The Austrian expressionist painter Oskar Kokoschka, having volunteered for active service with the elite Fifteenth Dragoon cavalry regiment in the early days of the First World War, found himself deployed to the Russian front, where famine, cholera and Cossacks stalked the land. On August 29, 1915, his unit was ambushed by a Cossack patrol while passing through a small wood near the Ukrainian town of Sikiryczy. Kokoschka was grievously wounded during the clash, with a bullet passing through his ear canal and exiting through his neck. Crushed beneath the weight of his own and three other injured horses, the unfortunate painter was somehow able to crawl out from under the prodigious weight of the chargers, only to be stabbed in the lung by a Russian lance. With blood spurting from his head, neck and chest, he gradually faded into an out-of-body experience, as depicted in the haunting self-portrait he produced while recovering from his wounds—the eerie Knight Errant, today found in the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York City, in which the armour-clad artist floats above an ominous landscape while his soul, represented by an uncanny, human-faced bird, perches on a denuded branch nearby.
Initially presumed dead, Kokoschka was rushed to a field hospital, where he slowly recovered, though he reported paralysis in his left hand as well as difficulty with vision and locomotion; he would suffer from vertigo for the rest of his days. This did not prevent him from being redeployed to the Isonzo front, this time in the more suitable role of an official war artist in the Austro-Hungarian Kriegpressequartier, or War Press Section. During his time in this equally brutal theatre Kokoschka was subjected to a ferocious Italian artillery bombardment, the sight and sound of which triggered an onset of crippling shellshock, effectively ending his war service. Lesions were discovered in his cerebellum via x-ray, and Kokoschka would spend the next three years in hospitals in Vienna, Uppsala and Dresden, where induced spasms and other forms of primitive neurological therapy meant to heal his damaged brain tissue only gave rise to suicidal ideation on the part of the mangled, tormented painter. Another self-portrait, the Vienna Leopold Museum’s 1918-19 Self-Portrait, One Hand Touching the Face, expressively conveys the physical and psychic toll. Looking over his shoulder at the viewer, the artist touches his fingers to his lips, as if the words simply will not come, and understandably so.
In the autumn of 1919 Kokoschka, who admirably had never stopped painting and writing plays despite his travails, managed to secure a professorship at the Dresden Academy of Fine Arts, and was looking forward to a lifetime devoted to artistry, education and rehabilitation. Yet by the following spring, not long after the Treaty of Versailles had come into force, the nascent Weimar Republic was wracked with a violent bout of internecine strife, the likes of which would attend most every stage of its abbreviated existence. The Kapp–Lüttwitz Putsch was in full swing, as nationalist and allied monarchists clashed with striking workers in public squares throughout the Deutscher Volksstaat, while socialists and communists sought to establish a dictatorship of the proletariat in the Ruhr region. Soon the violence reached Dresden, where on March 15, 1920, a vicious clash in the Postplatz left fifty-nine dead and the renowned Zwinger Art Gallery damaged.
It was at this point that Professor Oskar Kokoschka found his footing, conjuring the words necessary to wade back into the public fray. Fiercely protective of his civilisation’s immense corpus of cultural heritage, Kokoschka always considered himself, as he put it in his 1974 autobiography Mein Leben, “responsible to the coming generations, which are left stranded in a blitzed world, unaware of the soul trembling in awe before the mystery of life”. With his adoptive city’s pre-eminent old masters gallery inadvertently damaged in the recent outbreak of street fighting, Kokoschka felt obliged to take up his pen, and in doing so produced the magnificent “Open Letter to the Inhabitants of Dresden”, a missive that would be featured in forty different newspapers and would spark debate across the German-speaking world.
Kokoschka addressed his lofty appeal to “all those who intend to argue the case for their political theories at gunpoint … whether of the radical left, the radical right, or the radical centre”. His request was sensible, if quixotic given the flaring tempers evident in the public square. He merely asked the dizzying array of combatants:
not to hold their proposed military exercises outside the Zwinger Art Gallery but in some other place, such as the firing ranges on the heath, where human civilisation is not put at risk. On Monday March 15 a masterwork by Rubens [Bathsheba] was damaged by a bullet. Pictures cannot run away from places where human protection fails them.
