In 2001 the Bamiyan Buddhas, towering fifteen-hundred-year-old sculptures long the centerpiece of Afghanistan’s cultural heritage, were blown up in a very public fashion by the Taliban. I work to understand the event—were the Taliban vandals and was this an instance of vandalism?—and to determine the meaning of the now-empty niches and the sculptures’ remains. I argue that the act and its result prompt a powerfully emotive experience in which reason is rendered null, and that this experience is captured by (part of) Edmund Burke’s thinking about the sublime. I consider the possibility that, as some seem to suggest, the altered site itself might be understood as an artwork. I urge that this is misguided. Finally, after clarifying the concept of vandalism, I argue that though the Taliban were not vandals, the result of their act is well understood as vandalism nonetheless. Thus I suggest that careful thinking about the event, perhaps the most infamous example of art desecration in recent history, issues in paradox. And while I hint at a way out of the cognitive impasse, I argue that as it stands the Bamiyan episode, which occasioned a colossal loss of meaning and value, defies understanding.


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