Thursday, 14 November 2013

Cultural frames and cultural property -- part six

United States Declaration of Independence
(1823 facsimile on vellum by
William J. Stone (1798-1865
In most of its applications, the term cultural property can be seen as illiterate, inaccurate, manipulative, or a legal convention. Whenever the term is used properly, the UNESCO cultural property conventions make sure that control of the object in question is transferred to the state.

If we use the term National Treasure, far fewer objects would be included but virtually no one would disagree with the term. This is not to say that there could be some grey areas as the term, in its practical application, would be a sliding scale. At the very top would be such objects as the United States Declaration of Independence. it is one of the most defining objects for the foundation of a contemporary state. In this sub-category, other countries declarations of independence would be included, along with such things as all original versions of the English Magna Carta and so on. Such objects are absolutely relevant to the foundation of modern nations.

A related, and laudable, designation is Living National Treasure, an honour bestowed upon individuals who embody intangible national cultural values. This designation was first implemented by Japan in 1950, and in Japan, currently includes an annual income for those individuals so designated which is more than $20,000 U.S. Groups are also included with different benefits being bestowed upon them. Other countries with similar honors have different reward systems of varying magnitude. UNESCO does provide guidelines for such programs. Again, very few people would disagree with such systems and the phrase "national cultural values" is valid as national culture is a completely valid cultural frame. Another example of something  that is truly an example of national culture is baseball which although evolving from earlier English games is, in its current form and name, an American invention. Basketball, too, can be included as an American invention. Even though its inventor was born in Canada, the game was invented in the U.S. In Canada, (ice) hockey is also an example of national culture. In Canada, it is simply "hockey" -- "field hockey" being a separate designation (and an English game).

We enter the grey areas of examples of national cultural objects with such things as the Elgin (or Parthenon) marbles. The arguments persist about rightful ownership. It can be said that Lord Elgin purchased them legally, but the seller was the Ottoman Turks who controlled Greece at the time. Soldiers who were prisoners on the island of Makronisos built small replicas of the Parthenon during the Greek Civil War (1946- 1949) proving the status of the monument as a national icon in modern times, yet Greece, much earlier, viewed itself as the rightful heirs to the Byzantine Empire, and at that time, the ancient Greek monuments were seen as representing an earlier paganism. The fall of Constantinople, to the Ottoman Turks in 1453 was the turning point in Greek national cultural identity and its reverberations are felt to this this very day. Modern Turkey has had great difficulty in defining its own national culture based on historical precedent because its area includes so many historical cultural groups. For more information on the nature of Greek national culture, I do not think that you could do better than to read Yannis Hamilakis, The Nation and its Ruins: Antiquity, Archaeology, and National Imagination in Greece (Classical Presences). The cover illustration shows prisoners at Makronisos building a small replica of the Parthenon. Hamilakis, in an admirably balanced view demonstrates that Greek national culture is both a top-down, and a bottom-up phenomenon.

So, while national cultural property is both valid and laudable, granting ownership of cultural objects to nations where such objects cannot be demonstrated to fall under the better term of  national treasures which reflect the Zeitgeist of the nation in question is both wrong and terribly harmful to the preservation of cultures. In fact, it is an example of a Jungian enantiodromia.

How are cultures propagated, studied and preserved? We can first eliminate nationalism in all cases where the above criteria of national culture are not met. We can also eliminate genetic inheritance for purely scientific reasons. My specialty is the ancient Celts, but my surname is one of the oldest English surnames on record dating back to 975 AD, the year that Edward the Martyr became king of England. My mother's maiden name was Neale, and that might be Celtic as it derives from the old Irish and Gaelic "Nial" which means "the Champion", but that has little do with genetic inheritance. As the ancient Celts were pre-Roman, it is more than likely that every modern European has some Celtic genetic ancestry, however indirect. The subject of early Celtic art was actually invented by Paul Jacobsthal who was a German Jew born in Berlin in 1880 and who escaped to England in 1937 to avoid persecution and (subsequent) possible death from the Nazis under the (non German-born) Adolf Hitler -- there's a bit of irony!

Josep Martí, in his paper on cultural frames clearly shows that culture resides in interest, and this is the free will of individuals, although this might be subverted by pornagraphic methods by business, or by totalitarian methods by nations, to mention just two ways, but the individual always has the final say. From my studies and my interest, I actually feel Celtic to a great degree, and for that I have to, ultimately, thank Paul Jacobsthal.

Tomorrow, lessons from Haida Gwaii

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