In his new book, Art’s Properties, art historian David Joselit takes on one of the defining debates of our time: what does it mean to say that an artwork belongs to a particular place or culture? Questions of identity, representation, and appropriation have provoked some painful conversations across the nation and within the art world, yet we are far from concrete solutions. But Joselit, a professor of art, film, and visual studies at Harvard, believes he may have struck on a way to resolve some of the tensions in this debate.
In Art’s Properties, Joselit spins a fascinating history of art and representation debates, going back to the founding of the Louvre, and tying that to modern controversies over repatriation and representation. He argues that, since its inception, the value of modern art has been intrinsically tied to the value we assign to artists’ identities. By making properties of identity, from nationality to sexuality, the source of art’s value, both art and artist are commodified without much chance for escape.
But, in Art’s Properties, Joselit turns this way of looking at art on its head, arguing that we should reorient our judgments around what he calls the “legitimacy of the witness.” In Joselit’s estimation, every individual has the capacity to witness the events around them, but it is the quality of their observation that should be judged, not their identity.
ARTnews sat down with Joselit to discuss some of the central questions of his new book.
This interview has been edited lightly for concision and clarity.
ARTnews: What was the catalyst for this book?
In 2020 I taught a graduate seminar on Foucault and care of the self and the nature of subjectivity. It became a very intense discussion around the definition of the human in the 19th century and how the institution of slavery created the concept of a “nonhuman.” As a result, I really wanted to think about how this legacy affects “proprietary identity,” the idea that when we all own our identities, on some level, we need to police them. I was really interested in linking ideas around proprietary identity to a kind of prehistory of current repatriation debates and tracing them back to the beginning of the modern museum with the Louvre.
AN: Reading your book I was surprised to see how far back repatriation debates go, basically to the advent of the modern museum. How did you first come to that conclusion?
What recent historians have really taught us is that colonization and the modern state are not coincidentally linked. It’s necessary to acknowledge the centrality of the modern state, a capitalist economy and forms of colonization and enslaved labor in the history of modern art.
The Louvre, as the paradigmatic first democratic museum, is constituted of works that were appropriated from the ancien regime of France, the religious elites and the aristocratic elites, on the one hand, and then also works that were looted in Napoleon’s campaigns in Europe and Egypt. Soon after his fall, there were strong calls for repatriation of objects, both on the part of the British military and also Antonio Canova, a sculptor who was a kind of celebrity artist at that time, and was sent by the Pope to try to get various Italian works returned.
So, my point really is that the museum is a kind of institution that is founded on taking things out of their context and putting them together in order to create narratives of power and authorization. Meanwhile, the claims to bring objects back and the understanding that [they] had been radically decontextualized is nothing new. In fact, it arises at the same moment as the museum itself.
AN: In the book, you talk a lot about the writings of Quatremère de Quincy, a contemporary of Napoleon, who argued that art derived its power from its context, that is, from the community for which it was made. Yet you also discussed very deeply the limits and burdens of representation, which can lead to a kind of segregation: who gets to make what and for whom. How does this debate relate to your idea of proprietary identity?
This is something that really came out of looking at the controversy around Dana Schutz’s  painting Open Casket. Is the history of Black pain owned exclusively by African Americans? Or is the pain of others a kind of human right? The critique of the former position is that if everyone’s identity experience is defended by them and claimed by them as exclusive property, then we get into this kind of world where there’s no place of common interchange. However, if you say that accessing or making work about the pain of others is a kind of universal human right, then you really erase the unevenness and injustice that occurs within experiences of selfhood among different groups.
The issue is, how can we think about identity, understanding that different people are subjected to different kinds of burdens and repression, without making that experience a form of property, which has to be defended and must be exclusionary on some level. It’s not a coincidence that these debates around a kind of proprietary identity, as I call it, are happening at the same time as the debates around repatriation, which are basically debates about what it means for an object and a people to be native and authentic. It really has to do with how culture becomes property, identity becomes a property. All of these things become a kind of possession.
AN: Your solution to this debate has to do with providing a third option, which doesn’t advocate for the exclusion of perspective based on group belonging but doesn’t fall into some false universalism. Your solution is akin to the concept of the “legitimate witness.” Can you explain how that functions insofar as judging art?
Well, I was thinking about what it means to own an experience of pain for instance, or a history of repression, and what it is to bear witness to it. If you own a certain experience, then you have the right to exclude others from it. If you bear witness to something, your testimony is judged in terms of its truthfulness, whose plausibility is to be tested. So instead of arguing that a certain subject matter is or is not available to someone, I think the better way to judge is by assessing the ethical relation between the work of art that’s made and the kind of legacy of pain that is appropriated within it. Does [the work] do justice to [the pain]? Does it respect that history well enough?
What I do in the course of this book is … argue that Dana Schutz, for instance, should be criticized not for appropriating something that was not hers, but for doing so in a way that was not responsible to the particular trauma that she was assessing. Now, that doesn’t mean that you know, she would be condemned or that the work should be destroyed, but rather that we understand that, in fact, there is something obscene about her handling of of Emmett Till. [But the obscenity] has to do with how she made this terrible, horrific crime of what was done to Emmett Till into something that was easy and engaging to look at, it allows us to consume a kind of horror in a way that doesn’t really do justice to that horror. I don’t think that painting bears witness in a way that is adequate and, in that sense, I think it’s open for severe criticism, not simply because the painter happened not to have shared some claim through her family heritage.
AN: Now, we’ve talked about how legitimate witness applies to the individual artist, but how do we bring this concept to the museum? In the case of Open Casket, the Whitney took the line that museums have always used to justify their existence, which is that there is this kind of universal empathy machine that art is involved in.
The reason I focus on [Open Casket] is not to kind of relitigate a scandal, but rather because I really think it demonstrates an impasse between two forms of property: the property of a group in the claims toward its own heritage and the property understood as universally open to all. So the question of empathy was really at the core of this.
Hannah Black in her initial critique of the painting in her open letter argues that empathy is not enough; for people who have not experienced something, their empathy is not sufficient to speak to that experience. Whereas the defenses from the curators of the exhibition really had to do with the primacy of empathy, that that empathy is what makes it possible for us to share content, difficult experiences, the heritage of others. So in a way, what empathy does is privatize things that are systemic. Instead of looking at systemic racism, we end up focusing on the bad act of a single artist.
The museum could address systemic racism in a number of ways without necessarily identifying individual artists as the protagonists of that [change]. They could think about their staff relations, they could think about how their collection is managed, they could look at the history of acquisitions. There are many ways of addressing this, but that isn’t what they did.