A number of years ago, my parents, long-time collectors and dealers in American antiques, purchased a small china plate (ca. 1910, perhaps) with the ominous letters “K. K. K.” in gold upon the front. Undoubtedly, it was a relic of the Ku Klux Klan, and my parents purchased the plate in order to ask my nephew, a child of ten or so at the time, to break it with a hammer. From my parents’ perspective, the destruction of the Klan plate made the world a better place, if only in a small way: there was one less item in it, they reasoned, that embodied and represented the hateful politics of the Klan. Certainly, they had no desire to profit from the item, nor to keep it in their own collections.
And while I recognize that the destruction and discarding of that plate diminished the historical record, including by lessening the visible historical traces that the Klan has left across our world, I cannot really find it in my heart to condemn my parents for this act of destruction. In their own small way, they were acting as stewards of the past, curating the historical record, making a judgment about what ought to be preserved, and what ought to be consigned to the dustbin. Of course, another person might well have made a different judgment about whether to preserve or destroy this particular object, but those people, too, would be operating in their own ways as stewards and curators.
Who is to say, really, which sorts of curators have it right? It is easy enough, I think, to take a sweeping position, and to assert that all such artifacts deserve to be preserved, that everything that might help reveal the past to us in all its historical complexity has an intrinsic value, and that none of us has the right to destroy anything. But my parents, by orchestrating this act of destruction, were also trying to create a moment, to take a symbol of hate and to ask my nephew to unmake that symbol.
|Ai Weiwei, painted Neolithic vase; on the wall is|
an Andy Warhol composition.
I cannot pretend to any real knowledge of the contemporary art world, nor am I an art critic or art historian, but the exhibit was a powerful and affecting one, and it echoed in too many interesting ways with my on-going thinking about the destruction or disassembly of medieval manuscripts for me not to write about it here.
Although Ai Weiwei has had a lengthy career as an artist, one of his most memorable works is a short video of himself, shown dropping and breaking a Han dynasty vase. Ai Weiwei, I think, must have been just as much interested in creating a moment as my parents were, though his intention to make that moment art is surely a difference. But while we may, indeed, debate about whether or not we personally like or dislike these moments of destruction, both were, as I see it now, attempts to subject artifacts from the past to some powerful magic of transformation.
Creation and transformation, after all, must sometimes be built upon the past, and both these acts make me wonder, now, about how we curate creative, and even beautiful, destruction.
Ai Weiwei, in some ways, seems to think about some of these issues in terms of commodification: his personal history in Communist China and in (capitalist) New York City, perhaps, has brought such concerns to the forefront. The exhibit at the Warhol addressed both artists’ use of what might be called “readymade” objects, and Ai Weiwei has explicitly invoked Duchamp. The painting of ancient pottery vases may seem different, somehow, from both Duchamp’s urinal and Warhol’s Campbell’s Soup cans, but there is a very important sense in which Han Dynasty vases are in fact commodities (search the phrase on eBay, for example). By breaking the KKK plate, my nephew effectively de-commodified it, although Ai Weiwei’s painted vases remain commodities now, I think—their monetary value no doubt increased by his intervention, or performance, or transformation.
This difference is important: Ai Weiwei’s transformations ultimately increase the commodity value of his objects, while my parents’/nephew’s transformation de-commodified that piece of pottery. In the end, one part of the difference probably has everything to do with the cultural capital Ai Weiwei has at his disposal, rather than anything else. It may make us uncomfortable to see ancient objects of our human heritage destroyed or transformed, but to put a utilitarian pottery vessel into an art museum or a collection is always a transformation already. Debates about which kinds of transformations we will approve and which we will condemn seem simplistic somehow. Ai Weiwei, I think, is taking a piece of pottery, and trying to create a moment, to teach us a lesson. If the way we treasure the past and its artifacts is unchanged by the lesson he offers us, the failure may be our own.
