The Design Observer Group


Posted 10.17.12


Rob Walker

Killing for Beautiful Objects



Photo by Brent Stirton, part of this amazing gallery that is part of the National Geographic cover story, "Ivory Worship."

If there is evidence that any species other than homo sapiens appreciates beauty, I’m not aware of it. The ability to admire, even be moved by, the beauty of both the natural and the human-made seems, in fact, to be part of what makes us human. We even connect beauty to notions of existence that transcend this world. One result is an impressive history of religion-inspired artworks that are quite, you know, beautiful.

Surely, for instance, the brisk trade in religious iconography carved from ivory, described in The National Geographic’s October cover story, “Ivory Worship,” has much to do with our uniquely human appreciation of beautiful objects, and the belief that such objects (like the crucifix above, carved from a single elephant tusk) can create a special link to something beyond our world.

The article, written by Bryan Christy, opens with a scene from earlier this year, involving a hundred “raiders” armed with AK-47s and grenade launchers, slaughtering hundreds of elephants in a section of Cameroon. They were poachers, of course, and they killed the animals for their tusks. This material would find its way into what Christy describes, in a thorough, impressive and profoundly depressing report, as a global marketplace for beautiful objects carved from ivory. (Christy has additional detail in this interview on KERA's Think program.)

Yes, it’s all illegal, but as Christy describes them the mechanisms in place to enforce the relevant laws are riddled with flaws and inadequacies, and are thus no match for the evidently widespread and deeply felt desire and demand that fuels this market.

And that desire and demand is for … what, exactly? A significant part of the answer is: beautiful objects onto which transcendent ideas have been projected.

Is there evidence that any species other than homo sapiens willfully slaughters other creatures for reasons that have nothing to do with survival? Is there evidence, to be more precise, that any other species kills for objects, for transcendence, for beauty? If so, I’m not aware of it.

Photo by Brent Stirton, part of this amazing gallery that is part of the National Geographic cover story, "Ivory Worship."