Sunday, May 9, 2010

A Writer's Take on the Parthenon Marbles

On May 9, The New York Times ran an article from the ever-insightful Michael Kimmelman, the paper's chief art critic and author of the wonderful The Accidental Masterpiece. In it, Kimmelman examines the one of the most famous cultural property debates, the Parthenon or "Elgin" Marbles. Loot! took a look at this case on February, 1.

Kimmelman argues that Greece makes a good case for the return of the Marbles. When arguing for their return, the Greeks cite the recently opened Acropolis Museum, its location overlooking the ruins of the Parthenon, and the cultural significance of the Marbles. However, Kimmelman believes that the British, who house the Marbles in the British Museum, "still make the better case." The Marbles arrived in England two centuries ago when English ambassador Lord Elgin removed them with the permission of the ruling Ottomon power. The British maintain that the Marbles are seen by millions of visitors each year in the context of a collection of artifacts that tell the story of human civilization and culture.

Kimmelman acknowledges that his opinion might not be widely popular. He writes,
Siding with the imperialists drives good people bonkers, I know. It’s akin to Yankees worship, with the Greeks playing the underdog role of the old Red Sox. That said, patrimony claims too often serve merely nationalist ends these days, no less often than they do decent ones, never mind that the archaeological and legal arguments by the Greeks, while elaborately reasoned and passionately felt, don’t finally trump the British ones.
Kimmelman is of the belief that cultural property is changeable. He writes, "Art, differently presented, abridged, whatever, can speak in myriad contexts. It’s resilient and spreads knowledge and sympathy across borders. Ripped from its origins, it loses one set of meanings, to gain others." He argues state borders become less significant when reflecting on a work of art like the Marbles.

He writes,
It summons distinct feelings to those for whom it’s local, but ultimately belongs to everyone and to no one.

We’re all custodians of global culture for posterity.

Neither today’s Greeks nor Britons own the Parthenon marbles, really.

Although I found it interesting to learn Kimmelman's opinion on the case of the Parthenon Marbles, one paragraph caught my attention in particular. He writes,

Americans, excepting Indians, may find this whole issue hard to grasp. We don’t tend to think in terms of American cultural patrimony, save perhaps for the Liberty Bell or the Brooklyn Bridge, because we’re an immigrant nation worshipful of the free market. Demanding the return of American art and artifacts to America sounds, well, un-American, not to mention bad for the bottom line. We are too diverse in our roots, too focused on the present, too historically amnesiac and individualistic (not to mention rich) to worry overly about a collective culture or who might own it.
What do you think? Are we as Americans less sensitive to issues surrounding cultural property?

No comments:

Post a Comment