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Who Owns Art?

Mises Daily: Tuesday, June 08, 1999 by

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Professor James Beck of Columbia University was steamed, at least back in 1995, when he expressed his dismay to "60 Minutes" about efforts to restore Leonardo da Vinci's Last Supper. Today the job is completed and there are still folks who share Professor Beck's outlook.

What is at issue? I am no art historian, let alone an expert at art restoration. I understand, however, that there is a controversy about restoring famous works of art, mostly in Italy. The reason is that the precise composition of such paintings is rarely known. We know mostly that we do not know and, when that is the case, meddling becomes extremely risky. Professor Beck argued that in such cases it is best to leave things be, not to restore but to allow the work to fade away. He says it is better that it should die than that we should murder it.

Yet the city of Milan, which owns the work, disagreed and now the work is, for better or for worse, artistically speaking, restored and available for public viewing again. To this Professor Beck objected on grounds that the painting doesn't belong to anyone, "it belongs to the world," as he put it. Moreover, what seems to irk the good professor is that large corporations sponsor much of the restoration work throughout the world, especially in Italy where so many masterpieces are located and cared for. And that, to this professor (like to most others), is sacrilege. Corporations and art cannot mix.

What is puzzling in this attitude, apart from its blatant arbitrariness and prejudice, is its historical ignorance. All artists and thus all art has had patrons, mostly the rich and powerful. Indeed, in olden days, the rich and the powerful who sponsored works of art were sometimes rather brutal men. Corporations may be big but mostly they get their wealth from investors, not military conquests and colonial expansion. For my money, then, the latest patrons are by far preferable to the earlier ones.

What about Professor Beck's claim that the world owns the works? Frankly that's just nonsense. I certainly don't and I am included in this world. I go to museums and enjoy the privilege of viewing the works of great masters who sold or gave their works away so they came down in history for us to enjoy. But no, we do not own them. If we did, we would have come by them through theft!

So what does it mean when a famous professor from Columbia University declares that the major works of art in the world are owned by the world? My suspicion is that it means he wants to control what happensto them–on our behalf, of course! Certainly he wouldn't want the works to be managed democratically, by some kind of vote, nor individually, by each citizen of the world. It would be impossible.

No, Professor Beck and others, properly self-anointed, should be in charge, that is the most logical inference to be drawn from such a claim. And most cases of such public ownership amount to nothing less than some people invoking public ownership so as to accomplish a de facto personal expropriation. Just watch it. When someone claims that an ancient tribe or a certain people own a piece of land, look out. It is usually a way to expropriate the land, to gain control over it, to make the kind of use of it the person making this claim has in mind.

I do not mean that this is about deliberate fraud or even greed, not at all. Folks making such claims are probably convinced that they are saying something terribly profound and meaningful. It is just that they are wrong.

The world, contrary to the distinguished Professor James Beck, does not own The Last Supper, nor any other artistic masterpiece. In the case of The Last Supper the city of Milan is as close to its owner we can now identify. So we have to live with the fact that they will be deciding whether to restore it, among other matters. That is, of course, difficult for some people to live with. They cannot come to terms with the reality that they will be left out of controlling something they are so interested in. But a sign of maturity is to realize just that.

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Tibor R. Machan teaches at the Argyros School of Business and Economics, Chapman University, CA, and is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford.


Also, read Capitalism and Culture by Lew Rockwell, Who Should Pay for Art? by Michael Levin, and a piece on Symphonies and Unions by Shawn Ritenour.