The Greek terracotta sculptural group of a Seated Poet and Sirens from 350–300 BCE, known as "Orpheus and the Sirens," will be returned to Italy by the J. P. Getty Museum in California. The Museum has announced it is working with Italy's Ministry of Culture to return the objects. (image courtesy the Getty Museum)

Any encounter between east and west, north and south, like at the documenta, is fraught with risk because of mutual unintelligibility: not only about symbols, but about global justice, the rights and wrongs of colonial rule, and Western support for dictatorships like Suharto’s, and the Israeli occupation of Palestinian land. So far, we are witnessing unintelligibility. Appeals from historians like Jürgen Zimmerer at the beginning of the debate about “People’s Justice“ und its antisemitic imagery to begin a dialogue with the Global South about why western taboos about certain antisemitic iconography are not shared in other parts of the world were ignored. Apart from an interview with the Palestinian artist Yazan Khalili in the Berliner Zeitung and article in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (which otherwise campaigns against the documenta), I have not seen interest in the lifeworld of the Palestinian artists at the documenta. Instead of talking about their artwork and the grim human reality it depicts, as well as pondering German complicity in creating the Palestinian refugee problem, there are the usual cries of taboo breeches. By contrast, the use of famous European art motifs, which they regard as “universal,” in “Guernica Gaza” indicates that the artist knows how to unsettle German audiences – as art is supposed to.

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To me, what is more interesting, and less discussed, about the entire situation, is the psychology behind how someone could see themselves as an officer of morality while also being complicit in a very morally compromised life (working for a company that helps bomb innocent people across the globe). While the disparity between words and actions in this case was particularly shocking, it was nothing out of the ordinary. Rather, it was simply a sign of this larger phenomenon: people have figured out how to absolve themselves of all responsibility for their lives, while simultaneously presenting themselves as authorities over other people’s. This has been called many things (cancel culture, identity politics, tenderqueerness). I like to call it Secular Puritanism, a quasi-religion in which your adherence to rules and norms endows you with moral authority over others, a religion in which any misstep from these rules and norms is viciously punished.

And, unfortunately, it has become endemic, infecting every space of discourse, and ensuring that actual progress, actual mutual understanding between people and cultures, never happens. We have sacrificed a focus on material betterment for moral purity. 

The wealth that exists in this country does not come from making things that people love. People spend money on that, obviously, but they’ve done that long enough that those industries have had time to optimize for their own preferences. The money that sustains all this is, in enough cases that it is worth noting here, coming from young rich people’s even richer parents. It is coming from giant corporations awarding it, whether out of ideological commitment or just force of habit, to people who sit behind desks all day. Some of those people might also make art, but they are not the norm. The structure built around these valuable creative products is bloated in ways that starve and imperil that creative process, but those privations also hold it in place. Baseball executives, when they are talking about the same sort of thing, like to use the phrase “cost certainty.”

Augustine has been a fixture in Western canons and Great Books curricula, but it would be a mistake to imagine him as “white,” as if his ancestry and influences could be neatly contained within Europe. His visual representations have also shifted throughout time. In the earliest known portrait of Augustine, a sixth-century fresco in the Lateran in Rome, his skin is a tanned brown. Pietro di Giovanni d’Ambrogio and Sandro Botticelli’s depictions of Augustine show that even Renaissance Augustines weren’t always pale; Augustine’s conscription into something known as “Western civilization” was a later development. As the philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah argues in The Lies That Bind: Rethinking Identity, the idea of Western civilization is “at best the source of a great deal of confusion, at worst an obstacle to facing some of the great political challenges of our time.” Those who whitewash Augustine are akin to the classicists and museum curators who insisted that Greek marble statues always lacked color. They thought this said something about their own greatness.

The truth cuts both ways, though. I may want Augustine and the courageous members of his church to be proto-abolitionists because of their efforts to rescue people from the North African slave trade of their day. In fact, Augustine could oppose the slave trade while consistently upholding slavery as an institution and using its language for divine matters. His erotically charged submission to God played on cruel societal hierarchies. If this inconveniences those who want to hold Augustine up as a token “Black” voice in their canon, so be it. His regional pride as an African wasn’t racialized. Painting him darker and darker doesn’t necessarily imbue him with righteousness. That’s how I now feel about John Nava’s follow-up to his 2002 tapestries of saints, featuring a Black Augustine, in the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels. In the tapestry “Augustine of Hippo,” installed at the Corpus Christi University Parish in Toledo, Ohio in 2004, Nava’s Augustine undergoes a transformation from light to dark that I can only summarize as a reverse Sammy Sosa. It’s crucial to understand that although modern notions of race didn’t exist in Augustine’s time, contemporary readings of Augustine aren’t racially innocent. He’s neither the white figure some have imagined nor the multicultural hero I longed for.

  • This is an older map but I didn’t discover it until today and I highly recommend it. Dr. Caitlin R. Green has mapped all the discoveries of Byzantine empire-related objects, including in Japan, Thailand, Tanzania, and elsewhere, and what it tells us about the era. Read the whole post but I wanted to highlight the map, which is really powerful:

Lawyers and immigration officers have tons of anecdotes about mixed-status couples sending in inappropriate materials as part of their green card applications. Ron Abramson, an immigration lawyer who practices in Manchester, New Hampshire, told me about an incident from a decade ago when his clients sent him what was essentially a sex tape: “They got a DVD made on their honeymoon and it even had the music … it was basically like soft porn,” he said. “It was very clear what was going on … they were under a waterfall, not wearing a lot of clothes.”  Some immigration officers on Twitter have cataloged the surprises they receive — a “pee stick pregnancy test,” and actual pairs of underwear (“thankfully bagged”), among other “XXX marital bonafides.”

“No body shaming but I hate to flip the page on bureaucratic paperwork and then get a shock like that,” one East Coast-based officer for U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services told me via private message. “I don’t want to see anyone’s pubes.” Nonetheless, the government actually holds on to these submissions: Internal guidance sent from a regional office in June 2021 emphasized that they have to be kept on file, but suggested that envelopes be marked “graphic materials” so “only those who need to see them do.”  

Orban made no bones about his contempt for U.S. Democrats and the supposed liberal media. “They hate me and slander me and my country as they hate you and slander you,” Orban said of Democrats at CPAC. “We should unite our forces.”

“We must take back the institutions in Washington and Brussels … we must coordinate the movements of our troops because we face the same challenges,” Orban added, gesturing to the upcoming U.S. midterm and presidential elections and European parliamentary elections in 2024. “These two locations will define the two fronts in the battle being fought for Western civilization. Today, we hold neither of them. Yet we need both.”

Believers in this theory claim that NESARA, the National Economic Security and Reformation Act, was secretly passed by U.S. Congress in 2000 and set to be announced on Sept. 11, 2001. The theory is that all evidence was destroyed when a shadowy cabal of world leaders arranged for the attack on the World Trade Center in New York.

GESARA, the Global Economic Security and Reformation Act, is supposedly the worldwide version of the law.

Of course, none of that is true, and Lew’s arguments had no effect in court.

Required Reading is published every Thursday afternoon, and it is comprised of a short list of art-related links to long-form articles, videos, blog posts, or photo essays worth a second look.

Hrag Vartanian is editor-in-chief and co-founder of Hyperallergic.