In some respects, the ownership of art raises no more (or no fewer) philosophical puzzles than owning any artifact. You may pay an artist to paint your portrait and pay a carpenter to make you a bed, and the transaction is straightforward. Special issues come up, however, in several areas: The limits of appropriation of work by one artist by another (or the difference between copying and creatively responding to another’s work); control over the reproduction of the artwork, the right to benefit economically from his or her art; the right of an artist to prevent her works of art from being mutilated or destroyed; the right of nations or communities to assert ownership over works of art as part of their identity; the concept of stolen art. Let us consider some of the issues involved.
Appropriation of works of art by other artists has been a vexing concern in recent years, but in some respects the practice of some kind of appropriation has been commonplace in the history of art. We might prefer to call this links in a chain of inspiration: Virgil was inspired by Homer, Dante was inspired by Virgil, James Joyce was responding to Homer or Picasso was painting in reply to Valàsquez, but there is some appropriation involved as well. There are clear cases of forgery (van Meegeren forged paintings he attributed to Vermeer) and legitimated cases of when one artist learns from another (Virgil and company) and problem cases that are probably best resolved in copyright law rather than in a book on aesthetics. The other matters also are probably best settled by convention but they do involve the philosophy of property, as when someone who owns your painting may seek to use a photograph of it for commercial purposes.
It is an interesting point to resolve in owning an artwork: Do you also have free rights to make any use of it at all? As for the question of national identity and when a work of art is stolen there are clear cases. When the Germans occupied France in the Second World War and confiscated French masterpieces, these were clearly stolen objects requiring a return to France. Probably the most famous difficult case, however, in terms of propriety concerns the sculptures from the Parthenon that were removed from Greece by Lord Elgin and are now on display in the British Museum. I shall defer to Daniel Shapiro to offer his overview on the current state of play concerning the sculptures:
“Without question, they belong to and are part of Greece’s identity and inalienable heritage, and are universally recognized as such, including in their display at the British Museum. But for some, Greek and non-Greek alike, the recognition that the Parthenon’s sculptures are Greek is not enough. Their return to Greece is sought, even though they can no longer be affixed to the Parthenon and, as in London, should be housed in a museum. Yet, for those who seek their return, their absence is a loss that is believed to diminish Greece and prevent the sculptures from being fully appreciated or understood. For others, what Elgin did, if otherwise questionable, at least saved the sculptures from destruction by the Turks, Greek lime kilns, and other disasters, and preserved them as part of all humanity’s heritage, resulting in increased appreciation and understanding of ancient Greece.” (Shapiro 1998, 121)
Determining the best outcome would surely require the properties of an ideal aesthetic observer!