Bomb the Church
Upon learning of the Taliban-driven destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas in Afghanistan in 2001, I remembered an article that I’d read in a Philosophy of Art class in graduate school so many years ago: Albert Elsen’s ‘Bomb the Church: What We Don’t Teach Our Students in Art 1.’ [Editors’ note: a version can be found here] Elsen’s argument is essentially that key works of art and architecture are cultural treasures that should be fiercely protected – perhaps even to the exclusion of human life – and that educators are failing to impress this upon their students. This, I thought, was what I needed to put in front of my own students.
I then rationalized that merely assigning an article fell short of my ambitions, as I knew that without a concrete expectation for what to do with that reading, students would simply not read it. They would wait instead for me to pick it apart with them in class. They would wait for a summary to appear in scribbled notes on the board.
Would a dramatic lecture do? Students tend to see (and maybe appreciate) their most impassioned professors as a little bit crazy, forgetting – of course – that the root of our general title is ‘profess.’ At least in part, it is our job to profess our passions for knowledge and learning. Would being a ‘little bit crazy’ in the classroom, distributing images and articles about the bombing of key archaeological sites in Afghanistan, jumping up and down and practically shouting about these tragedies, make an impact? Or would students instead leave that day’s class, missing the point entirely and muttering to each other that they didn’t know whether my rantings would be counted as material for the next test?
For a more engaged learning experience, I thought, why not stage a debate?
The result was lukewarm, but also enlightening. A few conscientious readers came prepared to talk about the material, yet almost none of the students appeared to feel prepared to own the argument for protecting art and art history at the expense of anything else, especially human life.
‘You can always make another artifact,’ they said, in the face of the ‘original art is irreplaceable’ argument. An inanimate object cannot outweigh the value of a human life, they insisted. Objects may transcend lifetimes, sure, but that kind of materialism is not befitting us as human beings. And who cares about an old building or a painting, made with methods or materials that no longer exist? Those things don’t move me the way that my interactions with friends and family do.
I faced a resolute crowd, to be sure, and found that all I had left in my arsenal – purely for the sake of asking them to think differently, if only briefly – was a kind of worst-case scenario to spell out at the end of the ho-hum debate: if you won’t risk life for art, then you are willing to live without it. ALL of it: every song on a radio station, the different colors and patterns in your closet, interesting billboards and magazine ads. And television? Film? Forget them. Your artless world has nothing to enrich it now, except for the people you know, who now all wear the same thing and have no art about which to talk. And what would their values be, exactly, without art to sometimes help them vicariously experience a range of emotions, or bad judgment and consequence?
As I ticked off the things that pepper our experiential world with intrigue and passion, I saw discomfort on some faces. Occasionally, I saw tears. And while the notion that one of my students might change her mind and become willing to die for a bad sofa painting was never my ambition in the first place, it was clear that with some imagination, they were willing to at least seriously think about the argument that opposed their own. Come test time, most still sided with life in this hypothetical dilemma, but they more carefully articulated the other side’s cause. This was all I could reasonably hope for, I felt.
[Classics Summer Program participants at the American Academy in Rome listen to colleague argue for the importance of preserving major monuments. (Photo by the author)]
Years later, as I read headline after headline about the irreparable damage (if not outright eradication) of world heritage sites by the Islamic State in Syria, I saw colleagues on social media fret about this terrible yet teachable moment. I wanted to revisit the topic of the protection of cultural heritage, but this time, I was encouraged by a colleague active in the Reacting to the Past pedagogy (https://reacting.barnard.edu/) to turn my staged debate into a short “microgame” for the classroom. As with any role playing game, student players would inhabit characters positioned on either side of the ethical debate question or in the crowd of indeterminates. A sketched out scene would drive these characters’ actions and their sense of haste in solving a looming problem.
In his ‘Bomb the Church’ article, Albert Elsen describes a fictional scenario in which a small European town is invaded by an enemy army. The army sets up camp within the beautiful, old Gothic cathedral that dominates the town’s center. Residents face the dilemma of either marshaling up a civic guard to invade and roust out the enemy or simply bombing the church and killing the enemy occupants. The basic premise is the risk of life or art.
Crafting a microgame using such a scenario entails writing the premise, role descriptions and basic mechanisms for moving action along a short timeline. The church sexton and select townsfolk are instructed to argue for sending in the militia and thus, the church’s resulting preservation. The town doctor and other select townsfolk argue for the sanctity of life at any cost, including the destruction of the church. Indeterminate widows, young men, a priest and a tavern owner await persuasion by others. After materials are distributed, players hold a town meeting to discuss the problem. Discussion leaders emerge pretty quickly, and the race is on against a timer. A vote is taken after three minutes’ discussion. Secret mechanisms written into the game keep the first vote unbalanced enough to prompt a die roll that dictates a surprise: someone in the crowd is fired upon by the enemy within the church, or someone is kidnapped, or a priceless artifact from the church is destroyed, etc. And back into the meeting the players go again, to hopefully persuade enough people to join their side. Emergent arguments regarding art’s irreplaceability or the bombed elimination of potential, future artists arise. Deals crafted for the sake of secret objectives are cut. After a few rounds of votes and meetings, the game ends with a majority vote and a coda exposing the secret deals.
In 50 minutes or less, students are plunged into a different world in which they – if only temporarily – embrace a different classroom experience. Handily, they not only adopt new and different ideological positions, they think and act on their feet, debate important matters, collaborate with others, and become actively engaged in a moment. And I, the ‘little bit crazy’ professor, say almost nothing as gamemaster – other than to enforce the binary scenario and refuse to allow compromise.
Is it possible to impart the gravity of the loss of world monuments to radicalized groups intent upon altering material – and therefore cultural – history through a game? In the postmortem, the very valuable debriefing after game play, it is clear that some players become swept up in the moment enough to care more deeply about the core issues. Some admit to experiencing this even when they fundamentally disagree with the beliefs of their assigned roles. The need to employ strategies for the sake of winning a role-playing game can expand capacities for reasoning and persuasion, which are mirrored by the post-mortem exposition of Eisenhower’s World War II-era memos dictating that American military forces endeavor to avoid damaging important monuments belonging to other countries. And even though the greater point of all of this is not to urge a young person to consider voluntarily risking life for the sake of art, it is still important for that young person to also be exposed to the brief story of Khaled al-Asaad, the Syrian archaeologist who was murdered in 2015 because he refused to disclose the whereabouts of precious artifacts to Islamic State militants. Rare as it may be, the choice for art over human life is one that has been – and will continue to be – made.
While I have not collected formal statistics on how often art ‘wins’ in Bomb the Church, of this much I am confident: playing such a game can at least prompt a person to think more carefully about factors involving the protection and preservation of art. For more information about this game or to gain access to the materials, leave a comment on this post.