Monday, December 18, 2006

Good Repo Man, Bad Repo Man

The Greeks and Italians are on a repossessing spree...publicly shaming (or simply suing) the museums of the world for the return of their heritage they say was illegally exported. As "news," that story is beginning to collect cob webs, I know. What's somewhat fresher about the spree, however, is how those same authorities are asking very nicely from others whom it would be seen as inappropriate for them to badger too heavily. For example, the Italians had been very polite earlier to the elderly New York Collector Shelby White:

Rather than implicitly threaten legal action, however, as it occasionally has in pursuing objects in major museum collections, the government hopes to rely on moral suasion, said Maurizio Fiorilli, a lawyer for the Italian Culture Ministry. He said negotiations would begin in earnest in December.

And then last week it was reported the Greeks have taken a similarly gingerly approach with another person they claim has possession of part of their heritage: the Pope.
Archbishop Christodoulos, the head of the Greek Orthodox Church, has asked Pope Benedict XVI to return a fragment of the Parthenon to Athens, his spokesman said. Christodoulos made his request during his first-ever visit to the Vatican, but has yet to receive a response, spokesman Viki Markaki said.
I understand there's a PR reality to the different approaches, but it does make the heavy-handed stance the Greeks and Italians are taking with museums seem like theater more than justified righteous indignation. Oh, I know, the musems are seen as behemoth bureaucracy bullies, so it's OK to beat up on them. Or, because they're so well armed with high-powered lawyers and trustees, the big artillery of public humiliation or litigation is seen as the only threat they'll respond to, but despite their size, I tend to think of the museums as belonging, in part, to me, and I so I resent the offensive approach taken with them, when clearly more well-mannered approaches are available.

Perhaps I'm naive. Perhaps the Met or the Getty or whomever would simply laugh off any appeal not backed up with serious legal consequences. Perhaps the Greek and Italian authorities did, indeed, initially ask nicely, only to have such requests fall on deaf ears.

But by the time it all reaches the tabloids (and there's that paper-selling whiff of public humiliation attached), I can't help but feel everyone loses in a way. The romance associated with the work, for me, has been tainted, brought back to its native shores not through conquest or adventure, but through the anti-climatic, penci-pushing clamor of the wonky class. I'll never travel to see those works in Greece or Italy and not associate that degree of drudgery with them.

I know how that will strike many people: who cares whether your twisted sense of romance is satisified or not...the work belongs back in country X.

I'm not arguing it doesn't...just that it's often a pity how it's getting back there.


Anonymous Cedric Caspesyan said...

American museums are rich in art mostly because of the two big wars, which resulted in all artists, collectors and galleries moving to USA with all their art.

In a sense, even though America was already rich, the wars were a huge cultural profit (I hope Europa have their lesson now for good), so if somebody has a very good reason to have some art sent to some other country I just think maybe that can balance things a little.

But I agree that seeing all greek art in Greece would be boring. Optimally, art of all provenances should be spread everywhere but that's just not realistic.

Also one is reminded of the catastrophy of the Imperial Gardens (now Old Summer Palace) in China and how that destroyed the most important chinese collection of art (Bravo, UK...). So having all greek art in one big white building in Athen is not so much
a great idea either.


Cedric caspesyan

12/18/2006 11:59:00 AM  
Blogger Tim said...

With the two big museums begging for mercy, the Greeks are able to 'persuade' others with less force.

No one would, or could, respond to a polite request until the precedent was set.

The Greeks have been politely asking for the major pieces of the Parthenon that England holds for years with no luck.

Ed_, you live in New York City and won't go to Greece because they are not polite? ; )

12/18/2006 03:03:00 PM  
Anonymous David said...

I figure no matter what the Getty gives back to the Greeks and Italians it won't matter much. The best work in their collection is the garden, IMHO, and it's not going anywhere.

12/18/2006 04:36:00 PM  

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