20 January 2017

A new era

by Marc Masurovsky

As the transition in political and economic power unfolds in the United States, the world is apprehensive, wondering what the new administration, one unlike any that has set foot in Washington, DC, Congress and the White House, has in store for the average person living on American soil and for the rest of the world. A unique event in American history, not an unexpected one, but, nonetheless, one that has taken many people by surprise, not the least in the United States proper.

For those who are unfamiliar with the dynamics inherent to right-wing populist movements that operate on emotions, machismo, raw power, and domination games, you are in for a long ride. The potential for violence is high, intolerance is at our doorstep, and the opening of deep rifts along ethnic, social, cultural, religious, political, and economic fault lines is imminent. The new folks in Washington have no desire to heal wounds produced and salted by the most egregious presidential campaign in American history. Make no mistake, they are set to dominate, intimidate, and rule like a theocracy.

Intolerant, dogmatic, populist movements are driven by hatred of the “other” and resentful of the “educated”, those whose views extend far beyond those of the village, the local church and its requisite cemetery, fields pockmarked with farms, small towns with few distractions available to a restless youth, minds shaped by myths and legends of once glorious nations fighting bloody battles, overpowering real and imagined enemies, always on the defensive, considering other peoples as too different, not enough like them, and frankly ripe for enslavement and/or extermination. Constantly fed a mantra of negative stereotypes pertaining to “those” people responsible for their perceived or actual misfortunes, these folks have now unleashed their petty revenge on the alleged guilty ones, they have freed themselves of the shackles of their own failures by deflecting them on the “others.” 

It is not at all surprising that the first targets of the new administration’s ideological fury should target government funding of the arts and culture across the United States. The Nazi regime indulged in such bloodlust against culture--Kultur!--for 12 years both inside the Reich and in territories its troops and security henchmen occupied and devastated. Obsessed by difference, these "purgers" seek homogeneity, they yearn to create a monolithic echo box in which they can see and hear themselves every morning and not fear the "other", no longer. Difference must be quashed at all cost. How will the art world react? No one knows for certain.

If the new administration does actually plan on gutting Federal funding of the arts, it will destroy in one fell swoop a vast landscape of creative cultural and artistic expression across the United States, in small towns, large cities, in rural and urban areas alike, red States and blue states. The crusade launched by the enemies of culture in the works for decades now has finally found its articulation in the incoming administration. In short, to satisfy a Puritanical fundamentalist agenda, they will end up throwing the baby out with the bath water and isolating the United States as a dark place with which the rest of the world wants nothing more to do.

American museums, concert halls, public art and cultural activities, will all be affected as much as State-level arts initiatives and local arts programs. Artists of all kinds, traditional and unconventional alike, will be the victims of the hatred of these ideologues whose sole inspiration is a faith-based fundamentalism that resembles more the outlines of Calvinist orthodoxy and belief in the eternal sin of man on earth than anything else. Should this massacre of the arts unfold, it will be unlike any other in American history.

A new "obscurantism" is about to take hold in the hallways of American political power, one that appears to sate the cruelty and viciousness of the current leadership in the US Senate and House of Representatives, as much as in State legislatures across the red expanse of the United States.

Joseph Goebbels would have been proud. Were he alive today, Joe McCarthy might wonder if this incoming administration is not going too far, too fast, despite the fact that his mentee is now about to be enthroned as the 45th president of the United States.

Stay safe.

13 January 2017

What is to be done?

by Marc Masurovsky

Locating looted art in public and private collections, auction houses, galleries, is one thing; recovering these plundered objects is quite another.

The search for looted cultural assets is extremely tedious. Some people get lucky with “low-hanging fruits” like well-defined provenance information for objects being offered for sale or being displayed in a museum, which contains critical information that might lead to a match between the object and a plundered owner.

Those instances are rare.

The tedium of research concerns all other objects—weeks, months, sometimes years of research, often led by one or two people, most of the time on a part-time basis because there is no reliable source of money to underwrite such an investigative and analytical effort.

If progress has been made on documenting cultural losses at the hands of the Nazis and their collaborators over the past twenty years, there has been no progress in establishing a solid, long-term funding mechanism to ensure that research into the ownership histories of countless objects and their location is sustained over a long period of time.

