False Claims of Cultural Ownership Term Paper

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The artistic authenticity of a particular object is determined, in part, by the objects provenance -- its history that helps us to understand the significance and original cultural context of the object. Without this context it becomes complicated to identify certain tribal cultural artifacts as artwork or not.

But let's imagine that there exists an institutional framework or bureaucratic organization with the resources to undertake such a monumental task of artistic identification. There would still be additional problems to consider. In Indonesia, for instance, there are numerous political and cultural obstacles facing the emerging push for preservation. Communication in the nation is lackluster. Identifying and controlling all potential tribal art among the indigenous people is a task best left to the imagination. The infrastructure simply does not yet exist to properly compensate indigenous artists and craftsmen, let alone stem the tide of black-market deals and random destruction. Yet this is exactly the circumstances in which we hope to be able to control and manage the preservation of indigenous artwork.

Some would have us believe that tribal artwork and indigenous artistic productions are part of a cultural heritage that is quite literally the property of the nation in which those people reside. It has become politically expedient to express art in terms of the national boundaries in which it was produced, as if the cultural effects of art can be limited in such a manner. Nonetheless, with many subscribing to the idea that art can be cultural property, there has been a dramatic increase in the number of nations -- primarily from the Third World -- who demand that artistic treasures that were removed from their lands be returned to them now.

This attitude is based on the simplistic belief that art can be owned based on the geographical location of its production. As if the culture of any nation or society is so fragile and static that it will not endure unless museums throughout the West relinquish control of artifacts and artistic pieces that were collected over the course of centuries. This view of culture is quite simply, and to the chagrin of many, mistaken. Imposing controls on the use and spread of art from tribal societies pirates the original culture -- turning objects of art into objects for consumption -- while the interference attempts to fix the culture in a single historical moment and prevent the natural cultural changes and transformations that would ordinarily occur without outside influence.

These points only underscore the one incontrovertible fact that is central to the issue of art preservation among indigenous societies. Art is an expression of culture, just as the wonderfully produced masks of Papua New Guinea are artistic expressions of the religious beliefs of those people. More than that, though, art is a vital and dynamic component of any culture and can only be viewed in such terms. Therefore, the art that any culture produces will naturally change over time. In the study conducted by Lehmann and Lehmann, the authors found that new forms of artistic expression began emerging among some of these people as late as the 1960s. They took the form of story boards painted on wood that contained no religious significance and were only decorative in nature. No culture can be expected to stay frozen in the historical moment in which it is first discovered or during a period of particularly high artistic expression. Rather, the art of these tribal cultures will change and be transformed as contact with the West increases and the indigenous people of tribal societies throughout the world adapt their culture and art to meet those changes.

From this, we can conclude that there is no one who can, or for that matter should, be charged with the responsibly of preserving the native art of the indigenous people of the world. These artistic productions are creations of cultural moments in history and cannot be judged or understood without an eye for their historical context. If anything, ethnographers should take it upon themselves to record these artistic productions as extensively as possible -- through written and photographic records that will preserve at the least the memory of the artistic moments that have long since passed. But attempting to force indigenous people to limit or control the nature of their art, or presume that national governments can dictate the icons that constitute a cultural heritage, is simply inane. It is the responsibly of the art historian to demonstrate that tribal and indigenous art can be an important current of scholarship, so long as that study is not designed to interfere overly in the indigenous culture in the misguided name of preservation.

Works Cited

Barbier, Jean-Paul. "The Responsible and the Irresponsible: Observations on the Destruction and Preservation of Indonesian Art."

Duffon, Denis. "Authenticity in Art." In the Oxford Handbook of Aesthetics. Ed. Jerrold Levinson. (NY: Oxford University Press, 2003). 18 Dec. 2006 http://www.denisdutton.com/authenticity.htm.

Hamlin, Jesse. "How de Young Is Handling New Guinea Art Question." San Francisco Chronicle (4 May 2006): E1. 18 Dec. 2006 http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/c/a/2006/05/04/DDGJMIJFVO1.DTL.

Lehmann, Karl and Lehmann, Andrew. "Tribal Art of Papua New Guinea." Lost World Arts. (Maui, Hawaii: 2004). 18 Dec. 2006 http://www.lostworldarts.com/new_page_2.htm.

Karl Lehmann and Andrew Lehmann, "Tribal Art of Papua New Guinea," Lost World Arts (Maui, Hawaii: 2004), 18 Dec. 2006 http://www.lostworldarts.com/new_page_2.htm, par. 29.

Jean-Paul Barbier, "The Responsible and the Irresponsible: Observations on the Destruction and Preservation of Indonesian Art," 60.

Lehmann and Lehmann, par. 13-19.

Denis Duffon, "Authenticity in Art," in Oxford Handbook of Aesthetics, Ed. Jerrold Levinson (NY: Oxford University Press, 2003), 18 Dec. 2006 http://www.denisdutton.com/authenticity.htm.

Barbier, 59.

Jesse Hamlin, "How de Young Is Handling New Guinea Art Question," San Francisco Chronicle (4 May 2006): E1, 18 Dec. 2006 http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/c/a/2006/05/04/DDGJMIJFVO1.DTL, par. 1-5.

Barbier, 62.

Lehmann and Lehmann, par. 26.[continue]

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