Art for the Nation State's Sake

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Does it make any sense for the modern government of Peru to demand the return of Incan artifacts? The director of the Art Institute of Chicago doesn't think so:

Government serves the interest of those in power. Once in power, with control over territory, governments breed loyalty among their citizens, often by promoting a particular identity and history. National culture – language and religion, patterns of behavior, dress and artistic production – is at once the means and manifestation of such beliefs, identity and loyalty, and serves to reinforce governments in power.

Governments can use antiquities – artifacts of cultures no longer extant and in every way different from the culture of the modern nation – to serve the government's purpose. They attach identity with an extinct culture that only happened to have shared more or less the same stretch of the earth's geography. The reason behind such claims is power.

At the core of my argument against nationalist retentionist cultural property laws – those calling for the retention of cultural property within the jurisdiction of the nation state – is their basis in nationalist-identity politics and implications for inhibiting our regard for the rich diversity of the world's culture as common legacy. They conspire against our appreciation of the nature of culture as an overlapping, dynamic force for uniting rather than dividing humankind. They reinforce the dangerous tendency to divide the world into irreconcilable sectarian or tribal entities.

The whole thing is well worth reading, as is Steven Vincent's 2005 reason story on cultural patrimony and the international antiquities trade. 

 

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  1. At the core of my argument against nationalist retentionist cultural property laws – those calling for the retention of cultural property within the jurisdiction of the nation state – is their basis in nationalist-identity politics and implications for inhibiting our regard for the rich diversity of the world’s culture as common legacy.

    The director is using power to create one such global nationalist-identity politic. The one he approves of. He is no different that the government of Peru.

  2. How is the Peruvian government asking for Incan artifacts “back” different than Incan descendants asking for Peruvian land “back”?

  3. Statute of limitations. Quit whining Peru.

  4. I want the land back that the government stole from my grandfather and flooded when they built that dam on the Republican River. And I do mean stolen, they paid him about 5 cents an acre for his land.

  5. Art Institute director James Cuno makes some good points about widespread cultural hysteria from “oppressed” peoples, but it’s also hard to get excited about the “rights” of massively endowed non-profits, who obessively squirrel away thousands and thousands of elegant tid-bits, to be “appreciated” by the leisured few. Perhaps art actually belongs out in the real world. Perhaps it was “better” for the giant statue of Buddha to be destroyed by the fanatics of the Taliban rather than being “protected” by Dr. Cuno. Didn’t Buddha have something to say about mutability of all things, even “great art”?

  6. The director of the Art Institute of Chicago

    How could this guy not be a complete asshole?

    The director is using power to create one such global nationalist-identity politic.

    Jay D wins.

  7. J sub D,

    I like my version better: Finders Keepers suckers! Damn Indian givers!

  8. I need to think about this a bit more, but this argument is just a little too self-serving for me.

    How about this:

    At the core of my argument against nationalist retentionist cultural property laws – those calling for the retention of cultural property within the jurisdiction of the nation state owner – is their basis in nationalist-identity capitalist politics and implications for inhibiting our regard for the rich diversity of the world’s culture goods as common legacy.

    Well, it’s not a perfect fit. It seems to me that the gist of his argument is that cultural property should be a common good in order to bring the world closer together. I’m not sure why that argument wouldn’t apply to almost any property. Maybe the director should stop being divisive and give half his salary to the Peruvians.

  9. Perhaps it would have been “better” for the Brits to “acquire” George Washington’s portrait from the White House in 1812, to enhance “the rich diversity of the world’s culture”.

  10. He is no different that the government of Peru.

    Except that the Art Institute actually owns the property in question.

    Saw this whole mentality at work when I visited Wuputki—big gaping empty spots in the display cases where antiquities had been once displayed with little notes that explained in PC-talk that we gave the stuff back to the local Indians, none of whom made the stuff and the jury is still out as to whether or not these folks are even descended from the Indians who DID make the stuff, and it is now gone and will never be seen again. But it was the right thing to do.

  11. Perhaps it would have been “better” for the Brits to “acquire” George Washington’s portrait from the White House in 1812, to enhance “the rich diversity of the world’s culture”.

    They would have if Dolley Madison hadn’t saved it, genius.

  12. On a purely pragmatic level, I don’t care if the Chicago Art Institute has the stuff. Obviously, neither private citizens or the Peruvian government had much interest in these antiquities or they would have been owned, archived, cataloged, stored, or otherwise cared for at the time instead of ending up in a museum in Chicago.

