by Marc Masurovsky
Happy New Year!
The act of plunder reached its apogee, so we have been taught, in the 20th century, at the hands of the Nazi German State. The geographical scope of that act of plunder extended throughout most of the European continental mass. Although largely minimized and marginalized in the post-1945 period because nothing could compare to the astronomical loss of human life at the hands of the Nazis and their local agents, plunder remains stuck as a sideshow of the Holocaust, which entailed the loss, under the most galling and frighteningly horrific conditions, of six million men, women and children of the Jewish faith.
I’d like to propose that we expand plunder and its nauseating consequences to other exercises of military and economic power exercised across the globe which have accompanied mass slaughter and genocide, and consider, for a minute or two, whether those acts of State-sponsored thievery constitute crimes against humanity, crimes against culture, violations of the most basic human rights that every man, woman and child is entitled to from birth to death.
Here is a brief recapitulation of these extraordinary events that have littered the fabric of humanity for the past several hundred years.
1/ Imperial Japan vs. Korea, China and the rest of the Asian mainland, from the close of the 19th century to the unconditional surrender of Japan in August 1945.
2/ White settlers from European States (regardless of their make-up—autocracies, kingdoms, empires, etc.) vs. indigenous populations and communities in the Americas (North, Central, and South), Oceania (New Zealand and Australia), the many islands of the Pacific Ocean—forgive me if I have omitted some. Over time, intra-continental plunder by the “new” States founded by “white settlers” against their indigenous populations and minority groups.
3/ Western European nations vs. indigenous communities of what we know as the continent of Africa, Asia (to include the “Middle East”), the “Indian sub-continent,” and South Asia.
4/ “market nations” vs. “source nations”: I hesitate here but must acknowledge the fact that this particular dyad encapsulates all that is wrong, unethical, and contemptible about how resource and capital-rich States have wielded military and economic power against those nations less equipped to fend them off and exploited, extracted, and stole outright anything of value held in those “source nations” either above or under ground.
In short, the act of plunder has provided the fuel and the infrastructure necessary to supply and nurture art markets far away from the point of extraction, the precondition for such an operation being that anything coming from “source nations” must be commodified as “art”, as “culturally-significant”, as “valuable” and as “museum-worthy.” The growth of the international art market marched in lockstep with plunder. One part of the world abuses the rest of the world to satisfy selfish, materialistic ends, which, I admit, have fostered astonishing institutions called museums, but at an unacceptable cost.
We are at a point in the narrative of history where the cost of such policies and their wonderful products–museums and galleries–must be accounted for and dealt with in an unremittingly honest and truthful way by those who hold, peddle, profit from, and “care” for the objects that have found their way against the will of their rightful owners to commodity markets for the appreciation and enjoyment of individuals who will, likely, never visit the “source” of those objects except as a tourist.