The Endless Balancing Act: Influence or Burden?

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Two things are dancing around in parallel in my brain at the moment, trying to work out how they interrelate and want to talk to each other. At the moment, they’re mostly talking in questions. 

The first is this picture – which is of a Grayson Perry Sculputre called ‘Our Father’ (it’s one of a pair, ‘Our Mother’ being the other) in his exhibition at the British Museum (on till Sunday, GOGOGO!), a figure carrying his influences – or being weighed down by them. The interpretation is yours. 

The second is a passage in The Shock Doctrine about the looting and destruction of the National Museum of Iraq  (plus the National Library and other museums) in the early days of the war – as Naomi Klein notes: 

The bombing badly injured Iraq, but it was the looting, unchecked by occupying troops, that did the most to erase the heart of the country that was… Many Iraquis were, and still are, convinced that the memory lobotomy was intentional – part of Washington’s plans to excise the strong, rooted nation that was, and replace it with their own model. (p.336)

This passage struck a chord with me, because I remember, back in 2003 having an argument over breakfast with one of my housemates about the looting and whether US forces ought to have been guarding the museum to protect the historical treasures it held.   As we were both studying for history degrees I was mostly baffled by the fact that he thought that it was a low priority. He was also in the university army cadets-thing – but honestly, I have other friends who were too, and they didn’t share his view – which was, in my view then, the view of an ahistorical numpty. 

Let’s be honest – I’d probably not be much less brutal about the dissenting view now. I *know* that there are were limited number of troops and choices had to be made, I just happen to think that protecting a society’s cultural heritage ought to be a core aim of liberating a society. And the US and UK did spend a lot of time arguing that we were liberating Iraq – so what the heck were we doing allowing its past to just get trashed?

I don’t think it was a big conspiracy to wipe Iraq’s cultural memory by letting people loot the museum and sell the treasures on the black market, but I think it that ignoring the likelihood of this happening says something about the truth of our aims in ‘liberating’ Iraq and what ‘freedom’ means in the west – and about our dismissal of the importance of history.  Is it the freedom to learn about who you are and where you come from, to own that and make choices rooted in your acceptance of that or your desire to change? Or is it just the freedom to be sold things and sell things yourself?

Has history, in the west, become important only in so far as we can monetise it? In the UK right now we have a government that has embraced the Royal Wedding and the Diamond Jubilee, and all the pageantry and tradition that goes with that with glee – TOURISTS, TEA POTS, TERRIBLE MONEY MAKING SOUVENIERS – but also pretty much decided that history is one of those university subjects that’s really kind of pointless, because it doesn’t enable you to make an economic contribution. 

I find it quite hard to express why I think history is about more than this.  I tend to fall back on Cicero (sometimes I feel like anything you might ever want to think has already been said by Cicero..), who said in De Oratore, that: 

To be ignorant of what occurred before you were born is to remain always a child

… which links to what I was thinking about yesterday, about having to be informed, to think and engage – to be alert to the world around you all the time if you’re truly going to embrace being a free, grown, human.

And also, I suppose, brings me back to the ‘Our Father’ sculpture. Perry’s piece is presented in the context of thinking about influence and cultural baggage. Our histories and cultures are important, and they do make us who we are – but they can also overburden and cripple us – and finding the balance between the two can be difficult. However, it’s something that being taught to engage with history well can help us with. We can learn to embrace it, but also to critique it and reject or move on from things we don’t want to be a part of us any longer. And if we belittle historical study as an indulgence because it is ‘economically unimportant’ then we’re going to get stuck and stagnate. Not engaging with your cultural and historical baggage is as dangerous as destroying it.

I’m not sure that all that very clearly ties the two things together – though I hope it doesn’t make it seem like the stuff I think interconnects in my brain is completely bonkers. And I guess the final connector is this: I like both The Shock Doctrine and the Grayson Perry exhibition because they think about how we think (or don’t think) about our histories.

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