by Erhard Schüttpelz
Preliminary Remarks on: Felwine Sarr/Bénédicte Savoy, „The Restitution of African Cultural Heritage. Toward a New Relational Ethics“ (November 2018).
Marx was right, but we can delve deeper into his famous dictum from „The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte“. History does not repeat itself by alternating from tragedy to farce. Farce is the covering of tragedy, i.e., its being and its mask. The development of Berlin’s Humboldt Forum is a tragedy that hasn’t only now taken on the form of farce, but that was prepared by many little tragicomic travesties, and will be accompanied by several more. But even this capital tragicomedy pales in comparison with the art historical Chernobyl Accident of the decade, the „Report“ written by Felwine Sarr and Bénédicte Savoy for Mr. Macron. In the following lines, I try to devote myself to the tragedies involved in this „report“ to make the travesty more recognizable. There are many people in the fields of museum curating, anthropology and post-colonial exhibitions that could write a better commentary than I am able to assemble in the first rush of anger and perplexion. The only reason I have started writing this text is, that I have witnessed the ambivalence of others like myself. After all, is this not a historical landmark (or landslide) report? Are our sympathies not with all those who were robbed, humiliated and disinherited under colonial rule? And indeed, from what I can tell, museum people are behaving cautiously and act like diplomats, after all, they are depending on political decisions too; anthropologists do sympathize with the radicalism and the „payback“ promised after centuries of power abuse, and they think of the possibilities of the dispossessed being compensated for material and immaterial losses; nobody wants to be called a colonialist; and some older anthropologists have admitted defeat in the face of a new epoch that flies in the face of everything they stood for and the scholarly authority they could take for granted. And I feel like that too, sympathizing with the radicalism and the „payback“ offered after centuries and in the presence of power abuse. But that should be no reason to accept a proposal that is full of inconsistencies and injustice, uninformed and actively distorting history.
Please compare Nicolas Thomas’ passages in: https://www.theartnewspaper.com/comment/restitution-report-museums-directors-respond
- This report is not about looted art, it is about looting museums in the name of historical justice. That is, in the name of a concept of historical justice.
- The museology in this report is pseudo-museology. The history written in the report is pseudo-history.
- The legal principles of this report are against traditional principles of law. And they don’t try to acknowledge the legal conceptions of source communities either.
- The report is not about the restitution of property, but about getting rid of inalienable property, and especially about getting rid of the concept of inalienability.
- Making inalienable property into profane property means making it commercial property: the report creates a new art market (and a potentially violent art market too).
- If you give up the custody of scientific scholarship for political reasons, the artefacts will be political artefacts, and they will be disinherited many more times.
- If you give up the heritage of anthropological museums, you are not turning artefacts into art: you are preparing for historical amnesia, and for anthropological amnesia.
- If you put this report into practice, tragedy will be performed as travesty, and travesties will be parts of tragedies.