As far as the professor was concerned, “there can be no doubt that in due course the people of Germany will discover more happiness in the contemplation of the pictures, if we save them, than from all the opinions of the politicking Germans of the present day”. It would be far better, he archly went on to suggest, if, “as in classical times, feuds should in the future be settled by the leaders of political parties in single combat, perhaps in the circus, and enhanced by the Homeric abuse of their followers”. (The Iraqi government requested a Bush–Hussein duel along these lines back in 2002, albeit to no avail, and so Kokoschka’s sensible and potentially entertaining proposal remains an idea whose time has not yet come.)
The Berlin Dadaists John Heartfield (born Helmut Herzfeld) and George Grosz (born Georg Groß) reacted to Kokoschka’s plea with undisguised contempt. In their response, “Der Kunstlump” (“The Art Swindler”), they dismissed their Austrian counterpart as a “scab” who “wants his business with the brush honoured as if it were a divine mission”—never mind that Kokoschka was advocating on behalf of a threatened Flemish masterpiece and not his own work. Heartfield and Grosz were prepared to go further, arguing that “the cleaning of a gun by a Red soldier is of greater significance than the entire metaphysical edifice of all the painters. The concepts of art and artist are an invention of the bourgeoisie.” Heartfield’s talk of cleaning guns was pretty rich, given that he had feigned insanity to avoid war service, while Kokoschka served with distinction. Still, it was “with joy” that the Dadaists welcomed the news that “bullets are whistling through the galleries and the palaces, into the masterpieces of Rubens, instead of the houses of the poor in the working-class neighbourhoods”.
The notion that cultural heritage should be protected during an armed conflict ought not to be controversial; the Hague Conventions of 1899 and 1907, and the 1954 Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict, have enshrined the principle that historical monuments, educational institutions, and institutions of religious, not-for-profit, artistic or scientific significance should be spared by combatants for the sake of the survival of our collective patrimony. This was understood even in late antiquity, as when the Byzantine general Belisarius, during the 549-50 siege of Rome, advised his adversary, Totila the Ostrogoth:
As those to whom a city owes the construction of beautiful buildings are reputed wise and civilised, so those who cause their destruction are naturally regarded by posterity as persons devoid of intelligence, true to their own nature. Of all cities under the sun Rome is admitted universally to be the greatest and most important. She attained this pre-eminence not suddenly nor by the genius of one man, but in the course of a long history throughout which emperors and nobles by their vast resources and employing skilful artists from all parts of the world have gradually made her what you see her today. Her monuments belong to posterity, and an outrage committed upon them will rightly be regarded as a great injustice to all future generations as well as to the memory of those who created them. Therefore consider well. Should you be victorious in this war, Rome destroyed will be your own loss, preserved it will be your fairest possession. Should it be your fortune to be defeated, the conqueror will owe you gratitude if you spare Rome, whereas if you demolish it, there will be no reason for clemency, while the act itself will have brought you no profit. And remember that your reputation in the eyes of the world is at stake.
The historian J.B. Bury added that “Totila read that letter again and again; it gave him a new point of view; and the remonstrance of civilisation finally defeated in his breast the barbarous instincts of his race. He bade the work of vandalism cease.” Would that all aggressors had the self-restraint and perspective to do likewise.
There are even those, like Stepan Trofimovich Verkhovensky in Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Devils, who would go so far as to prioritise cultural heritage over human life and all its banausic concerns. In a rousing if hyperbolic address at a provincial fete, the scholar Verkhovensky proclaimed:
Shakespeare and Raphael are higher than the emancipation of the serfs, higher than nationality, higher than socialism, higher than the youngest generation, higher than chemistry, higher than almost all mankind, for they are already the fruit, the real fruit of mankind, and maybe the highest fruit there ever may be! A form of beauty already achieved, without the achievement of which I might not even consent to live … And do you know, do you know that mankind can live without the Englishman, it can live without Germany, it can live only too well without the Russian man, it can live without science, without bread, and it only cannot live without beauty, for then there would be nothing at all to do in the world! The whole secret is here, the whole of history is here! Science itself would not stand for a minute without beauty—are you aware of that, you who are laughing?—it would turn into boorishness, you couldn’t even invent the nail! … I will not yield!
