Monday, January 08, 2007

"Can a painting really be so connected to the cultural life of a city that it should never move?"

Interesting take on the Gross Clinic affair by Daniel Brook in yesterday's Boston Globe. It begins:

"Thomas Eakins's masterpiece, 'The Gross Clinic,' is housed in a locked gallery bearing the sign: 'To arrange entry see security at front counter.' Having notified the security desk at Thomas Jefferson University, ... I was escorted into the Eakins Gallery by a silent, suited attendant. Eakins's depiction of a surgery course at Jefferson, widely considered the greatest American painting of the 19th century -- and, by some scholars, the greatest American painting, period -- attracts just 500 visitors a year. Surprising, then, the outcry in November, when Jefferson announced that it was selling the painting for $68 million ..."

He continues:

"Claims of cultural patrimony have become more and more common in the art world in recent decades .... Yet such claims are generally made for ancient works or works made by indigenous peoples that have been stolen from their country of origin -- not for ones created in major cities in the contemporary West and purchased at auction. Should the outrage of residents of America's richest cultural cities over the sale of a painting on the open market be given the same weight as that of indigenous Peruvians deprived of ancestral Inca artifacts by tomb-raiders? While there is broad acceptance that art should not move because of shifts in military power (art seized by the Nazis, for example, has been repatriated), the idea that art should be protected from swings in economic power is far more radical."

And, picking up the thread of his opening paragraph, he adds:

"[E]ven the most vocal advocates for keeping 'The Gross Clinic' in Philadelphia would likely concede that the painting has lately been taken for granted at best and ignored at worst. Indeed, Robert Workman, executive director of Alice Walton's museum, cited making Eakins's painting 'more widely accessible to the public' as a key reason for the attempted acquisition. But accessible to which public? ... Walton's new museum, far from the cosmopolitan coasts, will surely make fine art accessible to a different group of Americans. Major museums are rare outside of large metropolitan areas, and those that do exist are often located in popular vacation locales (the Clark Museum and Mass MoCA in the Berkshires, for example). Such museums don't expand access to art as broadly as the Crystal Bridges Museum likely will."