Olympics or Arts

A steady string of arts venues have suffered closure in the UK in recent weeks. The Komedia in Brighton has had to shut its doors; the Windsor Arts Centre closed its doors last friday; and earlier this month the Lemon Tree in Aberdeen suddenly shut its doors as well. I should note in the interest of full disclosure that my wife had been in charge of marketing at the Lemon Tree for nearly a year, and its sudden closure came as quite a shock. It was hardly the season’s greetings we were expecting from the Aberdeen City Council. The Lemon Tree closing was particularly disappointing for us, as it was a great venue which did a lot of community and charity work; and in many cases funding was secured which actually made these events profitable.

Sadly the trend seems likely to continue. And what is the root cause? Arts funding is always a battle, especially for real new and creative enterprises. In many cases much of the money the arts council and other organizations had previously given these organizations has been diverted to the Olympic fund. Not only that but corporate and other sponsorships are diverted to the Olympics as well. It’s not only arts funding either.

The Portable Antiquities Scheme, a pioneering community archeology project will likely have its funding cut this year. Will Anderson rightly points out that “to halt the PAS now that it is operating so successfully would be folly. All so they can build another few domes for the Olympics. It is the department of ‘Culture’ Media and SPORT and its proxy the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council, that deserve to be scrapped”.

Colin Renfrew had an excellent summary of the scheme’s benefits in an opinion piece in the Guardian earlier this week. He points out that the scheme is “starting to transform our understanding of many aspects of the past”. Seventeen PhDs have used PAS data. I know it featured prominently in my thesis as an excellent and pragmatic way to effectively regulate sites in source nations. In terms of concrete discoveries, a Viking age cemetery was discovered in cumbria, a Roman bowl bearing the names of forts on Hadrian’s wall has been acquired by the British Museum and others. Perhaps most importantly, “the scheme has also taken the initiative in policing the internet for objects that should be reported under the Treasure Act and has promoted a code of practice”.

The situation isn’t any better in Scotland either, where funding for the 2014 Commonwealth Games in Glasgow will likely begin to increase as well. I don’t doubt that holding the Olympics in London will give a number of benefits to London and the UK. Perhaps if most British citizens were given a choice maybe they would choose Olympic funding over the arts and culture. However, I think those in charge should be upfront about the hidden costs and very real cuts which this Olympic bid will cause.

Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com

Italy, Culture and Politics

Barbie Nadeau has an interesting article online at Newsweek. It makes the same kind of point that a number of commentors, me included, have noticed. Namely, that Italian politicians are often adroit at using Italian heritage for political gain.

Last month Veltroni and Rutelli unveiled another gem on the Palatine Hill: the “Lupercale,” the ancient grotto where, legend has it, a she-wolf nursed Rome’s founder, Romulus, and his twin brother, Remus. The showing of the Lupercale delighted Italians with the suggestion that the legend might be true. But while the romantics were studying the mythology, the cynics were asking questions about just why the finds were being shown off at that time. The grotto, after all, was discovered last January, during the restoration of Augustus’s palace and the iconic collapsed wall. Back then Irene Iacopi, the archeologist in charge of the Palatine Hill, said she discovered the cavern, which is covered with frescoes, niches and seashells, after inserting a 52-foot probe into the ground. So why did it take almost a year for the authorities to make a public announcement about the find?

The answer, it would seem, lies in politics and power. Just days before the showcasing of the Lupercale, Silvio Berlusconi had disclosed his plans to form a new political party that would compete with Rutelli and Veltroni. The news about the grotto, however, effectively eclipsed Berlusconi’s news, leading the former prime minister to describe the timing as “suspect.”

It’s an interesting point I think. But when culture is such an important political issue in Italy, it seems only natural for politicians to manage the news in much the same way the President might shape the news with respect to the economy, the War in Iraq, or other matters.

I do have issues with one claim made in the article though. It is claimed that “Getty Museum curator Marion True went on trial in Rome for conspiracy and receiving stolen artworks for the Los Angeles institution. The trial, which began during Berlusconi’s term and is still ongoing, has directly led to the return of more than 100 artifacts from other American museums that purchased items of questionable provenance, including 40 from the Getty.” I think that may be overstating the importance of the True trial. Certainly it has had an impact, but more important is the concrete Polaroids and other evidence detailed in the Medici Conspiracy. That evidence came as a result of investigation of a theft of objects from Italy which were later traced to Switzerland. That investigation, of which the True prosecution has emerged, is the root cause I think.

Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com

The Semiotics of Cultural Discourse


Alan Audi has an interesting Feature Article titled A Semiotics of Cultural Property Argument in the latest issue of the International Journal of Cultural Property. The article is here, but I’m afraid is free only for University folks and those with institutional access. Here’s the abstract:

This article applies the tools of legal semiotics to examine the terms, modalities, and conventions of legal argument in the cultural property context. In a first instance, the author re-enacts Duncan Kennedy’s study of recurrent patterns within legal argument to illustrate the highly structured nature of most cultural property argument. This mapping exercise shows how legal concepts draw their meaning in part from their place within a broader linguistic system, and as a result cannot by themselves form an adequate basis for ethical positions. Following this, the pervasive Elgin Marbles controversy is shown to resemble a myth (in Roland Barthes’s sense of the term) behind which a series of value judgments and support systems are embedded into cultural property argument. The conclusion presents a number of observations sketching a framework centered on restitution as a starting point for resolution of cultural property disputes.

There are then responses from some of the best cultural property writers around, including Patty Gerstenblith, Daniel Shapiro, Yannis Hamilakis and perhaps the best response was from Barton Beebe. In a final rejoinder Audi engages in an entertaining, if perhaps unhelpful scholarly kerfluffle with Prof. Gerstenblith’s critiques.

I’m a newcomer to the field of semiotics. If I understand Audi’s arguments correctly, he believes many cultural property scholars have unwittingly used canned responses to a number of the same recurring debates. This dialectic does not promote a better legal framework and renders many arguments stagnant. I think this may be exactly right in some cases. The problem is Audi does not define what he means by a cultural property debate. It seems he is speaking in the main about restitutions of objects such as the Elgin Marbles. Some of his more general arguments about the law are perhaps diminished by his failure to discuss the current state of the law, as Prof. Gerstenblith rightly points out.

I think he is exactly right about the arguments being made about these kinds of objects, but there is settled law for other classes of objects; for example for newly and illicitly excavated antiquities. For these objects there is not a problem of discourse, but rather a problem with implementing the law because the market effectively evades regulation.

I think perhaps one of the most insightful comment on the cultural property trade was made by Kurt Siehr,

If pieces of visual arts were treated like other commodities traded in international commerce, we would have to talk about letters of credit, charter parties, import and export regulations, embargoes, dumping, most-favoured-nation clauses, GATT and arbitration. It is interesting to observe that none of these terms are in fact used in the field of international art trade, except for … import and export restrictions.

There are gaps in the regulation, and strong conflicts in the ongoing debate. Audi I think does show how many legal arguments can be classified as maxims and countermaxims. However good legal analysis should get to the root of that tension, and show the policy at play on both sides, and effectively evaluate the state of the law. Unfortunately he doesn’t incorporate enough of the cultural policy-making scholarship into his analysis on “cultural property debates” as he calls it; which he seems to only believe can encompass the intractable dilemmas posed when the law has nothing to say for claimants in situations like the Parthenon marbles.

Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com

Rutelli, Repatriation and Cultural Policy

Lee Rosenbaum has some very interesting things to say over at Culturegrrl on the press conference Italian Culture Minister Francesco Rutelli had yesterday at the Italian Cultural Institute in New York.

First, as Lee says,

Robert Stiriti (second from left, above), attaché at the American Embassy in Rome for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), told me that criminal charges “are pending” in Italy (but have not yet been filed) against an American private collector who owned several objects (including the marble sarcophagus of a child) recovered by ICE on Oct. 20 from his New York residence.

Also, Rutelli announced there may be a forthcoming agreement between Italy and Princeton concerning some objects, which would likely involve some loans from Italy.

The two cornerstones of recent Italian repatriation efforts have been the threat of prosecution along with cultural loans if objects are returned. It’s a strategy that has worked quite well. The engine behind these efforts is the political goodwill engendered in Italy when objects are returned. That seems to make Italy unique, perhaps in all the world, where cultural policy matters.

It brings to mind a time when perhaps cultural policy mattered in America.

There’s been a lot of discussion about President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and the Pentagon of late. I always enjoy stories of the Works Project Administration making art and building places like Red Rocks and The Supreme Court Building during the great depression. Steve Vogel has been making the rounds on npr and the daily show for his new book The Pentagon: The Untold Story. They broke ground on the building 3 months before Pearl Harbor (on September 11, 1941). The initial site was supposed to be opposite the Lincoln Memorial. But President Roosevelt was pressured by the fine arts commission to move the building site. They didn’t want to disturb the vista between Lee’s Mansion and the Lincoln memorial. The President who led America through the great depression and WWII stopped to consider the view for future generations. I couldn’t imagine the current executive taking such considerations; I think that tells volumes about how cultural policy has changed dramatically.

Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com