Friday, February 03, 2006

Our Collective Cultural Heritage

Well the big news in the art world this morning is the surprise decision by the Met to reverse course after 30 years and agree to return their prized 2,500-year-old Greek vase, the envy of antiquities freaks everywhere, the "Euphronios krater." That's a photo of it to the right...isn't it simply sublime? New York is surely going to miss it. But at least we'll be able to sleep better, our politically correct consciences clear, knowing it's back in the land from whence it came: Greece.

No...wait...reading the article in the Times more carefully, I see that it's not being returned to Greece, but rather to Italy. that's confusing. From the Times:

The massive krater, a vessel once used to mix wine and water, was painted by Euphronios, one of the most important Greek vase painters. The krater, painted in the red-figured style, depicts the Greek god Hermes directing Sleep and Death as they carry a son of Zeus for burial.
So a vessel painted by one of the most important Greek vase painters is being claimed as belonging in

OK, so I'm being silly, there's strong evidence that the vase was looted from a tomb near Rome, and it's fair to assume that the Roman Etruscan who owned it bought it fair and square, but I want to highlight why I think there's a bit of farce involved in such disputes. Again, from the Times:

[Malcolm Bell, a University of Virginia archaeologist,] and other archaeologists have concluded that the [silver pieces the Met is also returning with the vase] form a single set looted from a third century B.C. house at the site. "I hope very much that when the silver set returns, it does so in its entirety," Mr. Bell said yesterday by telephone from Sicily, calling the Met's proposal a turning point.

He and others stressed the importance of reconnecting ancient objects to the settings in which they were used and found.

"The Euphronios krater was dug up from a tomb," said Giuseppe Proietti, a senior official in charge of cultural heritage for the Italian government. "Alone on exhibit it is aesthetically beautiful, but alongside other materials from a burial site it becomes something more. It's like reading just one page of a book. You will never experience the same pleasure derived from reading the entire novel." [emphasis mine]

My objection here is to this demarcation point, the place where it was found and assumed used (for all we know that vase was looted from somewhere else and hidden in this house). I mean, why stop where it was found? Why not return the vase to Greece? Euphronios lived and worked in Athens, not Rome. Athens has museums. The idea that the context of the collector's world is somehow more important than the context of the artist's world seems an odd one.

At a certain point, you have to begin to bring into such decisions the fact that humans migrate and have for our entire existence on this planet. By moving around constantly we share a collective cultural heritage. I'm not aruging that the Met should get to keep the vase...if it came to them through what were clearly illegal means when they acquired it, they should have to give it up. But the idea that Italy has some moral high ground here to stand on seems a bit of a stretch to me.

Just sayin...


Anonymous Lynn said...

Exactly! This is a farce. As far as I'm concerned, this is nothing more than art marketplace politics, in which the countries that can no longer compete financially are doing their level best to enter (or level) the field, and come home with the finest booty through means that are as dubious as thieves in centuries past.

2/03/2006 09:48:00 AM  
Anonymous pc said...

I agree. It's absurd. Can't you also argue that much of ancient Greek culture is mother to the West and deserves to be in one of its great capitals, say Rome...or New York? This kind of thinking seems, like a lot of recent cultural phenomena, to be a reversion to tribal antirationalist thinking. From suburban matrons interest in geneology (which I think of a a kind of personal nationalism) to knee-jerk historical preservationism to nationalisms and fundamentalisms of all kinds, yearning for a pure original past seems totally screwed up to me.

2/03/2006 11:29:00 AM  
Blogger Mark said...

I want all my baseball cards back too!

2/03/2006 11:40:00 AM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

I think it's a bit more clear cut than that though PC. Whether their motives are based on the sort of muddy thinking you outline (and I think deep down they are), the Italians have the law on their side. At a certain point, that's all anyone should need to get something returned. Otherwise, take to it extreme, we'd have countries stealing things from other countries' museums eventually.

I want all my baseball cards back too!

heh, ;-)

2/03/2006 11:44:00 AM  
Blogger Mark said...

Ok a little more serious. would we return it if we didn't like the government? Mussolini perhaps. It's all sketchy.

