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Russia is the wrong place to lend a Parthenon sculpture to

In coverage of the recent loan of a Parthenon sculpture to Russia [1] by the British Museum, a number of themes have emerged.

One of these themes is that we should not be making (masssice, groundbreaking) loans to Putin’s Russia. This current story comes at a time of continuing tension in the Ukraine and with the EU applying sanctions against Russia. Surely, one must conclude that they not a country for Britain to be rewarding and ingratiating themselves to at this current point in time.

Visitors passing a sculpture from the Parthenon marbles at the Hermitage in St Petersburg, Russia [2]

Visitors passing a sculpture from the Parthenon marbles at the Hermitage in St Petersburg, Russia

Guardian [3]

The British Museum is wrong to loan the Parthenon marbles to Russia
The UK has chosen sanctions as a weapon against Russia, so why are we now inviting cultural exchanges?
Hugh Muir
Friday 5 December 2014 10.57 GMT

Time passes and memories fade, but does anyone remember Malaysia Airlines flight MH17, the one shot down by Russian-backed separatists over Ukraine in July? All 298 passengers were killed when a missile downed the airliner. I knew one of the victims a few years back: Glenn Thomas, a very affable British journalist who worked for the World Health Organisation and was on his way to a health conference in Australia.

We were pretty angry about that, and about what Vladimir Putin has been up to in Ukraine, and so for some time we have been trying to impose some sort of pressure on the Russian president by applying sanctions to his regime. Today, in the midst of those efforts, we learn that the British Museum has decided to loan Russia part of its hotly contested property, the Parthenon marbles, also known as the Elgin marbles.

The Greeks can’t have them back – and we’re pretty steadfast about that, even when high-profile lawyer Amal Clooney is doing the asking. But Russia can borrow them for a while. The museum, weighing the priorities, has decided that the dominant one in this case is “the Enlightenment ideal that the greatest things in the world should be seen and studied, shared and enjoyed by as many people in as many countries as possible”. The trustees said in a statement that they “have always believed that such loans must continue between museums in spite of political disagreements between governments”.

But is that right? Does art stand apart from the worldwide effort to deal with Putin? I don’t want to buck the Enlightenment, but the arrangement makes me uneasy.

Think about the sanctions. What are they for? The concept is surely to show Russia that it cannot behave as it has been doing and expect life to continue as before. The logic is that bad behaviour must impair the country’s relationship with other critical countries around the world, and that when the repercussions of that start to bite at home, the social and economic backlash might force a leader such as Putin to modify his behaviour.

This is what aggrieved nations have decided to do in lieu of any other show of force. One might argue that the sanctions have not been terribly effective: a few of the regime’s cronies are finding it a bit more difficult to access funds around the world, but the bigger problem for Putin is the 40% drop in global oil prices that has meant a steep fall in the value of the Russian rouble. But sanctions are the weapon we have chosen. It means a degree of pressure on the Russian people. While the status quo exists, things cannot be normal – and that might mean that there aren’t so many exciting borrowed things to see in the national galleries. We would have been better off leaving the marbles where they are and doing something about the never-ending standoff with Greece.

We have been here before, of course. The debate about whether sport stands apart from the ugliness and complexity of real life crops up every now and then. Was it right that the renegade band of cricketers took blood-soaked shillings from the apartheid regime during the period of sanctions against white supremacist South Africa? No, it wasn’t. Sport doesn’t stand apart from life’s joy, pain and complexity. Sport is one of the ways those things manifest themselves. That’s why it touches us so deeply. It has a wider responsibility. So does art.

There are limits. No one would argue that if David Cameron falls out with Angela Merkel at a G8 dinner all normal contact with Germany should cease, but this is different. We have a definite position on dealing with Putin, whose ambitions are increasingly unnerving.

However flawed it may be, much of the world has a strategy. I am sure the decision to loan the marbles to St Petersburg was taken in good faith, but I think it was wrong and that the museum may regret it.

Dawn.com [4]

Marbles lost
Updated Dec 07, 2014 09:34am

There is some irony to be found in the fact that the British Museum has sent one of the Parthenon Marbles for display to Russia, given that relations between the government in Moscow and Nato countries are at a historic low, while Greece is left discomfited.

The British Museum’s director said on Friday that such loans must continue between museums regardless of political disagreements at the level of governments, and it is hard to disagree.

Nevertheless, the sculptures being in the news again provides reason to reflect on how much cultural treasure from across the globe was removed from the land that gave birth to it — hijacked, bought for peanuts or shanghaied away during periods of direct colonisation or indirect influence.

In many countries that have lost parts of their history in this way, there are now a growing number of voices demanding that such ‘stolen’ artefacts be returned to their original homes, including Greece.

With reference to the Elgin Marbles, as they are also known — a nod to the British peer who saw to their removal from Greece just over two centuries ago — the Greek prime minister said in an emailed statement that the British Museum’s decision “taunts the Greek people. The Parthenon and its sculptures were vandalised”.