There is an element of parody here, admittedly, but the orgy of anarchistic murder and arson that occurs later in the novel would suggest that Dostoevsky’s sympathies are largely with Verkhovensky. Oskar Kokoschka, who as we have seen maintained that there is more happiness to be gained through the contemplation of the pictures in the Zwinger than from “all the opinions of the politicking Germans of the present day”, and who knew of what he spoke, having paid quite the price for the politicking of others, would likely agree.
I doubt that Kokoschka’s essay was on the mind of the Philadelphia Inquirer architectural critic Inga Saffron, either consciously or subconsciously, when she was writing her June 2, 2020 piece “Buildings Matter, Too”, but her essay and the “Open Letter to the Inhabitants of Dresden”, written a century earlier, have certain elements in common. For Saffron, the recent looting of large swathes of Walnut and Chestnut streets in downtown Philadelphia, resulting in the loss of several historic structures, was something to be sorely regretted, given that “as a practical matter the destruction of downtown buildings in Philadelphia—and in Minneapolis, Los Angeles, and a dozen other American cities—is devastating for the future of cities”. Saffron further disputed the specious canard that “insurance will cover the costs of repairing the damage”, recalling all of the burnt-out buildings, victims of previous riots, that “sat empty for a decade across from City Hall during the ’90s. They, too, were waiting for a big insurance payout” that never came. More than half a century has passed, Saffron continued, “since the Columbia Avenue riots swept through North Philadelphia, and yet those former shopping streets are graveyards of abandoned buildings”. Naturally to make this sensible point required a great deal of careful steering via critical race theory—the column is generously interlarded with discussions of “systemic oppression” and fretting over the potential for the “rampage” to be a “victory for global capitalism” should “gentrification” occur in the future—but the central thesis of “Buildings Matter, Too” was clear: “the momentary satisfaction of destroying a few buildings” will only “weaken our city”.
A reasonable enough position, but “Buildings Matter, Too” proved to be the source of roiling controversy, with some forty Inquirer reporters protesting the headline by calling in “sick and tired” and submitting an open letter declaring that the use of “ignorant editorial punchlines” hindered their ability to work and “at worst, puts our lives at risk”. The Inquirer’s top editors apologised profusely for having “offensively riffed on the Black Lives Matter movement”, and changed the column’s headline to “Damaging Buildings Disproportionately Hurts the People Protesters Are Trying to Uplift”, but the remedial measures failed to do the trick, and ultimately senior vice-president and executive editor Stan Wischnowski was obliged to resign after twenty years with the paper. One imagines Saffron herself felt a certain amount of pressure as a consequence, given her subsequent tweet: “I know it was the headline on my story that sparked the outpouring of outrage and frustatratuon [sic] about the insufficient number of journalists of color at the Inquirer, but I fully support the the [sic] change that is needed to create an equitable newsroom.”
I have yet to see any substantive criticism of the content of “Buildings Matter, Too”, only outrage directed at the headline itself. Divorced from any context, it would be hard to argue that buildings do not in fact matter a great deal, for any number of symbolic or practical reasons. Indeed recent events have put me in mind of Russell Kirk’s 1982 Heritage Foundation lecture on urban planning, “The Architecture of Servitude and Boredom”, which connected the British urban riots of 1981 to the “ghastly monotony” of the “architecture of our mass-age”, the “architecture of sham” that leaves the residents of housing schemes “perpetually discontented, without quite knowing why—and spoiling for a fight”. In that seminal lecture Kirk concurred with T.S. Eliot, who warned in Notes Towards the Definition of Culture (1948) that we are “destroying our ancient edifices to make ready the ground upon which the barbarian nomads of the future will encamp in their mechanized caravans”. According to Kirk:
ancient towns, whatever their difficulties and their poverty, remain genuine communities, in which the townsman still is a person, not wholly lost in the faceless crowd; and in which, whatever the degree of civic corruption, still the public authority can maintain a tolerable order. Our urban planners have lost those civic advantages.
In the end, “the sheer size of our cities will kill humane culture”, a phenomenon on display all around us.
