Thursday, August 20, 2009


It was to be one of the biggest private art sales in history. And there was to be humanism in the offing: it was announced that the proceeds were to be spent to fight AIDS and to set up a foundation honoring the legendary designer Yves Saint-Laurent, who passed away in 2008 at 71. It was to be Western capitalistic glamor with a hint of humanism. True, when it came up for auction, the Christie’s sale of the Bergé-YSL collection ended up with sales amounting to US$485.5 million. A record. But it was not without an uproar that revealed, history surging from its ashes, the often ignorant arrogance of Western glamorous humanism, and the way nationalism can be manipulated for business purposes. Two bronze sculptures, representing the heads of a rabbit and a rat, were among 12 Jesuit-designed animal head sculptures that formed a zodiac-themed water clock decorating the Calm Sea Pavilion in the Old Summer Palace of Emperor Qianlong (1736-1795) in Beijing. The hullabaloo was sparked by Chinese bidder Cai Mingchao, the general manager of Xiamen Harmony Art International Auction Company---a small auction house from Fujian Province in southeast China-----who having won the auction for the two Chinese bronzes at $40 million, refused to pay the price he had bid for. He invoked patriotic reasons: those objects came from the 1858 sack of the Summer Palace during the second opium war and should be returned to its rightful owner, China. “I fulfilled my responsibility as a Chinese person,” he said.The sack of the Summer Palace in the West is a little-known episode of the 19th and early 20th multi-national subjugation of China. It warrants just a few paragraphs, if any, in Western schoolbooks, but in China it is a highly charged symbolic event. It marked the peak of a series of “wars”-----to the invaders simple “military expeditions”—that saw the country nearly dismembered by Western, and later Japanese invaders. The result of those wars was dramatic and culturally humiliating. China, for the first time, was made to adopt its invaders’ ways instead of having them adopting its own culture. It is therefore no surprise that the Bergé sale became a rallying issue for Chinese nationalists. Nationalism has a bad name among the small crowd of glamorous Western cosmopolitan humanists. Bergé, when presented with Chinese objections, and sued over the issue----he won-----took what he thought was high moral ground: China should stop oppressing the Tibetans and improve its human rights record. If it did so, he would willfully return the disputed bronzes to China. A taunt, launched at what he saw as narrow-minded and parochial Chinese nationalists!Morality, you say, human rights and freedom! It may be the time to call to the rescue a great French pen and defender of “human rights”----before those had a name: Victor Hugo, who wrote about the sack of the Summer Palace as one of the most scathing attacks on “imperialism” ----- before Lenin had linked it to capitalistic expansion. There was in a corner of the world”, writes Victor Hugo, “a wonder of the world; this wonder was called the Summer Palace”. Art has two principles, the Idea, which produces European art, and the Chimera, which produces oriental art. The Summer Palace was to chimerical art what the Parthenon is to ideal art. All that can be begotten of the imagination of an almost extra-human people was there. It was not a single, unique work like the Parthenon. It was a kind of enormous model of the chimera, if the chimera can have a model. Imagine some inexpressible construction, something like a lunar building, and you will have the Summer Palace. Build a dream with marble, jade, bronze and porcelain, frame it with cedar wood, cover it with precious stones, drape it with silk, make it here a sanctuary, there a harem, elsewhere a citadel, put gods there, and monsters, varnish it, enamel it, gild it, paint it, have architects who are poets build the thousand and one dreams of the thousand and one nights, add gardens, basins, gushing water and foam, swans, ibis, peacocks, suppose in a word a sort of dazzling cavern of human fantasy with the face of a temple and palace, such was this building. The slow work of generations had been necessary to create it. This edifice, as enormous as a city, had been built by the centuries, for whom? For the people. For the work of time belongs to man. Artists, poets and philosophers knew the Summer Palace; Voltaire talks of it. People spoke of the Parthenon in Greece, the pyramids in Egypt, the Coliseum in Rome, Notre-Dame in Paris, and the Summer Palace in the Orient. If people did not see it they imagined it. It was a kind of tremendous unknown masterpiece, glimpsed from the distance in a kind of twilight, like a silhouette of the civilization of Asia on the horizon of the civilization of Europe.This wonder has disappeared.One day two bandits entered the Summer Palace. One plundered, the other burned. Victory can be a thieving woman, or so it seems. The devastation of the Summer Palace was accomplished by the two victors, acting jointly. Mixed up in all this is the name of Elgin, which inevitably calls to mind the Parthenon. What was done to the Parthenon was done to the Summer Palace, more thoroughly and better, so that nothing of it should be left. All the treasures of all our cathedrals put together could not equal this formidable and splendid museum of the Orient. It contained not only masterpieces of art, but masses of jewelry. What a great exploit what a windfall! One of the two victors filled his pockets; when the other saw this he filled his coffers. And back they came to Europe, arm in arm, laughing away. Such is the story of the two bandits.We Europeans are the civilized ones, and for us the Chinese are the barbarians. This is what civilization has done to barbarism. Before history, one of the two bandits will be called France; the other will be called England. But I protest, and I thank you for giving me the opportunity! The crimes of those who lead are not the fault of those who are led; Governments are sometimes bandits, peoples never....”
