Great Art Belongs to the World?

I’m reading a novel in which a central plot point involves a museum’s exhibition of some Native American artifacts, artifacts acquired decades prior to the novel’s events. The exhibition’s publicity alerts the tribe that created the artifacts as to their location, and the tribe contacts the museum to allege that the artifacts were taken wrongfully, and the museum has no legitimate title to them. This claim is borne out by the old notes of the anthropologist who acquired the artifacts; he acknowledges he paid for them but knew the tribesman selling them did not himself own them and had no right to sell them. This long-ago thievery was lost to history until the current exhibition alerted the tribe.

The museum staff debates the issue. Some take the position that the museum bought and paid for the items, and should keep them; others, that the ethics of their professions demand that the items be returned.

During the debate, one character in the novel defends the latter point of view by saying something like, “Who ‘owns’ Michelangelo’s David? If the Italians wanted to break it up to make bathroom tiles, would that be acceptable? If the Eqyptians wanted to level the Great Pyramid to make a parking lot, could they? If the Greeks wanted to sell the Parthenon to a Las Vegas casino, would that be their right?”

The character’s viewpoint is that those rhetorical question are obviously answered in the negative – that these things are owned by humanity, that they represent the “highest expression of the human spirit,” and cannot be bought and sold like commodities.

I disagree completely. I imagine if someone wishes to make themselves humanity’s representative, and outbid the bathroom tile maker for first crack at David, they’re welcome to. But I argue that there is no legal, moral, or ethical principle that suggests that artwork cannot be owned, and, once owned, disposed of as the user wishes.

Since the novel’s character can’t debate me, I turn to you.

Legally, there are many avenues to restrict one’s options with respect to disposing of items that are no longer desired. We restrict disposal methods for all sorts of hazardous chemicals, recyclable materials, and even more “artistic” items like the American Flag.

Ownership rights themselves are also dependent on the government’s willingness to enforce your rights (or their willingness to allow you to enforce it yourself). Good luck getting the local Sheriff to endorse your ownership rights of a particular bag of weed

There’s no reason France can’t decide that chucking the Mona Lisa into an incinerator is just as illegal as chucking nuclear waste into an incinerator, or that owning the Mona Lisa is just as illegal as owning a kilo of cocaine.

But in the examples given so far, while the excuse given is “Great art belongs to the world!”, what is really meant is “This particular piece of great art belongs to this museum, or this country.”

I suppose that depends on how you define “art” and “ownership”. Assuming, for the sake of example, the Taj Mahal was in private ownership,* and the private owner wanted to knock it down or turn it into a hotel, I would approve if the government of India told the owner they couldn’t do that. n a sense, that is deprivation of a property right - in the US, we might call that a “taking” for which compensation was constitutionally required. On the other hand, I would not approve if the government expropriated the Taj without compensation.

*Interestingly, it might be soon.

Although all I know about the law of heirlooms is what I gleaned from a recent rereading of The Eustace Diamonds, ISTM that the concept of a legal heirloom or “settled chattel” might be relevant here.

Those seem to be actual, though relatively rare, examples of “property belonging to a legal owner who nevertheless does not have completely unrestricted freedom to dispose of the property however they please, because of the importance of said property to potential future owners”.

Might one argue that art treasures should be regarded as “heirlooms” in some such way?

Well, maybe. But most common law countries have (rightly) abolished that sort of arrangement as an anachronism.

What about The National Historic Preservation Act of 1966? AFAIK, it doesn’t apply to paintings or sculptures, but the character you’re quoting mentions the pyramids and the Parthenon as things that people shouldn’t be allowed to just destroy on a whim.

Great art doesn’t belong to the world by virtue of it being great; it belongs to the world by virtue of there being no clear claim to ownership.

If I paint a great painting, it’s mine. If I sell it to someone, it’s his. He can do what he wants with it. I’m in favor of reduced copyright limits, so I’d also hope that after a few decades, reproductions of that painting can be enjoyed by anyone.

But the Pyramids and the Parthenon have no such obvious owners. It’s not clear to me that the Egyptians or the Greeks out to be considered their owners in full. Custodians and caretakers, yes. If they want to control access, sure. If they want to totally destroy them, I’m not sure they should have that right.

Should the British Museum get to keep the Rosetta Stone by virtue of the fact that they got it before Egypt had its shit together as a modern state? Not clear at all. Should they get to destroy it if they feel like it? Absolutely not.

What about Article 6bis of the Berne Convention, commonly known as “moral rights”?

Surely “distortion, mutilation or other modification” would include the complete destruction of an artwork? I’ve always been told that this means that just because you own a particular piece of art doesn’t mean that you can do whatever you want with it. That you cannot, in fact, alter it or mutilate it without the artist’s permission.

Obviously this wouldn’t apply to things like the Pyramids or the Parthenon, which are long out of copyright (if they were ever in it), but it does seem to be a legal principle that the owner of an artwork cannot simply treat it in any way they see fit, without regard for the creator’s wishes.