So architecture and urban planning are undeniably of profound importance, given that, as Wittgenstein famously formulated it, “ethics and aesthetics are one”. The real problem with Saffron’s article, as we all know, was the use of the “matter” in the headline, which constituted an act of lèse-majesté against the Black Lives Matter slogan, just as the use of the phrase “all lives matter” has become strictly verboten and even a potential firing offence. The editors of the Inquirer begged pardon for having “suggested an equivalence between the loss of buildings and the lives of black Americans”, despite no such equivalence being implied by the adverb too. Surely it is possible to acknowledge that the unjust taking of a life is a tragedy, while still regretting the widespread and ruinous destruction of property, heritage and livelihoods. When we look back on, say, the firebombing of Dresden, for example, we are capable of speaking in the same breath both of the deaths of 25,000 people and also the loss of 78,000 dwellings, eleven churches, three theatres, and Kokoschka’s beloved Zwinger Palace. When we consider the depredations of ISIS, we can lament the fate of, say, the 5000 Yazidis slaughtered at Sinjar, or the terrible violence inflicted on the Assyrian, Chaldean and Syriac Christian communities, but we can (and should) express horror at the obliteration of the tombs of the prophets Daniel and Jonah, the looting of the Mosul Museum, and the demolition of Nimrud and Palmyra, and so on.
The difference here is that the property damage and cultural vandalism carried out in recent weeks—which has even been visited on monuments to figures like Winston Churchill, Mahatma Gandhi, Abraham Lincoln, Tadeusz Kosciuszko and Robert Gould Shaw—has been perpetrated by those deemed sympathetic by the media. Thus to express even the slightest qualms about the destruction of property, livelihoods and heritage is treated as some sort of dog-whistle denial of human or civil rights. Meanwhile “bullets are whistling through the galleries” once again, but this time it is not just Dadaists on the societal fringe who are cheering it on. I am not entirely sure how a humane culture can persist on such terms, and I have absolutely no idea how cultural institutions can carry out their traditional missions as repositories of our collective heritage in such an environment, as calls to “decolonise” the collections, stacks and curricula of museums, libraries and universities mount, and as even the most anodyne monuments are systematically toppled or defaced.
In The Killing of History Keith Windschuttle described the dire effects of “cultural relativism and the return of tribalism”, and the efforts of “postmodernism to eliminate the metanarrative from history”, which would in turn “deprive us all, no matter what culture we inhabit, of genuine knowledge of our past”. Yet cultural revolutionaries have no interest in genuine knowledge, seeking as they do to craft their own ersatz metanarrative. Recall how the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution sought to scour away the patina laid down by the “Four Olds”—habits, ideas, customs and culture—while the Communist Party of Kampuchea declared war on paper itself, burning everything from currency to Khmer and Pali manuscripts, even making the possession of a photograph a capital offence. Roberto Calasso eloquently described the situation in Khmer Rouge Cambodia:
the temples turned upside down by his [Pol Pot’s] sovereign rule stretched into large numbers of mass graves … Grave diggers heaped piles of skulls into the forms that Cambodian peasants had used from time immemorial to stack their annual pineapple harvest. In the face of mass graves, history returns to being natural history.
The destruction of heritage and the killing of history will only produce a world which, as Kirk argued in “The Architecture of Servitude and Boredom”:
retains nothing whatsoever that wakes the imagination or satisfies the memory. One may predict that in this domination of utilitarianism, life will be unsafe increasingly, as well as unsatisfying; and that despite an outward appearance of material accomplishment, real incomes will diminish steadily: architectural impoverishment and general impoverishment are joined historically.
Buildings, like paintings, cannot run away. Cultural heritage is a bequest that can be squandered, as the highest fruits of mankind are left to rot on the vine. Increasingly stranded as we are in what Kokoschka called a “blitzed world”—blitzed by postmodernism, blitzed by tribalism, blitzed by vandalism—it remains as vital as it was in the dark days of the Kapp–Lüttwitz Putsch not to yield, for the sake of posterity, for the sake of generations to come, for the sake of those forms of beauty already achieved and “without the achievement of which I might not even consent to live”.
Matthew Omolesky is a United States-based human rights lawyer. He wrote on cultural destruction in China in the November 2019 issue