Those opposing the return of cultural artefacts to their original homes often say that these countries — many still struggling along the path to development — do not have the resources to properly look after them.

Indeed, many developing countries, including Pakistan, tend to be characterised by lack of desire to prioritise the protection of sites and artefacts of culture and heritage.

Whether it is the destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas in Afghanistan or the use of Pakistan’s Makli necropolis as a camping site for people displaced by the floods in Sindh, the attitude is one of neglect — even when, as in Pakistan, protective laws and government agencies are in place.

Old, it would seem, is still not gold in many countries.

Published in Dawn December 7th , 2014

The Globalist [5]

Britain’s Christmas Gift to Putin
Cameron commits a shocking diplomatic mistake and loses yet another European ally.
By Denis MacShane, December 6, 2014

David Cameron has given Vladimir Putin a Christmas gift.

The Russian strongman will now get a chance to forget about the plunging ruble, falling oil prices, G20 nations furious over his dispatch of troops and arms to destabilize Ukraine, the growing NATO presence in Poland and the Baltic States — as he gazes upon the beautiful present London has sent him.

It is a carving – the front half of a statue – of the Greek god of rivers, Illissos, and represents the highest accomplishment of ancient Greek classical art.

Britain can send this statue to Russia because it forms part of the Parthenon Marbles that were looted by a British imperialist two centuries ago and brought back to London to symbolize the right of London to help itself to anything, anywhere in the world without any check or balance.

The statue was part of a frieze that decorated the Parthenon temple, which stands atop the Acropolis in Athens.

For more than two millennia the Parthenon has symbolized the birth of western civilization. Democracy, philosophy, literature and the greatest sculptures known to humankind were all shaped at the foot of the Parthenon.
Condemning the art thieves

At the beginning of the 19th century, the Greeks, inspired by the revolution in France and the United States escaping from British rule, were starting their path to independence from the decadent Ottoman Empire.

Greece became independent in 1822. The great poet, Lord Byron, joined the Greek independence struggle and died in the country.

Before he died, he condemned a fellow Lord who had robbed Greece of some of its finest art. Lord Elgin was the British Ambassador to the Ottoman Empire.

As the Napoleonic wars ravaged Europe, it was clear that the Ottomans who held sway over Athens were on the way out.

Elgin climbed up the Acropolis and hacked off the beautiful carved statutory that formed the top of the Parthenon under its triangular topping. He shipped the marble carvings back to London in the best fashion of plunder that has always accompanied great power and no responsibility.

He claimed some Turkish official had given him permission, but the Parthenon was deprived of its masterpieces in a moment of ugly British superiority, which the Americans came to appreciate when, in another vicious pointless act, the British burned the White House in 1812.

For two centuries the marbles – known in Britain as the “Elgin” Marbles, as if the looter should be immortal for having taken what belonged to the Greeks back to England – have been kept in London.

The marbles can be seen in a dull, badly lit room in the British museum far from the sun and blue skies and the glint of the Aegean where they belong.

Now, for the first time one of the marbles has been sent outside of England. Of all people, it has been sent to Vladimir Putin, specifically to his native city of St. Petersburg and its Hermitage Museum.

The Greek government, which has loyally supported the EU sanctions against Putin after his missiles shot down the Malaysian airliner, is reeling in shock.
From one imperialist to another

David Cameron likes to talk tough about Putin, but he has been careful to avoid taking any action against Russian oligarchs in London. Some of them donate to both the Conservative Party and to the British Museum.

This is a rather too obvious appeasement of the Russian leader. Cameron is sending him one of the plundered marbles while at the same time, he refuses to enter into discussion with the Greeks about the return of the marbles.

He even refuses to talk with the Greeks about a sharing agreement between the British Museum and the special state-of-the-art museum built for the marbles at the foot of the Acropolis.

In the past, great works of art have been sent on loan as part of warming up relations. General De Gaulle sent da Vinci’s Mona Lisa to Washington as signal of France wanting to warm up relations with the United States when Kennedy was elected.
For the Greeks, nothing

But the continuing British snub to Greek demands that the marbles — removed by a high-handed British official from an occupying power — should first come home to Greece for a while has now turned into something worse, as Britain provides Putin with such a Christmas present.

Like St. Paul’s Cathedral without its dome or the Statue of Liberty without its torch, the Parthenon without its marbles does not have the full synthesis of harmony that these sublime achievements of Greek art would bring.

That the first time one of the marbles can be seen outside London, it is not Greeks who will see it, but Putin and his St. Petersburg siloviki ex-KGB chums, is an insult to a fellow EU member state without parallel in recent British history.

“Beware of Greeks bearing gifts,” wrote Virgil about the Trojan Horse. Britain’s Christmas gift to Putin will have cost London a friend in a European Union where Britain has fewer and fewer left.

