The Consequences of Expropriating Art
Though access, education, inspiration, and preservation are all strong justifications for the act of removing art from nations and placing it in others, there are certainly drawbacks to this process. Expropriating art can prove harmful to the art, the art’s patria, and even international relations. First and foremost, the means of acquiring foreign art are often questionable and raise moral concern. For example, art looting during wartime is one of the oldest and most consistently used means of expropriating art. "The history of cultural looting dates back to the Roman Empire in 400 B.C. The Romans did not display their loot for its artistic value, but rather to demonstrate the prowess of their own victories," (Myerowitz, 1962). As aforementioned, Napoleon is accredited with making the Louvre Museum an amazing spectacle of art from all over the world. However, his means of doing so were not as amazing. His conquests would conclude with a surrendered city and free rein to take treasured artworks, including pieces from the Vatican. For years Napoleon would use war and violence to loot precious art and assert dominance and power. Expropriating art hardly seems ethical when such means are employed to remove it (Myerowitz, 1962). Napoleon was not the only conqueror who used war and power to take from those unable to defend themselves and their possessions. During World War II the Nazis infamously took art from Jews, as well as took other antiques or cultural works from nations Hitler conquered, such as Russia. "As Hitler slowly cleared out any art he found offensive, he started collecting works that satisfied his artistic tastes. Hitler's seizure of art escalated as his power increased," (Myerowitz, 1988). Hitler’s taking of art was as strategic and deliberate as his military acts, ordering art experts to obtain any and all works considered worthy by Hitler’s standards. “These experts were to acquire works through mass acquisitions and seizure of paintings from public and private collections in the occupied countries such as France and the Netherlands. In these countries, they not only forcefully ‘bought’ art, but they also had works previously held by Jewish art collectors at their disposal," (Falconer, 395). The aftermath of World War II has revealed Nazi-looted art scattered throughout Europe. Ongoing efforts continue to return the misplaced art, but there are no truly legally-binding agreements to enforce returning the art. One effort was recently brought to light in the 2015 movie The Woman in Gold. The filmis based upon a true story of Maria Altman, a Jewish woman who brought the Austrian government to court over its possession of her family’s exquisite painting by Gustav Klimt. Nazis looted her home and stole the painting. After the war, the painting became the property of the Austrian government and was placed in one of its art museums. However, Maria Altman had true ownership rights and eventually won those rights back after an extensive legal battle with the government (Panther & Manger, para 6-15). Her family’s experience is not unique, though her winning of the rights to the painting back certainly is. Not only is removing art through force during war unethical, the practice can also cause physical damage to artworks. Napoleon and Nazis alike would take pieces out of their intended, safe environments like churches, homes, and museums, and transport them across miles of terrain or stored them in secret caches. From a purely practical standpoint, expropriating art through war can be extremely dangerous and damaging to art. Though using military might to directly take art has happened for centuries, recent articles are revealing the indirect effects war has on art, and how it still manages to be displaced during times of war even if the invading nation never officially seeks to expropriate art. For example, the United States invasion of Iraq in 2003 wreaked havoc on Iraqi people and art alike. Where are these tablets [ancient priceless artifacts predating the Iliad] now? Nobody knows. They are just some of the thousands of artifacts stolen or destroyed in April 2003 during the widespread looting and destruction following the invasion of Iraq. In the months following the military offensive, U.S. and Iraqi investigators began to find priceless pieces of art turning up in the most peculiar places (Miller, 49-50). As areas were destroyed from invading forces and security was greatly weakened, art looting became extremely easy and common in Iraq. Moreover, structures housing precious pieces were damaged. A precious, ancient vase was recently discovered shattered into 14 fragments in a man’s car (Miller, 50). “...Iraqi police and U.S. soldiers discovered the 5,500 pound marble Warka sculpture. Experts value the sculpture at thirty million dollars and it represents the most valuable possession of the Iraqi National Museum stolen during the mass looting. Police located the sculpture, which depicts a female head, under a few feet of soil in a private orchard outside of Baghdad,” (Miller, 50). Even if a war is fought with no intentions of looting art, art expropriation inevitably happens, and often irreparable damage to the art therefore. Despite former President Bush declaring the Iraq War as a means of ending terrorism, the war still lead to removing art. “Over 10,000 artifacts remain missing from museums, galleries, and excavation sites in Iraq and many scholars believe that these objects may remain covertly protected in private collections forever,” (Miller, 51). Such scholars have strong evidence to support such beliefs. The Iraq War was said to have begun to combat terrorism, but it is not unlikely that the opportunity was also used to claim art. The United States is guilty of this practice after World War II. “The Gold Train was a hopeless effort by the Nazis