Art, Politics, Religion.
What a potent mixture those three words in the title conjure up!
Imagine, if you will, a group of nuns in Aragón living in a ruinous Convent in the 1980s. They decide to move to another Convent in Catalonia and they further decide to sell various religious artworks that they owned to the Generalitat of Catalonia. Contacts are signed, the move is made and the religious art works find their way to a museum in Lleida. All is well. The nuns are settled in their new home and the museum has gained a substantial number of interesting artworks to put on display.
But no! All is not well. Aragón has decided that the nuns wrongly sold off part of their regional artistic heritage and they demand the return of the works.
What country, you may well ask yourself, does not have one case (or in the British Museum’s case thousands) of someone somewhere asking for the return of something cultural that was bought/sold in what approximated for good faith when the transaction was done? The most glaring example in the BMs case is probably that of The Elgin Marbles.
In recent decades Greece has become increasingly strident in its demand that the Marbles be returned. Not to the monument itself, where if the marbles had been left in place they would be today, shapeless pieces of marble destroyed by the acidic smog and rain from the pollution of the city, but rather be placed in another museum at the foot of the Acropolis. This museum has already been built and awaits the return of the lost treasures.
And all I have to say is that Greece will get those Marbles over my dead body!
That almost happened (my death I mean) when, as a backpacking Greek island-hopper back in the day, in a roughish bar in an insalubrious part of Athens I maintained (drunkenly, loudly, but articulately) that the Elgin Marbles were works that I had grown up with, they were part of my heritage and I valued them as an essential part of what it meant to be British and that we would never, ever let them go! As one Greek later confided to me in the bar, “The only reason we didn’t kill you was because you were obviously so passionate about them!”
In the same way, the Assyrian bas-reliefs of The Lion Hunt, and especially the poignant depiction of a dying lioness.
These are objects that I always visit first when I go to the BM.
Another part of MY history and MY culture, no matter where the artwork was originally made. I would be very loath to give those back - even if it might be difficult to work out exactly who to give them back to, history being what it is and places and people changing so much over time!
But the ‘decent’ person inside the voracious art-lover persona knows exactly what the issues are and, while questions of ownership are difficult they are not impossible and the ‘right thing to do’ trumps smaller questions.
That being said, I still wouldn’t give them back!
So, what I am saying is that I do understand the passions that can be aroused by ownership and siting of works of art. Which brings us back to what, this morning, was packed into a van in Catalonia and taken, through a police cordon and angry crowds, to Aragon.
There has been an acrimonious court case about the ‘ownership’ of these religious works of art and the latest twist was a judge saying that they should be ‘returned’ to Aragon. In normal times, that judgement would be the prelude to further rounds of legal argument and a procession through various courts until, possibly it found its way to the highest court in Spain.
But that didn’t happen.
Given the present situation in Catalonia, things are a little different.
After the threat of the Catalan government’s proclamation of independence, the minority right-wing Conservative (PP) national government in Spain declared article 155 of the Constitution and took away the elected government from Catalonia imposing their own rule from Madrid, arrested members of the government and issued an international arrest warrant for the President who is now in exile in Belgium.
PP managed to gain 9% of the popular vote in Catalonia in the last elections. 9%! And now that party runs the country! And they are showing exactly what their ‘running’ of the country means.
Iñigo Méndez de Vigo is the minority, right-wing, Conservative national Spanish government’s Minister of Culture and he has now intervened in the dispute. As an Article 155 Minister imposed on a country that did not vote for him, he has ordered the treasures to be returned from Lleida to Aragón. But not just to Aragón, but to the small town of Villanneva de Sigena - population 512. From the museum in Lleida - population 140,000. It just so happens that the party of government of the small town is PAR, a party closely associated with PP! Well, there’s a surprise! Funny how things work out when you are looking for a spiteful opportunity to denude Catalonia of its art!
Iñigo Méndez de Vigo has used the imposition of Article 155 to short circuit the legal procedures and give himself the power to take autocratic decisions against Catalonia.
Many people will not care much about old religious art, but the crowds of protesters outside the museum in Lleida did, just at the staff of the museum did when they came out of the building en mass and applauded the support of the protesters. This is not the end of the protest, even though the van carrying the disputed treasures has left for Aragón, and it should be a wake up call to those who think that they can trust any of the so-called ‘Constitutional’ parties in the forthcoming election to behave with anything approaching understanding following the events of the past months.
The taking of these art works is a clear indication of how the minority right-wing Conservative (PP) government is going to work. It will use the power of Article 155 to manipulate and damage Catalonia in a way that it would never have been able to do if its measly 9% popular support was its mandate.
If it is prepared to do this with artworks, then imagine what is it likely to do with the actual structure of government and the finance of institutions in Catalonia! PP is not to be trusted. It is clearly the most corrupt party in Western Europe, with hundreds of its members in courts accused of or condemned for criminal activity. And these are the people ‘governing’ Catalonia; preparing for the election on the 21st and, most disturbingly, counting the votes.
Now, more than ever, Catalonia needs the eyes of the world, and especially those of the EU, to scrutinize the arrangements for, the supervision of, and the results from the local election in Catalonia on the 21st of December.
All the Catalans ask for is fairness and honesty. A big ‘ask’ from PP.
Watch what happens in Catalonia. Ask questions. Demand answers. Support Democracy and Liberty!