An Antiquarian's Tale, Issue 212

Clinton Howell Antiques - Dec. 19, 2022 - Issue 212

An Appreciation of English Antique Furniture

A semi biographical journey of my life in the English Decorative Arts

I alluded to politics intervening in the art world in my last blog and I would like to expand on that theme. (I try not to do this too often.) There are some very real issues that politicians could focus on if they chose to get serious about the conservation of art, cultural heritage and antiquities. One of them, a far fetched concept I realize, would be to denationalize the idea of art. I don't mean to suggest that anything that was stolen should not be returned to its rightful owner, I'm suggesting that the construct of something that is made by an individual, or many people, should be seen as something that is less about being from one place, one nation. The conservation of human heritage has to be encouraged universally, not just because something is, for example, Egyptian. As I say above, this is whistling in the wind and the truth of the matter is, and artists know this as well as anyone, art really has no borders. It doesn't matter if the item was made yesterday or ten thousand years ago, any work of art will always be a reflection of humanity in a moment first and foremost--not an expression of a political construct--even though its creation may reflect that construct in some fashion or another. 

My preference is untenable and has been since the birth of nationhood. Indeed, the politicization of art is likely as old as art itself. Every ruler that ever lived wants the pomp of the past to reinforce their status. Countries with former empires want to showcase those time periods notwithstanding the reality (slavery in particular, but also outright theft of natural resources) of that "golden" era. Essentially, however, I would posit that the nationalization of art is contradictory to the reality of how life on earth evolves as we face inevitable globalization of the world in many different forms. It is happening with the smallest of entities such as viruses and it is happening in the natural world with invasive species. And the computer has broken borders in countless ways both in the materials used to  manufacture it and particularly in its content. Globalization may be a dirty word to nationalists, but it is an ongoing process of humanity.

Why then is art any different from any other commodity? Why should Turkey have all the items found on Turkish soil when a vast number of them are Greek--whatever "Greek" means. This is, of course, a solipsistic argument and the moment you land on the head of a pin, you are setting yourself up to getting stabbed. Disagreement with this particular aspect of the status quo is like shinnying up a greased flagpole. It won't work simply because the ongoing wave of nationalism is paramount--it always has been and it always will be. Hence, laws that are written in haste to preserve cultural "icons" will be indiscriminately used by all the bureaucrats and functionaries and, eventually, judges, who have to determine what can or cannot be sold or exhibited someplace other than where it was made. All of the ivory art made right up to 1950, for example, is pretty much frozen in place because of poorly written ivory laws. Cultural artifacts that have been trading for numerous decades with defined provenances are coming under new scrutiny so if you move from one country to another, your art collection might not make that move with you.

You may think that I am upset by this and that I am slipping into hyperbolic overdrive. Not at all, as laws are created by political realities--nations in other words--but the view that art from one culture should stay within what is a random geographical, in fact ,a political space and is something that will resonate far into the future until we realize that art is a human endeavor that we can choose to look at or not. So I would wager that all of the items that the Metropolitan Museum of Art has returned to their "countries of origin" are likely seldom looked at to wherever they were returned. Why all the fuss? Sticking it to organizations like the Met, the Louvre or the British Museum must be kind of fun, I imagine, for any archaeologist/museum curator. But that is likely not why it is happening. It is happening for altogether different reasons which have to do with favors granted, favors returned or as our Latin forebears might have said, quid pro quo--and that is in the political realm and has little to do with art or culture. Someone down the line is getting something for enabling these actions let alone the laws that are being written so hastily and poorly. That's really what worries me.