to collect everything of value from Hungary before the Red Army arrived. The train was captured by U.S. troops in Austria in May 1945... the American authorities handed over much of the loot to Austria while at the same time American troops took a large amount of property as ‘war booty,’ ” (Falconer, 398-399). Less blatant looting also took place under the guise of protecting specific collections that the United States uncovered during the aftermath of the war. “...the governor supported temporary removal of the ‘most precious’ works to the United States. President Truman thus had approximately 200 of the most important German-owned works ‘temporarily’ removed to Washington,” (Falconer, 398). Thus the claim that the Iraq War and others like it intentionally involved art expropriation is not an impossible one. As previously discussed, if the artworks are under considerable threat where they are, as is often the case during times of war, then the argument to remove them from those circumstances to a better place does carry weight. In contrast, using military strength to take advantage of countries in weaker dispositions and expropriate art because one can and one wants to do so, whether blatantly or inadvertently, hardly seems justifiable.
A second argument against expropriating art from its nation of origin and into the hands of another is that the damage done to the nation of origin and its art in terms of its culture and cultural preservation. In many respects, art is considered an entity that possesses and often transmits ideas of specific cultures. According to anthropologist and “ethno-aesthetician” Richard Anderson, art is defined as " 'culturally significant meaning, skillfully encoded in an affecting, sensuous medium,' " (quoted in Freeland, 77). Though admittedly this is a very broad and vague definition, most would agree that cultural significance is inherent to art. How art and culture are bound can be attributed to a number of factors, one of which includes the intention of the artist. According to philosopher R.G. Collingwood, artists create as an act of expression or cognition, explained in Collingwood’s Expression Theory and Cognition Theory. Expression Theory dictates that artists create with the intention of expressing emotion or even undergoing a process of discovering and defining certain emotions that the artists have. Conversely, Cognition Theory describes artists creating art as a means of communicating ideas and thoughts (Collingwood, 160-168). In both cases, art can be used either to express emotions unique to a member of a given culture, i.e., the artist, or to share ideas and thoughts that may also be about the culture. This practice is common. Stone busts are carved to preserve the memory of members of a specific society, detailed paintings are painted to capture in time historical events of a culture, and objects like ornate pottery are crafted to transmit practices and ideals of a culture from one generation to the next. In many respects art is essential to cultural preservation and continuation. Before books, histories and traditions were transmitted orally, through stories, or physically, through art. Thus, taking art from a culture can leave a grave impact upon that culture. Art is often considered a treasure and vital piece of its culture and nation; removing it is essentially robbing a country of said culture, frame by frame. Removing art does not just harm its native culture, the act also harms the art itself. A loss of cultural context can cause misunderstanding, misrepresentation, cultural appropriation, and even a lack of appreciation or devaluing of the now “foreign” art. "Like tropical fruits plucked from their trees and transported to temperate zones, artworks can still be enjoyed, but they have lost the savor and freshness they had in their original habitat. All that remains is the works unconnected form and the archival knowledge that seeks to imagine its former circumstances" (Maleuvre, 25). As Collingwood states, the intention of the artist is often either to express emotion or share ideas, both of which are vital aspects of culture. Remove the artwork from its cultural context and the intention, steeped in its own unique culture, is lost. Foreigners are far less likely to be able to understand the ideas and significance of the work so inextricably bound to its culture. According to philosopher John Dewey, art is like a window into another culture (Freeland, 63). Unlike other critics and philosophers, “He did not define art as Beauty or Form, but said instead that it is ‘the expression of the life of a community,’ ” (quoted in Freeland, 64). Cynthia Freeland, author of But is it Art?, describes her experience with African nkisi fetish statues in a museum. She states that initially the statues appear frightening and fierce. She later learns that their intended purpose is to settle disagreements amongst villagers in the Congo region. Without this knowledge, she says, the statues’ social meaning would be lost on her (Freeland, 65). Culture context is essential to the artwork and impossible to fully recreate in a foreign museum. “When Westerners collect non-Western art or view it in a museum, we probably miss much of its original context. And ignoring the context can lead to cultural appropriation─collecting work from ‘exotic’ cultures like trophies,” (Freeland, 67). Even removing beautiful altarpieces from churches and hanging them on museum walls is destructive both to the church and the artwork. The artwork’s context is essential to its being, and its function. "By wrenching artifacts out of their original contexts, the museum deprives them of their cultural lifeblood. Once removed from its environment in the church, the temple, or the agora, the statue is neutralized, washed of its cultural, political, religious, spiritual functions," (Maleuvre, 15).
