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On the Politics and Culture of Organized Theft

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Art is property that is unlike any other. While it is moveable property and has monetary value, it cannot be rebuilt. Its value lies in the unique skill of its creator but also in how it is embedded in culture and identity. Historically significant buildings may have a similar function but building can be and sometimes are reconstructed. Warsaw’s Old Town, destroyed during the Warsaw Uprising on the orders of Adolf Hitler is an example. Most real property, however, does not have such deep cultural and historic association. It is lived and used by people in the course of their daily lives.

Warsaw Uprising

German Ju-87 Stuka bombing Old Town during the Warsaw Uprising.

Art and its creation and collection help to create and affirm identity. This is most obviously the case with artists themselves. We cannot disassociate Michelangelo from the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel or the sculpture of David. However, art is never merely a matter of individual expression, a fact often lost on contemporary post-modern society.

The practice of modern collecting grew tremendously during the nineteenth century. Newly wealthy industrialists endowed libraries and museums as an assertion of their rising status and for the sake of charity, to spread the wealth of culture more broadly.

In Poland, the act of collecting art and literature (little distinction was made between collecting “fine art” and creating libraries and archeological curiosities) was part of an effort to preserve national identity and culture. Following the loss of independence in the late 1700s, Polish gentry sought to make their homes “temples” of culture. While initially private collections, they were soon opened to select members of the public and sometimes to the public at large.

This collection included not merely “national” art, but art from across Europe. In so doing, they sought to create oases of Western culture in the east. To the Polish gentry, they felt beset by barbaric “eastern” Russians. To assert Polishness in the face of foreign domination was assert one’s link to Western civilization. Thus to collect the work of the Italian Renaissance or Dutch Masters was to make such work “Polish” as well as Italian or Dutch.

If collecting art was an act of creating and reaffirming a larger cultural identity, how then, should we view the act of stealing or “expropriating” such art?

Posted in: The Cultural Front
John T. Radzilowski

About the Author:

John T. Radzilowski is Assistant Professor of History at University of Alaska Southeast (UAS) and a Piast Institute Fellow. Before joining UAS he taught at University of St. Thomas, Hamline University and University of Minnesota. He has authored, edited and co-edited numerous books including Disintegration: The Communist Secret Police and Polish Society since 1944 (forthcoming), Encyclopedia of American Immigration (2013), Travellers History of Poland (2007), Ukrainians in North America (2007), The Eagle and the Cross: A History of the Polish Roman Catholic Union of America (2003) and Spanish Carlism and Polish Nationalism: The Borderlands of Europe in the 19th and 20th Centuries (2003). Dr. Radzilowski is the recipient of the Mieczysław Haiman Medal, Oskar Halecki Prize, Krzyżem Kawalerskim Orderu Zasługi (Cavalier’s Cross of the Order of Merit) and the Joseph Swastek Prize. His articles have appeared in Journal of Genocide Studies, Glaukopis, The Public Historian, U.S. Catholic Historian, Polish American Studies and Journal of American Ethnic History. He writes the The Cultural Front blog for the Journal of Property Rights in Transition. Dr. Radzilowski was educated at Southwest Minnesota State University (B.A.) and Arizona State University (Ph.D.).

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