Saturday, June 21, 2014

Would You Give Your Life to Save Art

by Christina Carson

Recently Bert and I watched a movie entitled The Monuments Men, based on a book of the same name, a true story written by Robert Edsel, an ex-American oilman, who moved to Europe and became interested in Art. He questioned how so much of it survived the double threat of Nazi destruction and Russian theft during WW ll and sought the answer. The movie, written, directed by and starring George Clooney, is a fascinating story of what human beings can accomplish when impassioned by the same love and sense of value for a common goal. The goal was to locate and save as much of the treasured Art of Europe as they could. The plan was to do it with volunteer museum directors, curators, arts scholars, educators, artists, architects and archivists.

The 345 men and women who ultimately served in this capacity came from 15 nations. They were of all ages and joined the military sub commission MFAA (Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives section), went through basic training, and got dropped off in a combat zone to do their work – find the Art and rescue it. Their job was made even harder by starting late in the war. The Germans were in retreat and destroying their Art caches as they went.

These saviors from the MFAA were placed in situations of grave danger, little resources, no trained expertise in this endeavor and very little planning, but saw their work as having to succeed at all costs. We owe to them their vision, one which grasped how greatly civilization could be devastated by the loss of many of the greatest works of art every created.

Coming from a culture where art is the first thing we drop out of education when budgets are cut, and from a society where  only a small fraction of the population shows interest in Art, I wasn't in the best of positions to understand what these volunteers knew inherently about its value  Not until I chanced on a young woman in Florence, Italy whose delight it was to take her afternoon and show me the antiquities of her city, did I realize the effect Art could have on a society that honors it as a necessity of life.

But my real metamorphosis from ignorance to appreciation happened one dark January afternoon in Amsterdam when I visited the Rembrandt Museum. The collection is housed in a restored 17 th century building in which Rembrandt lived and worked for twenty years. The small rooms lent a sense of intimacy to the viewer, and that afternoon I was the only person there.  I walked into an upstairs room, looked around and then moved toward a painting on the far wall, but every few seconds I whipped around as one does when they sense someone else is in the room. Several times this happened until I finally stopped and stared at
one of the paintings. I realized then what was going on. I could not distinguish the eyes of the subjects in the paintings from those of an animate being. They were so alive that it made me feel like I’d stepped through a veil and had actually entered the room where these men in the paintings were gathered. I could feel their eyes on my back which was why I kept turning around.

There I stood; my first introduction to what can happen, what can be created, brought to life that does not die in the works of great masters. Art is not only an archive of visual history but also a conduit that brings forward the state of consciousness that can create in this fashion. Treating that state of consciousness with the reverence it deserves, to me is the real importance of honoring and saving antiquities. That state of consciousness is a key to tapping vast creative potential within us all.

The danger toward Art today is not its loss through plunder; in fact a great danger exists in this era of endless distraction. Saul Bellow pointed to it when he said: 

“…I wonder whether there will ever be enough tranquility under modern circumstances to allow our contemporary Wordsworth to recollect anything. I feel that art has something to do with the achievement of stillness in the midst of chaos. A stillness that characterizes prayer, too, and the eye of the storm. I think that art has something to do with an arrest of attention in the midst of distraction.”

Art is our mother ship in whatever medium it occurs. It is the ark that keeps placing us on the high hills and offering a vista about our true nature in this universe we're still far from grasping. Would you give your life unto its keeping? I believe I would.


  1. The fact that Amazon viewers gave the movie 3 out of 5 stars confirms the truth of Saul Bellows words... "I think that art has something to do with an arrest of attention in the midst of distraction." The Monuments Men is well written and impeccably acted and directed, yet it only arrested the attention of 3 of 5 reviewers. Not a validation of the movie but rather the state of the attention of the viewers.

    1. Human beings are not renowned for knowing what is truly good for them. How much better our lives would be if we did.

    2. You're absolutely right Bert, but this really shows how poor Amazon's system is for identifying the really good stuff! No way can Amazon customer reviewers ever REPLACE the gatekeeping role of real NYT critical reviews and stuff you find in the other good papers like the New Yorker or Granta...

  2. Christina, I wanted to tell you how much I enjoyed your post. The Monuments Men is an important and inspiring episode in our recent history that has been so devastated by two world wars (I blogged about it when the film cam out as you may remember). At least, there are some brave souls who remember and fight for what is important and what makes Men different from beasts: ART!

    So glad you see this (though, knowing you, I'm not surprised) and I find fascinating that you picked that Rembrandt portrait which is precisely the one Knausgaard mentions in his fascinating book "My Struggle" - the one that has just made the NYT best seller list and is a global success - the one I've called a "literary selfie" and is definitely a must read for us writers...Knausgaard talks about the old man's eyes and how alive they are, with pulsating life staring at us 400 years later!

    1. How fascinating. And always thrilling to find others who sense the same things. Thank you, Claude for your most interesting comments and alerting me to what sounds like a worthy read. Bless you.