As discussed, the Elgin marbles are at the center of the global ethics of expropriating art debate. Elgin preserved and likely these pieces when he brought them to Britain. However, they are on display in a sterile gallery with monochrome walls and a sense of odd displacement. The room is so large compared to the fragments of marble statues on pedestals. The statues slope, beginning with a smaller, shorter statue and gradually continuing in a succession of progressively larger, taller statues. They are crafted and arranged this way because the Parthenon’s face has gently sloping sides at the top. In other words, these statues were built very specifically for that space and context. In the British Museum they appear isolated, and admittedly, uncomfortable. The loss of their cultural context is evident. Now that Greece has a modern museum, the New Acropolis Museum, built with a room to match the exact dimensions of the Parthenon as well as detailed walls to emulate the temple, Britain’s original claim to preserve the pieces evaporates, and in its wake lies the argument for the return of the pieces to a fully equipped Greece. Though the British government still will not work to resolve this matter despite Greece’s ongoing requests for the statues since 1832, the British citizens themselves think the statues ought to be returned to Athens. “...An Ipsos-Mori poll found 69 per cent of those familiar with the issue were in favour [sic.] of returning the sculptures, compared to just 13 per cent against,” (Johnston, para 14). Now that Greece can maintain care of the marbles, the loss of cultural context that has harmed both the marbles and Greece itself becomes a strong argument. Perhaps attorney to the Guggenheim Museum Elissa Myerowitz summarizes best the issue at hand with harming art and its patria through a loss of culture: Cultural property is unique in that once cultural property is destroyed or stolen it cannot be replaced. Cultural property is important because it offers scholars unique insight into the minds of the people and the nations who created the cultural objects. Furthermore, protecting these original cultural objects assists historians in understanding the past. Beyond these intellectual and educational reasons, cultural property enhances a country's sense of its present and future. For some people, cultural property can be a remind of the creativity past, or a symbol of quality, while for others it serves as an inspiration to create new cultural objects," (Myerowitz, 1967-1968). Overall, removing art from its original cultural context does have negative impacts and should be greatly considered in the analysis of how ethical art expropriation is.
