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The concept of cultural property is paradoxical to say the least. On one hand the understanding of property is something that one possesses, that is alienable and that someone can lay claim to. Culture on the other hand is none of that. Even though culture originates from groups, it is not static; it is hybridized, appropriated and contaminated through various human interactions and thus no one group has sole rights to a culture. This is the cosmopolitan argument that Kwame Appiah presents in the book chapter “Whose Culture is It,” arguing against a conception of cultural property that excludes other people other than that from which such property originated and instead calling for exchange of these cultural products across the world. Even though Appiah presents a strong philosophical argument for a cosmopolitan approach to cultural property, using legal structures such as the preamble to the UNESCO conference in 1954 for which cultural property is regarded universal property and giving numerous artistic and cultural examples, he disregards the reality that some of these cultural property were taken from their owners through plunder and pillage, contradicting himself and justifying the barbarism of unrightfully ownership as well as holding some in higher regard than others.
The cosmopolitan approach to cultural property that Appiah uses in this chapter claims that culture is universal. The aim of this view is to argue against national restrictions that some countries use regulating the sale and movement of objects of cultural significance to other countries. This is what Appiah generally presents in the first part of his chapter saying that the declarations by a number of international bodies to prevent illegal movement of cultural artifacts across nations goes against the cosmopolitan view as it teaches people that cultural property is owned by a given nation and a given group of people.
In the second part, Appiah shows how cultural property does not belong to any specific group but for humanity to appreciate. He then goes ahead to say how value of these cultural objects comes from their appreciation and this is not necessarily restricted to their places of origin. If people elsewhere can appreciate them, then they remain valuable. Further he shows how some countries of origin do not have the necessary resources to maintain such objects and they are better off in other countries.
In the third part of the argument, Appiah says people cannot lay claim to objects of art since in their art they have been influenced by others nationally and transnationally. Further he says that for countries calling for repatriation of what was taken forcefully; the connection they claim to seek from these objects can come not just from having access to these artifacts but from knowing that they are connected to them through humanity.
Appiah’s main argument is based on the UNESCO 1954 conference preamble that “…each people makes its contribution to the culture of the world,” (Appiah, 75). This is what Appiah uses to show that the national or group culture is not restricted to the group and nor does the group have sole rights to what they would consider their cultural property. Using this preamble, Appiah shows that cultural artifacts and objects only held in certain nations and prohibited from being taken out of the nation only would make sense to the people within the territories in which they are restricted. This is not right for the simple fact such objects and the culture they are promoting are not making any significant contribution to the culture of the world.
Giving an example of Mali, Appiah says that the move to restrict the export of cultural artifacts does not serve the good of anyone. He shows that such rules do not stop the export of cultural property; they only encourage illegal business which leads to the loss of value for most of these cultural artifacts. For a Malian trying to sell a cultural object illegally, they would avoid documenting the object including where it was found characteristics surrounding its making. On the other hand using the right channels, such objects would be found professionally and documented according thus retaining their value and contribution to the culture of the world (Appiah, 78) Restricting the sale and export of such objects thus does not add any value to Mali or to such objects.
Appiah says that the idea of cultural patrimony is flawed saying that if this argument is based on the sentiments that “art belongs to the culture that gives it its significance, most art doesn’t belong to a national culture at all,” (Appiah, 79). This is because he says; most artists in their work are influenced and inspired by the work of other artists who came before their time. Most of these predecessors are international figures and he shows how greatest artists of all time were inspired by art from different regions other than their one. Therefore, if art is to derive its ownership from where it draws significance, no one nation can lay claim of ownership; art then becomes international.
Does the issue of cultural patrimony still apply when the very custodians of this culture become destructive forces, is the question that Appiah asks, making reference to cases like those of Afghanistan where the Taliban regime destroyed what they considered non-Islamic cultural antiquities. He says that taking such objects and putting them in other places would have been a better idea to protect them against the Taliban iconoclasm than to hold that they belong to the Afghan nations even when the masters of the nations saw no value in them (Appiah, 82).
Appiah says that those entrusted with cultural artifacts should be in a position to ensure they are well-taken care of in order to preserve them for the coming generations (Appiah, 83), and this is agreeable. It would make no sense in having custodians who are poor such that having the artifacts whether they originated in their country or they are brought in, compromises their existence.
The problem however comes in when this is used to justify the failed efforts of repatriation of what was taken illegally and unlawfully from their countries of origin. Appiah says that even though he is not against repatriation, some of these countries where the artifacts originated are too poor to even be able to preserve these artifacts (Appiah, 83) He seems to be supporting the barbarism of theft that most countries suffered during the colonial period and the inferiority tags that these nations were given, which is the main reason why some of these nations are in their sorry states.
Appiah also describes the zeal that most people have of having their cultural antiques close to them where they can ‘stand close’ and ‘wonder at’ the cultural objects. He says that the connection that people feel towards objects made in their own territories is strong and powerful and people may feel a yearning for these objects to be brought back home. However he says that while this is true, people should be open to the option of feeling connected to the objects through other means; through the understanding that human beings have of these objects. He says that when the objects are in other parts of the world, people who “own” them should appreciate the connection that they create with the rest of the humanity (Appiah, 85).
This is a bit contradictory to say that least. First, Appiah acknowledges the connection that people have to objects made in their countries is stronger than the connection any other people will feel in the world. He also says that it is not necessary to have the physical objects at home in order to feel connected to them. This could also apply to the nations where such cultural artifacts were taken. Returning the objects to their places of origin, especially those that were taken unlawfully do not necessarily mean the people won’t feel the connection to them. They also would only need an understanding of the objects and not necessarily having the objects, like in the example he gives at the end where it does not take expertise to appreciate the art used in the making of the wall of China, or the Chrysler building. He says that the connection through the local identity is as stronger as that he has through humanity. Returning cultural artifacts unlawfully acquired to their places of origin does not change how they are appreciated internationally.
Appiah’s argument against cultural patrimony is well constructed using strong legal support and giving credible examples that are persuasive. From one end, culture is made so that it can be appreciated by everyone and in the whole of the world. In any case culture is not static and these changes are produced by outside influences. Further he shows that cultural artifacts should be preserved where they are best cared for. However, the same barbarism that he supports when he argues against repatriation and that saw cultural artifacts plundered from their places of origin is what made these original places so poor that they would not be fit to hold their own artifacts. And just like he says people can appreciate these artifacts even without having them physically, it would do no harm to return them to their places of origin. In any case, the world would still appreciate them through imagination, right?
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