Looting, Politics and 'Art'
"Most European museums are, among other things, memorials to the rise of nationalism and imperialism. Every capital must have its own museum of painting, sculpture, etc., devoted in part to exhibiting the greatness of its artistic past, and, in other part, to exhibiting loot gathered by its monarchs in conquest of other nations. . . . They testify to the connection between the modern segregation of art and nationalism and militarism." ~ John Dewey (1934)In The New York Times today is this story confirming both Dewey's observation and the general failure of art critics to get it. The critic - in this instance Michael Kimmelman - sides with the imperialists in the case of the Elgin marbles, possessed by the British but claimed by the Greeks. In part, he adopts a post-modern view of "culture" as freely circulating and so devoid of any "authentic" locus. But, ultimately, that is simply scaffolding for his claim that the British were able to take the marbles and so should keep them. The Greeks, he thinks are simply playing symbolic politics: "The Greeks argue for proximity, not authenticity. Their case has always been more abstract, not strictly about restoration but about historical reparations, pride and justice. It is more nationalistic and symbolic."
I think that claims of authenticity are moot - not for post-modern reasons, but because there never was any authentic possession to which one or another group might lay claim. In other words it is not that authenticity has been superseded but that it has always been specious, a rationalization for power and deception (including self-deception). Yet there is a good amount of rationalizing self-deception going on in Kimmelman's essay. I leave to one side his presumption that culture generally and art specifically constitute clearly bounded, discrete domains and, therefore, afford a terrain on which disengaged critics can ply their trade. I am more concerned here with the broader political implications of Kimmelman's position. Here is another juicy bit:
Here the incoherence of Kimmelman's position is clear. He rightly speaks of the sorts of "vandalism" and "looting" that have been central to colonial enterprises, excusing them even as he protests that he does not. And he celebrates the fact that such actions now are legally proscribed. In the end he adopts a sort of let by-gones be by-gones stance. History after all does move on!
"Over the centuries, meanwhile, bits and pieces of the Parthenon have ended up in six different countries, in the way that countless altars and other works of art have been split up and dispersed among private collectors and museums here and there. To the Greeks the Parthenon marbles may be a singular cause, but they’re like plenty of other works that have been broken up and disseminated. The effect of this vandalism on the education and enlightenment of people in all the various places where the dismembered works have landed has been in many ways democratizing.
That’s not an excuse for looting. It’s simply to recognize that art, differently presented, abridged, whatever, can speak in myriad contexts. It’s resilient and spreads knowledge and sympathy across borders. Ripped from its origins, it loses one set of meanings, to gain others.
Laws today fortunately prevent pillaging sites like the Acropolis. But they stop short of demanding that every chopped-up altar by Rubens, Fra Angelico or whomever now be pieced together and returned to the churches and families and institutions for which they were first intended. For better and worse, history moves on"
Yet, Kimmelman also hints at a sort of consequentialist approach to the whole matter when he suggests that the display of pillaged art works has been "democratizing" and that it has "spreads knowledge and sympathy across borders." If we want to consider consequences - and I think that is precisely what we ought to consider - then we ought to ask what precisely is the message being sent if the British are allowed to retain the marbles (or if other countries in possession of looted works are allowed to retain them in the face of legitimate claims). The answer, it seems to me, is this: the powerful and the rich can do what they please; the claims of justice are irrelevant or, at best, such claims trade upon the good graces of the rich and powerful. I presume, of course, that it is possible to sort out how to do justice in various cases and that it is possible to differentiate legitimate claims from those that are not. Those are difficult matters. But the underlying claim remains sound - we should look at consequences and when we do we should look at how the consequences impact common understandings of justice. The latter surely do not sanction simply allowing the rich and powerful to get way with whatever they have managed to get way with thus far.