The safety of artworks

May 24, 2020

Can a layman tweak the artwork he owns?

The Persistence of Memory by Salvador Dalí.

Created in studios, art is sold mostly through dealers and galleries. Collectors of art may include private persons, companies, business houses and government organisations.

A work of art remains unavailable for public viewing, except when it is purchased for a public gallery or museum. Some collectors do loan their possessions to important exhibitions but, by and large, artworks become invisible after they are sold. The standard practice is to pack and safely keep them in vaults and storages.

A person who accumulates valuable stuff, say a gold ring, a huge mansion or an expensive car, may one day decide to have them overhauled, altered or modified.

However, despite being a legitimate owner of artworks, the same person would never be allowed to, say, repaint a Van Gogh, recycle a Brancusi sculpture, or pull down a house by Frank Lloyd Wright to propose a shopping mall, or even a hospital.

In fact, it’s not an individual, specific community or country that owns these art works. Instead, these pieces are possessions of entire humanity. Wealthy collectors, connoisseurs, curators, multinational organisations, states are just their keepers.

If the current possessor of an art work is not its owner, what about the artist, the maker of that piece? The artist only has the right to change, discard or destroy his work as long as it is in her studio, workshop or office. Once it is shown outside, that right diminishes.

Imagine if Salvador Dali’s celebrated painting The Persistence of Memory created in 1931 was not sold, but only displayed extensively, documented widely and written about regularly.

Dali decides to modify the work or paint an entirely new image on that surface. He could never do that. Because after an artwork enters the domain of collective culture, even the maker is not allowed to alter it.

This aspect of collective ownership compels a publisher not to change the original text of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, Conrad’s Lord Jim, or Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights, despite the fact that these books are now outside the copyright law.

What these authors wrote is not the possession of a single person, their heirs or a foundation; everyone who has read them owns Anna Karenina, Lord Jim, and Wuthering Heights.

However, a work of art is not like a piece of literature. Here the value is attached to an object that cannot be reproduced ad-infinitum. It has the distinction of a single item, created by an individual or community. Hence, its connection with a certain milieu.

Literary works do not remain confined to the author’s original language or community. On the contrary, artworks cannot be translated, and are hence deeply rooted in the culture where they are made.

But if the artist is not a master of his creation, then who owns it? Is it the society in which it was created?

This debate is stirred every time the question of returning artworks to their place of origin is raised. The colonising Western powers looted art from Africa, Asia and South America. We see them in Europe today.

The British Museum, Louvre, Victoria and Albert Museum are full of arts and crafts from former colonies. In a sense, these are shopping malls of art. Because when you visit Dubai Mall, or Westfield in London, you come across stores of French perfumes, Italian shoes, American jeans, Swiss watches, Indian cotton, all selling under one roof, and you don’t need to travel to Paris, Milan, Austin, Zurich, or Jaipur, since products are presented away from their physical place of origin.

Ideally, museums of the world should be like these shopping malls, where you go and find objects from across continents, an experience that liberates you from the ground beneath your feet.

A common space which makes you recognise the links between cultures and civilizations, and realise that division of countries is a late phenomenon. Cultures were in conversation with each other, and cultural goods/knowledge moved beyond geographical limits.

Exchange of ideas, innovations, and objects had been a regular feature of human history. Arabs translated Greek philosophy, which was later used in Europe; two painters from Persia migrated to India initiating a new style of Indian miniature painting, which further evolved by examples of Dutch and Flemish painting. Chinese paper was brought to India by Muslims, thus changing the aesthetics of image-making.

With European powers’ expeditions into different parts of the planet, art from colonised regions was transported from its place of origin or immediate audience - sometimes unethically, through looting, confiscation and smuggling.

On the issue of housing works of art at foreign locations, Nadine Gordimer allows them to be retained only if “example of art from other cultures, objects complete in themselves, not plundered from their original context, but legally purchased – objects that exist in many surviving examples in their countries of origin”.

The question of returning these artworks to their places of origin is complex. Curator and theorist Ariella Aïsha Azoulay says, “It is not possible to decolonize the museum without decolonizing the world.”

Yet demands for sending back art and artefacts that were robbed and looted, or ‘purchased’ forcibly or at a low price, is justified (like the legal case of Iqbal Geoffrey for reclaiming the Kohinoor).

But what would happen if everything is returned to its site of origin?

There would be some inheritance disputes, to start with, because the nation state of today did not always exist in history. For instance, who should own the Dancing Girl of Mohenjo-Daro? The National Museum New Delhi, or the Archaeological Museum Mohenjo-Daro, Larkana?

And how would the works of ancient art be divided between museums of Greece and Turkey, or Italy and Tunisia, or for that matter between Iraq, Syria, Iran, or between the six republics of former Yugoslavia?

The other question in this regard, beyond the politically correct and culturally comfortable cliché, relates to safety and future of artworks once dispatched back. Would those be safe back home?

Some years ago, I was writing on the collection of modern paintings at the Lahore Museum. That day, I went again to the museum in order to have a second look. Before entering the museum, I was directed to the security officer’s room, who confided into me that they were extra cautious these days because four illuminated manuscripts had recently gone missing.

Strangely, that day a few museum-guards in the morning were already talking about the theft in the museum which took place later that afternoon.

The safety of artworks