Of Monuments and Men

General Dwight D. Eisenhower, Supreme Allied Commander, accompanied by Gen. Omar N. Bradley, and Lt. Gen. George S. Patton, Jr., inspect art treasures stolen by Germans and hidden in salt mine in Germany.

The movie The The Monuments Men PosterMonuments Men tells the story of those assigned to protect the art treasures of Europe during World War II. Hitler is amassing the treasures of civilization all destined for a De Führer Museum. Modern works are of course not included in the treasure hunt. Works by Picasso and others are destroyed.

While the movie depicts the efforts as noble, saying the cultural treasures are worth protecting even with lives, the viewer is forced to ask what is irreplaceable and worth protecting with blood.

First, while protecting these cultural treasures is noble, the idea that lives are worth less does not sit well with me. That matter can have consciousness is more of a treasure than any work of art. It is after all the conscious matter that made the art and which can appreciate it. Nothing is permanent. Eventually even the greatest works of art will be destroyed. The earth itself is not permanent.

And while Hitler issues a proclamation that all of the art should be destroyed in the event Germany loses the war, that seems unlikely to happen in such a situation, and in the end the art is not “saved” as much as it is saved from possession by the Russians.

There is even evidence of this in the film as the character played by Downton Abbey’s Hugh Richard Bonneville Williams is killed trying to protect Michelangelo’s Madonna and Child. The work is stolen anyway only later to be recovered at the end of the film long after the death of our star and just ahead of arrival by Russian troops.

Of course I am not saying there are not tactical methods to protecting works of art that do not involve risking additional bloodshed, and in a time of war those efforts are worth taking, and should be taken.

That we save something to be valued in the future does not mean it will be valued in the future. Then there’s the issue of Romantic, religious and Classical art being elevated above contemporary art. If we were in such a position today would we even give priority to 19th and 20th Century masters such as Picasso? Different generations value art differently.  Would modern works like those by Jeff Koons and say the $12 million dollar shark by Damien Hirst be included? Are these works devoid of cultural value and reduced to simple commodity?

Information on what has cultural value or lacks it is provided by the passing of time. My guess is the answer is yes, however, for much of contemporary art has been purposely reduced to commercial commodity. Still it wouldn’t be the first time humans have fought over items largely void of historical or cultural value.

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