Who Owns Art? Blog
One piece of good news in San Francisco this week was the announcement of the reopening of the San Francisco Museum
of Modern Art scheduled for May 14, 2016. According to an article in the San Francisco Chronicle, the new museum, which has been under renovation for three years, will be the country’s largest museum of modern art.
While art lovers are waiting expectantly to see the new building and new collections, they may ponder whether any of the art displayed will cause a controversy like those that have caused problems for so many museum. For the most part, modern art pieces have not been around long enough to inspire questions about who made them. And in future there may be even fewer fears about forgeries and mis-attributions if a new scientific technique for giving art pieces permanent DNA markers comes into common use. Martin Tenniswood, a lead scientist on the project, spoke on NPR (National Public Radio) about the technique which will be able to put a tag on individual art works that clearly identify it. Just as the DNA of a person cannot be faked, so too this marker should end the fears of collectors and museums that they might purchase a forgery.
Historically, of course, it is not only forgeries that have caused trouble. There is also the ongoing arguments about whether Western museums have the right to collect and display the art of indigenous people, and whether the urge to protect art in
war-torn countries is justified. One of the first acts that started these arguments was the removal of the Elgin marbles from Greece to England. Next year will mark the 200th anniversary of the sale of the Elgin marbles to the British government. They are one of the major attractions of the British Museum and are seen every year by more than five million people.
If you want to read a fascinating account of the background of how the Elgin marbles were purchased by Lord Elgin, using the money of his extremely wealthy Scottish wife, and shipped to England at least in part because Lady Elgin was able to use her charms to persuade the Sultan of Turkey as well as the British Navy to help her, I strongly recommend the book Mistress of the Elgin Marbles by Susan Nagel. A series of events, helped along by a clash of personalities, led Lord Elgin to appreciate the value of the marbles, but eventually also to the breakup of his marriage. Would Britain ever have owned the marbles if Lady Elgin hadn’t rebelled after bearing five children and declaring that she refused to suffer through another childbirth? Would Lord Elgin have agreed with his wife’s wishes if he hadn’t been driven by the desire to have enough sons to ensure his name was carried on? Today as we look at the marbles, unchanging and austere in their dedicated gallery, we can think about the human passions that led to their being available for our viewing. But the arguments about whether or not they should be returned to Greece continue to rumble on.
Perhaps we will never settle the question of who has the right to own and display art. Is it better to have art preserved, even
far from the place of its origin, or to let it remain unmoved no matter how challenging the circumstances of its homeland? Does art belong to all people in the world who take care to preserve and maintain it, or should it remain with the group who created it no matter whether it is destroyed or not? That is a very difficult question to answer. Who has the right to judge?
Seeing a new play while it is still in preview, before any reviews have appeared, is always fun for me. Without having anyone else’s judgment to guide me, I can pretend to be a Broadway critic on opening night. A few days ago I had a chance to do that while I was in New York for the weekend—not on Broadway but at the Public Theater downtown where so many legendary plays have opened.
This time my chance came with a new musical, First Daughter Suite, by Michael John LaChiusa, which is based on the lives of the wives and daughters of recent U.S. presidents. The four scenes feature Pat Nixon and her daughters Julie and Tricia; Betty Ford and Rosalynn Carter with daughters Susan Ford and Amy Carter; Nancy Reagan with daughter Patti Davis; and finally Barbara Bush and Laura Bush with the ghost of Barbara’s daughter Robin, who died as a child. The production is superb, the music charming and appropriate, and the acting spectacular. Almost all of the actors play two roles and playing two such different women as Nancy Reagan and Betty Ford during one performance, as Alison Fraser does, is an amazing feat. Each of the performers inhabits her role with remarkable grace and complete conviction.
What lingers with me still, several days after I saw the show, are questions about how much reality the show reflects. The six president’s wives portrayed are familiar to most of us through the immense publicity they received during their husband’s campaigns and time in office. Each of them took on the difficult job of serving as first lady and met the requirements of not causing a public crisis or major embarrassment despite the glare of publicity goes along with the presidency these days. They must be both tough and capable; yet somehow in this play they come across as victims. The White House is regarded almost as a prison that both mothers and daughters would like to escape.
None of the women portrayed in this play show much interest in any of the policies their husbands were pursuing, yet earlier first ladies frequently influenced, and by some account dominated, their husband’s choices of positions and personnel. If we look back at history, even the quietest first ladies were active participants in the business of government.
Abigail Adams was called “Mrs. President” by some of John Adams’s staff because she was so active in politics and so influence with her husband.
- Florence Harding, the long-forgotten wife of Warren Harding, was reported to have written her husband’s inauguration speech and to have dictated his selection of cabinet members
- Eleanor Roosevelt, of course, was a leading adviser to her husband and strongly influenced his ideas and his policies.
I am pretty sure that the first ladies portrayed in First Daughter Suite were not only observers, much less victims, of their husband’s actions. Although First Daughter Suite gives us a fascinating glimpse of life in the White House, I’m still waiting for a play that will show us a more rounded portrait of the women
who have lived there.