With the rise of Far Right candidates in Europe and in America, along with creeping dictatorship in Turkey and authoritarianism in the Philippines, the idea of democracy and freedom of speech feels under threat more than ever. While we don’t talk about political solutions here on Open Culture, we do believe in the power of art to illuminate.
Argentine artist Marta Minujín is creating a large-scale artwork called The Parthenon of Books that will be constructed on Friedrichsplatz in Kassel, Germany, and will be constructed from as many as 100,000 banned books from all over the world.
The location has been chosen for its historical importance. In 1933, the Nazis burned two-thousand books there during the so-called “Aktion wider den undeutschen Geist” (Campaign against the Un-German Spirit), destroying books by Communists, Jews, and pacifists, along with any others deemed un-German.
Minujín chose the Parthenon—one of the great structures of Ancient Greece—for its continuing symbolism of the enduring power of democracy throughout the ages.
When it comes to materials, she using a list of 100,000 books that have been, or still are, banned in countries across the world, going all the way back to the year 1500. You can browse that list here, but for less eye-strain, try this shorter list of 170 or so titles. New titles can be suggested for the project here.
Some of the books that have been banned over the years include Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s The Little Prince (banned in Argentina), Lewis Carroll's Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (banned in China), and Norman Mailer’s The Naked and the Dead (banned in Canada).
Minujín constructed a similar Parthenon in 1983 after the fall of her country’s dictatorship. The original El Partenón de libros featured the books that the former government had banned, and, at the end of the installation, Minujín let the public take what they wanted home. (She will be allowing the same thing to happen this time.)
Her people, as she says in the video above, didn’t know what democracy was after years of military rule. We might be on the opposite side of the spectrum: we won’t know what democracy is until we lose it.
Ted Mills is a freelance writer on the arts who currently hosts the FunkZone Podcast. You can also follow him on Twitter at @tedmills, read his other arts writing at tedmills.com and/or watch his films here.