I agree, it does belong to the world. Not sure about the ownership issue, but it should be made available to researches and if possible the public. I think what the Catholic Church does with all the artifacts it has stolen over the years is a crime. Humanity has a right to see and study everything in there.

We’ve just had an interesting case in London. The owners of a pub in London (a 1920s building that had replaced a decrepit older pub on the same site that much of the neighbourhood considered an essential part of the local social/community fabric) wanted to demolish it and build flats on the site; the local council turned down the planning application, and on top of that the building was heritage-listed (grade II, which is a pretty strong protection, not usually applied to 1920s pub buildings, I think). They went ahead and knocked it down anyway, but the council has just ordered them to rebuild it exactly as it was. Enter the lawyers…

That link doesn’t work for me.

I’ve been reading up on several cases recently that resemble this novel’s scenario, but it’s playing out in real life. The Ahayuda “Twin” figures of the Zuni pueblo were made to be naturally weathered away, and were left out in the open to do so. Many such figures have found their way into private collections and in Natural History and Art museums. (Exactly how they got there, I don’t know – they might have been taken, or possibly bought. But the Zuni are quite adamant that they shouldn’t have been removed from the outdoors). There has been an ongoing project in repatriating these for several years now…

Similarly, people of the Zia pueblo art not happy that one of their sacred symbols has been appropriated as a central element of the New Mexico state flag (especially since, on the flag, it’s rendered in the Spanish Royal Colors used by the Conquistadors). They maintain that the pot from which the design was abstracted, which was in a museum, should not have been there in the first place (they’re not allowed out of the community grounds). They don’t like seeing it on items all over New Mexico (including, for instance, Port-a-Potties).

The rulings in these cases seem to be going with the pueblos. The Zuni have reclaimed several of the Ahayuda figures. The Zia pueblo is getting royalties from its sun symbol (although I’m sure they’d rather everyone else stop using it.)

Actually, I don’t think we do (call it a “taking”). My house is considered a historical structure, and I am not allowed to demo it to build a new house. My municipality is not required to compensate me for that. Also, in the case of the Taj, there is an issue of zoning. That area is most likely not zoned for a hotel.

How do you propose to enforce that?

Well, the “taking” thing is a bit more complicated than that. Presumably your house was already a historically significant structure when you bought it, in which compensation was paid to the prior owner. The limitation on demolition was part of the title you took.

India doesn’t really have zoning laws. The area immediately around the Taj Mahal is off-limits to non-electric traffic, though.

Legally and probably ethically I think it’s tricky from an enforcement/punishment perspective. Art vandals don’t seem to get massive prison sentences, and any financial compensation for destruction of private property would be (I’m guessing) a civil issue and probably a blood/stone situation. Even if we passed a “Protection of Items of Historical Significance in Private Ownership Act,” what would the penalties realistically be? Would there be provisions to prevent neglect? Would intent matter? And what would the punishments be? I could maybe get behind such a law if all of those issues were sorted out to my satisfaction, but it seems pointless. A solution in search of a problem, and anyone hell bent on destroying art (for, say, religious reasons) likely wouldn’t be terribly swayed by whatever meager punishments we’d dole out.

But morally? You don’t see any moral problem with intentionally making a bunch of people sad for no good reason? I think a basic “don’t be a jerk” moral code would suffice to make someone not want to destroy universally loved art in their own private collection.

The problem I see it is, when you talk about international agreements or ownership, it always always comes down to who can enforce it.

The US has tons of treaties with other countries, but if we don’t like living up to one, who’s going to stop us? Other countries can take us to court, levie fines or tariffs against us, but unless they follow through, we have the bigger guns and more influence and we can ignore them to our heart’s content. Nobody can force us to do anything except by force

Morally, I do think there is probably some line in which a piece of art can be seen as a human achievement, and the originator loses sole claim to it, but I’m uncomfortable drawing that line and even less comfortable enforcing it. That doesn’t mean that if yokels in Afghanistan blow up some ancient Buddha statues, I’d be against the US bombing them to smithereens. Fuck them. But I’m not sure if some international art court would be the appropriate place to settle these issues.

At the moment, I’m content knowing that people who appreciate art have the biggest guns and sometimes are willing to use it, but with some restraint. Disputes between countries, like the British museum returning ancient Greek or Egyptian art, are for those countries only

My opinion is that art can certainly be owned, and the owners have the right to do what they will with it. My further opinion is that stewardship of that art should be considered part and parcel of art ownership, and that breaking up a Michelangelo for bathroom tile is against that principle.

To make my position even more confused and untenable (some would say “nuanced”) I don’t feel that any sort of legal action should be allowed to infringe on the ownership of that art - in other words, it should be legal to break that Michelangelo, but that societal pressure is valid to bring to bear to show that it is not acceptable behavior.

Nope. We declare buildings to be historical landmarks all the time in this country. I’m unaware of people being compensated for it.