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Lord Elgin in Detroit

August 17th, 2014 - 7:18 am

Where is Lord Elgin when you need him? In the early 19th century, Thomas Bruce, the 7th Earl of Elgin, was serving as British ambassador to the Ottoman Empire. Exercising fiduciary responsibility for the cultural patrimony of the West was not high on the Muslims’ list of priorities. In Athens, the art and architecture of the Acropolis was mouldering.  One typical practice was burning classical sculptures to obtain lime for building. Horrified, Elgin connived with local authorities to get export permits to remove some surviving treasures, including the famous Parthenon friezes, and have them transported to Britain. He spent about £70,000 of his own money to rescue the marbles, an immense sum. In 1816, Parliament voted to purchase the friezes, which depict the battle between the the Centaurs and the Lapiths, an allegory of the perennial battle between culture and barbarism. Although controversy has dogged Elgin’s actions from the beginning, the truth is that had the Parthenon marbles been left on the Acropolis, it is likely that they would not have survived the ravages of neglect, vandalism, and pollution.  Elgin’s bold act of enlightened cultural imperialism saved a priceless bit of classical art from the maw of cultural primitivism.

The latest news out of Detroit put me in mind of Lord Elgin.  In 1960, Detroit was the most prosperous city in the United States, which means that it was one of the most prosperous cities in the world.  What happened to Detroit provides an answer for those wishing to know how long it takes to ruin a great city: the answer is one generation. In What Doomed Detroit, Kevin Williamson chronicles the swift and definitive fall of that once-great city. In 1960, Detroit was Motor City: home to the dynamic U.S. auto industry, which was providing wheels for the world. By 2013, Detroit was bankrupt. On July 18  of that year, the city filed the largest municipal bankruptcy in U.S. history, estimated at between $18-$20 billion.

What happened? In a word, Democrats. If you want another word, try unions. Together, they ruined the city.  “Detroit,” Williamson notes,  was “like many similar cities:”

The concentration of poverty and related social dysfunction in its inner city, in no small part a legacy of the explosion of the city’s black population during the Great Migration, which saw Detroit’s black population soar from 6,000 in 1910 to 120,000 in 1929, and from 1.2 percent of the population in 1910 to about 30 percent of the population by [1961]. It is one of the great ironies of American history that wherever black Americans go, from the Jim Crow South to the great industrial cities, they are persecuted by the Democratic party, and then help to entrench the power of that party.

So here we are: one basket case of a city and a huge pile of debt, thanks to the “progressive” policies of cynical Democrats. There’s not much of value left in Detroit. Perhaps its greatest asset is the Detroit Institute of Arts. The museum is not a private institution. It is owned by the city. And, nota bene, its collection has been valued at $4.6 billion.

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All Comments   (7)
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Mr. Kimball doesn't seem to know much about Detroit or its bankruptcy, so he's apparently not aware that many philanthropists both in and away from Detroit have kicked in hundreds of millions of dollars to pay off creditors and KEEP THE ART IN THE CITY, rather than remove it to places where the chattering classes think the people deserve it more. This is referred to in the media as the "Grand Bargain".

All in all, pundits like Mr. Kimball and other outsiders who comment on the art in relation to Detroit's bankruptcy usually make themselves look like yahoos who found out Grandpa's in the hospital, go to his house and grab everything they want before he's even dead.

If you're going to loot the Detroit Institute of Arts, you might as well go bomb Prague Castle while you're at it. The effect on the local populations would be similar.
14 weeks ago
14 weeks ago Link To Comment
The analogy also breaks down because the art in Detroit is not in the hands of barbarians who are destroying it. And the true barbarians are the ones who see the art as a commodity with only a financial value and want to get it away from us.

Commentaries of this type (and there have been many over the past two years) always create the impression that all there is to Detroit is a destroyed war zone of 700,000 uncivilized people. It's actually a civilized metropolis of 4 million or so, who take good care of that museum and amply finance it. Across the street is one of the nation's best professional art schools (whose graduates are avidly recruited by major companies throughout the country), and a visit to the museum on a Friday evening or Sunday afternoon shows that the place is far from irrelevant to the locals' lives. Moreover, other museums send art to Detroit's conservation department for restoration.

There seems to be a great yearning among some people elsewhere in the country to get that art out of Detroit because someone else "deserves" it more. However, reports of Detroit's death are highly exaggerated, and the downtown area is coming back through individual entrepreneurship and smart policing so fast that people who've been away for just a few years barely recognize parts of it.

As a conservative myself, it pains me a lot to read the comments of many conservative pundits about Detroit, because they give an inaccurate, very cartoonish impression of what happened to the city. Worse yet, many such pundits seem so overcome with schadenfreude that they appear to want Detroit to remain a ruin forever as a monument to their political theories.
14 weeks ago
14 weeks ago Link To Comment
The analogy doesn't work unless our 21st century Lord Elgin got permission from Canada and wrecked the paintings in their removal.

Lord Elgon did not receive permission from the Greek people. Rather he aided the Ottomans in their harsh treatment of conquered Christian peoples by looting the antiquity of the Greek nation. There is little evidence that the marbles were "rotting.". Rather, comparison of Venetia n accounts indicate that most the the damage was, in fact, caused by Elgin's crude techniques, which included using saws to cut the marbles into easy to move segments. The marbles were badly knocked about in their shipment and the British museum bleached them, damaging the surface further, and removing traces of the ancient paints.

We will never know if Elgin "saved" the marbles. In the wars since that time, belligerents have treated the Acropolis quite gently. This includes, of course, Nazi Germany.

Detroit is another story, but comparing the bankruptcy of a modern American city to the looting of an ancient civilization by British and Ottomans is just silly.
14 weeks ago
14 weeks ago Link To Comment
"Rather he aided the Ottomans in their harsh treatment of conquered Christian peoples by looting the antiquity of the Greek nation."

He looted the Christians by purchasing pagan antiquities from the Ottomans? Got it.
14 weeks ago
14 weeks ago Link To Comment
Belligerents aside, the people of Greece allowed the marbles remaining on the Acropolis to be severely damaged by acid air pollution. There is no reason to think that the Greeks would have been any more responsible if all the marbles had remained.

Greeks who care about the Parthenon marbles should celebrate Lord Elgin. He saved them from Greek politics and Greek air pollution.

14 weeks ago
14 weeks ago Link To Comment
http://www.nytimes.com/2009/06/19/opinion/19iht-edhitchens.html?_r=0

Ah. Here it is.

"It is not a question of denuding one great and old European museum, so much as of completing another great and new one. The British people, when asked, have repeatedly shown that they want to do the right thing and reunify the sculpture. It is impossible to visit Athens and not yearn for the day when Britain decides to right an ancient wrong and show that a beautiful artefact is more than the mere sum of its parts."
14 weeks ago
14 weeks ago Link To Comment
But the Greeks don't. Indeed, Elgin's theft of the marbles remains a nasty source of contention to this day. The remaining Parthanon marbles today are located on a nearby museum while replicas adore much of the reconstructed building. The fact that Greece has preserved the marbles undercuts the case for them to be in the British Museum at all.

Chris Hitchens wrote a wonderful column about the a few years back that I can't seem to find.... But regardless, it's still a silly metaphor for Detroit.
14 weeks ago
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