    Oh! It was stolen? How? By Whom? From whom?

    Musta been that got dam Indiana Jones.

  13. The whole thing is a bit like some Japanese guy showing up at my house, pointing to my son’s authentic Japanese WWII Samurai Swords and demanding to take them back to Japan because they once belonged to an unknown, fallen Japanese soldier and were (illegally) brought back to the US by a GI, who is now dead, who passed them down to his nephew, who died two years ago and bequeathed them to my son because Jake loves swords.

  14. If the “core of the argument” has to do with “inhibiting our regard for the rich diversity of the world’s culture as common legacy”, then doesn’t that make it relevant to ask: Precisely how much has Inca culture actually contributed to the “world’s culture as common legacy”? Which cultural traditions derive from the Incas?

  15. actually, TWC, there’s been quite a bit of a history of outright “yoinks!” style theft (complete with dust cloud and “waaah waaah” tuba) and more than some egg on curator faces when exploring the provenance of art pieces. and not just “this is a really old piece that was from your forefathers forefathers forefathers neighborhood, we think” but straight up theft theft.

    while this particular case doesn’t fit into there, remember that the antiquities arena has historically been the domain of scumbags.

  16. Which cultural traditions derive from the Incas?

    I am thinking “maize” as a food staple, perhaps.

  17. So corn subsidies are their fault? Human-sacrificing scumbags.

  18. TWC,

    On one level you are right. However, I might be interested if you or your son would be interested in a traditional show of etiquette over those swords. Challenge and answer? I believe the rightful owner of such swords is one who can hold them and survive in in the combat that would ensue. So a descendant, in the same tradition of the swords themselves, would have a claim via trail by battle. Would they not…traditionally that is. And it’s tradition that makes them so interesting, I think.

    Sorry, just being a smart ass.

    But really, why are folks so weak on property laws when it is a “weaker” country stating them?

    Actually, this is a good test of libertarian theory of property.

    If Peru stages a raid and takes back it’s inherited property that was, lets be honest, taken, stolen…however you want to call it, would folks here support it?

    And if one doesn’t support Peru, aren’t they saying…property smoperty, force and strength are the only recognizable claims on property?

    Or, power takes a back seat to property rights. (which of course it does, I just don’t know many liberts that admit it).

  19. Which cultural traditions derive from the Incas?

    Cavia porcellus?

  20. If Peru stages a raid and takes back it’s inherited property that was, lets be honest, taken, stolen…however you want to call it, would folks here support it?

    See my 12:13pm post. Anything the peruvians stole from us more than say 50 years ago, is theirs to keep. The British have possession of at least one US battle flag. Too bad for our side, it’s theirs now.

  21. Lawrence, why should a government be able to declare any object over a certain age found under the dirt in a certain geographical area it controls property of the state?

  22. TWC: Except that the Art Institute actually owns the property in question.

    But who owns the Art Institute of Chicago? I don’t know, but if the answer is something like the City of Chicago, that complicates things.

  23. Lawrence, I see your point. Would it count that I nearly cut my thumb off with one of those swords? 🙂 Not quite, but it was a really boneheaded move.

    The problem with Peru staging a raid is that the property doesn’t belong to Peru nor does it belong to any Peruvian national.

    If anyone has claim to ownership at all, it would be the person who made and owned the artifact and that person’s direct descendants.

    However, it isn’t possible for such ownership to be determined except through some vague communal assertion. IE, it belongs to the people of Peru. Or it belongs to this particular tribe that lives in present day Peru. Such claims are way to tenuous to be valid.

    Flip side, if the National Museum of Peru comes up short on displays one night and said artifact shows up at the Chicago Art Museum next year, well, then you got yourself a case for raiding the Art Museum. Except, it would probably be better to complain to the US government.

  24. And if one doesn’t support Peru, aren’t they saying…property smoperty, force and strength are the only recognizable claims on property?

    The concept of property carries with it the attribute of use. One way that can be stated is that something once unowned becomes your property because you were the first to mix your labor with it.

    So if an American archaeologist digs in an unowned, undeveloped plot of land somewhere in Peru in the somewhat past that no one else has any interest in and finds artifacts, he has the best property claim to them of anyone.

    If, on the other hand, the state of Peru demarcates a well-defined area, for good reason, as a site of cultural antiquity and sponsors or charters digs within it, then the state probably has the best claim — leaving aside, for the sake of argument, differences on legitimate state powers to own property.

