Considerations and Solutions
Considering both the benefits of expropriating art─increased access, education, and preservation─and the dangers of expropriating art─unethical means of acquisition and the negative impacts of cultural loss─there is no obvious response to the question: is expropriating an ethical or unethical practice? I believe that the process can be ethical, following specific guidelines. Ultimately the strongest arguments for and against expropriating art are both the name of preservation. One aims to preserve the physical piece of art itself while the other seeks to preserve its cultural integrity and context. In many respects, art is designed to preserve something, be it an emotion, thought, tradition, or idea. If the function of art is primarily to communicate and preserve an emotion or idea etc., then preserving the piece of art itself has to be the greatest factor in deciding the morality of expropriating art. The physical preservation of the art is necessary for the cultural preservation of the art, thus placing greater importance to expropriating art in order to conserve it. However, once the art’s physical existence is no longer threatened, the importance of its preservation shifts to that of the art’s culture and context. Applying this argument to international conflicts is challenging yet necessary in order to maintain ethical treatment of nations and to strengthen international relations.
I suggest that nations be justified in the expropriation of art only during situations in which the existence of the art in question is threatened. Once the nation of origin is fully equipped and stable to provide and care for its art, then, regardless of time past, the nation that removed the art is responsible for the art’s safe return. In reparation, the nation of origin would seek to compensate the other nation for the protection of its art. From an ethical standpoint, all other reasons for expropriating art are not worth the harms and negative impacts that result from expropriation. These reasons for expropriation should not continue to justify the act.
In their wake, there are other solutions. As in the case of expropriating art for the sake of spreading new ideas and educating, working towards a system of sharing among all nations─not just those select few wealthy countries who currently share artworks─would bring about the benefits of having foreign art but by ethical means and with the assistance and approval of the nations of origin. This is an idealistic hope for global politics and relations; thus, perhaps a less lofty solution could involve digital technologies. With rapidly evolving technologies comes great potential to continue to, inspire, educate, and share ideas without removing art from its rightful context. For example, virtual reality technology such as the Oculus Rift are digital constructions of spaces that allow for interaction within the confines of a different physical context. Such technologies could provide museum visitors the opportunities to explore other areas of the world and interact with its art remotely, thus increasing accessibility to spaces, ideas, and culture in ways that a website could not. Likewise, 3D printing has become more advanced and suddenly rather integrated into the artworld. This new, highly precise digital tool could change the nature of increasing access to art, as well as alleviate conflicts over expropriated art. Such work is already underway; artists Nora Al-Badri and Jan Nikolai Nelles scanned the famous Egyptian Bust of Nefertiti and then were able to recreate the most detailed, exact replica of the bust using 3D printing. The 3,330-year-old bust is a highly contested piece that has caused conflict between Germany, the current “owner” of the bust, and Egypt, the country from which the bust originally came. Despite the fact that the piece was discovered by German archaeologists in 1912 and removed from Egypt, the bust has become a symbol of national pride for Germany as it sits in the Neues Museum (Voon, para 1). Al-Badri and Nelles did not just create an exact replica, they also released the information from the scan and made it available to anyone with a 3D printer. Now with over 1,000 downloads of the data and the remarkable copy sitting in Cairo, Germany’s symbol of pride is receiving far more attention than it anticipated. The artists scanned and created the 3D print as an act of protesting the current state of the artworld regarding foreign art. They dislike how colonialism lives on through the prevalence of foreign art being so often found and kept in Western museums rather than in original contexts. Furthermore, they, too, note the loss of cultural context and misunderstanding as harmful to the artworld stating that “...the Neues Museum’s method of displaying the bust, which apparently does not provide viewers with any context of how it arrived at the museum...[creates] a new history tantamount to fiction, they believe,” (Voon, para 7). Logically, one might argue that with such a good replica made, Germany ought to return the original bust to Egypt and accept the copy in its place. In fact, this is exactly what Al-Badri and Nelles hope happens. “Ultimately, the artists hope their actions will place pressure on not only the Neues Museum but on all museums to repatriate objects to the communities and nations from which they came,” (Voon, para 8). I concur. With such astounding advances, digital technologies could serve as an excellent means of resolving international disputes, spreading artistic and cultural ideas, inspiring viewers, and educating citizens. In conclusion, though there are many benefits to expropriating art, the only benefit that is ethical and necessary is the preservation and protection of art from threatening conditions. However, the removal of the art should be seen as a temporary solution, provided only until the art’s original context can care for the art again. Furthermore, all other benefits of removing art from its nation of origin to another nation are still attainable through other means such as a better international system of sharing art as well as advancements in digital technologies.