Kimmelman on Drawing the Borders of Culture

Michael Kimmelman has a piece discussing the Parthenon sculptures and how it has influenced other repatriation debates.  He seems to favor a cosmopolitan approach, and borrows a good deal from James Cuno without mentioning him by name.  After all the mention of Cuno in some circles often shuts off any reasoned discourse.  And though he seems to be frustrated with his conclusion—that the Parthenon sculptures taken by Elgin should remain in London—he manages to make some thoughtful observations.  His best argument may be comparing the Euphronios Krater to the Parthenon sculptures:

And in the end patrimony is about ownership, often of objects that as in the marbles’ case, come from bygone civilizations. What, in this context, does it really mean to own culture?

Italy recently celebrated the return of a national treasure after the Metropolitan Museum gave back a sixth-century B.C. Greek krater by the painter Euphronius that tomb robbers dug up outside Rome during the 1970s. Stolen property is stolen property. But how curious that an ancient Greek vase, which centuries after it was made came into the possession of an Etruscan collector (a kind of ancient Elgin) living on what is now the outskirts of Rome, and then ended up buried for thousands of years below what became modern Italy, is today Italian cultural patrimony. By that definition, Elgin’s loot is arguably British patrimony.

Thought-provoking stuff, well worth a read. 

  1. Michael Kimmelman, Who Draws the Borders of Culture?, The New York Times, May 4, 2010, (last visited May 6, 2010).
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China Refuses Loans

Pictured here is a Chinese poster from the Cultural Revolution which states “We’ll destroy the old world and build a new one”. Notice the worker is smashing a Buddha, Chinese classics, and a crucifix. This paints a much different picture than the one China has tried to portray during the Olympics, particularly Zhang Yimou’s remarkable opening ceremonies.

Perhaps that’s why China has made the troubling decision to refuse to loan works of art to the Asia Society which will focus on Chinese art from the 1950s to the 1970s. Robin Pogrebin in the NY Times, and Jason Edward Kaufman for the Art Newspaper both report on the decision.

Kaufman says the show “Art and China’s Revolution” “surveys three decades of Chinese art following Mao Zedong’s establishment of the republic in 1949, including the Cultural Revolution (1966-76) when the government controlled artist production. Exhibitions of photographs and posters have explored the politics and propaganda of Maoist China, but none has assembled ink and oil paintings, sketchbooks and prints by both underground and official artists, including the “model” paintings on which millions of social-realist posters were based.”

The art produced by these cultural shifts, through propaganda, often has tremendous impact and is highly sought after decades later. Such is the case with Mikhail Kalatozov’s 1964 film I Am Cuba (which is examined in some detail by Scott Tobias at the Onion AV Club). Works of art continue to be powerful political and cultural forces even after the impetus for their creation has diminished.

China perhaps has good almost realpolitik reasons for not deciding to allow these loans — they want to portray their nation in a much different light now. Individuals and States have a lot of reasons for wanting to restrict themovement of works of art. Some of them are sound (to prevent looting of archaeological sites for example) others are open to criticism (hiding or minimizing history).

This is a very good example of the detrimental impact of strong national control of works of art. James Cuno has been roundly criticized for many of his views — and for good reason in some cases. But in this situation, I think his main thesis is on point: works of art are often political tools for nations. The idea of cosmopolitanism can allevieate Chinese reluctance to show art from this period, and in fact some of the other private loans are doing just this. Of course art isn’t just used for political goals either, as Kaufman notes “It has been a decade since the Asia Society’s major exhibition “Inside Art: New Art from China” helped spur the boom in Chinese contemporary art. Will the present exhibition have a similar effect on the market for art of the Cultural Revolution?”

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No Cosmopolitanism in Iowa?

There has been a surprising amount of uproar over the University of Iowa considering deacessioning this work, Jackson Pollock’s Mural. Tyler Green and Lee Rosenbaum have both weighed in, both fairly critical of the potential sale. I can see their point, these works develop a presence in a way, and people have a relationship with a work of art that continues to bring them back to an art museum. However, circumstances change, and there are some very good reasons for considering the sale or partial transfer of a work of art. I tend to agree with Donn Zaretsky on this when he says:

I know I seem to lack the deaccessioning-outrage gene, but my first reaction to hearing about a possible deal with the DMAC is, “What’s so bad about that?” If $100 million or so could go to the University to help it deal with its flood-related problems, with the Pollock moving a mere 115 miles down the road (plus a promise to “allow UIMA to show the painting occasionally”), how exactly does that amount to a catastrophe?

Indeed, there may not be anything wrong with such a decision, and we can’t know what artists or benefactors would have wanted these museums to do with these works when confronted with serious financial pressures. However I find it very interesting that many of the calls for anti-deaccessioning are very contrary to the kind of art cosmopolitanism and sharing of art and culture that many have advocated, notably James Cuno.

