Thursday 28 November 2013

Sicily: Cultural Exchange the Washington Way

US art-lovers, come to Europe, see the art in its context
As was pretty easy to predict, Hugh Eakin's NYT article about Sicily ("Citing Inequity, Sicily Bans Loans of 23 Artworks" New York Times, November 26, 2013) was followed by the usual snideness from the antiquitists' lobbyists. Peter Tompa's Amerocentric text "More Evidence MOU with Italy is a Fraud " was a foregone conclusion:
 I heard it for myself at CPAC hearings concerning the MOU with Italy. Here was the deal as spun by the allies of the Italian Cultural Bureaucracy and the State Department Cultural Heritage Center in the Archaeological Institute of America and related groups: American collectors and museums would no longer be able to import unprovenanced artifacts. In return, the Italian Cultural Bureaucracy would allow long term loans of artifacts to American museums. But what is the reality?
No, this is not about "provenance", but about documenting export. It also only refers to fresh imports of specific types of artefacts, not collecting artefacts in general. I find it odd that the lobbyist considers that the US is doing what they (everybody except a minority of diehard self-interested collectors and dealers of course) think is right only "in return for" something. Why not doing right because it's the right thing to do?  Shock, horror:
now, even this "cultural exchange" is in jeopardy as Sicily has decided to ban loans of important pieces from its own museums [...] this turn of events again shows the MOU with Italy is a fraud. It is surely time for it to be scrapped.
Wow, eh? So the US antiquities market doing the right thing (abiding by the LAW) is its contribution to "cultural Exchange"? Let us note that one province with cultural policy autonomy (as each state has in the US)  has placed restrictions on just 23 of the island’s most important artworks (includes paintings by Caravaggio and Antonello da Messina) and suddenly the the balance of so-conceived US "cultural exchange" with the whole of Italy is in some way compromised? How many tens of thousands of items of Sicilian cultural  property are not on that list-of-23? How many exhibitions of various aspects of Sicilian/Southern Italian/ Western Mediterranean [...], European, Roman, Greek, Bronze Age, Early Medieval etc. etc. etc. art and culture can one put on by borrowing items not on that list?

It seems to me that this reaction is a reflection of dumb-down US celebrity culture. The only works of art that "matter" to the gawpers is the ones with a name everyone recognizes. No minor Mannerist artist whose works are in a Sicilian collection will do, nothing to boast about seeing at the next coffee morning there, it seems from what is being said here that only "Caravaggio" counts for US gawpers. For Mr Tompa and his ilk, restricting the movement of just 23 articles totally removes any possibility of ever having a meaningful exhibition outside Sicily. It means that in order to see the 23 celebrity items, the American gawper will have to get up off his fat bottom and get over to Yurope. Like they would if they want to see Palermo Cathedral, any of the Sicilian Baroque churches, the Late Baroque towns of the Val di Noto, Mount Etna, the Valle dei Templi, Villa del Casale (Piazza Armerina) and its mosaics or Syracuse.

Let us note that the question of loans cannot be treated in such a one-sided manner as the US collectors seem to see it, it is not restricting smuggling by US customs that should be the motivation to such loans (that's what the US customs should be doing anyway, it's their job). Sicily has explicitly stated that their decision to keep 23 selected 'national treasures' at home is in part the result of the perception that:
loans to foreign museums “have not produced benefits” for Sicily and have not occurred under “conditions of reciprocity with the borrowing institutions, which often offer in exchange works of inferior cultural value and renown. 
So when will the US be loaning Sicily some of those fantastic canvasses and panel paintings, limewood sculptures crafted in the US by sixteenth and seventeenth centuries for the churches, castles and monasteries of the new colonies? All that amazing Renaissance, Mannerist and Baroque art made over the other side of the Atlantic, shown to European audiences in exchange for the sending of European masterpieces over on loan to the US. What was the name of those celebrity artists of the colonies again? Reciprocity Mr Tompa. Or if you cannot manage that, then if you want to see other people's stuff without going to the trouble of shuffling along to the airport, what about saying "please" very nicely instead of trying once again to dictate terms to the rest of us? 


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