Kwame Anthony Appiah
Bill Long 10/12/06
"Who Owns Culture?"
Professor Appiah, a well-known and highly-regarded philosophy and African-American studies professor from Princeton, opened the star-studded Willamette University conference entitled "Cultural Heritage: The Legacy of Conquest, Coloniziation and Commerce," with a challenging, eloquent and controversial lecture tonight entitled "Who Owns Culture?" While his intimate familiarity with aspects of colonial history and his able exploration of the concept of cosmopolitianism informed his presentation, I found his approach limited in three ways: (1) his cramped understanding of law; (2) his interest in spinning out ideas without regard to actual "facts on the ground," and (3) his concept of cosmopolitanism, which would tend to lead to opposite conclusions than he wanted to argue. Before spelling out my critique, however, here are a few words on Appiah's approach to the issue of possession/ownership of cultural objects located far from the region of their creation.
In trying to grapple with the question of who owns the notable cultural objects in the world, Appiah introduced the concept of cosmopolitanism. Invented in the 4th century BCE by the Cynics, cosmopolitanism is a philosophy fit for our day, a philosophy which recognizes the need for diversity rather than uniformity in our world. But he wouldn't let us off the hook with that simple explanation; he combined his interest in cosmopolitanism with a discussion of "authentic" culture. In fact, he argued that trying to get to the "authentic" culture of a place is like peeling an onion: you eventually have very little which is "uniquely" or "authentically" onion. If Ghanians or Vietnamese want to wear New York Yankee ball caps instead of traditional head coverings, who are we to tell them what is authentically theirs?
This strong statement of cultural identity and uniqueness was the basis for his argument that, in general, cultural artifacts either taken from or purchased from native peoples ought to remain in the possession of those who obtained them. He would argue, of course, that if you stole something from someone that it ought to be given back, but that generally the claim for returning goods tends to weaken and then disappear both through passage of time and inability of specific individuals to show that something was taken from them. In addition, cultures don't produce works of art; individuals do. Therefore to expect various Nok terracottas from Nigeria to be repatriated to the country of Nigeria today ignores the fact that they were produced before there was a country of Nigeria and that the current country of Nigeria really has no direct connection with the original producers of the art. Indeed, countries may, in order to solve severe economic problems, decide to sell off some of their art objects, which they should be able to do. And, it might have been the case, as it was with many Kumasi treasures owned by his own ancestors in Ghana, that owners of artwork actually transferred them to Europeans in the past either in legitimate sales or as part of an indemnity owed to conquerors.
Appiah, to his credit, did try to ground his understanding of building "cosmopolitan cultures" in every contemporary country/culture by a rich understanding of the idea of cosmopolitanism. But his concept didn't seem robust enough for what he was trying to do. I asked him if cosmopolitanism is a "coerced" concept, since it seemed as if the victors would enforce their understanding of law and possession of objects on the losers. What if other countries hadn't so developed their own ideas of cosmopolitanism--and thus wanted repatriation of all objects produced within their boundaries? Do we honor their understanding? And, if not, why not? When you consider that the concept of cosmopolitanism emerged in a time when it was forced on the rest of the Mediterranean world by Alexander the Great, you get the sense that the concept is not as benign as Appiah wants to make it.
Closely related to this is what I call a "cramped" understanding of law. Indeed, he claimed to know "nothing about" the topic of which he spoke, and I think this was justified in his understanding of the way that law worked. His assumption seemed to be that if original transfers of goods were "lawful," then they should not be returned to their lands of origin (he also seemed only to recognize return of objects to individuals, rather than to cultural or national groups). But what is a lawful transfer, especially something that occurred more than 100 years ago? Are we to suppose that Ghanians or Nigerians of 1870, when British imperialists came in and "bought" objects, perhaps giving receipts for them to the locals, understood and were acting on knowledge of the common law that English courts would assume was present when two parties of equal strength entered into contracts with each other? I would say, heartily, no. The whole concept of what constituted a "lawful" transfer is one that has to be explored with the minutest care.
Finally, what seemed most evident to me during Appiah's talk is that he spoke as a philosopher on practical real-life issues, without much understanding of the "real-life" ways that these problems are encountered. No clearer example of this was evident than in his response to Prof. McCreery's question about the "morality" of antiquities' dealers in the Middle East. Appiah had tried to show inadequacies in UNESCO's principles regarding ownership of looted cultural objects. But, as McCreery pointed out, this left the private antiquities dealers looking like saints. Appiah seemed to know nothing of who these people were or what they did. It isn't bad for philosophers to state broad principles of belief; when they deal with 'real-life' issues, however, it might be good for them to have some specific knowledge of the institution they are discussing.
I liked Professor Appiah because of his facile mind and fluent speech, with examples of what he meant at the ready. But it seemd that his concepts that stood him in good stead as "stand alone" concepts (such as cosmopolitanism) couldn't bear the weight of the argument he loaded on them tonight. Nevertheless, he got the ball rolling, and it will certainly pick up speed tomorrow.
Copyright © 2004-2007 William R. Long