Do Modern Trends Require Us To Rethink Rules Governing Cultural Heritage?

Earlier posts on this site have noted the incongruity between rules governing street art and laws governing the art world. Citing an article in The New Yorker, Caroline Camp, in her post on Anonymous Art & Attribution, shed light on this disjunction vis-à-vis Exit Through the Gift Shop, the recent documentary on the renowned yet anonymous street artist Banksy. In keeping with the street art tradition, the documentary provided no credits, prompting filmmaker Joachim Levy to step forward and demand it. Levy argued that rules that govern street art are not appropriate to the film world.

A recent Los Angeles Times article points to another incongruity in rules governing the art world, a rupture caused by contemporary circumstances. Christopher Hawthorne suggests that modern schemes for solving issues of patrimony and cultural heritage may need an update to accommodate modern trends. Chandigarh, the Indian city designed in the 1950s by Modernist architect Le Corbusier and works by Banksy are his case studies.

Artists from Detroit’s 555 Nonprofit Gallery and Studios recently removed a by Bansky-esque decorated concrete slab from an abandoned Packard plant. Artists at the gallery are allegedly acting to preserve the art from defacement by other graffiti artists and/or potential destruction when and if the plant is destroyed.

There are a number of problems with this argument. First, as Caroline notes, putting graffiti on top of other graffiti is an acceptable practice in the street art world. Second, the art loses meaning and arguably value when it is removed from its context. Purely on those grounds, there is good reason to question the motivations and repercussions of the actions taken by the 555 Gallery artists.

Additionally, modern trends invert our ideas about looted art. Pieces here are modern rather than classical. In Detroit, it is the locals who are looting the post-industrial cityscape in the name of preservation. This is dramatically different from the traditional situation where looting colonizers robbed locals of cultural artifacts.

While it is not clear who is removing parts of Chandigarh, the flow of artworks from the city shares one important feature with the situation in Detroit: the movement of art from the public to the private sphere. Whether it is the post-industrial landscape rife with contextual meaning or the city as modernist icon, looters are taking art from a public sphere viewable to all and in which it was intentionally put and placing it in the decontextualized, private sphere of an art gallery where it can be bought and sold. There are strong economic incentives to do so. For example, a Corbusier manhole cover recently garnered $25,000 at auction.

Chandigarh officials are acting to stop the removal of Le Corbusier objects from India. As for the Banksy-esque art, a lawsuit between the owners of the plant and the artists from the 555 Gallery is pending. How the legal world can respond to recent trends remains open to debate.

For more on the story visit The Los Angeles Times.

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