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Who Owns Art?

A proposed auction of items made in WWII internment camps here is cancelled but the issues remain.....

This is Dark Cloud on Wednesday, April 22, 2015.

It was brought to my attention on Facebook that some art work by Japanese Americans held in concentration camps during WWII had been up for auction, but that it had been cancelled. These were items that came to be in the hands of Americans not of Japanese heritage who'd found themselves in need of ready cash. Descendents of the war-time barely legal internment victims were upset that these items of history would be dispersed and not in a museum, where they should be. It burns that the oppressors should again benefit.

I have to admit that I temporarily lost interest in the controversy because among the items were some sculptured wood panels that were exquisite, just beautiful detailed work of herons, I think, that somehow radiate both the animal in its uber detailed realism and yet, somehow, reflect Japan and its people in posture and pose and restrained elegance and taste. I don't normally talk like this, but these things are beautiful. I'll include a link in this week's transcript. My first reaction was a sincere wish the artist or artists continued a career of high income with such work.

It brought up the issue of who owns art, and for how long. The law, as in so many disciplines, has been behind numerous waves of change. The music business has changed dramatically since free and often stolen music on the internet has meant artists have to charge big time for live performance, which not that long ago were just breakeven or better marketing gimmicks to sell records. Fifty years after recent wars, the truth about pillage and theft elbows its way forth, and the Nazi and Soviet thefts in Europe are now an increasingly major problem. One of the issues Greece has with Germany is that a rather sizeable amount of statuary and art vanished north with the Swastika at war's end. Goering's theft of paintings from European elite, primarily Jewish, has always been a sore point.

It's very true that the Elgin Marbles England stole from Greece previous are in better shape than they would be in their homeland, where pollution and war and vandalism has destroyed so much more than mere responsible pillaging. It would be interesting and embarrassing to pursue the provenance of many items on Antiques Roadshow, where a happy middle aged or elderly couple are finding the value of some beautiful antique from their Aunt Fergie and nobody knows how she got it, somehow. Sometimes there is an entirely implausible story that goes with it, a suggested alternative to what the truth probably is.

Recent histories are freely admitting that during the Blitz in England, rescuers and firefighters were often at odds with many looters, who'd remove jewelry and money from corpses and the merely wounded, and take anything they could get their hands on that looked valuable in the wreckage of London and other major cities. They had wire cutters to sever fingers in aid of their goals. In some cases, perhaps, the items came to England by methods no more legal or ethical. Let's not get pompous. During 9-11, there was ample evidence, albeit contested, that police and firemen were pillaging jewelers and clothing stores in the WTC before it collapsed. And the offered excuse is that it was a war zone, and when in Rome.......

To this day, airplane crash sites within reach are often first visited by local looters. Just one example: read about Buddy Holly's plane crash. Barely different than the Ayatollah Khomeini's funeral, where believers snipped hair, skin, and fingers for relics, just like the Catholics. Relics are art, too.

Put it this way. If England stole items but protected them, why should they give them back to Greece, now only a variant of those who produced the artists in question and merely sharing the term 'Greek.' If Iraq or Egypt becomes solely feudal Muslim in government, and authorizes the dynamiting of Babylon and a thousand and one historical and art sites within, would that be worth a war to stop it and protect the history of our species?

And what about the art and possessions of the Americans of Japanese heritage who were interned in violation of everything the US stands for. Earl Warren was then a very conservative Governor of California, and he and FDR made it happen. Guilt may have influenced Warren thereinafter, when the KKK wanted him impeached as too liberal.

But who deserves the art of those Warren allowed interned today?