I’m going to say a little about Thrawn and art and how it relates to the primary message of Star Wars and imperialism in general, because wow did that Rebels finale hit it right. Also includes some pretty heavy Rebels finale spoilers, so just a warning if you haven’t seen it.
The thing about Thrawn – and it’s particularly addressed in Zahn’s novels – is that he doesn’t just take over worlds. He robs them of their art, too. Not that his character is any less complex and interesting because of this, but it shows a very specific facet of Imperial ideals.
It’s been portrayed in the novels that when Thrawn orders an orbital bombardment of a planet, he leaves out one area: the culture and arts district. And then even as planet’s surface is being decimated, he sends a special retrieval squad to the largest art museums to take all the art there back to the Chimaera.
Where he keeps them for himself, like he did Hera’s kalikori.
That’s the thing – Thrawn is all about insight. He reads into the mindset of whole cultures using this method, but in the end, he has stolen this art simply as a tool to extend his power. And in doing so, he has an incomplete view of it.
Think about it – if you wanted to know more about a piece of art, you could acquire it and hang it up on your wall and examine it, and you could draw some perfectly right conclusions about the meaning of that piece of art.
But it wouldn’t be the same as speaking to the artist, learning more about the culture, and sharing the the artist’s joy in creating the art. All you would be doing if you stole art from a culture you were unfamiliar with would be taking this art and applying your own, and only your own viewpoint, to it.
So when Thrawn tells Ezra that the Jedi had power, but did not know how to wield it, Ezra replies, “The Force isn’t a weapon. But you’ll never understand that.”
And then: “You think you can take whatever you want. Things you didn’t make, didn’t earn. Things you didn’t even understand. You don’t deserve to have this art, or Lothal.”
So I’m going to sidetrack a little into something I experienced as a Chinese girl from Hong Kong, when visiting the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. It’s wonderful. It’s my favourite museum in London, and I have a British passport, so I’m technically British myself. But every now and then you see an exhibit that punches you in the gut.
Take the beautiful, thirty-foot tall door brackets that once belonged to a mosque in the Middle East. They were lovely, so I looked underneath the description to see who had loaned them or how they were bought in italics – and there was nothing.
Because they were taken. Not bought, or given. British troops, at some point in history, had walked up to a mosque and ripped the door brackets out of it, and then shipped them back to London.
And then the Emperor’s throne, from China; placed there for all to see. Countless pottery and paintings. That hurt even more.
That is the essence of Imperialism, and what the Galactic Empire does, too, in Star Wars. I am so glad they put that bit of conversation with Ezra and Thrawn into the finale; Star Wars is about self-sacrifice, empathy, and hope. And so despite his hidden agenda, Thrawn’s attitude towards art is an extension of what the Imperial mindset is: to take, without striving to understand. Just another thing that makes the characterisation and thematic components of SWR so utterly compelling.