I hope all of you have, at some point, seen Bean: The Movie, one of the most insightful and cutting indictments of museum practice in the States in the last decade. An inept guard from a British museum is invited to give a lecture on the occasion of this picture, Whistler's Arrangement in Grey and Black, famously depicting his mother [Musee d'Orsay], being purchased for a vast fortune by a general (played by Burt Reynolds) who wants to return it to America, where it belongs.
And so, Bean's very much in the situation that I find myself in now. Everybody's worried that he's going to say something that's either incorrect, or that he'll take too long. However, he manages to please the audience by pointing out that Whistler's painting "is just a picture of a mad old cow whom he thought the world of. I think that's marvellous."
But the point is not about Whistler, and it's not about "Whistler's Mother." It's about the notion, still rampant, that great works of art belong to the mother country of the artists who painted them. That idea, it seems to me, during the course of my scholarly and museum career, is a truly lamentable obstacle to any sort of accurate and sympathetic understanding of the way history was played out in the 19th century.
It seems to me that this greatly deters any understanding of the dialogue that was taking place, the sort of globalisation, if you like, of intellectual exchange in the arts fully 150 years ago. But alas, we simply can't seem to get around nationalism in art history. Whistler firmly believed that if there was going to be some sort of a movement to protect the export of a work of art on the grounds that it belonged in one particular national home, he didn't want to be a party to it.Reuse content