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How Can Our Enjoyment of Art and History Destroy Evidence of Historic Context for an Artwork?

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Art history is an academic discipline dedicated to the reconstruction of the social, cultural, and economic contexts in which an artwork was created. The basic goal of this work is to arrive at an understanding of art and its meaning in its historical moment, taking into consideration the formal qualities of a work of art, the function of a work of art in its original context, the goals and intentions of the artist and the patron of the work of art, the social position and perspectives of the audience in the work's original time and place, and many other related questions. Art history is closely related to other disciplines such as anthropology, history, and sociology.

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Almost daily there are reports of the destruction and looting of art and objects of cultural heritage of local, regional, national, and international significance, notably coming out of the Middle East, but also from many other places in the world. Popular books and movies, such as The Rape of Europa, The Monuments Men, and The Woman in Gold, have brought more attention to the subject, especially in regards to outrages perpetrated during World War II, while scholars, policy-makers, lawyers, conservationists, and forensic scientists are intimately involved in combating atrocities currently being committed. Cultural property crime is not, however, a new phenomenon, but a tactic employed over millennia across continents and against many different cultural groups for a variety of reasons. The thematic subject of art and cultural heritage (looting and destruction) offers students the opportunity to engage with a potent subject that can elicit cultural empathy, to critically examine a historical and contemporary societal problem that affects their present and future, to examine their own attitudes and values, and to consider how art intersects with issues of power. Of particular importance to this lesson are issues of identity and contestation of power over objects of cultural heritage. Some questions that can be addressed by the lesson include: what objects have been held by various cultures and rulers as being imbued with power? Who has chosen to co-opt, usurp, or destroy particular works, and for what reasons? Who has obtained objects in the hopes of transferring a civilizing aura and promoting their cultural enrichment and status? What objects have been subject to iconoclasm, and why?

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This contention about the “more intimate” relation between types, tokens, and their instantiations of properties leaves one to wonder how Wollheim conceived of both universals and types. Unlike Peirce, he does not hold that the existence of a type depends on that of at least one token; Wollheim seems inclined to accept types as a species of autonomously existing abstract object. Yet if any item that instantiates the property rectangular must be spatial, and if every token of The Union Jack instantiates that property, then it follows from Wollheim’s claim that The Union Jack is, qua type, rectangular. It would appear to follow from this that the type must be a concrete, spatially located entity, since anything that can literally be rectangular must be located in space (Sagoff, Mark, 1978). Yet one of the main reasons for going in for the theory of types in the first place was Peirce’s basic observation that while token word inscriptions of ‘the’ have their times and places, the word the, qua type, has no location. Is it sound to postulate the existence of an autonomous abstraction having spatial or temporal features? In an extended criticism of particularist accounts of the individuation and evaluation of works, Meager characterizes a work as either a spatiotemporal object or performance that manifests a pattern of elements that is the product of a person’s (or group of persons’) activity, where the activity was not a matter of copying or servile imitation, and where the object or performance is evaluated non-instrumentally (Theodulf of Orléans, 1998). The concept of a work of art, she comments, “operates in a rather special way as a universal defined by a spatio-temporal particular, which may itself therefore be regarded as a type-universal”.

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Briefly, cultural heritage often brings to mind artifacts (paintings, drawings, prints, mosaics, sculptures), historical monuments and buildings, as well as archaeological sites. But the concept of cultural heritage is even wider than that, and has gradually grown to include all evidence of human creativity and expression: photographs, documents, books and manuscripts, and instruments, etc. either as individual objects or as collections. Today, towns, underwater heritage, and the natural environment are also considered part of cultural heritage since communities identify themselves with the natural landscape. Cultural heritage passed down to us from our parents must be preserved for the benefit of all. In an era of globalization, cultural heritage helps us to remember our cultural diversity, and its understanding develops mutual respect and renewed dialogue amongst different cultures.

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Ruttkowski, Wolfgang, 1990, The Main Differences between Roman Ingarden’s and Nicolai Hartmann’s Strata-systems, Munich: Grin.

Stecker, Robert, 2005, Review of David Davies, Art as Performance, The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, 63 (1): 75–77.

Sagoff, Mark, 1978, ‘On Restoring and Reproducing Art’, Journal of Philosophy, 75 (9): 453–470.

Theodulf of Orléans, 1998 [ca. 794], Opus Caroli regis contra synodum (Libri Carolini), Ann Freeman (ed.) with Paul Meyvaert, Monumenta Germaniae Historica, Concilia 2, Suppl. 1, Hannover: Hahnsche.

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How Can Our Enjoyment of Art and History Destroy Evidence of Historic Context for an Artwork?
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