Friday, 12 October 2007

Should Art Be Kept At Home?


In the second of two articles on the ownership and display of antiquities, Cambridge Classicist Mary Beard argues in favour of dispersal

WHEN MARY Beard heard that August's forest fires had threatened the Temple of Apollo at Bassai, she made the following entry in a blog for the Times Literary Supplement: "First let me apologise for writing about the antiquities of ancient Greece, when so many people have died in the terrible fires." 

Then, after reflecting on the possible fate of Olympia, Bassai, Lykosoura and the Byzantine churches in the Peloponnese, she concluded, "At this point I begin to feel grateful for the dispersal of antiquities around the museums of the world. Suppose Olympia and its museum had actually gone up in smoke (and fire quickly turns marble to a little pile of lime). At least some of the sculptures of the key temple of Zeus would have been safe in the Louvre. And if the temple at Bassae had been destroyed, then it would turn out to be a good idea after all that its sculptured frieze was in the British Museum in London." 

The newspaper Ethnos responded in a web posting on the same day (August 27): "Cambridge professor Mary Beard supports no lesser a position than that we should thank those countries which hold Greek antiquities (eg. Parthenon marbles) since that is the only way to protect them from all manner of destruction. She thinks it would be better for all holy monuments to be divided up and stored in the five corners of the world and kept in ultra-modern museums, such as the British Museum." 

The Athens News called Mary Beard to record the full nuance of her position. 

"Blogging gets you into worse trouble than you imagine. I really do not support the idea of imperialist nations coming and stealing other people's treasures. My problem is that I see the faults on both sides. I think the issue of cultural ownership is complicated and if there was a simple and easy solution that was morally correct and culturally correct we'd have found it by now. The fact is that we're still arguing about it. 

On the one hand there's a kind of centripetal view of the matter which wants a people's cultural heritage to be with that people. The alternative version is often very crudely and imperialistically expressed, which is that culture travels and is shared. 

In many ways I am a dispersalist - not just with Greek cultural property but with anybody's. I think one of the things that is so great and exciting about a global culture is that cultural heritage is so wonderfully mixed. 

Where I see the problem is that the process of that mixing hasn't been a neutral one. It's been imperialistic. I can say that I think it is wonderful that you can go to London and see amazing works of art from tribal Africa, but I also know that I can't go to Africa and see a load of Turners in Lagos. Because the mechanism for dispersal has been about power politics. 

Even that process of imperialism is a bit more complicated than we like to think. Go back to the Romans and you think, "why didn't they smash the stuff? Why do they want this?" In a sense it's the soft underbelly of empire. Empires have always been terribly anxious about the cultures which they conquer and are always liable to be beaten by the conquered culture. 

All the same, the weak point in my argument for dispersal is that there's no way to ensure an egalitarian mechanism apart from the market, and the market is just another version of old imperialist power. 

This is where I find it very hard to know how to operationalise my view. Because, (as Jack Davis was saying last week) there is nothing possibly good about the way the clandestine art market works. It can't possibly be any better than some toff coming along and ripping art off the building. And anyway it's a criminal enterprise. Doing illegal excavations and then saying, 'whoops, it came from the sea somewhere,' well that's just crime. 

I'm well aware of the paradox of my own position. But what I didn't like about comments on the Ethnos website is that people were so sure that there was a right way and that they'd got the answer. I don't think anyone's got the answer. 

Let's take the retentionist, centripetal argument to its extremes. Do we think that a perfect world would be one in which every work of art remained where it was made? I don't think it's a world in which I want to live - to have everything ever made in Greece remain in Greece, and not to have French art come across the Channel. 

On the Parthenon Marbles - I do not think they should be returned. But that has to be seen side by side with the fact that I see no reason why they should be in London either. I am absolutely uncertain about how to find an argument to lead me either to restitution or retention. 

I can see that some objects are so important to a culture that whatever you think about the virtue of global dispersal in general, these should nevertheless be in the place of the people who made them. The Parthenon marbles might be a good case of such a cultural object. But you still have to ask how did that importance arise. Which forms of nationalism are OK, and which are not? 

In some ways the special position the Parthenon marbles came to hold was invented by Otto and his learned advisors. Once they had decided not to turn the Parthenon into a garden ornament, the Bavarians consciously opted to exploit the allure of fifth century culture as a unifying national symbol. But it isn't something that goes back to the fifth century BC. I don't know how to resolve this. 

Of course there is a loss to British culture if the marbles are sent back, but it is a complicated loss. What I feel anxious about is the sense that history can just be rewritten. It goes along with the Queen going and apologising to New Zealand for what the British did to the Maoris. 

There's an inexorable process of history. We can't make it all nice again. We just have to move on. It's become a different world. The Parthenon marbles have become different objects and they mean something different, and you can't just undo that. We'd really be underrating these objects if we didn't see that there's a whole cultural baggage that comes along with them. 

The opposite view would be that none of this matters and that frankly the man on the street lives his life perfectly happily without bothering about Greek culture and where it is. I can't accept that. The man on the street would then be living an impoverished life. You would be culturally crippled if you knew nothing at all about classical Greece - not to understand why such and such building is using Doric columns. Knowledge of the Classical world is intellectually, socially, culturally and politically empowering. That's why the debate about the Parthenon is so loaded. 

If you want my prediction - not what I want to happen, but what I think will happen - it's this. One day I think that the heat will go out of this debate. And when it dies the marbles will go back. They will go back when they don't matter culturally any more. Cultural problems tend only to be solved when they're not problems any more. That's another irony!"

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