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This year has had its fair share of disasters for the cultural community. From war in Syria and Mali to labor problems at museums in the Gulf and the panopticon of government surveillance, these are some of the awful things that impacted arts and culture in 2013.
#1 — Cultural Heritage of Syria
For a second year, Syria’s historic monuments have been bombed, shelled, and decimated and there’s no sign that the destruction is anywhere near over. We reported on the Emergency Red List published by the International Council of Museums, which is a start but so much has already been destroyed or severely damaged, including the 11th century medieval minaret at the Great Mosque in Aleppo, the Great Colonnade at Apamea, and the Dead Cities in northern Syria, to name only a few. There’s a running list of sites damaged by the Syrian Civil War and it keeps growing.
#2 — Ancient Mayan Temple Destroyed in Belize
One of the most shockingly bizarre stories of destruction this year occurred in the Central American nation of Belize, where a local construction contractor was carving away an ancient Mayan site to use the rich gravel and limestone content as roadfill. The site was a major Mayan ceremonial center that had yet to be fully excavated. Archeologists reported finding destroyed pre-classic era pottery shards in the wake of the destruction, and the extent of damage is still to be calculated. Another archeologist told a local television news station that 80% or more of the building had been destroyed.
#3 — Hopi Katsinam at Auction
This year, two Paris auctions sold 94 Hopi and San Carlos Apaches Katsinam for over $1.7M, and in the process highlighted the lack of protections for sacred artifacts of Aboriginal peoples around the world.
While this story partly has a happy ending, as the Annenberg Foundation bought and returned 27 of the lots up for auction in December, it reveals that there is still much to do to preserve the heritage of Native Americans who choose not to have their sacred objects bought and sold on the world auction market. Katsinam, for those who may not know, are spirit beings in western Pueblo cosmology and religious practices.
“These are not trophies to have on one’s mantel; they are truly sacred works for the Native Americans,” Gregory Annenberg Weingarten, the Annenberg Foundation’s vice president and director, said in a statement. “They do not belong in auction houses or private collections. It gives me immense satisfaction to know that they will be returned home to their rightful owners, the Native Americans.”
The problem of indigenous rights and its conflict with the arts industry is not limited to North America, of course, as proven earlier this year in Brazil when police dressed in riot gear stormed an old museum in Rio de Janeiro with tear gas and pepper spray in order to evict some 20 indigenous people squatting there.
#4 — NSA Surveillance
While this isn’t strictly an art story, the NSA surveillance story, which broke in June of this year with the confidential documents released by US government contractor Edward Snowden, has far reaching implications that include the realm of art.
The reach of the government into our lives is a scary reality that most of us don’t know how to react to. Today, for instance, the US courts upheld the government’s policy of suspicionless border searches of laptops and other electronic devices. The news keeps getting worse, and in a field like art, where pushing boundaries is often the name of the game, these laws should scare us as they will undoubtedly impact how art is created, shared, transported, displayed, stored, and sold.
#5 — Detroit’s Bankruptcy and the Detroit Institute of Arts
Nothing has been sold yet, but the continuing case of the Detroit Institute of Arts’ relationship to the city’s bankruptcy doesn’t seem like it will end anytime soon. What’s at stake is one of the continent’s most important art collections, and the ability of a government, against the wishes of its citizenry (78% of Detroiters don’t want the art collection sold), to loot a public cultural asset.
The people of Detroit are protesting any potential sale, but the powers that be seem intent on milking the museum for anything they can get. What will happen? No one is sure yet.
