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Can great art be "owned"?

 
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This is an offshoot from this topic, and it occurred to me while I was trying to answer Adam's last question.

To me, great art is a cultural heritage (perhaps also national, but this isn't meant to be an "Elgin marbles" discussion), and IMO my government should be able to protect it.

In Europe, luckily (and finally), we seem to have some notion of "heritage", so it seems unlikely that the Mona Lisa or the Portland Vase are going to disappear anytime soon; but I worry that in North America (Canada and the US) culture and heritage are still "up for sale" - if someone has enough money, they can buy a great painting, or sculpture, or house, and "own" it, regardless of its non-market value.

To me, as a collector of old books and coins, it's the antithesis of what I do it for. Most of us collectors know that we're merely guardians, not "owners", of the things we've acquired. They were around long before us, and they'll be there long after we're dust; and if I ever had the spare money (or luck) to buy an old master, I'd probably look for a local museum to donate it to as soon as I possibly could (maybe after looking at it for a couple of months ). I've actually done it with one of my books (a Breeches Bible) already.

What say you? Should we be able to "buy" great art? And should governments be able to protect it from sale at any price - or indeed, acquire it from private ownership at "reasonable" cost?

Winston
 
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Well, sure, I bought a painting once for a fair amount of money. That was the artist's intention, in fact, it was his business to make and sell art. And now that the artist is dead it's possible that his work will increase in value, which is my hope.

However you're going to object that the painting I bought isn't "great art". Fair enough, I would readily agree with that. So now we have the line-drawing problem: what makes something "great art" and not just "art"?

Can't be rarity -- I have the only copy of the painting I mentioned and we already agreed it isn't "great art".

And come to that, why is the Mona Lisa "great art" anyway? As far as I can tell it's just a Kardashian, famous for being famous and nothing else.
 
Winston Gutkowski
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Paul Clapham wrote:And come to that, why is the Mona Lisa "great art" anyway? As far as I can tell it's just a Kardashian, famous for being famous and nothing else.


Very true.

I suppose it comes back to the basic question of "what is art?".

I don't think it can simply be based on "do I like it?", because there are plenty of artists (Van Gogh for me) and paintings that I'm not wild about - including old Mona - but I'm happy to concede are great.
There are also certain paintings - like this one and this one - that are iconic, particularly to certain countries, and so might be reasonably considered part of their national heritage.

In the UK - unlike France and Italy - we really only have one "great" artist (IMO): J.M.W. Turner, so I'm very glad that a good portion of his works are owned by the state (and many others are in public exhibits).

I also believe very strongly in the "museum/library ethic" (specifically, I believe they should be funded by the state and free to the public) and, in order to build collections, someone (or a group of someones) has to make a value judgement on what is worth keeping (or acquiring) and what not.

Winston
 
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Winston Gutkowski wrote:I don't think it can simply be based on "do I like it?", because there are plenty of artists (Van Gogh for me) and paintings that I'm not wild about - including old Mona - but I'm happy to concede are great.


Why? What makes them great?
 
Winston Gutkowski
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Stephan van Hulst wrote:Why? What makes them great?


Technique, colour, composition, innovation... And of course, concensus.

Winston
 
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So there's a pyramid of art, with greeting cards at the bottom and TV sitcoms in the middle and at the top you have "great art". Which is based on a consensus from people who are interested in art and interested in commenting on. There's an aspect of popularity and group-think there; consider the music of Mahler which wasn't all that well-received in his lifetime but which is now becoming more widely played. This may be partially because he was classified as a Jew, and we don't care as much about that now as they did a hundred years ago. That's just one example of the factors which go into classifying something as "great art".

The other aspect you mentioned is the national aspect. If you visit art museums in Norway you can find good examples of "great Norwegian art" by well-known Norwegians, for example. The Norwegians appreciate these paintings and want to preserve them as part of their national heritage, and fortunately for them, preserving national heritage is still valued in Norway. However if you shipped all those paintings off to Prague, I predict that the Czechs wouldn't care that much about them and wouldn't bother preserving them. Preservation is expensive, not only because the buildings where you keep them are expensive but also because you have to hire experts who can prevent things from decaying, as things commonly do. Even if you make the decision to preserve "great art" it gets harder and harder as the art objects get older.

And then presumably people keep creating more "great art" as time goes on. There isn't an infinite budget for preservation so presumably some of the old stuff will have to be tossed out when the consensus decides on which of the new stuff is "great art".
 
Winston Gutkowski
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Paul Clapham wrote:And then presumably people keep creating more "great art" as time goes on. There isn't an infinite budget for preservation so presumably some of the old stuff will have to be tossed out when the consensus decides on which of the new stuff is "great art".


True, but I doubt if any western country is likely to go bankrupt anytime soon simply because of the size of its "heritage" budget, let alone its Arts one - apart from Egypt and possibly Greece, and I doubt if there's any causal link in the latter case.

I also believe that in cases like Venice and the Great Wall of China (you may be able to think of others), where huge sums of money are required to "keep" it, and it can be reasonably argued to have "world" or "human" significance, we should ALL be prepared to pay a bit towards its maintenance.

Winston
 
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Winston Gutkowski wrote:I also believe that in cases like Venice and the Great Wall of China (you may be able to think of others), where huge sums of money are required to "keep" it, and it can be reasonably argued to have "world" or "human" significance, we should ALL be prepared to pay a bit towards its maintenance.



That sounds OK to me; Venice is notoriously expensive and the Great Wall is inundated by bus tours (at least the part near Beijing is), and it would be nice if those things contributed towards maintaining them. Perhaps there's some taxation process which moves money from the pockets of the tourists to the budget of the maintenance people, but Italy is well-known for its inefficient tax collection methods and who knows how the money gets around in China.
 
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I would argue that the economic boost from tourism would partly pay for maintenance.
 
Winston Gutkowski
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Stephan van Hulst wrote:I would argue that the economic boost from tourism would partly pay for maintenance.


Maybe, but I doubt if it covers it all - especially after you remove all the infrastructure costs required to keep them as tourist venues - and Egypt and Greece aren't rich countries compared to many who supply the tourists.

To me, it's a simple equation: either the Pyramids and the Parthenon and Venice - not to mention all those paintings we've been talking about - belong to us all or they don't. If they do, and we want our grandchildren to enjoy them, then everybody should pay.

Winston
 
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Winston Gutkowski wrote:To me, it's a simple equation: either the Pyramids and the Parthenon and Venice - not to mention all those paintings we've been talking about - belong to us all or they don't. If they do, and we want our grandchildren to enjoy them, then everybody should pay.


So you are suggesting a global tax paid by every citizen in the world for these things? That would unfairly burden the poorest people in the world with paying for something they will most likely NEVER be able to go see. Someone working at or below the poverty line is not going to go to the Lourve, Egypt, Manchu Pichu, China, Italy, Greece, and everywhere else. So you now have the poor subsidizing the rich.
 
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fred rosenberger wrote:So you are suggesting a global tax paid by every citizen in the world for these things?


No, but certainly a fund supported by UN members, perhaps contributed to on the basis of GDP.

Someone working at or below the poverty line is not going to go to the Lourve, Egypt, Manchu Pichu, China, Italy, Greece, and everywhere else.


OK then, why not bring the Louvre or the Cairo (or indeed, the British) museum to them? I'm sure it's been discussed before.

TBH, I don't know how to do any of this the best way, and I suspect there are thousands of things to consider - not least international politics, corruption, and possible terrorist threats - but if all we ever did was think about roadblocks, nothing would ever get done.

Winston
 
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