26 April 2006

These stones again...


It was almost amusing to watch Mr. Boardman’s effort (“What were the Elgin marbles?”, The Wall Street Journal, P11, April 22) to persuade us that the Elgin Marbles should not be returned to Greece. He adds an interesting twist in this old debate; he actually claims that the marbles should stay in London because they are not worth as much as had been thought. On his view, they are not a symbol of democracy or modern civilization; their only value is aesthetic and they can be appreciated better in the British Museum.

In his effort to minimize their value he slants history and disparages everyone involved. We learn for example that “there was no Greek “nation” (sic) as such”. Apparently common language, religion, culture and a sense of national unity under foreign threat do not constitute a nation for Mr. Boardman. Athens, “the most hated state in Greece” because of its power and prosperity (reminds me of a contemporary country…) does not deserve to have the Marbles back. The Elgin Marbles themselves should not be associated with democracy; they were rather a statement of Athenian power. That is why “many Greeks saw the defeat of Athens at the end of the fifth century as a proper retribution for such a hubris” as the building of the Parthenon. He presents the ancient Greeks as uncultured. Not to mention that modern “Greece is visited less for art than for sunshine”. Case in point.

Mr. Boardman is brash enough to hint that the Marbles were saved by being transferred to London. Somehow he forgets to mention that the marbles were badly damaged in the 30s while in the Museum’s custody, although he has served as the Museum’s apologist for that issue in the past.

Towards the end professor Boardman continues to entertain us; he becomes a moral relativist when it comes to “the stuff of modern arguments about “legality” (sic) that are quite foreign to the manners of the early 1800s”. Bribes however, especially the ones that Elgin used to capture the marbles, were common enough in that era that, according to Mr. Boardman, their outcomes should be accepted by us now.

The final weapon in Mr. Boardman’s arsenal is agnosticism. What is “cultural heritage”? he wonders aloud. His argument is that since the classical Greek culture appeals to the whole of humanity, it doesn’t really matter where its symbols are–even if they are in the hands of those who appropriated them illegally. As an analogy, imagine that the original document of the Bill of Rights had been somehow acquired by the British and kept in a museum in London because "as a cultural symbol it belongs to the whole humanity, not just to Americans".

Fortunately, many British citizens, not associated with the interests of the British Museum, support the return of the Marbles. The reasons are plenty: legal, historical and aesthetic. But the most powerful argument is moral: The Elgin marbles were carved out from the Parthenon with saws after Lord Elgin bribed the Ottoman occupiers. They were stolen from the Greek nation. They should be returned to where they belong: Athens, Greece.




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