2/03/2006 11:55:00 AM  
Anonymous pc said...


I guess I overgeneralized. I like abstractions and sometimes practicalities and facts simply give me a headache! I believe in the applying the law, of course. And I forget to by cynical sometimes and am grateful that Lynn pointed out there might be a case of greed involved too.


PS My wool Gap coat is kind of ancient. I wonder if the government of India, or wherever the hell it was made, would like it repatriated.

2/03/2006 11:57:00 AM  
Anonymous David said...

I guess the right thing to do would be to just rebury the thing.

2/03/2006 12:26:00 PM  
Anonymous crionna said...

David, my thought exactly. Shouldn't it go back to the tomb? Or will the exhibit in Rome be a recreation of that tomb with ALL the artifacts so that we can experience "reading the novel"?

2/03/2006 12:59:00 PM  
Blogger Tim said...

Um, ancient Greece was most of the mediterranean and at some points even included Persia and parts of modern India (maybe Pakistan, not sure) So it was found in its original home, maybe. Some of the best Greek ruins are on the island of Sicily. The later Romans did their share of looting and collecting the spoils of war and domination so it may have made its way to Italy then. Point is, we don't know.

We do know, apparently, that this vase made its way to the US through illicit means, in modern times. We can't claim to have created an enlightened and improved culture if, at the first whiff of trouble, we fall back on, "Yeah, but . . ."

The rule of law is the great democatic achievement. Best not to toss it out when it doesn't agree with you on a particular issue.

Given all that, I have been saying, lately, "Hey, its our heritage, too" There are probably more people of Italian descent in the US than in Italy. (That is a wild guess, we can say with some certainty that there are more Irish in the US than in Ireland, for example) I think the ultimate solution to this spate of controversy will be a big cash settlement and some label changes. it's merchandise, after all.

2/03/2006 01:52:00 PM  
Blogger James W. Bailey said...

Passions run hot on the issue of the return (mandated by law) of cultural and historic artifacts.

A 1905 law signed by President Theodore Roosevelt required that captured Confederate battle flags in the possesion of the federal government be returned to their Southern states of origin. For the most part, the fed moved quickly to comply with the law.

However, living Confederate veterans began to circulate petitions throughout the South demanding that Southern states who were part of the Confederacy move to demand the return of captured Confederate battle flags that were in the possesion of private individuals and Northern states. Many of these flags were in fact returned during these veteran's life time; and they continue to be returned to this day -

There is an especially funny (at least to us Civil War battle flag historians) and convoluted story regarding the events surrounding the identification and return of two Confederate battle flags carried by the 12th Louisiana Infantry -

Today, the issue of the return of these flags is only magnified by the fact that they are worth a great deal of money - typically, Confederate battle flags are worth 8 to 12 times that of a Union battle flag in the same condition (the South lost the War but won the Antiques Roadshow Battle.) :)

And new passions drive the desire for the return of cultural and historic artifacts during the life time of those who actually touched and carried these objects. For example, the return of Japanese battle flags in the possesion of individuals in the U.S. -;=355

The further back in time you go, the more complicated all of this becomes in terms of what should be returned to whom and why.


2/03/2006 03:39:00 PM  
Anonymous JL said...

Point of pedantry: it probably was an Etruscan, and not a Roman tomb per se, from which the krater was looted. A large number of the Greek vases found in Italy come from Etruscan sites (and often tombs), products of a vigorous trade between Greece and Etruria before the rise of Rome as a major power. Nor did Magna Graecia extend as far north as Rome, although Campania was an Etruscan stronghold for a time and full of similar tombs later to be found by Sir Hamilton, helping to start the craze for Greek vases.

