Posts Tagged ‘Moral dilemmas’

A while ago I posted “A Diamond is Merely a Lump of Coal That Did Well Under Pressure” At the time I was reflecting on the power of this imagery, how it encapsulates so many ideas about strength, inner beauty, hard work and so on.
But take a look at the blood diamond calligram “Not All Diamonds Are The Same”

The literary and visual image of a diamond as a thing of beauty and desirability has been tarnished by their use to fund corrupt governments and military activities in parts of Africa. However, the Kimberly Process sought to keep these Blood diamonds, or conflict diamonds from being traded. The governments of participating countries are required to certify where the diamonds have come from and to guarantee that the diamonds being traded are conflict free. The diamond industry and various NGOs such as Global Witness, as well as other member states, are official observers who can check that the certification process is genuine. It has been successful in helping some countries reduce the flow of conflict diamonds and to increase official stocks but Zimbabwe is a notable exception.
So it seems incredible that the Kimberley Process has authorised exports by two companies operating in Zimbabwe’s Marange diamond fields. Members of the military are known to have tortured and killed workers in the mines, and used the money from the diamonds to fund illegal government activity. Global Witness has suggested that members of Zimbabwe’s ruling party may use revenue from the area to fund the intimidation of voters ahead of elections.
As a result of the decision to authorise the Mirange diamonds Global Witness has withdrawn from the Kimberly Process, an organisation it helped set up.
Previously, The EU and the US had blocked any move to lift the ban, but late last year said that Zimbabwe has made considerable gains in addressing areas of non-compliance. It’s hard to see how, especially as the military is still involved in running the mines.
Lifting the ban undermines any credibility that the Kimberly Process may have had, and raises the question why, the US and EU have suddenly changed their positions.
Consumers can no longer be reasonably sure that a diamond certified by the Kimberly Process is not a blood diamond. The only thing a responsible person can do is insist on seeing the provenance of the stone being purchased. Some retailers, such as Michael Hill, already do this.


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So often when I’ve been thinking about something, the universe seems to conspire and that “something” crops up again in another context.

I had been bothered by the realisation that so much  great art and architecture has come at the expense or in the face of great poverty. Not long ago I started reading a biography of Michaelangelo.  He grew up in Florence where the Renaissance was born. Michaelangelo mixed with the scholars, painters, poets and philosophers of the time and admired and respected Lorenzo de’Medici (Lorenzo the Maginificent, the wealthy and influential “ruler” of Florence) who encouraged them. At the same time a Dominican friar, Savonarola, was vehemently preaching against the excesses of Florence and Rome.

The biographer, Bruno Nardini, describes the tension Michaelangelo felt. “As an artist he had no doubts. Art could only be nourished by intelligence and beauty, it could only unfold and flower around the Magnicent (Lorenzo). But as a Christian for whom life is only a moment of trial, he was forced to admit that Savonarola was right, that he was proclaiming against the vanity of all, the sinfulness of any idea that did not lead back to Christ.”

Nardini suggests that Michaelangelo, while continuing to study sculpture, also nurtured his soul through the scriptures and so was able to bridge the beauty of art, and the Christian message.

It had not occurred to me that the gifted creators of superb art might have to reconcile the excesses of their art with their spiritual beliefs.

My awareness of their potential dilemma makes me appreciate their talent and genius all the more.

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Much European art, particularly from earlier centuries, has been created at the behest of the rich and powerful often as propaganda. This raises the question, are we complicit in their manipulations when we admire and glorify these works of art?

Louis fourteenth built his superb palace at Versailles, with the great Hall of Mirrors, the Grand Canal, and the Neptune Statue. He built Triannon for he and his mistress to live in. Marie Antoinette built petit Triannon to was escape the pressures of officialdom, and the hamlet of Austrian style homes, so her children could experience “normal” life, and to assuage her homesickness. These whims were created while the people were starving. Yet we admire the extraordinarily beautiful architecture and the art within without a thought for the historical context, at least not in terms of the ordinary people.

Was it wrong to build these extravagances while the people starved? Would the world be poorer now if we didn’t have the palace of Versailles?

Catherine de Medici had a retrospective of her life created by the great Dutch artist, Rubens. It consists of twenty four huge paintings. It is possibly Ruben’s finest work. Yet Catherine de Medici was guilty of many crimes while she was regent of France. Does this is any way nullify our enjoyment of Ruben’s work? For me it doesn’t. In a perverse way it heightens my appreciation of the allegorical works, and adds another dimension to it. Does that mean I condone her actions?

Florence is a beautiful city, mostly because of the palaces and the buildings. Much of this building took place at the end of the fifteenth century. The government encouraged building by giving tax exemptions for forty years. So who paid the taxes? Probably the poor, who could not afford to build. So the rich were standing on the shoulders of the poor, who were staggering under the weight of their greed. Do we ever stop to think how this great architecture was paid for? How Michaelangelo’s genius work was paid for?

Venice was an egalitarian state at that time. Egalitarian for the rich and noble. The few thousand rich men met to make decisions in the Palace of the Doge. The Doge did not rule, he was a figurehead for these decision makers. But there was no equality for the workers. Who paid for the magnificent palace with it’s superb artwork by Titian, Tintoretto and Veronaze?

The superb art in the churches in both Florence and Venice usually includes figures of the patrons amongst the saints, usually showing the saints’ approval of them. Are we bothered by this propaganda, aimed at the workers?

There is certainly an amorality that can be disturbing. I don’t believe that great art should be nurtured and admired at any cost. But I do believe that knowing the historical context of this great work adds a dimension that increases my appreciation of it. I admire those geniuses.

But let’s not forget the little people.

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