Destroying priceless art the Western Way

Gothamist picture of Protest at the new Whitney museum. the building sits atop a huge natural gas pipeline the same size as one that blew up in San Bruno California a few years ago. What could possibly go wrong?


Like all my well-meaning lib friends, I’m appalled at the destruction of artwork that has followed the rise of extremism in many places in the world. The Taliban’s destruction of ancient Buddhist statues in 2001 alarmed people of culture worldwide. The destruction and looting of Iraq’s museum after the US 2003 invasion was about the failure of the US invaders to protect the museum–US troops protected the Oil Ministry and Central bank buildings, but not the home of Iraq’s ancient treasures. More recently, the culture world recoiled after ISIS insurgents destroyed the art treasures of the Mosul Museum, going so far as to upload video of their glee at smashing ‘un-Islamic’ images

There are plenty of other ways to destroy artwork, of course. Thousands of irreplaceable art pieces were destroyed in the World Wars, when combatants’ battlefields bled over into buildings containing artistic treasures. In the 1970’s, a deranged geologist named Lazlo Toth tried to smash Michaelangelo’s Pietà with a sledgehammer.  These incidents are the outliers, though–with the exception of the Nazis and their campaign to destroy ‘degenerate art’ (Entartete Kunst), the campaigns against public art are largely symbolic, and the protection lavished on archived art is almost fetishistic. 

Which brings me to the subject of the Whitney Museum– newly built and about to open in Manhattan’s Meatpacking district. It sits next to a giant natural gas pipeline that was constructed despite two years of protests and lawsuits. If the pipeline were to emulate the accident in San Bruno California a few years ago, a big part of the building would be engulfed in fire and explosion. There’s a whole question of why these pipelines are being built under Manhattan in the first place, something I’ve blogged about previously. And though spokespeople for the Whitney have tried to defend the safety of the building and its art, the researchers at Sane Energy have blown up those arguments here. Of course, winning the argument doesn’t mean you get your way in capitalist society–the Whitney’s supporters are well-heeled people with sympathies that lie with natural gas interests, and they won the legal battle. Hence the projector protest last night complete with projected images on the Whitney’s conveniently big flat wall spaces. There’s a complete gallery of pictures here, thanks to the Gothamist. Kudos to Sane Energy for keeping the issue in focus.

Why should anyone pay attention to the issue of natural gas? Well, for those of us paying attention, it’s been clear we’re in the middle of a natural gas boom here in New York as a result of Bloomberg’s directives to have buildings replace oil heat with NG. This protest at the Whitney would also be a little less pertinent (and a bit less timely) if it weren’t for the recent natural gas explosion and fire a dozen or so blocks from the Whitney. Heating oil is sooty and nasty stuff, but it doesn’t explode. And even if NY’s old natural gas infrastructure was safe, the system wasn’t designed to deal with the idiot-level of corruption the city sees all the time. Stealing heating oil doesn’t make things blow up.

So, to sum up–destroying art for the sake of religion, bad. Destroying art (or putting at great risk) in the name of profit, unfortunate but inevitable.

Hey, don’t feel so bad. The Spectra people in charge are so confident of the safety of natural gas, they’re running a giant pipeline next to the Indian Point Nuclear Power Plant (where risk of earthquake was recently revived UPWARD). As I’ve written before, evolution leads off but natural selection bats clean-up. We’ve reached a consensus level of hubris that’s far more worrying than a few lost masterpieces.


One comment

  1. Great actions and terrific article, but you didn’t know that Spectra received approval in March of this year for a massive new 42″ gas pipeline next to Indian Point, in addition to the two lines mentioned in the article linked to this article from the Center for Public Integrity. For more information, please go to A pipeline rupture under the Whitney would be disastrous and a pipeline rupture next to Indian Point would be worse than Fukishima and would impact lives and property for a 50 mile radius, according to a nationally renowned pipeline expert and nuclear expert:

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