Should Aesthetic Considerations Take Precedence Over Protection Of Human Rights With Regard To Looted Artefacts?
We read with great interest an article by Tom L. Freudenheim, a former art museum director and former assistant secretary for museums at the Smithsonian Institution entitled “What Is Lost When Works are Trophies” that first appeared in the Wall Street Journal of January 27, 2010 (1) and was reproduced in Elginism (2) on September 28, 2010 under the heading “Disputed artefacts – famous for being famous…”
The article contains statements which deserve close examination. The first sentence surprised me:
“It's interesting to contemplate how works of art, which museums generally want us to appreciate for their aesthetic values, can turn into trophies: emblems of issues or events that have nothing to do with their status as art.”
I assumed that by “trophies” Freudenheim was going to discuss the thousands of looted/stolen artefacts such as the Ethiopian objects and the Benin bronzes that fill Western museums. Many artefacts were seized as war trophies after Western States had been able to subjugate various nations in the Americas, Africa and Asia. As it turns out, he had in mind objects that are in museums and galleries that have been recently objects of contention. These objects he describes as trophies: emblems of issues or events that have nothing to do with their status as art.” Can one really declare that the various contentions regarding the works of art he discusses have nothing to do with their status as art? What then are the disputes all about and do all the legal principles involved have nothing to do with their status as works of art? It is true that the main question has not been whether these are works of art or not. That is not in doubt.
Are they being contested as one would conduct disputes about any other object? What then is the reason for many persons, including Freudenheim, becoming interested in these objects and their histories? Has their status as art objects really nothing to do with the great interest they evoke?
Freudenheim states that Egon Schiele's “Portrait of Wally” has been turned into a famous painting because of the legal case concerning the work which had been seized by the Nazis. The author also refers to the dispute between Great Britain and Greece concerning the Parthenon/Elgin Marbles: “For decades the Greek government has been aggressively attempting to have them returned”. Why “aggressively”? Is this a way of siding with the British without directly saying so? Attempts by the British to inform the public about their position regarding the Marbles are seen by Freudenheim as an obstacle to full appreciation of the Marbles as artworks:
“The British make their ownership case in a new leaflet available in the galleries where they are displayed. This may be highly informative and, depending on your point of view, even persuasive, but it also creates a distraction that makes it increasingly difficult to zoom in on the works as art”
Crowds queuing to see Rembrandt's "Aristotle with a Bust of Homer" (1653) at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, because of the high price paid, are said by Freudenheim to have “obscured the painting's value as a work of art”.
Freudenheim is clearly unhappy with the terms of settlement between the parties in the dispute over “Portrait of Wally”:
"At the request of the heirs, the terms of settlement with the estate of Lea Bondi Jaray include this brief display at the Museum of Jewish Heritage, which serves to reinforce its narrower identity in the public mind as a Nazi-era artifact. Showing it in an art museum might have helped return the painting to where it belongs conceptually in relation to the context of 20th-century modernism.”
This is a rather surprising statement. The author expresses dissatisfaction with the display of a Nazi-looted artwork which the owners have been able to recover and was being shown in a Jewish Museum because it will “reinforce its narrower identity in the public mind as a Nazi-era artefact”. With all due respect, such a display simply reminds the public of the history of the artwork and the nefarious ideology which motivated the Nazis to seize such works of art and other properties belonging to a particular group of persons. Is there anything wrong in a reminder of this dark period in the history of the West? The slogan,”Nie wieder” (Never again”) must necessarily imply constant vigilance and no concessions to Nazism and its off-shoots in all fields of activity. Why should visits to museums be an exception? Do museums not also have an obligation to educate and enlighten the public? Or are the museums only there to entertain, amuse and divert the public from reality?
What does Freudenheim say about this work being displayed in the Austrian museum where it was for years and with which, after years of dispute, an agreement was achieved? The painting returns to the same Viennese museum. Will there not be any reminders? What would Freudenhem say about the display of the Benin Bronzes in the British Museum? Does that not remind the public that those artefacts were stolen/looted by the British in 1897 in Benin, Nigeria? Would he advise the British to show the Benin artefacts in an art gallery rather than in the British Museum?
