This blog has repeatedly called attention to the battle over the Kennewick man. A&L links to Edward Rothstein’s review of James Cuno’s Who Owns Antiquity? Museums and the Battle Over Our Ancient Heritage, which critiques the concept of “cultural property” underlying arguments that led to bulldozing Kennewick’s burial ground. The review (and Cuno) argue that that idea has been betrayed. The framers of the doctrine, he contends, had a “universalist stance”; they “would hardly recognize cultural property in its current guise. The concept is now being narrowly applied to assert possession, not to affirm value. It is used to stake claims on objects in museums, to prevent them from being displayed and to control the international trade of antiquities.” The writer finds this change “as troubling as Mr. Cuno suggests. It has been used not just to protect but also to restrict.” Rothstein concludes “But if cultural property really did exist, the Enlightenment museum would be an example of it: an institution that evolved, almost uniquely, out of Western civilization. And the cultural property movement could be seen as a persistent attempt to undermine it. And take illicit possession.”
In so many ways, the gains of the Enlightenment seem threatened by contemporary assumptions – and its heritage misunderstood and squandered. This seems yet another example. If we see with the long view and a sense of universality, these objects belong (a cliche but apt) “to the ages.”
I remember an art historian in St. Mark’s, gesturing toward the great horses, long thought to be Roman but now known to be yet more ancient and Greek. Hauled from Greece to Italy, later Napoleon took them as spoils of war. After Napoleon’s defeat they were returned to Venice. Looking at them, he said, we can wonder at the history they have seen, as those lively stone figures, eyes realistic and alert, were dragged across geography and time. Somehow, each of us in seeing them assimilates them; they shape and define our own definition of beauty; we are moved by the sculptor’s art. Through those millenia in Italy, through that brief time in France, they became the world’s cultural property – not only, not merely, Greece’s.
This understanding prompts T. S. Eliot’s “Tradition and the Individual Talent.” He argues that “No poet, no artist of any art, has his complete meaning alone. His significance, his appreciation is the appreciation of his relation to the dead poets and artists.” He continues in this vein, explaining “The existing monuments form an ideal order among themselves, which is modified by the introduction of the new (the really new) work of art among them. The existing order is complete before the new work arrives; for order to persist after the supervention of novelty, the wholeexisting order must be, if ever so slightly, altered; and so the relations, proportions, values of each work of art toward the whole are readjusted; and this is conformity between the old and the new.” Artists are connected, cultures are connnected, we are connected. Art changes but retains the past “within its bones.”
Rothstein’s review, as so much in our culture (so much in our current political climate), conjures up a terrible possibility – that the twenty-first century might lose the sense of the universal; that priceless sense took us slow centuries to build. It is this sense the Darwinian critics assume, push us to accept, while those like Jeremiah Wright denigrate it. Its absence allowed (led) the Taliban to destroy the great Buddhas.