What is the Wise Thing to Do with Brâncuși’s Wisdom of Earth?

Cultural Heritage „versus”(!?) Freedoms of Expression, Commerce, and Movement


jora_octavian The collective conscience and the scientific literature are hosting a double conceptual dualism, with repercussions on mundane reality when it comes to the nature of those goods which „store” cultural value. Nota bene: we’ll refer to material goods, since matter is the inescapable infrastructure also for the spiritual symbols. In the material world, property rights structure is as natural as the atomic structure of matter. It alleviates the conflictual propensity stemming from the societal scarcity of resources and is the very precondition for their efficient allocation. Of course, this is true only when and where the property rights are properly defined, defended and disposable. Freedom to express yourself(cultural production), to trade and to circulate, as hypostases of the freedom to choose, make sense exclusively in a world where the material property belongs to its rightful creators (following the route from self-ownership and home steading to productive transformation and contractual transfer). Once again, the talk is explicitly about material property, because intellectual property is a little bit different „animal”.

 Private property and common heritage

On the one hand, there is said to be a difference between cultural property and cultural heritage. In fact, the second term rather overrides (or it „should” do it) the first one, infusing it with a meaning without which this one allegedly would be unconvincing: intellectual and spiritual accumulations and achievements of a society are poorly covered by the notion of „property”. „Heritage” (patrimoine) somehow would express better the idea of successional transfer, through protection and preservation, of the „social meanings”, which are the very essence of culture. The traditional logic of (private) property would seem in cultural matters

too reified and mercantile, some consider.

On the other hand, even if we further call it cultural property, this can be understood, in a „geo-cultural order”, in two ways: as a sum of components of a common culture of humanity (regardless of origin or current location, of ownership or of jurisdiction, attitude promoted by the Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict, signed at Hague, on May 14, 1954) or as part of a particular nation’s inheritance.

But whether we’re talking about objects of artistic, archaeological, ethnographic or historical interest (UNESCO’s nomenclature proposes a generous taxonomy of items), the still-dominant nation state has allowed only sparingly the internationalization of culture and its artifacts. Governments still profess the allocation and recognition of the national character of cultural goods, irrespective of their residence at one point in time and of their movement, apply serious filters to „exports” and are looking for the „repatriation” of „world-wide-wandering” exhibits.

National heritage and spiritual security

brancusiModern and contemporary world of nation-states has found another Raison d’Etat in „cultural security”. Questioning its importance is considered an offense, as it is also the case with the traditional territory rapture.

The world’s states are divided, with respect to cultural artifacts circulation, into origin-states of cultural goods and market-states (with transit-states as intermediate). The dialectic replicates the classical economic „producer-merchant-consumer” chain.

In source-countries, the supply exceeds the demand, whereas in outlet-countries, the phenomenon is being reversed, and the principle of communicating vessels is therefore doing its job inexorably, moving them from the first category to the second. Egypt, Greece, India, Mexico, even Romania are exporters for the „Western capitalism aristocrats” (in countries such as Switzerland, France, Germany, Japan, Scandinavia, UK and USA) and for the „Gulf petro-sheiks” or „novi ruski oligarchs”.

For the macro-enthusiasts of national accounts representations, the (un)balances of cultural trade can be calculated, but they can only emphasize the elemental intuition, as well as inflame nationalist spirits. The question of protectionism is being raised, an inverted protectionism, with propensity towards blocking trade at the expeditor, not at the recipient.

Although other forms of export are frenetically encouraged, cultural export is exposed to an upturned dialectic. National laws prohibit or limit exports of goods from the „national cultural heritage”, and international agreements reinforce the vigilance of anti-free cultural trade (UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property, from November 14, 1970), few nations being lax in this respect (for example, the US and Switzerland, exactly due to their net positive position).

The reasons of cultural protectionism range from the „romantic Byronism” of getting back home the identity effigies, to political uses of the cultural heritage symbolism, to the lack of expertise and management regarding the exploitation of this valuable resource, to vested interests for the prohibition to exist, because in this manner mega-rents associated with smuggling can be extracted.

