I had one day in London this trip, and I decided to visit The British Museum, which I have never visited before (it doesn’t hurt that it’s free either). For the most part, there is nothing British about it. There are some Anglo-Saxon artifacts, plus the Enlightenment wing, but other than that it covers most of the other cultures of the world. And most of the stuff is old. BC old. Despite this, I still think it is art, or at least it was art when it was created. To me, this immediately begs the question, what right do the British have to the artifacts of other cultures and nations? Sure, some of the items were gifts to Britain, and others are contemporary, but most of the exhibits display ancient artifacts from many countries the Brits had colonized. The Elgin Marbles from the Parthenon in Athens come to mind first.
As I strolled around the museum ogling at the spoils of the British Empire multiple philosophical questions about property and aesthetics came to my mind. First of all, to demand that a plundered artifact be returned to its country of origin is an exertion of a country’s right to its heritage. But truly what is the basis for this right? Why are the current day inhabitants of a country entitled to the artwork and structures of their ancestors? When someone dies the government taxes their possessions. Of course this is very controversial, but it shows that some people do not believe that you have an absolute right to the possessions of your ancestors. And I see the merits of this argument. If a culture abandons art or a structure so that it becomes lost to time, why can’t another country discover and claim it? I’m not saying that I am settling on either side of the argument, but I am saying that I see the merits of arguments that artifacts do not have to be returned to their countries of origins.
Claiming that abandoned artifacts belong to whomever claims them also carries the assumption that art is somehow different from other stuff in the ground. For instance, I can’t think of a valid argument why natural resources are up for grabs. Surely their disposition is up to the country they are found in, not finders keepers. These distinctions immediately raise questions about aesthetics and the ontology of art. What is art, and what value does it have? How should we judge and critique art? What makes it different from other property, like natural resources? I have struggled with these questions since middle school when we started studying poetry. Most humans have an appreciation for art (and oftentimes nature as well) that comes from somewhere. It may even be innate – part of our genetic makeup somehow. Certainly some aspects of aesthetics are cultural. Different cultures evaluate art differently; appreciation is nearly universal. Why were there so many people at this one museum, including myself, mesmerized and impressed by the Egyptian obelisks and the craftsmanship displayed in ancient gold trinkets from Central Asia?
Despite all of these issues and questions, there were some excellent exhibits at the museum. I thought that the African exhibit was excellent. It showed all of the different media of art on the continent as well as the variation in artistic styles among different African cultures. In addition, I loved this Mexican mobile made of papier-mâché depicting the Four Horseman of the Apocalypse. It is a contemporary piece made for a Día de los Muertos celebration. It was difficult to photograph because of the lighting, my camera, and where it was hanging, but I think this photo does it some justice:
Even this mobile, my favorite piece at the museum, raises philosophical questions about art. I didn’t know what this piece of art was until I asked a docent. I’m hard pressed to find the value in a piece of art if the meaning of the art needs to be explained to me.
At the museum I also came across a replica of Stela A, an artifact from the Copan Mayan ruins in Honduras. I love the Mayas, so this would normally pique my interest. However, this is not the first time I came across a replica of Stela A. The Capilla del Hombre in Quito, Ecuador (a very interesting site in its own respects) also has a replica which I photographed when I was in Ecuador in 2009 (on the same trip was my friend Mike, who is a recent Returned Peace Corps Volunteer from Nicaragua). Even more interestingly, the actual stela from Copan (a site I have regrettably never visited) was sketched by Frederick Catherwood in Incidents of Travel, the namesake for this blog.
Stela A depicts King 18 Rabbit being spoken to by an ancestor in the form of a sun god. Stelae such as this were very common at Copan. They establish dynastic legitimacy and demonstrate the power of rulers.
Next stop after London: Stockholm!