09 May 2010

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 In other words it is not that authenticity has been superseded but that it has always been specious, a rationalization for power and deception (including self-deception).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:

"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"

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!

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.

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Blogger Unknown said...

The Elgin Marbles are not the most serious example of imperial looting even in the British Museum. I was there recently and noticed its Beninese collection, which it acknowledges was looted in the late nineteenth century as part of a massively violent reprisal for the killing of colonial officials. Here is Sharon Waxman's account in "Loot" (2008):

"Most problematic of all is the museum's collection of Benin bronzes. The British army invaded Benin in 1879, conquering the tiny West African kingdom, which is in present-day Nigeria. In a bloody campaign of retribution for the killing of eight British representatives, the British troops deposed the king and looted the territory, stealing a hoard of three thousand ancient works from the palace before burning it down."

The artworks were dispersed throughout Europe and many ended up in the British Museum. The Museum's own text (which I can't find online) mentioned that some small portion of it was sold back to Nigeria between the 1950s and 70s.

10 May, 2010 12:59  
Blogger John Stathatos said...

Michael Kimmelman is, by and large, correct in claiming that the Greek demand for the return of the marbles is partly (even perhaps largely) "about historical reparations, pride and justice. It is more nationalistic and symbolic".

That fact, however, does nothing to undermine the principal argument for reuniting the scattered fragments of the Parthenon frieze, which is simply the primacy we must concede to the integrity of any artwork. And for what it's worth, I would indeed apply the same argument, and with equal force, to a dismembered Fra Angelico altarpiece.

In fact, I would go so far as to argue that the return of the Elgin marbles to Athens is an artistic (not moral, not political) imperative which even overrides the knowledge that they would be placed in Bernard Tschumi's hideous railway station of a museum...

23 May, 2010 12:06  
Blogger Joe Zammit-Lucia said...

I'm largely with Kimmelman on this one though he could have made his points better. It depends whether you take the view that, as social mores evolve and change, they should guide current and future behavior or whether they should lead us to judge all past behavior by current (and, of course, transient) social mores. If you take the latter view - which you seem to be taking in your critique - then why should the issue stop at art? Should we always be trying to unravel history and replace it with whatever current social mores tell us should have happened then? Should we, for instance, start dismantling all modern countries most of which have been largely defined by the rich and powerful imposing their way on the less powerful? By this logic, it is doubtful whether modern Greece has a right to exist never mind start reclaiming its lost marbles.

25 May, 2010 15:23  
Blogger Jim Johnson said...


I actually am consequentialist on these matters; my view is that there is no "authenticity" other than what we manufacture under that label. So my view is that as social criteria change (and these can be normative or practical, in the sense that we simply can do more and -sometimes - better things than we used to be able to do)we ought to address problems (such as when some populaiton compains about having been looted) in terms of the consquences of various possible remedies or resolutions. That might mean unraveling history, but it might mean leaving history more or less as is depending on the case. That said, we need to have an expansive view of what sorts of consequences we consider and we need to understand that there is no non-political criterion by which to assess consequences. (In other words, I am not utilitarian.) Not much consolation in all that. Just a reason why politics is so important. Thanks for the comment and for reading through all this too! JJ

PS: In this instance I think that Kimmelman simply has a truncated view of the relevant consequences that follow from allowing the Brits to retain the loot.

25 May, 2010 15:34  
Blogger Joe Zammit-Lucia said...

Jim, broadly I agree with you except that this doesn't lead us anywhere very much except to say - judge it case by case and then make a political judgment. I'm not one for believing very much that we learn to do things 'better'. Rather we do them differently at different times and at every stage we believe we are doing them 'better'.

One item that has not been discussed in this post is the short term politics that often drive these initiatives. At different stages of the Greek political it will suit some politician to make the marbles a nationalistic issue, create a phantom enemy of their EU partners and hope to win a certain number of votes as a consequence. Currently it does not suit to paint the British as demons as they may be welcome partners in any financial bailout. Similar considerations drive all sorts of decisions about restitution. So I'm afraid that I find it hard to get too excited about claims of moral superiority in any of these debates.

27 May, 2010 04:24  

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