The British and Greek negotiations over the ownership of art pieces from the Parthenon (also known as the Elgin Marbles) illustrates the interconnection of culture and politics. Claims of authenticity, rightful ownership, display and the handling of artistic pieces are always essentially political. Ministers of Culture are appointed by heads of state, certain kinds of art are recognized as “national treasures” while others are banned or ignored for subversive contents. The recent dispute (see article below) over the Elgin Marbles are ultimately questions of history and politics rather than artistic preservation and authenticity.
By framing the argument in terms of national pride and original ownership, the Greek government is articulating a conflation of Greek culture with modern nation-state boundaries. Against this, the British are challenging the parameters of an imperialist past with a cosmopolitan sense of artistic authenticity. While both sides present compelling arguments, the heart of the matter remains firmly rooted in the complicated intersections of politics and culture.
Perhaps one of the most influential theorists of this intersection, Walter Benjamin’s work in the Frankfurt School provocatively questions the role of politics in questions of authenticity, ownership, and visual experience. Does the reproduction of the Elgin Marbles challenge the authenticity of their Greek history? Or, is the art itself secondary to more nuanced questions of national sovereignty, politics, and legality? In the end we must remind ourselves that questions of art and culture are always already political.
NY Times article: The Elgin Marbles