Vikings stormed Britain, while Mongols left Bagdad a culture-free zone. Warlords came, saw and trashed all the books and statues while they were at it. Even now someone is whacking away at the ankles of a limestone Buddha in India or Bangladesh.
Have times changed for the better?
Napoleon revitalized looting trends by demanding art from conquered Italians and churches. Since then, the Captains of Genocide have handled the art of their victims differently, particularly the Nazis. Probably the most prolific war thieves ever, they discarded entire races whiles secreting their art in stashes all over the globe. Art Loss Register, an international database, lists 300,000 missing and stolen artworks with approximately 85 percent occurring before 1945, not coincidentally with the demise of the Nazis.
Legal snares from decades of restoration attempts leave museums and collectors in a tortuous knot of complications.
But this trap springs both ways.
Recently Turkey demanded that several prestigious U.S. museums return art they claim is legitimately theirs. If Harvard and the Getty, Metropolitan and Cleveland Museums only huddle to debate their options, they’re missing a massive opportunity handed to them on a marble muse (circa 200 B.C.).
Art and artifacts of ancient cultures only increase in value with time. A nation’s pride can be wrapped in these tangibles – in statues, religious works, paintings, furnishings and manuscripts. The United Nations and other political bodies recognize this and at times call up security-intelligence services to protect cultural properties and religious sites if armed conflict seems imminent.
Not to sound Machiavellian here, but the fact remains that possession of art and artifacts that belong to someone else forces them to negotiate with you. You have the upper hand. When the petitioning nation is run by a group of genocidal lunatics, this could be a good thing if used for a righteous cause. My opinion is, of course, terribly politically incorrect.
I can think of several scenarios concerning the demands from Turkey. Assuming the Metropolitan, et al, agree the disputed items should not stay in the U.S., we could set up a “cultural exchange.” Turkey admits to planning, abetting and covering up the first real genocide of the 20th century. Everyone knows they did it, and it’s about time they admitted it. The Turks get their property back, and Armenians may feel a little less grieved over the slaughter of all their grandparents. People may even want to visit Turkey again – it could happen.
For those who see a crass misuse of art, quite the contrary, this validates the actual, tangible and cultural value of art. Why should the U.S. hand over something to satisfy the demands of an uncivilized government (i.e. who could murder a million people and lie for 105 years about it)?
Art can be used as a bargaining chip, leverage toward peace and a cultural “weapon” for good behavior. Passively obeying every dictate of the world courts without considering ethical concerns only lines the pockets of lawyers with gold and makes a lot of our avowed enemies happy.
Apparently the U.S. military generally makes efforts to avoid destruction of culturally significant areas in an effort to gain goodwill.
Unfortunately they didn’t post guards to the Iraqi National Museum in Baghdad, and televisions kept us well informed of the subsequent looting and destruction. Proving the attachment people have to their history for good or evil, Iraq is now requesting Westerners who hold pieces of Saddam Hussein’s dismembered statue to please return the body parts, thank you.
If you thought the Taliban was only comprised of boy-raping, girl-shooting, opiated bigots with guns, you’d be entirely correct. But they also own art and connections in the U.N. to protect their assets.
Erik Nemeth, writing a fascinating piece for the Rand Corporation, reveals that in the late 1990s the Taliban and Afghanistan Northern Alliance established a “secure location” for their “artifacts” through UNESCO. The “Afghanistan Museum-in-Exile” in Budendorf, Switzerland, used the world’s fees for these kindly deeds. Good to know they did such careful estate planning before flying jets into our buildings.
Feeling much more stable by 2006, they’ve since hauled their goodies back to Afghanistan for safe-keeping. The Taliban wasn’t terrifically concerned over their national heritage during the entire 1978–92 war with the Soviets and apparently planned quite the carnage in advance of 9/11. Tellingly, the most valued item reported from more than 1,400 returned is a “ceremonial glass phallus” believed to have been personally handled by Alexander the Great.
Last summer the EU banned export of art to Syria, which is also on the list of sanctioned nations for the U.S. This follows escalation of strategies against President Bashar Al-Assad and his regime by the West, and he is also one of President Obama’s personal targets.
Assad’s British-born wife, Asma, particularly incensed gallery owners and museums with a blitz of ostentatious spending on art, jewelry and haute couture in the middle of a bloody civil war. I admit I find her 100-megawatt, permasmile rather nauseating and inappropriate myself. Unless a shortage of shopping quickly drives Asma to suicide and her husband to madness, this won’t bring down the Assad regime, but it does serve a symbolic purpose.
There haven’t been many complaints against this prohibition on art and luxury goods, among other sanctions enjoined by world leaders. An exception is Marc Mouarkech, the director of a Beirut gallery.
Riah Pryor quotes Mouarkech in The Art Newspaper: “A ban on art between two countries is always a shame. [It puts] barriers between cultural exchange.”
This is actually the purpose, a barrier, an expression of moral outrage and contempt whether deserved or not. Israel has certainly been on the receiving end for years, particularly her academics, who have been boycotted en masse by the left. Apparently they think it works.
PBS published an October essay by Gerardo Contino, where an astute conservative could easily fill in the blanks verbatim before they ever read it. Full of expected cautionary woes, it lists dangers of the “deep toll from cultural heritage and the arts” if the U.S. continues its negative “economic pressures” on Iran.
While sounding plausible, Contino’s missing the Queen Mary for the flotsam of liberal thinking. If Ahmadinejad keeps hanging dissenters and dementedly promoting WWIII, there will be no Iranian culture to preserve. I truly pity any Christian, artist, free thinker or decent human being trapped in Iran at the moment.
North Korea suffers various sanctions by sundry groups and deservedly so. Some question if the lack of modern art, Gucci handbags and Jim Beam holds any real sting for the ruling class in Pyongyang. But if they have a tougher time digging up something impressive to lord over their enslaved population, it’s working just fine.