It’s part serendipity, but I’ve had the research of a particular topic thrust upon me. The topic is the theft and restoration of great art.
Months ago, I watched The Rape of Europa, a terrific documentary about the meticulous and relentless Nazi theft of Europe’s precious art and the ongoing efforts to restore that art to its (sometimes contested) rightful owners. Then at Christmas my husband was given two books: Lost Museum : The Nazi Conspiracy to Steal the World’s Greatest Works of Art by Hector Feliciano (excellent) and The Lady in Gold: The Extraordinary Tale of Gustav Kilmt’s Masterpiece, Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer, about the story of the contest between the various parties claiming ownership of the painting.
Then I rented Monuments Men, hoping to feed my inner art dork. I was glad I hadn’t paid the price of a movie ticket.
Then for my birthday I received Chasing Aphrodite: The Hunt for Looted Antiquities at the World’s Richest Museum. This is a blow-by-blow account of the duplicitous curatorial practices at the Getty Museum in Los Angeles, and an indictment of the looted antiquity market in which the top museums in the world were until recently complicit. I may be a nerd, but I couldn’t put it down.
I learned that the culture of art theft and elite entitlement was not exclusive to the Nazis. It was pervasive and S.O.P. It’s a fascinating subject, at least for an artist. If you are interested, here is some opinion.
Please watch The Rape of Europa, not Monuments Men.
The Rape of Europa is the most comprehensive documentary I have ever seen on any subject. It is based on The Rape of Europa: The Fate of Europe’s Treasures in the Third Reich and the Second World War by Lynn H. Nicholas. (I have yet to read!) The soup-to-nuts story of the theft of many thousands of European artworks by the Nazis and their recovery by the Allies is totally engrossing.
Most importantly, TROE gives you an understanding of the real dilemma: the attempt to save western civilization’s art treasures while trying not to lose sight of the value of the human lives busy in the attempt.
Monuments Men is a movie by that titanic intellect George Clooney which demonstrates that Mr. Clooney and his buds have no idea about the value of art (or seemingly, human lives) and no understanding of the complex dilemma.
There’s a good bit of unabashed art deification here and also some back-patting because of it. Look how important great art is to me. (You proles probably don’t get it.)
In fact it’s fairly clear that the filmmakers are equating Hollywood with Renaissance Florence and the great masters with themselves. Caped crusader misfits played mostly by old fat actors (way too tired for their roles) craftily but bravely maneuver their way into our hearts by saving some of the art treasures of Old Europe, believing that “western culture will collapse” if the treasures are moved a couple hundred kilometers over the German border. Tropes from midcentury Dirty Dozen type films are added to the real story, cliché drama is added. It’s unfortunate since the real story is dramatic enough.
Monuments Men presents us with a simplistic either/or scenario. Human lives or art–which is more valuable?
Then the film answers the question wrong.
Even The Train, a fictional thriller movie about the rescue of one train full of art treasures from one art-lusting Nazi’s clutches, succeeds in presenting the Lives vs. Art dilemma with a great deal more nuance. The question is bandied through much of the film from various perspectives, and the audience is given room to ponder.
Then there is the unforgettable final verdict. Watch the end of this clip and tell me you don’t gasp.
The question is answered.
I’m an artist; I love art. There’s art in my bones; I see the world as an artist. But there is not a work of art in the world worth as much as any human life.
We could talk a lot about the nature of great art. It’s classic; each work embodies something important and memorable. It’s virtually eternal; a work of art lasts far longer than a human life. A painting speaks a message into the future when its creator has been long in the silent grave.
As a painter I know that work of art is really a piece of canvas or board + paint + hard-won skill + a lot of practice + a bit of genius insight + varnish.
But it’s a thing. If it were destroyed the world would go on without its influence, but we would survive. We who are men and women. Great art’s significance is hard to quantify but a human life’s value is incalculable. Its value is intrinsic and eternal. Every human life is a unique creation by a perfect creator and bears the imprint of the Artist’s identity.
Does a Hollywood thriller of 1964 understand the big questions better than a movie made by the Hollywood elites of 2014? The answer is obvious but the reasons are discouraging. What has been lost to our culture? Is our culture ready to meet the challenges coming its way?