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Written by: Lucia Guercio
Paraphrasing Clive Bell, art is moral in itself and should be detached by any other social or political context. Nonetheless, we are aware that this idealistic view is certainly unattainable in today’s world. Issues of morality have always prevailed in the artworld. Traditionally, critics have been hugely concerned with the subject matter or the intelligible meaning of the work of art in relation to contemporary issues. Nowadays, these moral concerns have expanded to including also a more concrete recognition of the artworks’ origins: issues of ownership and
While we are all aware that the Western civilisation has been imposing a patronising narrative on the artworld, and the world in general. Nullification of foreign cultures in a museum space and illegal or unfair appropriation of artefacts is certainly a disdainful act. Indeed today many art institutions are drifting away from their foundational colonial narrative. By deconstructing their own collections, curators are trying to resurface the original meaning of the artefacts and works of art, repositioning them in a much more dignified narrative. Other institutions instead are proceeding in the restitution of artworks to their countries of origin, like when in 2004 Cleveland Museum returned a 10th-century statue of the Hindu god Hanuman to Cambodia. The idol was looted from Prasat Chen temple in Siem Reap in the 1960s and arrived to the Cleveland Museum of Art in 1982, after troubled journeys through illegal dealer’s hands.
However, what is the moral framework of reference, when looted artworks pertain to areas destroyed by war and misery? Although conflicts are often caused by Western interventions, when talking about art the focus should be solely on the preservation of the artwork. How can these precious and unique elements from the past be best protected and assured available to future generations?
Defaced statue of Buddha Bamiyan
After the Taliban’s rise in 2001, iconoclastic mania blew out in the defacement of two Buddha of Bamiyan statues in Afghanistan, precious treasures and tangible signs of past civilisations. Similarly, Syria’s Christian worship places, among the first examples of churches ever built (II c. AD) have been target indifferently by terrorists and government forces, resulting in the destruction of 63% of their Christian heritage. Syrian and Afghani monuments are only two of the many examples of UNESCO cultural heritage being destroyed by conflict, be them involving local or international forces. Other than destruction, this heritage also faces the risk of being looted and illegally displaced, as it happened with some Afghani artefacts, then found on Pakistan black market. Given the lack of controlling institutions and the unstable political climates, local governments are not able to keep a record of their national treasures.
Smithsonian Institute Building, Washington D.C.
Precisely to counter these problematics in October 2019 the Pentagon announced a collaboration with the Smithsonian Institute to form a new reserve group inspired by the WW2 Monuments Men. This time, instead of finding looted artefacts, the Army would work towards the protection of heritage in conflict areas. They are currently training a team of experts in curatorial and conservation studies, who will be based at the Army Civil Affairs and Psychological Operations Command at Fort Bragg, N. C. The main aim of the group is to inform US and allied armies about significant heritage places in the area, hoping to avoid airstrikes and also prevent ground displacement of artefacts through illegal looting. Their focus is clearly on the Middle East, where can be found some of the most ancient treasures of human civilization, from Mesopotamic to Persian artefacts.
This heritage is surely invaluable, as remarked by the Smithsonian anthropologist Richard Kurin in his announcement for the project. “In conflict, the destruction of monuments and the looting of art are not only about the loss material things, but also about the erasure of history, knowledge and a people’s identity”, these are Kurin’s words, who continued stating that the main aim of the collaboration is “to prevent this legal and moral crime of war”. The use of such idealistic tone and the heavily institutionalised framework for the conception of this project are definitely red flags for a new American imperialistic move. The white-saviour complex is still deeply embedded in Western society, clearly rescuing these artworks is still part of this messianic narrative. Nonetheless, can we actually disdain a concrete attempt to save our heritage?
Here lays the moral dilemma of art: artefacts, artworks, architecture are the only tangible expressions of our past, the enduring memory of our ancestors and also a teaching for present and future generations. Art is universal in its value and yet extremely particular and linked to a sense of belonging and individual identity. Artworks belong to their land of origins but also to a wider public, since they deserve to be seen as lighthouses in the darkness of the world. The morality of art is embedded in contradictions and nuances, striving between a conservative focus on subject matters and decolonising projects. The real morality lies in understanding an artwork and trying to display it in the most authentic way possible. The impossibility of repatriation of artefacts in conflict areas might be debatable due to various imperialistic discourses. Nonetheless, the higher mission for any generation of humanists should be focused on the preservation of this subliminal feeling of art as a discovery and re-discovery of our world heritage.