Art for the Nation State's Sake


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.