#6 — Cooper Union’s Losing Battle
2013 will forever live in infamy for Cooper Union, the year the storied East Village college finally squandered its founder’s hundred-year-old promise of full, merit-based, tuition. Though the causes — almost every conceivable type of financial mismanagement and institutional malfeasance short of outright fraud — have by now been thoroughly excavated, the blame remains unassigned, at least officially: in response to the return of “50%” tuition, a vigorous culture of student-led activism has pervaded the school. These efforts have been led by the mediagenic Free Cooper Union group, an amalgam of students fighting against the imposition of tuition chiefly drawn from the art and architecture schools (students at Cooper’s engineering school, whose alumni dominate the board of trustees, have been noticeably more silent). Free Cooper Union’s bold actions, from a lengthy occupation of college president Jamshed Bharucha’s office, to staging a renegade year-end show of dissident artworks, to appropriating nearby street art, to playfully reenacting a leaked Board of Trustees meeting transcript, demonstrate that there remains at least one stronghold in Manhattan for serious projects inside that hazy interstitial zone between art and politics. —MH
#7 — Labor Issues at the Gulf Region’s New Museums
The Arab Gulf states saw their many build-it-like-you-stole-it culture projects continue apace, with all the smarmy exuberance such rapacious card-stacking generates. Meanwhile, despite repeated assurances that conditions on the United Arab Emirates’ Saadiyat Island — ground zero for the Gulf’s gonzo self-colonization — would improve, we continued to learn of the degrading and illegal conditions for the laborers building these structures. Forty were wounded in the bloody aftermath of ethnically charged union busting episodes on Saadiyat, the future site of the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi and the Louvre Abu Dhabi. Around the same time the Guardian published a major report on the Nepal-Qatar human trafficking axis, Gulf Labor, the activist group that came to the fore in 2011 with a Guggenheim boycott, launched 52 Weeks of Gulf Labor, a weekly series featuring work by a range of artists drawing attention to ongoing human rights concerns in the UAE.
Gulf Labor’s project offered a minimally cynical, maximally purpose-driven mode of artistic engagement with issues of human rights. It’s too bad such long-term focus is minimally attuned to generating hype, as the art world at large seems to have moved on from the Gulf labor story, and the struggle’s antagonists have taken note: the consultancy PwC’s Guggenheim-trumpeted “independent” annual report on working conditions on Saadiyat Island, due last September, has yet to arrive. —MH
#8 — A Ban on Music in Mali
The silencing of artists is a canary in the mineshaft of many societies, so when last year 12,000 musicians and singers were banned from working in Mali after Islamic fundamentalists took over in the north of the country people were shocked. Mali is known for its vibrant music scene, which includes Salif Keita, Toumani Diabaté, Rokia Traoré, and the late Ali Farka Touré.
The Index on Censorship clarifies the extent of ban: “After armed militants sent out death threats nearly 12,000 musicians found themselves out of work, with some facing exile, as instruments were destroyed and live venues shut down. The 2013 Festival in the Desert, a world famous Malian music event, was moved to neighboring Burkina Faso and then later postponed due to security risks.”
Thankfully the fundamentalists have been driven out of Mali, with the help of French forces, but no one seems to think the trouble is over.
Also, let’s not forget that the Islamist rebels in Mali also burned libraries with thousands of manuscripts. After the smoke settled researchers discovered that the rebels may have destroyed some 2,000 medieval manuscripts, which represents roughly 5% of the manuscripts — a great loss.
#9 — Official Portraits … Royal and Otherwise
2013 was, you might say, the year of a crisis in official portraiture. There seems to have been a unanimous decision made by some cabal of politicians and leaders somewhere that the old styles weren’t working anymore, and they would try something new … and then boom! Within the span of 12 months, we got Kate Middleton, Queen Elizabeth II (on a stamp), the Danish Royal Family, and Mayor Bloomberg. It’s a little bewildering that, in a world filled with so many talented artists and so much good art, we ended up with so many big misses. But the royals and politicians should be commended for at least attempting to branch out — Kate Middleton’s portrait is “natural,” the Danish Royal Family’s picture is totally out there, and Bloomberg’s painting has a non-traditional background — and here’s hoping for better results next year. —JS
#10 — Destruction of 5Pointz
The cultural heritage of 5Pointz is well-known, so it’s destruction this year was certainly mourned by a community of art lovers, but the reason 5Pointz is on this list is because it represents a much larger issue: the uneasy relationship between real estate interests and the arts community. As a clog into the vast machine of neighborhood revitalization, think 3rd Ward or Industry City, the arts community continues to ignore the possibility of a unified response — or even alternatives that go beyond individual exceptions — to being used as the shock troops of gentrification.
With contributions by Mostafa Heddaya and Jillian Steinhauer