A number of times on this blog, I’ve asked my readers to consider the current, recent, and even medieval practice of cutting up books and manuscripts for various sorts of purposes. I personally, don’t plan to ever engage in such a thing. But the usual justifications I see and hear from friends and colleagues, the reasons they decry the breaking up of books, usually focus on the loss of information and context that such transformations involve. Such a view, Ai Weiwei teaches us (though I hesitate to boil his lesson down to a single message), sees the artifact or object or book as merely a visitor to the present: we hope that old books will pass through our present, but ideally they will remain unchanged and untouched by the experience. Such a view of visitors from our past, I fear, risks leaving us unchanged and untouched as well.
Yet how very deeply I have been affected by my encounters with objects and books from the past, and how much more deeply by owning such pieces of our cultural heritage. I literally live with my books and manuscripts, and while I won’t go so far as to say they have become friends, I try to take care of them because that’s the way I want to treat them. But, of course, I cannot guarantee that they will pass from my hands unchanged: water or fire are risks here, as almost everywhere: even in institutional libraries. Who can ever make a guarantee of unchangingness in a changing world?
What I think Ai Weiwei wants us to see, even so, is that the value, and meaning, of artifacts from the past are themselves things that have a force and a reality in our present: a medieval manuscript or a prehistoric pot is not an inhabitant of the past and a visitor to the present: it is as much an inhabitant of the present as you or I or the computer I am writing on. The past may be another country, but its surviving artifacts do not live there. They live in the present. The breaking of my parents’ KKK plate, I think, suggests the same. Indeed, I am glad that they didn’t simply ask my nephew to paint over it.
Should Ai Weiwei, as part of his next art project, decide to paint over ancient scrolls or manuscripts, their monetary value would probably increase, and one hopes that what he creates would be a great work of art. I doubt the people who are currently breaking up books are making art in the Ai Weiwei way, in part because they probably lack his cultural capital. But for all we know, a thousand years from now, their destructive actions might have enabled the preservation of books or parts of books that the next few centuries of our history would otherwise see destroyed. Or the books and leaves we know today might some day become parts of works of beautiful art we cannot now imagine. We cannot know what the future holds for either the books being broken up today, or anything else.
I grow ever more convinced of the truth of the following hypothesis: we shall transmit our shared cultural heritage to the future as physical objects, rather than as images of them, no matter how precise, nor how widely shared. In their wilful destruction of a single KKK plate, my parents were making a judgment about what heritage they wished to see passed along, as well as what they did not wish to see transmitted. Perhaps Ai Weiwei reminds us that all such judgments—at present, at least—operate in the realm of commodification, because the collected object, the curated object, the transmitted object, is always a commodity. In some ways, if we treat old books and things not as inhabitants of our world, but as visitors, to be cherished and protected, and innocent somehow of commodification, we remove those things from our culture; we might as well put them in a zoo.
And this, in the end, is why I think it has been valuable to me to own medieval manuscript items and other bits of our cultural heritage—because it has been valuable to me to help understand the value in intentionally breaking a piece of collectible china or pottery. And of course I’ve accidentally broken pieces of collectible glass, too. The risk of loss or damage while an item is in my hands is a risk I and that item both share in: of course items in institutional libraries and museums are also at risk, though for most of us the risk there is not personal. And yet that personal investment and personal risk in the transmission of our cultural heritage seems crucial. Dare we leave such important work only to the professionals, if doing so distances us from both the risk and the investment?
It is simply not enough to value books and objects as information: not everything that matters can be digitized, and generating digital files is not preserving the past. But the flip side of this truth, I think, is that the tragedy of the broken book or the broken vase is not the lost information it embodied, the loss to our potential future knowledge of the past. The tragedy, rather, is that we show to the future that we couldn’t be trusted with nice things.
The KKK plate my nephew broke, of course, is hard to understand as a nice thing, and to be honest, I’m just as glad it’s broken and dispersed. The visitor from the past that was the Han vase dropped in Ai Weiwei’s video, on the other hand, was something that was a nice thing: when he broke it, he reminded us, so very powerfully, that it was alive, and that we all made it into a commodity. How easily we forget.