And looking at this major misjudgment in cultural diplomacy by a country once famed for it, many will be asking if David Cameron is finally losing his marbles.

Daily Telegraph [6]

Putin’s Russia does not deserve the Elgin Marbles
In an ideal world art and politics would not mix, but as the Russian president has amply shown, we do not live in an ideal world
By Harry Mount
6:15AM GMT 06 Dec 2014

Pericles, the great Athenian leader, knew all about the political power of art. He didn’t just rule Athens for 32 years; he also backed Herodotus and Sophocles, and inspired Thucydides.

He was responsible for commissioning the greatest building of them all, the Parthenon, and its sculptures. Now this extraordinary man would be spinning in his grave – near Plato’s Academy – at the latest destination of one of those sculptures.

Yesterday, a statue of the Greek river god, Ilissos, went on show at the State Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg. It’s the first time any of the Marbles has left the country since Lord Elgin whipped them off the Acropolis in 1803, paying £75,000 for the sculptures before Athenian exhaust fumes could devour them.

The eternal power of art should normally rise above the day-to-day concerns of politics. But this is no normal situation. Only this week, Vladimir Putin was declaring that the West wants to build a new iron curtain around Russia. The little tyrant neglected to mention that he himself has sparked up a second Cold War with his new mini-empire in Ukraine.

How pleased he must be at beating the world to the glory of showing off the Ilissos statue; particularly when things aren’t going too well for the economy. The rouble has lost 40 per cent of its value against the dollar this year and 60 per cent against the euro; the price of oil, Putin’s lifeblood, has dropped by nearly 40 per cent since the spring.

The British Museum, and its exceptionally diplomatic Director, Neil MacGregor, knew the loan would be supersensitive. Why else did they only announce it once the statue had been smuggled out of the Duveen Gallery and had arrived safely in St Petersburg?

And the chairman of the museum’s trustees, Sir Richard Lambert, acknowledged the loan was only approved 16 days ago, so as to leave wriggle room if the relationship between western Europe and Russia changed.

That relationship was already pretty frosty. What would it have taken to halt the loan – the Third World War?

It’s true that the Hermitage has been generous to Britain in its own loans recently – not least at Somerset House where, from 2000 to 2007, the Hermitage Rooms showed pictures from the gallery. And, last year, Houghton Hall in Norfolk hosted a stellar show of Hermitage paintings.

In an ideal world, art and politics would run on separate tramlines. Neil MacGregor argued as much this week, saying that the chillier relations are between governments, the warmer relations must be between museums.

Yes, but … MacGregor rightly said there can be no chance of lending the marbles to Greece, because they won’t give them back. The sad truth of it is that the transfer of the greatest works of art between different countries and regimes can’t help but collide with politics – whether it’s government refusal of export licences for British art, or the restitution of treasures looted by the Nazis.

Or indeed the treasures looted by the Russians from Berlin museums at the end of the Second World War. How I long to see a loan of Priam’s Treasure – the gold jewellery unearthed at Troy, stolen by the Russians from a bunker under Berlin Zoo, and now locked up in the Pushkin Museum in Moscow. But it’s not coming any time soon to London or Berlin.

The soft diplomacy of art loans is a delicate thing. MacGregor pointed this week to the successful loan, four years ago, of the Cyrus Cylinder, a Persian clay tablet, back to its homeland in Iran for a show seen by nearly half a million people.

A blanket ban on loans to unsatisfactory regimes would unfairly punish millions of art lovers, like those half a million Iranians. But there must be exceptions, when it comes to lending the world’s most revered works to the world’s most unattractive leaders – particularly when the regime in question is being heavily targeted with sanctions from the West, aimed at Putin and his rich pals.

The Elgin Marbles are in a class of their own; a possession for all time, in Thucydides’s words. They mark the extraordinary and precise moment in the mid-fifth century BC when politics, art and architecture magically clicked into place; the moment when Athens became, according to Pericles, the School of Greece. Look at the drapery on that statue of Ilissos when it returns from St Petersburg, and you will see how Greek sculpture sprang to sublime life in flowing, swerving lines, compared to melted chocolate in their natural, liquid movement.

Literally liquid: Ilissos was named after a river that still flows through Athens, and his cloak is sculpted to look dripping wet. With his twisting, bent body, Ilissos could fit snugly into the corner of the western pediment of the Parthenon – what a change from the primitive, stiff, chunky Greek sculpture of a century before.

But the Elgin Marbles are also the ultimate political hot potato. Because they can’t be lent to Greece, any loan to another country must be handled with kid gloves. To minimise further diplomatic tension, their first loan should have been to a scandal-free country with impeccable political credentials; a country that deserved such unprecedented generosity.

Putin’s Russia is not that country.

Harry Mount’s Odyssey: Ancient Greece in the Footsteps of Odysseus will be published next summer by Bloomsbury