In theory the idea of sharing art and culture is a very good idea, but there are always complications, and in the end local communities, arts patrons, and even large nations want to keep their art. People don’t like to see beautiful works leave, especially under bad circumstances — like they may not be protected from looters adequately, or people are breaking the law, or a catastrophic flood has forced them to.

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The Uneasy relationship between Scholarship and Journalism (UPDATE)

Lee Rosenbaum, arts journalist and fellow blogger at culturegrrl has an Op-Ed in today’s LA Times titled “Make art loans, not war” in which she argues for increased loans from Italy and Greece, a more collaborative relationship between North American “Universal” museums, and an increase in what she calls “citizen archaeology” along the lines of the portable antiquities scheme in England and Wales.

It’s a well written piece, but it strikes me as a compilation of a lot of other scholarship. I suppose it’s a journalists prerogative to take the work of scholars and researchers and reconfigure it in a more digestible (i.e. better written) form, but it does strike me as a bit unfair that she gets to take credit for some ideas which have been persuasively and compellingly articulated elsewhere. I’d like to point out some of the theoretical foundations for the ideas that Rosenbaum articulates.

John Merryman has long been a champion of “cultural property internationalism“, and Kwame Anthony Appiah also made a compelling argument for a similar kind of idea in his recent work, Cosmopolitanism: Ethics in a World of Strangers.

Antiquities leasing is a particularly interesting idea, and it’s one that’s received some interesting attention recently, including an article by Peter Wendel, a law Professor at Pepperdine University, as well as a recent working paper by Michael Kremer and Tom Wilkening who argue from an economic perspective that long-term leasing of antiquities would allow source nations to earn much-needed revenue from their antiquities, but would preserve their own long-term ownership interests. I’ve even argued here that the agreements forged by the Getty, the MFA Boston, the Met, Princeton, and Yale with Peru are essentially leasing agreements between the two sides. Clearly, the custom established by these agreements leads to the idea of leasing as a workable solution to these intractable disputes.

I found Rosenbaum’s argument for citizen archaeology particularly interesting:

More controversially, I believe that source countries should consider training and licensing citizen archaeologists. The antiquities police can’t hope to end all the looting or shut down the black market completely. But if those who make finds are compensated for reporting them and perhaps trained to help excavate them, midnight marauders who mangle masterpieces and destroy archaeological context may become less numerous and destructive. One precedent for the “if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em” approach is Britain’s financial compensation of metal detector-wielding amateurs who turn over significant finds including gold, silver and prehistoric objects to the proper authorities.

This is a subject upon which I’ve written, and what she’s referring to here is the Portable Antiquities Scheme, and the Treasure Act. Their flickr site is particularly interesting, which is where I found the image above of a Roman horseman found in Cambridgeshire last year. The PAS operates only in England, Wales and Northern Ireland. Scotland is not a part of the scheme. Unfortunately the PAS is in danger due to budget restrictions and funding for the London Olympics.

I discuss the PAS and the idea of rewarding finders of objects in some detail in my recent article WHY U.S. FEDERAL CRIMINAL PENALTIES FOR DEALING IN ILLICIT CULTURAL PROPERTY ARE INEFFECTIVE, AND A PRAGMATIC ALTERNATIVE, 25 Cardozo Arts & Ent. L.J. 597 (2007), available on Lexis and Westlaw. I think she may be under a mis-impression regarding the scheme. The PAS encourages voluntary reporting of finds for those objects which fall outside the scope of the Treasure Act. The scheme has created a massive community archaeology project for objects which are found on private lands and do not belong to the Crown. There has always been a requirement in England and Wales to return valuable metal objects to the Crown, however the introduction of the scheme dramatically increased compliance with the law. Based on this, I argue that it’s not enough for a source nation to declare ownership; to effectively protect sites it must also erect appropriate mechanisms to promote compliance with those ownership declarations. When a metal detector finds a valuable piece of gold on private land (detecting on scheduled monuments is strictly forbidden) the finder is entitled to an award, which thus encourages the reporting of finds. However, such a system may not work in all source nations, as you do not want to encourage haphazard looting. As a result the PAS and the Treasure Act are important policy solutions to consider, but are not a cure-all for the antiquities trade.

In short, there has been a great deal of attention placed on the return of objects to Italy, but nearly all these returns, and certainly the most valuable and significant objects, were returned based on substantial evidence, often photographs, which indicate the objects in question had been illegally excavated. The Medici Conspiracy details the investigation. These returns to Italy are the product of a massive investigation of a single commercial stream (albeit a substantial one) from Italy to North America. The challenge for cultural policy makers is to think about the other source nations and other transactions. Rosenbaum rightly points out some of the innovative
potential solutions to these dilemmas, I just think it’s regrettable that the Op-Ed forum doesn’t allow her to reference some of the important work she may have relied on to formulate her thoughts.


Rosenbaum responds to me here, and also posts reactions from a “prominent curator” and David Gill.

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