Saturday, 28 November 2015

"Who owns art" turned into "Safe harbor" debate

The dealer and collectors' hackneyed argument "who owns art (anyway)?" began losing steam when faced with the rightful riposte that its not so much about "whether" to collect, but "how", it's not about ownership but standards and best practice. As a result they've drifted away from that, and redirected attention by depicting what they do as some form of "opposition" to a partly mythologised Hostile Other ("who threatens the values we all hold dear"). In other words they are attempting to garner support for extremist views by scapegoatism.

Thus we have seen the emergence of the "Safe harbor" trope in recent years. This has gone on alongside the "ISIL makes money by looting sites" trope (which in itself is the same kind of rhetorical and social engineering tactic which can be suggested to have its origins in the group of academics and activists gathered around the US Department of State). Dealers and collectors are currently being vilified (quite justifiably in my opinion) for failing to adapt to the changing circumstances in which the market finds itself by demanding and producing documentation verifying licit provenance (collecting histories) of the objects they handle.  Instead of responsibly buckling down to find ways of doing this and establish new standards of best practice in the industry, they strike out on a tangent. Employing a Two Wrongs argument has always been their main escape  and here it is too. For a long time collectors have claimed that by hoiking artefacts out of their archaeological context or removing them from a monument, they are "saving art" ("saving art for everybody by putting it in my private collection"). Unwilling to think up more sophisticated excuses, this is the one they are going with in the industry's 'ISIS-Crisis'.  Suddenly they start presenting the whole heritage debate in terms of "Syria" (but rarely post-2003 Iraq) and "the fight against ISIL" (as if ISIL was the only foreign group of militants anyone ever need to 'think' about).

Their argument goes like this:
"ISIL destroy monuments" they say (linking to no end of shocking ISIL propaganda videos showing them doing precisely that).
"This art is extremely important, the most important thing in this whole conflict", they say (falling haplessly into the very trap the provocation has set up for them).
"This uncivilised behaviour must STOP"  they say (showing they share the same values as the rest of us)
"We must bring everything we can carry off to our country where it is safe" they say (assuming their country will never become in any way a threat - the Paris seven attacked a theatre and restaurants, they could have done the same in a museum),
"regardless of how we get our hands on the art, the art is more important than anything else, it is OUR heritage and we wants it", they say.

First of all, Syria, Iraq and other regions of the MENA area are conflict zones, when Europe was last a conflict zone in the lifetime of our parents (and sadly for some in southern and eastern Europe the lifetime of our generation too), cultural heritage was damaged. Some artefacts did get evacuated to the US - and in some cases like the Hungarian Royal Crown, it took the Americans a long time to give it back after the War ended (I have discussed other removals of items from Europe in 1945 by the US, both state-sponsored and private, elsewhere in this blog. Russia likewise has stuff "evacuated" from the front line in 1944/45 which still has not come back). Obviously, despite the existence f international conventions and what we all would want to be otherwise, destruction of monuments and heritage (and much else besides) is what happens in any social conflict. Unfortunately there are inevitably those who see the breakdown of the old order in such situations as an opportunity to take things which would otherwise be unavailable. They take them for themselves - or more often than not for sale.

While we can all agree that the destruction of heritage must be prevented and halted, gathering up the loose bits and taking them out of the country as trophies to an imagined philanthropism (which in reality is masking greed) is quite obviously not the way this can be achieved. In particular this is not the case when the introduction of these desired things onto the market is potentially doing its part to perpetuate the conflict (it is not enough to attempt to dismiss the issue on the grounds that there is contention in the shadowyness of the antiquities market about the scale at which the latter is the case).

There are a huge number of issues that need to be debated around the simplistic gung-ho "America (or France) Saves the World's Art" argument. This is especially the case when it primarily comes to the public domain when used merely as a deflecting tactic by the dealers' lobbyists (see what Peter Tompa and the ADCAEA are up to) and big-colonial-museums-must-have-more-stuff brigade (James Cuno is the poster-boy). We need to examine very closely the motivations of those who support such schemes, and - in particular - look at the effects on the citizens of the source countries.

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