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Appiah on Cultural Property

Kwame Anthony Appiah writes about cultural property and patrimony in the current New York Review of Books. An excerpt:

And there’s something odd, to my mind, about thinking of Hindu temple sculpture or Michelangelo’s and Raphael’s frescoes in the Vatican as the contribution of a people, rather than the contribution of the artists who made (and, if you like, the patrons who paid for) them. I’ve gazed in wonder at Michelangelo’s work in the Sistine Chapel and I will grant that Their Holinesses Popes Julius II, Leo X, Clement VIII, and Paul III, who paid him, made a contribution, too. But which people exactly made that contribution? The people of the Papal States? The people of Michelangelo’s native Caprese? The Italians?

This is clearly the wrong way to think about the matter. The right way is to take not a national but a trans-national perspective: to ask what system of international rules about objects of this sort will respect the many legitimate human interests at stake. The reason many sculptures and paintings were made and bought was that they should be looked at and lived with. Each of us has an interest in being able, should we choose, to live with art—an interest that is not limited to the art of our own “people.” And if an object acquires a wider significance, as part, say, of the oeuvre of a major artist, then other people will have a more substantial interest in being able to experience it. The object’s aesthetic value is not fully captured by its value as private property.