Throughout history, we’ve preserved as well as destroyed the relics of the past. The cultural heritage is the result of deducting destruction from preservation. Books and stained glass on the left, ashes and rubble on the right.
The Reformation destroyed the Catholic capital of Europe. Political regimes have destroyed the political capitals of the past. Contemporary ideologies are destroying items of past ideologies.
We destroy for the sake of destroying, but more often we destroy with purpose. Destroying for the sake of destroying occurs on a personal level and most often has to do with our deepseated pulsations and destructive irrationality. Destruction on a more social or collective level is less irrational – unless it is simply a juxtaposition of personal destructions, like the effects of a 16th-century Protestant-inspired mob on a Catholic church.
Organised destructions like bans, prohibitions and suppressions have all been done with purpose. The shock we experience today when we hear or read about book burnings, statue defacing, demolitions of buildings or any other kind of purposeful destruction of artefacts has less to do with our political, religious or ideological stance and more to do with the way we have come to look at these objects.
For a 16th-century Protestant iconoclast (literally destroyer of images), a statue of the Virgin or a manuscript of the Lives of the Saints (both largely unacceptable to the early Reformers) were not objects worthy of preservation on their own terms, but as embodiments of systems and ideas. For an ISIS soldier getting ready to deface a museum item, the item has no intrinsic value. Its significance derives from the system which produced it. It is a physical representation or presence of a system/idea/world which has to be destroyed.
Our culture doesn’t think like that. For us, items are all worthy of preservation because they are products of other systems/ideas/worlds. Their relationship with those worlds is something in need of elucidation, not a source of value for them. In the modern world, we’ve arrived at a stage where most cultural objects do not stir up feelings in us by virtue of belonging to systems we hold dear. They stir up feelings in us by virtue of being themselves, fragile products of a fragile, and often lost world, the miraculous survivors in a sea of destruction. We honour that miracle by infusing them with a kind of paradoxical value which simultanously makes the object intrinsically precious but also removes it from its natural environment.