Whose Horses Are They?

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.

10 thoughts on “Whose Horses Are They?”

  1. We’ve lost so much of our heritage to the vagaries of nature, erosion, the rising tide (how much has the sea stolen from us?). The discovery of actual human remains in the Americas any older than a millennium or so is exceedingly rare. To think that such a site was bulldozed to avoid a squabble makes me want to scream. We lost enough of our American patrimony to disease, no reason to cat any more down the hole.

  2. William Grampp, Pricing the Priceless, turns his gimlet eye on how gov’ts try to “protect our heritage”.Needless to say this is really a scam.The world is much better off with the Elgin Marbles in the BM ,than say in a place where they would be a prop for some small country’s nationalistic psychodrama;same goes for the Pergamon Altarpiece.

  3. I am in almost total agreement with Renminbi. Although it is a close call as to whether Picasso’s Guernica should have ever left MOMA for Spain, my advice to the Museums of Europe is to start packing now in anticipation of the inevitable demographic Muslim majorities. For once the Muslims vote themselves into power the statue of David and Mona Lisa’s smile will be the first to feel the hammer and knife. (PS: Don’t forget the white-wash for the Sistine Chapel)

  4. Ginny, can you explain what you meant by the sentence It is this sense the Darwinian critics assume…?

    What is your disagreement with Darwin (and I presume – agreement with his critics)?

  5. It is not a disagreement with Darwin; it is an allusion to those critics who use Darwinian approaches to analyze literature and art; they generally begin with the assumption that human nature is universal and that cultures influence it in different ways. This assumptiion is that we have more in common than we don’t. I contrasted it with people who argue that we have more that separates us than not – that the definition of who we are is how we are not like others.

  6. This is OT,but do you think we would be better off if people teaching Liberal Arts did some work outside of Academia or journalism before teaching? From what I have read and from what friends inside have told me there is too much culural inbreeding.

  7. “William Grampp”. A blast from the past. I had two courses with him at U of C. He and Prof. Roger Weiss taught seminars in, pretty much, the history of libertarian thought, in the guise of economics classes. Great stuff: Smith, Tocqueville, Mill, etc. Prof. Weiss is dead. Grampp, it appears is still alive.

  8. Renminbi:
    I do, but we always think we are right. I can tell you that it is likely to make someone more grateful for the relatively cushy and pleasant job of dealing with a subject you really like all day. Someone coming out of the broader world was a good deal less likely to fall for postmodernism at its silliest.

    I just finished How the Scots Invented the Modern World; it is sometimes problematic, but its argument that the great inventions of modernity were often done by a people who valued education (Scotland was the most literate nation in Europe) and practicality would make your point in terms of the liberal arts. My sister has two degrees in journalism, but she double majored. She has always argued that journalists need a strong foundation in a subject matter that makes their coverage more accurate. (She also chose to work with Ag Extension for a variety of reasons, but that certainly required a sympathetic understanding of an area as well as writing skills.)

  9. I like art and like having it on my walls,but the people dealing didn’t like to talk about money-as if they were above it.Grampp has a lot of fun at their expense.Of course for the hedge fund types buying “Art” it is all about money and prestige. Grammp doesn’t think Art is an investment(unless you are a dealer) but a consumer item.
    The New York Public Library has a circulating copy of his book. It bothers me when really good books don’t sell well.

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