Skip to content
Culture & Religion

The Way We Recognize Anniversaries is Totally Irrational… And That’s Okay

Today’s the 78th anniversary of the bombing of Guernica. The only reason you probably don’t know that already is because this isn’t the event’s 75th or 100th anniversary, because we as a society value some numbers over others. 

We’re an awfully fickle society when it comes to commemorating momentous events of the past. I’m as guilty of this as anyone. Less than 24 hours ago, I wrote a piece about YouTube’s indelible mark on the internet, authored in commemoration of the site’s 10th birthday. It’s a piece I wouldn’t have written last year because last year was YouTube’s ninth birthday and the only time when nine is more important than 10 is when you’re filling out a baseball lineup.

We as a society love round numbers because we as a society are irrational, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. We put decades and multiples of five on a pedestal because we seek to glean meaning from numbers even though, on the inside, most of us understand that numbers can’t and don’t abide by any narrative. There’s no rational reason why a 50th birthday should feel more eventful than a 51st. There’s no logic in the Armenian Genocide drawing heightened attention this year — its 100th anniversary was commemorated on April 24 — while last year it was just another blank square on the calendar. Yet because we have 10 fingers (or whatever the impetus was for making 10 our numerical pivot point) we ooh and ahh when we reach round-numbered anniversaries. 

(I would be remiss not to mention that our entire conception of time and calendar events is nearly as arbitrary as our devotion to round numbers. I’ll concede that point, but I’d rather not dwell on it long.)

I bring up the Armenian Genocide because I read a story this week about an Armenian-American artist named Jackie Kazarian who recently commemorated the event’s anniversary by unveiling a massive painting fashioned after Picasso’s Guernica. For those of you who chose to do something useful with your high school electives, the rest of us who took art history* know that Picasso’s famous painting (pictured above) was a depiction of and response to the bombing of a small Basque village called Guernica by the German Luftwaffe during the Spanish Civil War. 

The date of the bombing? April 26, 1937: 78 years ago today. 

Here are a bunch of links to stories from 2012 when Guernica was remembered 75 years later:

The Times: ‘Guernica’s name still rings around the world 75 years on’

Democracy Now: ’75 Years Later: The Lessons of Guernica’

Frieze Blog: ’75 Years After Guernica’

Occasional Planet: ‘Picasso’s Guernica and the Horrors of War 75 Years Later’

The Guardian: ‘In the town Picasso made a symbol of destruction…’

The Huffington Post: ’75 Years of Picasso’s Guernica – An Inconvenient Masterpiece’

The Independent: ‘Guernica: A Brush With History’

I think you get the picture.

Now this isn’t to say that there aren’t outlets writing about Guernica today because some really are, mostly in Spanish. But 78th anniversaries aren’t the time for sprawling think pieces or in-depth retrospectives. Maybe in two years, certainly in 22, but not in 2015.

The same can be said about the Armenian Genocide. This Google News search of “Armenian Genocide” is going to be a lot less saturated a year from now because 101 is a whole lot less sexy than 100. If Kazarian had unveiled her painting in 2016, she would have been greeted with a resounding chorus of “okay, sure.” And that’s because we as a society delude ourselves into perceiving that these arbitrary milestones and endpoints mean something.  It means something to make it to 10 years of marriage, for example, even though 10 years as a marker — by itself — is meaningless.

So what’s the takeaway here? Again, I don’t think it’s a bad thing we choose not to dwell on these sorts of events every year. After all, our calendars can bear only so much solemnity. We’d go mad if we had to annually remember every single tragedy that’s befallen the human race.

But I think it’s important we take a step back from time to time to remember that an event like the Armenian Genocide shouldn’t lose gravity in years that don’t end in a five or zero, and that it’s good to see big anniversaries for what they really are, which is arbitrary. 

Finally — because I’m a sucker for this type of awareness — maybe next time we commemorate an event’s 100th anniversary, check the records to see what sorts of things happened 12 years ago or 78 years ago or even 336 years ago. You might find something that’s not getting the attention it deserves and you might find that odd or ironic.

And then you can write a blog post about it because time really is nothing if not a flat circle. 

For more about Jackie Kazarian’s ‘Armenia,’ read on at the Chicago Tribune.

*I’m kidding, jeez.


Up Next