt the assault on education and demand a decent and human education for everyone. The bourgeoisie's monopoly on culture and education must be broken! Culture is for everyone, not for the enrichment of a tiny handful of wealthy parasites. Young people must understand that their future demands active participation in the struggle for socialism. It is impossible to be neutral!

The war in Iraq has aroused the broadest layers of society. It has had an effect not only on the working class but also on the students, intellectuals and artists who have demonstrated their revulsion at an unjust war. Now the war is over. But the struggle has only just begun. It is necessary to draw the conclusions.

It is imperative that all those who cherish art and culture should realise the seriousness of this threat to everything they hold dear. Artists, musicians, writers and intellectuals also have a role to play in the struggle for a better future. Capitalism, with its soulless creed of "market values", is the negation of the creative spirit that moves all art and culture. The dictatorship of the big monopolies is throttling the potential for the free development of human creativity, about which it cares nothing.

The best representatives of the artists, writers and musicians are struggling to assert their right to freedom of expression. Alongside the moribund "official" art that shows all the symptoms of decay of the system that produced it, new trends will emerge that express the spirit of revolt of the new generation. The anti-war movement has aroused them to action. But meaningful action requires a serious programme and perspective.

Art can never be truly free under capitalism. The new tendencies in art, literature and music can only establish themselves firmly on the basis of a new society, freed from the stranglehold of profiteering, greed and egotism - a society in which men and women can relate to each other as free human beings. The name of this new society is socialism. It is time to set aside all fear and hesitation and unite with the working class in the revolutionary fight to transform society and build a new world that is fit for humans to live in.