"We are the heirs of 3000 years of Civilization."
Article by artist, Mark Vallen - December 2003

In 1954 Spanish artist Josep Renau created the photomontage shown at right titled Surprise Party in the Metropolitan Museum. Credited with having helped developed the artform of photomontage in the 1930's, Renau intended his piece to be a scathing critique of capitalist societies consumed by easy distraction and self-absorption.

But the political clarity of Renau's artwork rings especially true in light of the sacking of the Baghdad National Art Museum and other cultural institutions directly after the US invasion and occupation of Iraq in April 2003.

Photomontage by Josep Renau Photomontage by Josep Renau
Photomontage by Josep Renau Photomontage by Josep Renau
Looted and missing
White Lady of Ur

U.S. occupation troops quickly moved to secure Iraq's Ministry of Oil building in downtown Baghdad, but left the country's museums unguarded. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, commenting on the whirlwind of looting that resulted in the near total destruction of Iraq's irreplaceable art treasures, said, "Stuff happens."

Apparently the historical importance of the Cradle of Civilization and the cultural significance of its ancient Babylonian, Akkadian, Sumerian and Assyrian Kingdoms, is as meaningless to today's military occupiers as it was to the Mongol chieftain Hulegu (Grandson of Genghis Khan), who sacked Baghdad in 1260.

It should come as no surprise that military leaders have such little regard for art treasures, but what about the rest of us? While priceless artifacts from the beginning of civilization were being destroyed or stolen, pioneering works in the history of art, masterworks from the world's first great civilizations, we seemed more interested in the next Hollywood blockbuster. Of the over 14,000 priceless objects looted during the chaos of the US invasion, less than 4,000 have been recovered at the time of this writing. While organized art thieves succeeded in smuggling out of the country a great deal of the nation's artistic treasures, a few discarded artifacts are today slowly being recovered... like the 4,300 year old Mesopotamian statue recently found in a Baghdad cesspool.

Looted and missing
Copper head of Akkadian King, four millennia old.
Looted and destroyed Looted and destroyed
Cuneiform clay tablets display the world's first written language.

In Renau's photomontage, great art treasures of the Western world are a mere backdrop for a frenetic rock 'n roll dance party. The legions of privileged white
middle-class youth enjoying themselves in wild abandon are oblivious to their historic surroundings. The past has no meaning or resonance for them, and certainly no relevance to their goal of immediate satisfaction. The crowd is self-contained in a bubble of hedonism, politically disarmed by their apathy and ignorance.

Renau makes his point clear by inserting a written message in the form of a sign held up by one of the throng, We are the heirs of 3000 years of civilization.

We have become the inane mob in Renau's prophetic image, only thrust into the afflicted present. Historical amnesia has placed us on the doorstep of the new dark ages, with year zero beginning as a new-sprung reality show called Operation Iraqi Liberation (OIL). Thousands of cuneiform clay tablets displaying the world's first written language have been reduced to dust. The world's most precious artifacts from the dawn of civilization have been looted and carted off to be sold on the black market. One of the greatest tragedies of the century has been our indifference to this tremendous loss. History will record that we stood transfixed by the easy distractions of celebrities, pop music, movies, and sports while our collective cultural heritage was plundered.

Looted and missing
Looted and missing
Babylonian wooden harp with gold inlay.