Ideablawg’s Weekly Connections: Peace And Violence

This past week there were some defining moments in history all in a background of love, war, violence, and peace.

1. All You Need Is Love: This week we celebrated the anniversary of The Beatles on the Ed Sullivan Show. In this moment of reflection, let us consider the various ways the boys engaged law and authority. Consider Paul’s marijuana as found by the Japanese authorities in 1980 or John’s deportation battle in the USA. If you want something more uplifting – recall John and Yoko’s bed-in at Montreal’s Queen Elizabeth Hotel. Here is a great legal connection – Allan Rock, lawyer and politician (now President of the University of Ottawa) – managed to convince the couple to go from Montreal to Ottawa in 1969 when he was President of the University of Ottawa Students’ Union. Here is a personal connection – Allan Rock taught me Civil Procedure II while I was at Osgoode Hall Law School. Only two degrees of separation between John Lennon and me!

2. War: Sixty-nine years after the end of World War II and we are still learning something new about the events of the War years. The Monuments Men, a movie that opened this past week, enlightens us on how art and architecture was saved or not saved during the war. I also recommend reading the book but if you do, read it with an iPad nearby to reference not only the art pieces but also the places in which the art was found. This further connects to the ongoing struggle for the return of art stolen during the war. I have written a previous blog on the issue. This past week, Germany considered extending the law allowing Jewish families to recover this art as more caches of such art are being found.

3. Peace: One of my personal heroes is Richard Feynman – the Nobel Prize winner in Physics who passed away 26 years ago on February 14, 1988. Not only was Feynman an engaging man and a tremendous mentor and teacher but he was also a clear thinker with a heart of gold. He’s the one who dropped the O-rings into the ice-cold water to demonstrate how the Challenger disaster accident really occurred. He also ended his minority report on the disaster by stating “For a successful technology, reality must take precedence over public relations, for Nature cannot be fooled.” A dramatization of these events aired on the Science Channel last year with William Hurt playing Feynman. Having read all books Feynman, I recommend the autobiographical What Do You Care What People Think? and his lectures on Physics. Although he was one of the young physicist working on the Manhattan project and was at Los Alamos during the War, he had a very strong reaction to the dropping of the bomb on Hiroshima. I strongly recommend watching his interviews on the subject here.

4. Violence: Is the independence of the judiciary something to fight about? In Turkey, a fistfight broke out over the government’s plan to restrain the judiciary. Certainly, this undemocratic move has political overtones in a country rife with such difficulties. This latest move is unsurprising considering the government’s past treatment of free thinkers such as Orhan Pamuk, the Nobel Prize recipient in Literature, who was charged with a criminal offence after speaking out on the Armenian genocide. Ultimately, the government dropped the charges but certainly this was a precursor to the events of Taksim Square and to the latest round of violence. Orhan Pamuk is another one of my role models – read Snow and My Name Is Red to experience Pamuk’s lyric and unforgettable prose.

The Art of Taking (And Giving) Art

This morning a crime was committed in Greece. It was a theft, which by Canadian standards is not a shocking crime. Nonetheless, the incident made international headlines. Why the notoriety? The theft was no run of the mill affair, but a sophisticated art theft from the National Art Gallery in Athens. Three paintings, of immense historical and intrinsic value, were taken: Female Head painted by Pablo Picasso and donated by him in commemoration of Greece’s role in World War II, Piet Mondrian’s Mill, and a 16th century sketch by Caccia.

The theft was reminiscent of many such art heists, such as the 1911 taking of the Mona Lisa from the Louvre and the infamous September 4, 1972 theft of 18 paintings and other artifacts from the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts. Although the recovery of such stolen art is low, the Mona Lisa was returned two years after the fact. Sadly, only one of the 128 paintings taken from the Montreal museum has been recovered to date. It seems that at least in the Art world, crime does pay.

Theft for profit is one matter but objects taken during wartime is another matter of concern. The recovery of art works plundered by the Nazis is still ongoing. George Clooney is presently working on a dramatization of the Monuments Men, a group of art experts who assisted in locating and identifying stolen artwork found by the Allied operation after the end of the war.

Such recoveries can be complicated by the difficulty in tracing the art back to the original owners. Even if the artwork is traceable, many of the new owners dispute the return on the basis they purchased the art in good faith without knowledge the item was stolen. The result is lengthy litigation oftentimes involving numerous parties in an array of international courts. 

In 1998, The Unites States government together with the United States Memorial Holocaust Museum sponsored an international conference on Holocaust-era assets. The conference heard from a number of scholars working in the area of stolen artifacts and art resulting in the creation of guidelines to assist in the return of the objects. The United States created a searchable database to assist museums in detecting the stolen items. However, a recent follow-up study has shown slow progress in identifying the suspect objects.

There are times, however, when art can be “legally” taken as in the case of an Australian hotelier who, as part of a grand marketing scheme, is counting on their guests to commit, well, grand larceny. This “contest” allows any registered guest, who can successfully steal the Banksy art piece from the hotel wall, can keep it.

Bansky, of course, turns the question of art theft on its head when in 2004, he went into the Louvre and hung his version of the Mona Lisa. Which leaves us to ponder this question: is it illegal to bring your own art into an art museum or is it just another form of philanthropy?