Ed, your point is well taken in questioning where the point of demarcation is placed. Medieval archaeologists, to pick one example, often used to get annoyed (and sometimes still do) at classical archaeologists, who dug through what their colleagues would like to study to get down to the “real stuff.” Or on a different note, I made a similar point to Tyler at the time of the Getty Villa opening: it was ironic that the Museum was in trouble for having looted antiquities at the moment it was unveiling a villa based on the sort Roman aristocratic home that would very likely have held . . . looted antiquities. Still, the tomb is the last place the krater, and thousands others like it, existed in an ancient context prior to disturbance by modern hands, so that’s the archaeological context we have. Anything about its earlier Greek life we cannot know from the vase itself (according to a variety of methods, including the semiotic analysis of visual culture a la Gloria Ferrari’s Figures of Speech) was already lost two thousand years ago. The archaeological context in which it was found was, aside from those methods, the one we could have had, and was lost.

In the case of one vase, this is unfortunate, but not such a big deal. As much as we value the Euphronios krater, it is one of thousands of pieces of Greek pottery, after all, and probably wasn’t valued so much in its own day. That, unfortunately, is part of the problem. As Vickers and Gill argued in their landmark Artful Crafts, Greek vases may have been more in the line of market copies of the real deal, gold and silver tableware. The tragedy isn’t that this one pot was ripped from its context; it’s that our lust for objects from the past threatens to destroy a broad part of the record of human history. That is a shameful disgrace.

2/03/2006 05:39:00 PM  
Blogger Hungry Hyaena said...

This reminds me of the heated debate among tribes of ecological restorationists. To what point, they ask, should land be "restored?"

Unlike, say, an oil painting, it is impossible to determine with any degree of accuracy what constitutes "original state" when considering landscape/environment. Whenever we mold the landscape, even with intent to heal, we are, in effect, making a sculpture, an interpretation arrived at through a process of editing and constructing as we see fit. Even the best science requires we point to an arbitrary state as "healthy," as the set objective.

While the vase issue - and the issue of provenance more generally - is more localized (in terms of timeline), this case points to the inadequacy of historical record in nailing down origin or past exchanges/lives. Where such pieces land will, ultimately, depend on a combination of political pull and the day's zeitgeist.

2/03/2006 05:43:00 PM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

I adore points of pedantry, JL...thanks for the lesson.

2/03/2006 05:44:00 PM  
Blogger James W. Bailey said...

Dear Hungry Hyaena,

[Unlike, say, an oil painting, it is impossible to determine with any degree of accuracy what constitutes "original state" when considering landscape/environment. Whenever we mold the landscape, even with intent to heal, we are, in effect, making a sculpture, an interpretation arrived at through a process of editing and constructing as we see fit. Even the best science requires we point to an arbitrary state as "healthy," as the set objective.]

I'm really struck by your post in light of being in New Orleans when Congress has declined to fund (a very good thing) further dredging of the infamous Mr. GO - the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet that was blamed for accelerating the storm surge in a funnel like fashion that drowned East New Orleans, the Lower Ninth Ward and the Parishes southeast of New Orleans.

I've always thought that from the air Mr. GO looks as if almost inspired by Smithson - with its raised levees snaking through the marshland. It is something quite beautiful to see from the sky.

The hoped for plan is that the feds will fill it in and let it return back to its natural state.

I suppose that will be a sculpture worth seeing too from the vantage point of a jet.


2/03/2006 06:02:00 PM  
Anonymous Eva said...

The vase, if Greek, and in a perfect world, should go back to Greece.
Italy was one of many countries, maybe the biggest culprit, to loot Greece.
The argument has been that the UK or elsewhere had better museums for these artifacts, or that more people would have access to them, but Greece has worked on that problem.
Besides, we don't all live in London or NY ... and I traveled thousands of miles to see the BM and the Met. But as someone who also traveled thousands of miles to visit Greece twice, I can say that it was well worth it - because you not only get amazing architecture and art (what's left of it), but paradise. Total natural beauty. It can't hurt to go.

2/06/2006 11:34:00 AM  
Blogger Donn said...

Suppose we look upon the Greeks not as a nation state but as a migrating state, needing to maintain a common identity despite separate geographies. If you read Eric Havelock, Preface to Plato, he explains it. If that is so, then the Krater in Italy is simply an assertion of ownership by the last geography embracing it. If the Italian need is so great, then let it be. After all, we got something infinitely better - an alphabet with five vowels - to speed our travel.

2/17/2010 12:21:00 PM  

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