Home > The Benefits of Expropriating Art

The Benefits of Expropriating Art

There are several arguments that support the long upheld tradition of certain nations having other nations’ art. In broad terms, access to new ideas and cultures through art leads to a plethora of benefits and advancements. Seeking out foreign art has been a cherished practice that has, in fact, recently been furthered. On May 6, 2014, the House of Representatives passed the Foreign Cultural Exchange Jurisdictional Immunity Clarification Act. “This change will make it easier for U.S. museums and educational institutions to borrow works of art and other objects from abroad, increasing Americans’ opportunities for cultural and educational development,” (Breeding, par 5). The act received overwhelming support with 388 of the 392 votes. Access to other nations’ art, according to House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte and his colleagues, will lead to significant benefits for Americans. “...[the act] increases access to foreign art in the United States and fosters a culture of learning and creativity. This legislation will make foreign artwork and artifacts more accessible to the public to view, study and appreciate in American schools and museums,” (Breeding, par 4). Thus, as lawmakers have affirmed, access to foreign art enhances cultural appreciation and educational development.

One of the earliest examples of foreign art serving an educational purpose as well as simply a display of art made accessible is the Louvre in Paris. What began as a fortress in the early thirteenth century was altered into a palace, most notably for Francis I. Under Francis I and his son Henri II, the palace underwent reconstruction and new design (Edwards, 195). However, the first emphasis of art came from Henri II’s wife, the powerful Catherine de Medici. Catherine had paintings and drawings placed in what was soon to be known as the apartments of the queen (Edwards, 195-196). Such works were often depictions of the royal family and other nobility. The next installation of art was considered to be the Apollo Gallery to be decorated by a favored painter by King Louis XIV (Edwards 198). However, public access to these art installations did not begin until the dawning of the French Revolution in 1789; the doors opened to the public on August 10th, 1793, displaying its works, consisting mainly of royal portraits and taken church art (Alexander, 24). The nature of artworks quickly changed, and so, too, did the popularity and nature of the Louvre with the success of Napoleon Bonaparte’s conquests. In 1797, Napoleon forced conquered Italian cities, including the Vatican, to sign the Treaty of Tolentino. Under this treaty, France acquired exceptional works of art from Italy to be paraded through Paris and eventually placed in the Louvre, shortly after renamed the Musée Napoléon. The Egyptian Campaign of 1798 to 1801 was another conquest resulting in a large procurement of Egyptian art and artifacts, including the famous Rosetta Stone (Alexander, 27). The Louvre Museum, founded in 1793, illustrates the revolutionary thrust of the museum as institution: its initial purpose was to exhibit the spoils wrested from the aristocracy by the Revolution. Art, heretofore the plaything of noblemen, high clerics, and princes, suddenly became the official property of the nation (Maleuvre, 10). Public access to these foreign acquisitions was not the only benefit of the newly improved Louvre Museum. Art students flocked to the halls to study masterpieces and imitate novel artistic styles. In fact, priority was given to art students. “In the décade, the ten-day period that had replaced the week, the museum reserved five days for artists and copyists, two for cleaning, and three for the general public,” (Alexander, 24). According to Napoleon, the spoils in the Louvre were there to bring national glory to France and educate its people and artists; it did just that for many years. As the history of the Louvre Museum demonstrates, public access and educational development are immensely important aspects of a museum’s foreign art collection. Though now traveling across oceans and borders is far easier than it was during Napoleon’s days, the average person does not tend to have the means to travel to other countries for the sake of experiencing their art. A young Parisian art student likely had never seen Egyptian hieroglyphs before their installation in the Louvre at the end of the 18th century. Such encounters often lead to different and exciting inspirations for artists. For example, the famous Pablo Picasso heralded in the new concept of Cubism after witnessing a display of African art and artifacts. Due to a French conquest in Africa, Paris came to possess a collection of African masks and other artworks. Though many sneered at such “primitive” art, Picasso was gripped by the shape, exaggeration, and originality of the pieces. Picasso soon after underwent his African period in the early 1900s during which cubism began to take shape through paintings like Les Demoiselles d'Avignon (Picasso..., para 1-9). Foreign art inspired an immensely important art movement. Multicultural artistic exposure and education continues to be important and promoted in art schools. Art educators Christine Ballengee-Morris and Patricia L. Stuhr assert in their article in the journal Art Education that a diverse curriculum for art students enhances creativity, understanding, and critical thinking, all of which are regarded as goals for any education. We believe the purpose of multicultural school reform is to help students identify and deal with cultural complexity...Culture confines our possibilities for understanding and action. This is one reason it is so important to learn about the culture and values of others. In this way we see broader possibilities for ways of thinking... (Ballengee-Morris & Stuhr, 7). Therefore, central museums in major cities with foreign art collections bring different artistic styles and ideas steeped in other cultures to a wider audience as well as clear paths for inspiration and innovation in the art world.

