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  • Introduction: Vandalism
  • Rosa Lowinger (bio)

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Figure 1.

Detail of graffiti on the mural of the Virgin Mary (1160), Monastery of St. Benedict. Subiaco, Italy, 2009 (Photo by Rosa Lowinger)

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Some people become cops because they want to make the world a better place. Some people become vandals because they want to make the world a better looking place.

—Banksy, Wall and Piece (2007)

July, 2014: The world watches in horror as once again a jihadist group—in this case, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant/Syria, known alternatively as ISIS or ISIL—wages the latest version of ideologically driven cultural vandalism against the region’s monuments and historic sites. Though clearly not as shocking as the acts of murder and torture the self-proclaimed Islamic caliphate is inflicting on the residents of the region at the time of this writing, the annihilation of those centuries-old monuments characterizes vandalism in its most extreme and ugly form. The list of sites includes not only dozens of churches, but also venerated Islamic sites such as the seventh-century Imam Yahya Abul Qasim Mosque, the thirteenth-century Mashad Yahya Abul Kassem Mosque, the eighth-century Mosque of the Prophet Yunnus (considered the burial place of the Old Testament Jonah), and landscape-defining statues of the Abbasid poet Abu Tammam (788–845) and the Iraqi musician and poet Osman al-Mawsali (1854–1923). Yet this particular brand of cultural barbarism also underscores the symbolic power of heritage itself. After all, why go to the trouble of bombing synagogues and burning Jewish books, as the Nazis did in World War II, or leveling Cambodia’s Buddhist Temples and libraries, as the Khmer Rouge did during its atrocious 1975 “Return to Year Zero” campaign, for any reason other than to “deeply and irreversibly alter” the identity of a people by means of “brutal and intensive cultural mutilation”?1 The vandalism of an artwork, monument, or site is therefore also a perverted form of veneration. Art that is damaged or destroyed is art that is valuable. This holds true whether the act in question is perpetrated by a Nazi, a criminal, or a psychotic.

The New Oxford American Dictionary defines vandalism as both “an action involving deliberate destruction of or damage to public or private property,” and as “a deliberate, unauthorized act that is intentional and done in order to alter, make a mark in, or purposely damage art, architecture, or public places.” As this issue of Change Over Time will demonstrate, the history of art and architecture is intricately enmeshed with both of these [End Page 3] definitions. Vandalism’s range of activities and intentions—though traditionally associated with harmful or misguided impulses, aggressive or deranged perpetrators, and results whose effect on built heritage is nearly always unwanted—sometimes augments our knowledge and consideration of heritage’s intrinsic value. By ravaging the monuments of the vanquished and demolishing the sculptures that they consider blasphemous, conquering armies and iconoclasts of all persuasions draw attention to those very works. Artworks as different as Michelangelo’s fifteenth-century Pieta, Barnett Newman’s 1967 Who’s Afraid of Red, Yellow, and Blue, and Diego Velasquez’s seventeenth-century Rokeby Venus (which was slashed by British suffragettes in 1914) are highlighted in art history because of, and not in spite of, their smashing and slashing. More benignly, the centuries-old scratches made by pilgrims on the 1160 mural of the Virgin Mary at the Subiaco Monastery in Italy is part greeting and part devotional in character. The same holds true for the graffiti that covers the Paris tomb of Jim Morrison.

As preservationists, we tend to eschew unauthorized interventions to art and monuments. Indeed, more than one peer reviewer for this issue expressed an unconditional disdain for graffiti. Yet the changes perpetrated by vandalism, and especially graffiti, are as old as art itself; such interventions often lend a layer of meaning that would otherwise not exist. For example, no one would argue that what we know about the ancient world is augmented by the graffiti on the walls of Pompeii and Herculaneum, or the Alexamanos graffito, a first-century...


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