How accurate is 'The Monuments Men'?

February 12 2014

Image of How accurate is 'The Monuments Men'?

Picture: Columbia Pictures/20th Century Fox

Not very, according to Aisha Harris in Slate.

The film's stars, George Clooney and Matt Damon, gave a press conference at the National Gallery in London yesterday, in which they argued that the Elgin Marbles should be returned to Greece. More on that here

I've always been in two minds about the Elgin Marbles. I can see an argument for giving them back. The trouble is, their return would represent a thin-end-of-the-wedge moment, and before long the British Museum would be pretty empty. Either way, it seems to me that the world's governments need to agree a cut off date for the return of cultural items, and work from there. We can't go on arguing about who owns what forever.

What do readers think?

Update - there's a good online feature on the Monuments Men in WW2 here at the US National Gallery's site.

Update II - a reader, of estimable soundness, writes:

You're just teasing now ... asking about Elgin Marbles on an art blog is like inviting a debate about immigration on the Daily Mail website (on basis that half commenters are only there to berate DM readers!).  

I think there are two distinct parts of the debate. The easier one is a legalistic argument about title, and I agree with you that there needs to be some statute of limitation against spurious claims. It's just impossible to arbitrate every transaction centuries into history. The harder one is about the 'best' place for them. The BM argues context of human civilization is more meaningful, Greece argues their original context. I think both are spurious - they stand on their own without needing 'context' of Roman or African art a few rooms away at the BM, and no one seriously suggests putting them back on the Parthenon itself. The argument that they're part of Greek heritage doesn't convince me - they are tied to time more than place, and ancient Greece was a pinnacle of human civilization that we can all relate to.  

Stuff ends up places by all kinds of serendipitous routes, and to argue for the 'best' context is to imply that lots of stuff should be shuffled regularly. Sometimes transfers make sense - recently stolen objects should obviously be returned, and I'd like to see reciprocal agreements to re-unite dismebered altarpieces and separated pendants. But it's a fool's errand to try to establish the 'right' place for stuff. Leave the marbles be.

Update III - here's a New York Times piece on the Monuments Women.

Update IV - another reader writes:

In response to the reader who discusses the best place for the Elgin Marbles (aside from the legal arguments), surely the most convincing reason for returning the marbles is that they are one part of larger artwork. If the head of David was in one country and the body in another or the Mona Lisa was in two pieces, I'm sure there would be a desire to see them reunited.

Update V - I was asked to speak about the Marbles on ITV London yesterday. I said they should stay!

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