Brâncuși thought local and went global

brancusi-2Brâncuși is, above all, Romanian. For Romanians. Only afterwards he is a brilliant sculptor. For connoisseurs. Brâncuși became popular in his own country after an elite of European avantgarde adopted him as its apostle, and remained a symbol of Romanian culture, regardless of whether his symbols were understood by many or just a few. Entering on the countersense of the scientific and artistic „socialist realism” as a lost exponent of the decadent bourgeoisie, with his monumental ensemble from Târgu-Jiu, with its Endless (Thanksgiving) Column, Table of Silence and Gate of the Kiss, escaping at a moustache from being smoothed by the bulldozer, Brâncuși would be rehabilitated by a communist regime that, in post-Stalinist period, was removing the strait jacket of the Russifying universalism, looking towards a Romanian nationalism. It was a search for cultural anchors of legitimacy, in a pragmatic exercise of „re-rooting”. In post-1989 era, the „international” Brâncuși (re)became iconic in his country of birth, but his works started to live something not yet experienced. Instead of the old „movement of values” from glorious showrooms to gloomy storerooms and back, following the whims of the Communist Party’s cultural police, for some of his confiscated creations the perspective (and pressure) of the movement in the global market was opened.

The news of putting up for auction the Wisdom of Earth, once restored to its rightful owners, alongside its specter of leaving the national territory, have sparked a vivid emotion. Is it fair that a piece belonging to the Cultural Treasure of Romania might rest in foreign museums or private collections, far from the holy land of its country, away from the hearth which gave birth to the ingénue emotion of the work (Memento: but not to the „rock” it is made from, the crinoide limestone block being pulled out from the catacombs of Paris, the Savonnieres Caves)? Is our national heritage up for auction? Is the global free market (with its insane prices, expressions of the cosmopolitan capital which when „directs” art in fact confiscates it in the name of „the highest bidder”) the proper instance/authority to fix the physical and spiritual place of the „authentic values” and where the national sentiment be (de)monetized? Is there a higher „insolence” than that of the Romanian state to stand idly and give up searching, when the market fails, for resources to maintain in its legal and moral jurisdiction a piece of work that bears within diachronic spiritual energies of the magnitude of a Kogaion, as are the ones irradiating from the wonderful „Wisdom”?

Bordersto stones and barriers to spirit

Of course, there is in such moments, among a particular category of public, a cultural-nationalist pathos which, most often, surpasses both the right measure of things, and the sincere idea that animated the artist in giving, as is the case of Brâncuși, body (form) and soul (substance) to an initially amorphous stone. The circulation of a „cultural good”, recognized as such, even in a cold auction price, validates (not weakens), regardless of meridians and parallels, the culture of origin. „Brâncuși”, auctioned at Christie’s (26 million euros, in 2009, in Paris, for „Madame L.R.”, or 5.4 million euros, in 2014,in New York, for a version in cast of „The Kiss”), is still Romanian, maybe even more so as he legitimizes himself as such in the immense world from where, naturally, dividends of recognition and prosperity are expected to be collected in his community. We speak of a world harmonized by economic „complements” digested through cultural „compliments” (Come here to invest and trade with us because on our certificate of credibility you can also see Brâncuși’s creative and hard-working gene!).

The spirit and substance of Brâncuși is not static and stiff. He escaped the corset of domestic self-sufficiency. He left for other horizons without losing his home-pointing compass. He inspired Rodin’s air only to expire it firmly the moment he felt it choking him, braided the original, true-born Romanian fiber with the study of universal themes, enriching them with a touch of immeasurable genius. He was not parochial, he did not believe in maps, he transcended.

The tradable character of his works is far from being a sin. Brâncuși sold at that time a great portion of his works, accepting that between market and culture there is a positive tension: the commercial act completes the cultural act when the demiurgic freedom of the artist meets the unequivocal recognition of a fellow, in a game of benign reciprocally demonstrated preferences for free artistic production and exchange.

Romanian spirit and universality, creation and trade: therefore, what kind of borders are „we” asking for when it comes to keep Brâncuși (’s works) at home?

Sustainable culture does remain the extension of the freedom to create, to critique, to contract, to circulate. Private property is not the enemy of public culture, since it is the foundation of the cooperative division of labour, where the authentic cultural values stand and fall with the rest of the social architecture. Coercive regulations (an assortment of privileges and obstacles) and public money do not necessarily transform stones into heritage, nor into bread, but more probably erode them, helping „assisted” cultures bite the dust.


For a brief exposé about the principial relationship between private property rights and the preservation of freely shared cultural expressions, see Jora, Octavian-Dragomir and Iacob, Mihaela, „The Economics of Culture and the Cultural Economy: Praxeological Account on Material Wealth and Spiritual Welfare”, in Jora, Octavian-Dragomir (editor), Proceedings of 5th Biennial International Conference „The Future of Europe”, ASE Publishing House, 2014 (available on CD format).

Octavian-Dragomir Jora is Associate Professor, Ph.D., at the Bucharest University of Economic Studies, the Faculty of International Business and Economics, editor and journalist.

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