    Blanket antiquity laws that cover all areas and all times past, present, or future are a gray area. Certainly, as others have noted, property rights also carry with them a statute of limitations that makes claims of antiquity theft in the distant past rather questionable.

  25. there’s been quite a bit of a history of outright “yoinks!” style theft (complete with dust cloud and “waaah waaah” tuba)

    funny stuff.

    dhex, your point is well founded, there is a dark side to all of this stuff. But I look at most of it more like salvage on the high seas, for which ownership is probably easier to trace than it is for antiquities. Or like finding a vein of silver in the Arizona desert and ending up with a town called Tombstone.

  26. Lawrence, why should a government be able to declare any object over a certain age found under the dirt in a certain geographical area it controls property of the state?

    Why should a museum be able to declare any object over a certain age found under the dirt in any geographical area property of “the world’s common legacy?”

  27. Jay D, Government ownership of the museum might complicate the issue. It would in the sense of my Wuputki example above where the NPS decided unilaterally to hand over government owned (ie taxpayer owned) irreplaceable artifacts to the local tribes based on a tenuous claim (hey, we’re Indians, we live here, Indians made these things 500 years ago, and they lived here, so they’re ours. Gimme).

  28. I’m trying to imagine the Liberty Bell sittin’ in some royal British museum and how I’d feel about that, but I don’t think how I feel about Britain is in any way comparable to the way the descendants of indigenous peoples must feel about their objects and the nations that colonized them.

    Also, I’d point out that these kinds of artifacts are used by various governments to appeal to a people’s sense of cultural identity because, after all, it works.

    For indigenous peoples, whose culture, language and politics have been disrupted by Europeans and others, peoples who have had to struggle to keep their sense of cultural identity alive, besides the question of why should the world’s common cultural legacy be more important to them than their own cultural identity, I’d ask, doesn’t the world’s common cultural legacy lose something when fewer people identify with an ancient culture?

    “Which cultural traditions derive from the Incas?”

    I suspect their cultural traditions have had a bigger impact on modern South Americans and Peruvians in particular, but doesn’t chewing on coca leaves count for something?

    …as global impacts go, it’s the real thing.

  29. Anything the peruvians stole from us more than say 50 years ago, is theirs to keep.

    So European Jews don’t have a claim on privately owned artwork that was stolen by Nazis and ended up being sold to museums and collectors worldwide?

  30. So European Jews don’t have a claim on privately owned artwork that was stolen by Nazis and ended up being sold to museums and collectors worldwide?

    Not if they were unaware of it and didn’t keep trying to get it back. Otherwise property once stolen lapses into a condition whereby nobody’s ownership of it is secure. Better to have a “wrong” owner than no owner at all.

  31. Cuno’s article is little more than a tiresome rehash of internationalist cliches. First he speaks of “the interrelatedness of cultures” and the idea that “ancient and living cultures belong to all of us” (well, yeah, but you really thought any intelligent person disputes this?), and on this basis he goes on to rail against the “the nationalist basis of laws” that he claims contributes to today’s sectarian crosscurrents. Here Cuno makes the usual mistake of conflating one’s sense of his/her own national identity with nationalism. By this logic, we “Americans” are in fact members of our or our ancestors’ mother countries, which in turn belong to the numerous city states and dynasties of the past, and so on, until we finally arrive at the original “international” community, a term that has no meaning because there is no nation to speak of. (If anything, this community may well be the most “tribal” of all in human history.)

    National identity is part of our culture. To ignore this fact in favor of the chimera of the world community is to deny a significant part of our shared beliefs, customs and traditions. Cuno is certainly right that we should be wary of our admittedly unclear cultural property laws, but he also needs to recognize that they are by no means arbitrarily demarcated. (Does anyone seriously argue that any other nation than Peru can better claim Machu Picchu artifacts?) Then hopefully we can agree on the proper role of us citizens (of whatever nation) not as tribal, nationalist nativists but as conscientious spectators of heritage and culture that bind us together.

  32. TWC,

    If anyone has claim to ownership at all, it would be the person who made and owned the artifact and that person’s direct descendants.

    That seems as arbitrary as any other line you would draw around who has a legitimate claim.

    The person who made it…no problem.
    The person who the maker sold or gave it to…no problem.
    The person that person sold or gave it to…no problem.

    Their immediate family…okay.

    Someone who didn’t know them (even if a direct descendant)…any line you draw will be arbitrary…no?

