Saturday, 2 November 2013

Is Art Worth a Life?

Is art worth a life? Is it worth risking your life to safe a work of art? This question, posed by Bernard Taper during an interview, appears constantly through out Robert M. Edsel’s book, The Monuments Men.

The Monuments Men relates the story of a group of art specialists –curators, architects, sculptors and professors- that, enlisted in the army, helped during the final years of the  Second World War to preserve the European cultural heritage and to recover the artworks requisitioned by the Nazis. In the last year they recovered around 5 million pieces.

While performing their duty, logically, the Monuments section had to face the question we are dealing with: is art worth a life? How far can you go to preserve art?


Some of the men who accompanied Da Vinci's Lady with an Ermine back to Cracovia in April 1946. College Park National Archive, MD.
This is a question difficult to answer. When I started writing this article I imagined myself standing in the way of a bullet fired atthe painting Las Meninas. Viewed like this, Bernard Taper’s question seems absurd: would anyone really stand in the way of a person who tries to damage a painting? There have been many cases of vandalism in museums: for example, in 2011 in the National Gallery of Washington a woman threw herself upon a painting by Paul Gauguin.

Does a Gauguin mean so much as to risk one’s life? Probably we all think the same: none of us would risk our safety to stop one of these insane people. However, it is extraordinary how during war we find the opposite situation: in this case society always joins forces in order to protect their heritage, even when it implies being exposied to a risk much more dangerous than stopping a vandal in a museum.

At the beginning we mentioned the events that happened during the Second World War and the role of the Monuments Men; many of them died performing their duty. But we don’t need to go very far to find more examples of how society tries to protect art in similar situations. During the Spanish Civil War the major part of the masterpieces from the museums were taken to Geneva at the initiative  of the Second Republic government in order to save them from the bombings and lootings. On the other hand, given the robbery of numerous churches, many Catholics hid in their homes objects and liturgical furniture to avoid their destruction, at the risk of being discovered during a search of the house.
Transportation of Titian’s Venus and the music in 1936
What’s different? Why in an act of vandalism we wouldn’t take the risk but in war we are willing to save that same heritage?

It is a constant that in an armed confrontation between two countries or ideological groups there it always appears a feeling for protecting everything that is considered as defining of a culture’s identity. Before the attack of a foreigner we try to defend what defines us as we are, in an act of independence and rebellion. For example, in Spain it was after the French invasion when people became more strongly aware of their regional identity, defining the different traditional costumes all around the Spanish geography.

The answer to this question can be found in an attitude common to every person: no one risks their life but for an ideal. While in the case of vandalism we put our physical integrity before any artwork, in war that same artwork is not just a piece; it is at that moment when we appreciate the truth that is hidden behind it: that work of art is a part of our identity as a country, as a nation; it is a key part in the history that has defined us as we are now. in conclusion, we see in that piece an ideal well worth fighting for.
The Monuments Men Walker Hancock helping people from La Gleize to transport the Madonna to a safe place. Walter Hanock Collection
“We do not want to destroy unnecessarily what men spent so much time and care and skill in making…[for] these examples of craftsmanship tell us so much about our ancestors…If these things are lost or broken or destroyed, we lose a valuable part of our knowledge about our forefathers. No age lives entirely alone; every civilization is formed not merely by its own achievements but by what it has inherited from the past. If these things are destroyed, we have lost a part of our past, and we shall be the poorer for it.”

Ronald Balfour, British Monuments official;
Speech to the soldiers, 1944


Almudena Ruiz del Árbol

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