Artifact: Aesthetic Karma


Should the Buddhas destroyed last spring by the Taliban be rebuilt? A group called the New 7 Wonders Society wants to recreate the bigger of the two blasted statues, with the support of a U.N.-recognized Swiss institute concerned with Afghan antiquities. The society intends to show that "an act of international destruction cannot erase the memory of those things which are valuable to humanity and its heritage."

Yet humanity's memory of the statues is, to put it mildly, mixed. They were largely unknown except to specialists in Gandharan art, and were not always admired even by them. Students of Buddhist art generally preferred Sri Lankan representations. Travelers despised the statues. One 19th century description says that the sight of them "sickens"; they were a "monstrous flaccid bulk" and a "negation of sense." That they'd once been used as target practice by Muslim armies was regarded as no loss. As late as 1973, they were pronounced "grotesque."

Those things which are valuable to humanity and its heritage," it seems, constitute a checklist subject to dramatic revision. How did the Buddhas get on the list? Perhaps because their destruction was a perfect spectacle of barbarism. The Taliban also destroyed thousands of artifacts in Kabul's museum, hammering at statues for days. But there was no alerted audience, no press attention, no video record, no spectacle, and now, no program to recreate any of them.