01 March 2016

"La culture, c'est moi!"

by Marc Masurovsky

The British are not the only ones who display imperial superiority when it comes to “art” and “culture.” France prizes itself for being one of the most cultured, cultivated, nations in the world. But it is also the country that produced “L’Etat, c’est moi.” I am the State in the person of the King, in this regard, Louis XIV, the Sun-King.
Louis XIV

Now, it is up to Ministers of Culture, Prime Ministers and Presidents and their designated representatives in the person of museum directors and curators to take over that mantle of burdensome responsibility: determining the precise role of culture in the society over which they rule.

No more explicit is such oversight than in their refusal to allow works of art to leave the French territory or in the act of seizure of objects entering the country for whatever reason. Here are some examples:
courtesy of bbc.com

In 2011, the French government ordered a painting seized which had been loaned by a London gallery for display in Paris, arguing that the painting was “stolen property.” And when was the painting stolen? In 1818, not 1918, not 1998, but 1818. The French government alleged that the painting had disappeared from the Louvre. An audit of the Louvre records showed that the painting was no longer on their books as of 1818. Hence it must have been stolen three years after Napoleon I’s defeat and exile, three years into the reign of Louis XVIII whose notable contributions to French history was the establishment of a modern police force, whose power was vested in large part in a network of informants and “délateurs.” The London gallery challenged the seizure but quickly realized that a painting, once coveted by the French government, never leaves France. An odd twist on “inaliénabilité”.

When does the clock start which renders a stolen work of art still retrievable by the French government? Is there a statute of limitations on stolen art recovery? Apparently, it is left up to the whimsy of the French government to make that determination. And yet, the French government tries as much as possible to deflect responsibility for works of art stolen during acts of genocide as during the Vichy years (1940-1944). Historical irony: this particular painting had been confiscated as aristocratic property during the French Revolution.

In 2015, the French government seized a painting by Pablo Picasso owned by a Spanish billionaire, which the Spanish government has also claimed for itself as a “national treasure.”Curators at the Prado cannot wait to hang it on their walls.

In a rather hilarious, “cocasse”, exchange between two competing governments drooling over the same “masterpiece” (not everything painted, drawn, or sculpted by Picasso is a masterpiece!), Spanish curators argued that the painting was produced on Spanish territory, while the Picasso heirs demonstrated quite convincingly that it had been painted much farther north on French territory. Ironically, the painting was sold at Sotheby’s London in the 1980s, with no apparent claims by either the French nor the Spanish. What happened in the intervening two decades to provoke such fits of cultural nationalism? It would seem as if cultural imperialism and haughtiness over works of art is a waxing and waning phenomenon much like the cycles of the moon. Who knows what happens when the moon is full? Lock up your paintings!

Then-Culture Minister Fleur Pellerin prevented royal objects from being exported for sale through Sotheby’s. It’s bad enough to confiscate aristocratic items in a fit of revolutionary fervor. It’s quite another to prevent said objects from being sold off to someone who might want them even if they might just turn out to be expensive baubles. But no! Here again “France” decided, or rather, Fleur Pellerin, the minister of culture who no longer is, decided in the name of the good citizens of France that items produced for the pleasure of its aristocracy must remain in France. So decreed!

Fleur Pellerin