All the Marbles
I’m not even going to apologize for these subject lines anymore. You knew what you were getting into
So there were reports last week that, in the latest chapter of the ongoing teeth-grind that is Brexit, the return of the Elgin Marbles from the UK to Greece might be in play as an item to be negotiated.* Every art-history person I know, no matter how sympathetic we are to friends in the UK who are getting hosed by Brexit, started laughing when they heard the news.
*Might; there were several newspaper reports, but the prominent British classical historian Mary Beard noted that she hadn’t heard anything about this, and she’s pretty reliable. Who knoooooows? Actually, keep reading, we’ll get to this
What’s the big deal, you ask? What are these marbles? What’s going on with this? Why, I’m happy to walk you through it.
You know the Parthenon, right? Famous building from ancient Greece, sits in a mostly-ruined state on the Acropolis in Athens? The Elgin Marbles are a bunch of statues and reliefs, done in marble (so calling them “marbles” is the same linguistic sleight of hand as calling a bunch of bronze statues “bronzes”), that were decorations on the Parthenon but were removed and hauled off to London between 1801 and 1812 by the Earl of Elgin. Elgin claimed he had official permission to do this from the Ottoman Empire, but I guess the polite way to put it is that this claim isn’t widely recognized or believed. This was all during the Napoleonic Wars, which were kind of a golden age of British cultural looting.
To condense a couple of centuries of international finger-flipping, Greece has wanted the marbles back ever since they regained their independence in the 1830s, arguing that hunks of the Parthenon are rightfully part of their cultural patrimony and belong in Athens; the UK, conversely, has essentially argued that nope, we have them and they look great in the British Museum.
One thing the Elgin Marbles teach us: if you’re fighting a centaur and you try to knee him in the balls the way you would a man, you’re going to lose. Maybe there’s a metaphor here?
And honestly, I’m just barely exaggerating here. The British Museum and the British government have put forward arguments for keeping the marbles (including in a handout that they keep in the gallery, a pretty clear sign that they know their position is dubious), but these arguments aren’t exactly logically bulletproof. The central one is that the British Museum is the safest place for the sculptures to be, both because it’s a world-class, well-funded museum and because (this one is juuuuust between the lines but is very clearly part of the argument) London is a safer, more stable city than Athens.
Which: bullshit on all counts. Starting with the second sub rosa argument: if London is/was a safer, more stable city than Athens for precious art, a big part of that is/was the (hopefully diminished?) risk in Athens of well-armed rich people and their troops showing up from London and stealing your stuff. This British argument is like a bully taking another kid’s lunch money and then arguing that the fact he was able to do it shows that the other kid can’t be trusted with money. And aside from colonial looting, I don’t know that the UK can claim with a straight face that London’s a safer city on a large scale; London’s been the subject within living memory of an attempt to bomb the city to rubble, has endured waves of terrorist bombings afterwards, and, should shit really hit the fan, would be a much higher-priority nuclear target than Athens. If you tried to actually engage with this argument in good faith, I think you wind up pretty quickly flipping around to seeing that the marbles should be in Athens.
And then there’s the more openly-stated argument that the British Museum is the better institution to care for the pieces, much more qualified than anything the Greeks could string together. Again, bullshit. Paternalistic bullshit in this case, the idea that backwards, non-British (read: lesser) people couldn’t possibly take care of something. The marbles were damaged in the 1930s when some British Museum brain geniuses tried to clean them with acid and wire brushes. Partly as a nose-thumb at the British Museum, the Greek government has already built a first-class facility in Athens to house the marbles. The British Museum is a great and well-funded institution, but they’re hardly the only people on the planet capable of taking care of art. And if their greatest concern really is the institutional care of the marbles, they could always contribute money to their care in Athens; it could be thought of as a type of reparations for stealing them in the first place.
This does remind me of one of my favorite weird stories about European art looting. Last year, Rebecca and I went to Berlin, and one of the highlight of an absolutely top-flight trip was a day we spent in a couple of Berlin’s museums, the Pergamon and the Neues. Both of these museums are filled to the brim with great art looted by Germans in the 19th and early 20th centuries; the Pergamon includes an entire city gate from Ishtar, and the Neues houses floors of looted ancient Egyptian art including the famous bust of Nefertiti, all swiped in the golden age of colonial looting and proudly displayed without qualm. The upper floors of the Neues are mostly dedicated to art from Germany, including a couple of medieval German hunting horns; however, a large plaque next to the horns snippily informs you that these are replicas, and that the real horns were taken to Moscow as trophies by Soviet troops in 1945*, and despite years of requests neither the Soviet or Russian governments have shown any interest in giving them back or even showing any regret at this heinous act of looting.
*The Neues was a head trip because there’s this multilayered history thing going on where you’re looking at, say, ancient Egyptian artifacts in a building that stuff has scorch marks and bullet holes on the walls from an apparent firefight in this building in 1945. All of Berlin really affected me this way.
Looting is in the eye of the beholder is my point, I guess.
So anyway, back to that current report. Later this year, the UK has to negotiate the final status of its withdrawal from the EU, and apparently some clear-eyed politician in Greece recognized that this is a moment of once-in-a-lifetime leverage, and convinced the EU government to add the status of the marbles as an item up for negotiation in the UK’s final status. Or, also possibly (and I think this is what Mary Beard was suggesting was going on), the reports are all just talk being pushed by some cynical bastard in the UK to use a culturally sensitive point to harden public opinion in advance of the negotiation (“foreigners want to take our stuff” is always a popular right-wing talking point, even when the stuff in question actually does belong to the foreigners). Either way, there’s a decent chance that some discussion will at least happen. I can’t bring myself to hope that the Elgin Marbles will actually be returned to Greece and displayed at the Parthenon, even though I think they very, very clearly should. But if nothing else, I love the fact that the “they’re ours because we have them” crowd at least has to squirm a little.
Rebecca Collins has been a ghost haunting this newsletter (she’s also my wife). Every issue that’s gone out has included at least one recommendation or link that I originally got from her. So I’m stoked to announce that she’s starting her own recommendation-themed newsletter, Everything Wow.
She describes the forthcoming EW thus:
If you love recommendations, weird stuff, and happy finds, Everything Wow is for you.
I’m Rebecca Collins and I started this newsletter because I’m curious about a lot of stuff; my interests tend to go all over the place. One moment I’m diving deep into the lives of the ancient Egyptians and the next I’m realizing how deeply satisfying it is to make your own salad dressings. I used to think my ever-changing interests and my thirst for the new and zany was weird and then I decided to embrace it as an approach to life. Problem solved.
Through this newsletter, I share a lot of what I explore and try. Each issue delves into one topic of interest, suggests something WOW to buy/try, and offers up a satisfying/gratifying thing to do.
There are a lot of hard edges out there that we come up against every day. Think of Everything Wow as your respite; a quick slide down a rainbow into a fluffy cloud.
I have an inside track on the Everything Wow production studio, and know they’re going to start coming out soon. You should sign up! It’s gonna be great.
Some time before too long, I should do an issue about the painter Kerry James Marshall. Until I do that, just go check out his work, it’s great.
While we’re at it, this 5-minute news clip about the artist Betye Saar is pretty great. Or, more accurately, the clip does a good job of documenting how great she is.
OK, so here at the bottom, sorry for the ragged copy editing; my deal with myself was to keep this fast and loose, which is gonna mean typos. On the other hand, that also means it’ll actually come out, instead of being obsessed over.
If you have any thoughts/reactions/what have you about this, I’d love to hear about it, either by email or on Twitter. And if you know anybody who might dig this, please forward it on to them, or send ‘em the signup link! And thanks!