The author's dissatisfaction with revealing the history of Nazi-Looted art is emphasised in the following statement:
“But what permanently locks Schiele's painting into this alternate, extra-artistic perceptual universe is the clause in the legal settlement stipulating that "Portrait of Wally" will be shown with "signage next to the Painting at the Leopold Museum, and at all future displays of the Painting of any kind that the Leopold Museum authorizes or allows anywhere in the world, that sets forth the true provenance of the Painting, including Lea Bondi Jaray's prior ownership of the
Painting and its theft from her by a Nazi agent before she fled to London in 1939."
Freudenheim is satisfied where such looted objects recovered by the owners are displayed without their full history:”
“Compare this with the fate of another painting with a similar contested history. In 2006, Gustav Klimt's iconic 1907 "Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I"— which had also been stolen by the Nazis—was returned to its rightful owners after years of litigation against the Austrian government by Maria Altmann, the sitter's niece. Calling it "our Mona Lisa," New York collector-philanthropist Ronald Lauder then purchased the painting from Mrs. Altmann for a reported $135 million, installing it with commanding splendor in his Neue Galerie, a museum of German and Austrian modernist art on Manhattan's Upper East Side, yet without a label describing its amazing legal history.”
Freudenheim thinks that information about art works, in particular, information about their provenance and disputes of ownership distract from, “our ability to focus on what is above all meant to be understood visually.”
I do not know what the author means by the term “to be understood visually”. Clearly any proper understanding of any work of art involves some knowledge about the context of the work and its history, if we are not to remain at a very superficial and subjective level. What could be more useful than information about the position of the painting in recent art history which includes disputes generated by the work?
The author's concluding statement is as amazing as the preceding ones:
“Serious curiosity can increasingly be satisfied on museum websites, which have greatly increased our access to ancillary information. This makes it possible for the museum visit to encourage its one unique experience: the art experience”
The suggestion made here by the author is that instead of informing the visitor about the history of the art work, one should put the relevant information at the website of the museum so that visitors may read it. What about providing the relevant information both in the exhibition and at the homepage? How many visitors to exhibitions read information on the homepage which is not available at the exhibition they may be seeing?
The impression conveyed by Freudenheim's statements is that he is against any information which may remind the museum or gallery visitor that the works of art have a history of their own. But aesthetic contemplation or visualization does not exhaust the importance of a work of art. He suggests that lack or absence of information would encourage what he calls “the unique experience, the art experience”. Not many will agree that the museum experience or the art experience is at its best when one can “visualize” objects without their histories, including disputes of ownership concerning the particular works of art. Imagine “visualizing” the Parthenon/Elgin Marbles without any knowledge or information concerning the dispute of ownership between Greece and Great Britain. What kind of art experience or education will that be? Similarly, looking at Nazi-looted art works without any knowledge about their history and that of the ownership is clearly a partial experience. It also means knowing little about the life of the artist /dealer/owner and the experience they have had through their relation to the particular art work. Would anyone suggest that the life of the artist of a particular work should not interest us? Would we want to look at the Benin Bronzes without some information about how the British looted the bronzes from Benin, Nigeria, and burnt down Benin City, after having massacred the inhabitants and sent the king to exile? Surely, it is important to know how and when the Benin Bronzes came to Europe and America. The eagerness with which these artworks were sold and bought, a few months after the looting in 1897 says a lot about the quality and importance of the works as well as the attitude and morality of the buyers with respect to stolen/looted property.(3)
The wicked and nefarious ideology of the Nazis as well as the atrocities they committed against their own peoples and other nations, are such that they should be mentioned wherever possible. Most of the art works the Nazis seized have not all been recovered by the owners or their successors and yet we have highly placed persons who want to de-emphasize this aspect of the history of the seized properties. A new database established to enable owners and their successors to trace Nazi-looted objects claims that less than half of the looted objects have been recovered or returned to their owners.(4) Is the aesthetic contemplation of art works with tainted history more important that the human rights of the owners and inheritors that have been violated?
It is remarkable that no comments are made by Freudenheim concerning the extraordinary delay in restitution since the Nazis were defeated. If one is disturbed by information on restitution, he or she should urge holders of the contested artworks to seek acceptable solutions with the owners or their heirs so that this disgraceful period in the history of the West does not come up so often. The governments and judicial authorities could also assist in speeding up such cases. But information on the provenance of Nazi-looted works, including the history of relevant disputes, should always be provided. That least, we must insist on unless we want to add injury to the violations of the human rights of the owners and the pain and suffering of their successors. The Nazis have destroyed their lives. Do we want to achieve total annihilation by destroying their histories too?
Kwame Opoku, 2 November, 2010.
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