Lastly, the ways in which art pieces are displayed have the ability to drastically affect the audience. According to Timothy Luke, author of Museum Politics: ...exhibitions formalize norms of how to see without being seen insamuch as the curators pose as unseen seers, and then fuse their vision with authority. In the organization of their exhibitions’ spaces, the enscription [sic.] of any show’s textual interpretations, and the coordination of an exhibit’s aesthetic performances, curators are acting as normative agents, directing people what to see, think, and value. Museums become culture-writing formations, using their acts and artifacts to create conventional understandings that are made manifest or left latent in any visitor’s/viewer’s personal encounters with the museum’s normative performances (Luke, 3). As Luke states, textual interpretations, arrangements, labels and titles, lighting, and general presentation all affect how the object on display is viewed, understood, and valued. According to Amy Cunningham, current director for community programs for the Vermont Humanities Council and former curator to the Montpelier History Museum, the process of arranging exhibits is an arduous task. Dr. Cunningham was given bare rooms and the task of turning them into a museum using the artifacts the institution provided. She shared that the process involved considering every aspect of how a certain arrangement would speak nonverbally of the pieces. In some ways she was in charge of writing history in a very specific way, one that could easily be manipulated with certain display techniques. "Which pictures are mobilized, how they are displayed, where they are situated, and why they are chosen all constitute a persuasive rhetorical scene...," (Luke, 14). The challenge to display art and artifacts correctly is one that affects even the world’s most-visited museums, such as the British Museum. To demonstrate the potentially impact upon expropriated art through mere display, I will describe and then compare the techniques used in the British Museum with the Quai Branly Museum in Paris, France. Both museums have impressive permanent collections of pieces from all over Africa. Beginning with the British Museum, the African art exhibit is in the basement with dim lighting. There are roughly three rooms, moving from modern art pieces to ancient ones, left to right. The glasses cases containing sculptures, masks, pottery, and textiles are sometimes rather cluttered while others are large and sparse. Some permit a 360* view while most are against the walls, allowing for predominantly one angle at which the items can be viewed. The labels tend to be descriptive; likewise, large accompanying texts have titles like “Magic, Ritual, and Religion.” Some pieces rest on shelves while others hang suspended in their glass cases, the most alarming of which are several sculptures depicting people who now look like they are being hanged. As mentioned, the lighting was dim; much of the light provided on the works themselves is sourced from lights at the bottom of the cases, creating strange shadows, especially on any pieces with faces. The Quai Branly Museum has a different approach. The building is fluid with very few actual walled rooms. There are big open spaces that twist and turn subtly with the cases or open pieces─quite a few pieces are not in cases. The lighting is dim in some areas and bright in others with natural light from large windows. Most display cases contain only one object and allow for a 360* view. There are simple labels such as “Wooden Mask” or “Bronze Sculpture” with no interpretations as to what purpose or role the pieces may have had. The experience was, in general, quite different, and I was not able to articulate why at first. After several weeks of contemplation, I realized that the way in which I as a viewer interacted with the pieces in the Quai Branly felt less like observing foreign objects on display and more like a chance to walk among remnants of other people’s lives and encounter different cultures with nothing but the objects to speak. My impressions of the two museums resonate with the previously mentioned words of Timothy Lake; curators can say a great deal with accompanying texts and specific arrangements. These texts and arrangements have strong influences on viewers and can even alter viewers’ perspectives to match those of the curators. “Over the course of history, artworks have provided valuable sites for representing many ideals of such individual and collective subjectivity. Putting such systems of acculturation out at public museum sites may push and pull individual members of their audiences to impersonate the values assigned to their images," (Luke, 13). The British Museum appears to give a very Western perspective on African art, or at least, Western interpretations with its provocative plaques next to cases of bottom-lit masks that cast eerie shadows and create a scary aesthetic that in some sense seem to undermine the artistic skill and value. On the other hand, the Quai Branly makes no attempts at stating the cultural functions of the pieces with their simple labels and tasteful and artistic arrangements that make the pieces seem less like foreign objects on display and more like just art. In fact, the museum appears to un-“exoticize” the art and instead humanize it, therefore displaying its artistic value. Though I cannot and would not claim that my experience somehow reveals the true nature of the British Museum’s and the Quai Branly’s curations, I will say that the experience certainly speaks to the significance of display methods. How art is displayed affects how art is perceived and interpreted; hence, removal of art can cause damage in purpose and value to art with the altering of its context and the new context imposed upon it. The two museums have very similar exhibits in terms of types of works in their collections, yet the depictions of the pieces and subsequent impressions and “take-away” information are, in my experience, quite different. While it is hardly fair to expect art museums to display foreign pieces in a way that perfectly conveys the artistic functions or meanings or cultural significance, appropriate display that at least acknowledges a lack of knowledge and therefore no attempt to impose such ideas upon the works is essential. Otherwise nations cause great injustice to the art and art’s culture and can easily misinform audiences. Thus, expropriating art and displaying it in another country can greatly harm the integrity of the work and misrepresent entire cultures if not done so properly.