    I could argue that I have a more legit claim to my friend’s property than their family if I have a closer relationship to them than their family…no?

    MikeP,

    Any thoughts on Egypt’s antiquity laws?

  33. The story goes that Hiram Bingham led the Yale-Nat’l Geo. Expedition to Machu Picchu, brought artifacts back on ‘loan’ and now Peru is calling in that loan.

    Most likely it is for the reasons Cuno states. So what? Most libertarians believe public property is a myth or at least most public property.

    Sure wealthier countries have more money to properly curate items; so I’ll take Cuno’s argument if he is suggesting that developed countries should be able to buy artefacts outright.

    It’s a win-win. Corrupt regimes get the cashola they’re really interested just like they do for other natural resources. And the highbrow art institutes get the goods to construct cultural togetherness. Honestly, there are enough pots and arrowpoints to go around.

  34. Lawrence: I think the general idea is that it was ok for (white) people to take these things in the first place because the (darker) people they were taking them from didn’t really have a concept of property rights (or if they did, they expressed them in soma wacky language and weren’t strong enough to hold on to the damn stuff anyway). However, it’s wrong for the darker people to take them back now because the white people who have them strongly believe in the sanctity of property rights…for stuff that they already have. or something like that.

  35. Kerry Howley,

    The thing is that culture does divide people and apparently always has. So yeah, the nature of culture involves diffusion, but it also involves division. Indeed, culture would have little solidity I’d guess if it didn’t divide people.

  36. Perhaps it would have been “better” for the Brits to “acquire” George Washington’s portrait from the White House in 1812, to enhance “the rich diversity of the world’s culture”.

    To be honest if the brits kept it in good shape and displayed it that would be kind of cool.

  37. Well, ramster, that’s one way of looking at it.

    But in the case of most “antiquities”, it would be closer to the truth to say that in many cases the indigenous peoples involved did not perceive the items in question to have any value, and thought that they were garbage it wasn’t worth the trouble to dig up or the effort to hack out of the jungle. This might not be the case with gold artifacts seized by conquistadores, but it is definitely the case with most non-precious-metal “grave goods” worldwide.

    Many of these objects only have value because westerners obsess about obtaining them to put them in museums and write papers about them. Their value, in effect, only exists because “white people stole them”.

    It’s as if a bunch of indigenous Peruvian mountain people got permission to dig in our landfills, and then 400 years from now when “US Landfill Crap of the late 20th Century” is sought by museums and universities around the world, some future American gets his panties in a knot about our “stolen heritage”.

  38. ramster, isn’t Cuno’s argument that the “darker people” seeking to take back the artifacts now aren’t the people who made them but merely some folks who happen to live in the same region where the people who actually owned the stuff used to live hundreds of years before?

  39. And then there is the issue of the fact that if western museums hadn’t maintained some items, they would simply have been destroyed. The Greeks used to bitch about how the Elgin Marbles were “stolen”, but if the British hadn’t “stolen” them they would have been obliterated and now no one would have them.

    Damn those Europeans and their stealing ways!

  40. Oh! It was stolen? How? By Whom? From whom?

    True enough but that is not the argument asshole Art Director is making…his argument is that these things belong to “the world” and he represents “the world” in where these items belong.

  41. Fluffy,

    Read this.

    To be frank, I’d say it is nearly impossible to tell if any locale will bring a particular artiface some assurance of future safety.

  42. Any thoughts on Egypt’s antiquity laws?

    I actually don’t know anything about Egypt’s antiquity laws.

    But if those laws will make those thieving Romans give back all those damn obelisks, then they must have some punch to them.

  43. I hope the Art Institute of Chicago is as strong standing up to any NAGPRA claims from “indigenous” peoples of the US as they are to Peru.There is often a double standard in the repatriation of cultural material.

  44. NM, you’re reading too much into the direct decedents terminology. I don’t mean 10, 20, 50, 100 generations. I mean essentially what you mean. Direct was the modifier. GWB may be related to Count Dracula but he isn’t a direct descendant in my meaning.

  45. Joshua, I see your point. Missed it originally.

  46. I’m a little unclear why these governments can’t buy these items on the open market. Oh, they can. They just want to get it cheaper. My bad.

  47. “The Greeks used to bitch about how the Elgin Marbles were ‘stolen’, but if the British hadn’t ‘stolen’ them they would have been obliterated and now no one would have them.

    “Damn those Europeans and their stealing ways!”

    The Greeks *are* Europeans. Plus, see Calidore’s link.

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