A second justification for certain nations to have art from other nations is in the name of preservation. War and economic downfall create destruction and decay as appreciation and attention to art is often replaced with mere survival. Through centuries of difficult times, nations have not always been able to protect and maintain its art and artifacts. Likely the most famous case of art removal for the sake of its preservation is the that of the Parthenon sculptures held in the British Museum. Often referred to as the Elgin Marbles, Britain obtained the pieces of the Parthenon from Greece after Earl of Elgin Thomas Bruce removed them in 1812 (Editors of..., para 5). Since then an extensive series of explanations and defenses for Elgin’s act have emerged. Elgin originally went to Athens in 1801 bearing an interest in Greek art and a deep concern for the safety and well-being of the sculptures and art in the Parthenon. His concern was certainly warranted. The Parthenon had endured an unfortunate history beginning with bombardment that destroyed large sections of the building as it had been the site for munition storage during the Ottoman Rule. The Ottoman Empire had control of Greece for over 500 years. Greece did not gain its freedom until the success of the Greek War of Independence in 1821 (“Ottoman Greece”, para 18). When Elgin arrived to Athens in 1801 he asked permission of the Ottomans to take mold casts and sketches of the statues and sculptures still intact on the Parthenon. Though the original is lost, an Italian translation of a document stated that the Ottomans gave Elgin permission to do as he asked, as well as “to take away any pieces of stone with old inscriptions or figures thereon” during his excavation (Editors of Encyclopedia Britannica, para 2). Though this line is hotly debated as to whether or not this explicitly granted Elgin permission to remove the entire statues themselves, Elgin nonetheless did so and was found just when he was later brought to court over this issue. From 1801 to 1812, Elgin and his team casted, sketched, and then removed numerous friezes and sculptures. When Elgin and the marbles arrived in Britain, Elgin sold them to the British Museum for 35,000 euro, half the amount he personally spent to transport them (Editors of Encyclopedia Britannica, para 5). Since then the marbles have been housed in the British Museum, now complete with their own space, the Duveen Gallery. The British Museum and government have both argued that for years they have protected the statues from further extensive damage and potential destruction as Greece continued to be war-torn and dangerous for the pieces. However, after Greece gained independence, built the new Acropolis Museum, and began repairing the Parthenon, the country asked Britain to return the sculptures so that they may be added to the rest of the collection housed in the Acropolis Museum, and be restored to their true cultural context and heritage. Britain has refused, sparking a heated debate between the two nations. Though the controversy potentially shines an unfavorable light upon Britain and its current decisions, the initial action of Elgin is the that which is most relevant to justify the removal of art and artifacts from other nations. As Britain has claimed, the safety of the Parthenon sculptures was in jeopardy and their removal ensured their immediate preservation. Had Elgin not removed them, these sculptures─manifestations of some of the finest ancient Greek sculpting─could have been lost. Therefore, if art must be removed from its country and culture in order to ensure its survival, acts like Elgin’s certainly seem justifiable. Though the British Museum’s justification for having the Parthenon statues in the name of preservation is centered around an act that took place over 2000 years ago, this practice is far from unique to Britain. As aforementioned, Napoleon took many works as spoils from his conquests; but he did not just have the pieces kept in the Louvre. He also ensured that they were cared for and restored. The French say with some justice that many of these works by being sent to the Louvre were saved from destruction. Many of them, too, though falling into decay, were restored with the greatest care; and some were transferred with success from worm-eaten panels to canvas, thus receiving new brilliancy and a new life (Edwards, 203).

Art removal in the name of preservation continues to be relevant today as just last year the terrorist group ISIS has destroyed ancient statues and other historical art in various locations throughout the Middle east. Most recently, the group recorded a video of members taking sledge hammers to antiquities dating back to the seventh century B.C. in the Mosul Museum and at the Negral Gate (Hartmann, para 11-12). The group continues to reign with terror as videos show ancient temples, shrines, mosques, mausoleums, and museums falling from explosives or sledge hammers. There are response efforts in the works attempting to catalog, document, and ultimately preserve precious pieces before they, too, become artistic victims. Named after a similar group during World War II, Syria has a small band of Monument Men consisting of academics and scholars working quickly and quietly to find, and hopefully send ancient pieces to other safe locations in order to preserve them (Parkinson et al. para 33-42). The pieces ISIS does not destroy are sold on the black market to support their efforts. “Last year, an Iraqi intelligence official claimed the Islamic State had made as much as $36 million from looting a single area around al-Nabek...,” (Parkison et al. para 19). The group is encouraging locals to loot the destroyed sites; as a result, the black market for ancient antiquities in this region has skyrocketed. In fact, a scandal surrounding the founding family of the popular American store Hobby Lobby is facing serious allegations of possessing illegal Mesopotamian cuneiform tablets. Being that these tablets’ origins are in the same region as ISIS’s path of destruction and looting, there is a strong likelihood that the tablets are one of many artifacts sold by ISIS or looters (Ghorashi, para 2). The Green family is not the only one obtaining art and artifacts from Syria and surrounding areas being affected by ISIS. “In the U.S. alone, government data show the value of declared antiques imported from Syria jumped 134% in 2013 to $11 million. U.S. officials estimate the value of undeclared pieces is many multiples higher,” (Parkinson et al. para 13). Certainly there is a tragedy in the fact that so much of Syria’s culture and history embedded in art is leaving its land of origin for places like the United States. However, by having pieces sold, smuggled, and disseminated to other locations the artifacts are in fact being moved out of harm’s way. As aforementioned, the process of removing art and artifacts to other safe locations in order to preserve them is a historical practice that has been used for years to justify why places like France and Britain have Syrian winged bull statues, like those at the Negral Gate, or sculptures from the Parthenon. These nations argue─as will the countries that are currently obtaining Syrian antiques─that surely their possession of these pieces have preserved them, and that their preservation is more important than cultural ownership or context.