Victor Hugo’s beautiful words go beyond “glamour humanism” of the Bergé kind, and beyond, of course, narrow nationalism, whatever it be. They go to the core of true humanity.But civilization is history, history in the making, as the constant reshaping, among other things, of one’s layers of identity (human, national, etc.), as well as history of the past, as this past is constantly “reinvented” in accordance with the present’s changing needs. Thus can one judge the past with today’s standards or not? And are there or not trans-historical and transcultural values? An international law?China in any case was not the only country whose culture fell prey to foreign predators. The mid-nineteenth century, which European memory still constructs as a period of peace, saw looting on an historically unprecedented scale, compared to which even Tamerlan’s plunder pales. The plunder of India in the aftermath of the 1857-1858 Cipaye revolt. The looting of the Mandalay Palace in 1885. And in the 20th century, the looting of Angkor by the French and of Denpasar and Klungkung by the Dutch, all over Asia, not to mention the looting of Africa, the European powers took and stole, and sometimes burned and raped. Yet, this pillage was novel in its own uncanny Western way, though: it created knowledge. Wherever it took place, it was accompanied by clerks, transport officers and scholars, who registered, itemized, classified and eventually studied. Museums were filled and books written. Colonial exhibitions held. This all resulted in a paradox, of a dialectical kind Chinese Marxists are usually fond of: While this colonial process underlined the “superiority” of Western civilization and the “burden of the white man’, it also compelled it, through scientific comparison, to take into account the logic, and thus “greatness” of other ones: Chinese, Indian, Islamic etc. For the first time the world as a whole found itself united under the scrutiny of scientific observers. Those were the days when anthropology and sociology where born, and when socialist writers, Marx foremost among them, were exposing the contradictions of capitalism. As a result, “universalism”, first dreamt of in the 18th century, was ready to take a more concrete form., From covenants to bilateral agreements, and from those agreements to international conventions, emerged little by little a body of international law, and in its wake an “international rule of law”, whose milestone, regarding pillage, were the two 1899 and 1907 Hague Conventions, which unequivocally outlawed pillage during war.
If so, why weren’t the stolen items from the sack of the Summer Palace returned to China? Because the Hague Conventions, this “civilizing” of war, were never meant to be retroactive. Since it was implemented, in 1910, it may indeed have compelled, upon Germany and Russia in particular, the restitution of artworks seized during the Second World War, but it does not compel any restitution of the works seized during Western colonial expansion. It is no surprise, therefore, that the Hague Conventions and other similar later ones, viewed by the West as progress toward a true international law and genuine “universalism”, are perceived by the Chinese and other formerly colonized people as yet another one-sided imperialistic diktat. It is also not surprising that the “human rights” of the kind defended by Bergé and glamorous Hollywood humanists is perceived, whatever their truth, by Chinese and others, as yet another so-called “burden of the white man” compelled upon them by a still unequal “international” system.Considering this state of affairs, some quarters have wanted to see in the Cai Mingchao case the hand of the all-powerful Chinese state.After all, at the time of the uproar over the sale of the bronze sculptures, Cai was still an adviser to the semi-official National Treasure Fund of China and it is an established fact that the Chinese government wants the restitution of its national treasures. It even tried to block the auction with an 11th-hour legal challenge, which failed.Some voices, however, were eager to clear the state at the price of some speculation. The Economist magazine (, Monday, April 6th), this relentless advocate of economic liberalism, suggested that the whole affair might have been instigated as a ploy against Christie’s: “Cai”, wrote the famous weekly, “is one of thousands of small auction-house operators who would benefit from a scaling-back of Christie’s operations in China.” And indeed, the sale was barely over when the government, which had always refused to purchase the stolen items, and thus legalize their sale, issued a circular that made impossible the import of any item without a “certificate of legal ownership.” This circular was interpreted as a blow directed at Christie’s operations.But the truth, is more prosaic. The Chinese state did not interfere more than it ought to, sticking to its position. As revealed in a Bloomberg’s interview (Bloomberg, April 4, interviewed by Le-Min Lim), once passed his days of patriotic fame, Cai Mingchao was actually devastated----the news agency depicts him as weeping. A respected art dealer, with his own reselling network, he had bid for the items and won. But once the Chinese circular was issued, he could no more import the items into the country, and thus all his options were closed: he could not raise capital to pay Christie’s nor recoup any investment by reselling. This is why he turned to “nationalism,” claiming that his bid was aimed at raising the issue of Chinese stolen treasuries.
This brings us back to the topic of Chinese attitude. It has all along been as cautious and measured as ever. The Chinese authorities may indeed use Chinese nationalist fervor when it suits them, but they are not guided by it. They don’t challenge international law in se; they simply say that the sale was illegal, because the stolen objects have never ceased to be China’s property. In fact, what they want is international law to be reformed in such a way as to take into account China’s demands and thus enable the return of the stolen treasuries,as “recommended” by a 1970 UNESCO convention. Their reason is simple. Contrary to Westerners who see international law as truly “universal” and objective, the Chinese authorities see it as still representing the “bandits” Victor Hugo so eloquently talked about. They want it cleansed of all resilient imperialist flavors. They want the 1970 UNESCO convention to become law.Are they wrong in this?But, contrary to what is said in some quarters, they will do it step by step, waiting for their power, and voice, to grow. Long discarded as “decadent” under the Qing, “corrupt” under the republic, “communists” since 1949, China is now increasingly recognized, as witnessed by the recent G20 meeting, as a key element of the new contemporary economic and political power structure. So from obeying the rules, it will soon play a hand in rewriting them, making them, or so it is hoped, more truly “universal”. It is then, as hoped by Victor Hugo, that France, “delivered and cleansed, will return her booty.” The British, Dutch, Germans, Spanish and others will follow suit. By then, all bandits will have become true friends.
Let’s us hope that this happens soon----and that this lesson on banditry and manipulation of nationalism will not be lost on the Chinese either.
From the point of view of the business of art, the lesson is of a different nature: it shows that the Chinese authorities are much more responsible in matters of rules and procedures that the row over the statues would have had anyone initially guess. China will remain a good place for the business of art.
Jean Couteau

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