A brief polemic against widespread artifact repatriation.
Museums, especially large institutions in wealthy, stable Western countries, are bastions of cultural exploration, education, and fascination. They inspire awe in the minds of millions of visitors each year, transporting them back in time and across the full breadth of the world. These wonderful institutions hold a special place in my heart, as they are one of the factors that got me interested in history in the first place. I distinctly recall gazing in wonderment as a child at art and relics from the past, hoping to gain a glimpse into a far off time and place. Just by visiting a major museum, I could travel to ancient Rome, Ming China, Ptolemaic Egypt, and Medieval Europe. I could see cultural artifacts from regions as far afield as Africa and Southeast Asia, or explore the heritage of American Natives. I could view beautiful art from 2000 years ago, 200 years ago, or 20 years ago. All of this could be accomplished in an afternoon.
Now, there has been a major push to denude these museums of their globally-sourced artifacts in order to right supposed past wrongs. Activists and governments want Western museums to return foreign relics, regardless of whether those exhibits were acquired fairly. This is a profoundly wrongheaded move that will only hamper cultural exchange and knowledge, reduce the salience and usefulness of physical museums, and undermine the ability of people to understand our shared human past.
The answer is simple, and goes straight to the heart of the radical climate change movement.
You may have recently seen the photos or videos of radical climate change activists – often associated with the groups Extinction Rebellion, Just Stop Oil, and the Last Generation – who enter museums and proceed to douse works of art with foodstuffs before gluing their hands to the wall. If you haven’t, the video below, from Germany this past weekend, is a great example of the tactic.
This assault on art has been met with skepticism from some more moderate climate change groups and activists, but has also been praised by many in the media. According to the tactic’s defenders, these paintings are protected by glass and also, who cares about art if we’re all going to die in a decade due to the climate catastrophe?! I’ve written on the absurdity of the worst climate change hysteria before, and the use of emergency language to make an end-run around the democratic process; these activists embrace those tactics and language in their vandalism disguised as protest. Their talk about people “starving,” “freezing,” and “dying” is similarly ludicrous, as those results largely happen due to a lack of fossil fuels, not a surplus; I debunked this specious argument further in my latest podcast episode.
But what is most interesting – and telling – about the vandalistic protests which have recently found their targets in art museums is something which cuts to the very heart of the radical climate change movement: its fundamentally anti-human and anti-civilization ideology.
The quote above, from Plato’s Apology, was purportedly spoken by the ancient philosopher-sage Socrates just prior to his condemnation to death by the men of Athens. His crime? According to Plato, Socrates was condemned to death for the unforgivable offense of ‘corrupting the youth’ of the august city-state through his teachings, philosophy, and exhortations to greater self-knowledge. The resolve with which Socrates met his death and the stand he took for his principles have been celebrated throughout the ages as defining examples of political and philosophical courage. One of the historical eras which was typified by its fascination with the ideas and history of the ancient Greco-Roman world was the period of the late Enlightenment just prior to the French Revolution. The story of Socrates and his principled stand in the face of a hostile state was extremely resonant for French intellectuals in this period; one such intellectual was the famed painter Jacques-Louis David, who crafted a masterpiece depicting the moments before Socrates drank the hemlock that would kill him. David’s masterwork, The Death of Socrates, is a powerful visual representation of a literary and historical event as well as being an exemplar for an Enlightenment attitude – the value of defending one’s principles even to death – that would resound throughout the French Revolution.