To remedy this chronic shortage of funds for research into the looted cultural heritage of the Jewish people, historians, investigators, researchers, even curators, have tended to focus their attention on single collections and/or a small clutch of plundered objects. These efforts aim to clarify the history of objects coming from a single owner, or located in a single museum or collection. But even those efforts are lengthy, arduous, and end up yielding few fruits, for all sorts of reasons, the main ones being lack of capital and legal and logistical obstacles to gain access to relevant data.

How does one resolve this paltry state of affairs?

One cannot locate any looted object if one does not devote the needed resources to conduct solid, forensic, investigative research into its whereabouts, ensuring that it is the correct one, locating its potential owners, and if there are none, declaring the looted object to be heirless property.

What does one do with objects deemed heirless? Remember that heirless property is simply unclaimed property for which no owners have been found ---yet. Since there are no well-funded research organizations or institutions in the business of searching for these objects’ rightful owners, they remain to a large extent heirless, deprived of their history, their context and their identity.

For instance, Jewish museums are stocked with heirless objects, coming from communities that have been systematically erased from the face of the earth. But not all displaced objects in Jewish museums are heirless. The mission of Jewish museums is to safeguard these objects, not necessarily restitute them. Hence, when faced with a restitution claim, a Jewish museum is more likely to behave like most art museums by opposing the act of restitution which would require deaccessioning the claimed object from its collection.

Governments of nations that were subjected to the horrors of Nazi and Fascist policies and global war, hold untold numbers of objects which were “found” at war’s end.  So far, little to no information has been released which can help apprehend the true extent of this seventy-year old problem.

The Russian puzzle is the most egregious. So-called “trophy art” picked up by specialized Soviet military units in all territories that the Red Army “liberated” in the months before the end of WWII is stored in museums across the ex-Soviet Union. Most of the objects that the Red Army “repatriated” as compensation for Soviet losses are presumably concentrated in what is now the Russian Federation, Byelorussia and the Ukraine. But there is also looted cultural material belonging to exterminated Jewish communities in the custody of governments in Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia, to name a few.

In an ideal world, the most logical way to address the question of researching and documenting the complete history of cultural plunder between 1933 and 1945 is to orchestrate a massive inflow of research monies and establish an international research and documentation infrastructure. Only in this way can one address systematically the full scope of looted cultural heritage (outside of Judaica which has attracted significant attention over the past decades) of the Jewish people, identify the location of plundered objects, figure out which ones have still not been restituted, match them with their rightful owners. If there are none, then the question of heirless property comes into the picture.

A vast international, even transcontinental, network or infrastructure of research institutions facilitated and nurtured by a mix of government agencies, independent organizations, and academic centers across the Americas and Europe should coordinate this effort. This is not a one-or three-person job. In order to get a handle on what was stolen, where, when, by whom, sold and resold to whom and where and when, one needs a small army of intelligent, motivated, educated, trained, PAID, worker bees.

There is a strong likelihood that “heirless” objects having once belonged to Jewish owners before the Holocaust era ended up in the permanent collections of museums, be they State-controlled or privately owned.

How does one persuade these cultural institutions to deaccession heirless objects which they argue were acquired in good faith and have no owner?

How does one convince governments which control cultural institutions holding such objects to return them? And to whom? Even in Israel, this policy is controversial.

The solutions to the above have always been complicated and laced with political overtones. Art makes people irrational. For an institution to part with an object is fraught with strong emotions and potent defenses against such an act, even it is for a good cause, even if restitution through deaccession is meant to heal wounds and provide a small gesture towards an act of justice. It goes against the grain of museum practices worldwide to restitute.

To end on a less negative note, it is worth exploring the different ways that exist to restore a modicum of justice to the victims of cultural plunder. But those approaches need to be anchored in victims’ rights, not in private property law and antiquated notions of cultural patrimony. In and of itself, such an approach could open new doors on how to manage in a more ethical way tomorrow’s museums and the global art trade.

And above all, a massive amount of money is needed in order to rewrite the history of looted objects, return them to their rightful owners, and establish much better practices in the global art market, the museums that display objects, the galleries and auction houses that buy, display, and sell, and the collectors and dealers who do the same.

Higher ethics, stringent due diligence, thorough provenance research and true transparency, transparently clear (as opposed to less opaque), like a sheet of cellophane or saran wrap, your choice. That is the goal.