Thursday, February 13, 2014

Monuments Men: Why George Clooney Nailed It

Fig. 1 Ghent Altarpiece, by Jan Van Eyck   Image source: www.ibiblio.org

Monuments Men is a historical drama about a select group of scholars-turned-soldiers, who inject themselves into the throes of World War II with a single purpose:  to find and return Europe’s priceless works of art, many of which were being stolen, hidden and eventually destroyed by the Axis powers (e.g., fig. 1, 2).  I went to the theater hoping for an intelligent, emotionally uplifting experience.  This film exceeded my expectations and left me struggling to answer a profound question.  Without revealing much that can’t be gleaned from the trailers, one of its central debates was unveiled in the opening scene:  “Is a piece of art worth a human life?”

Fig. 2 Madonna and Child, by Michelangelo 
 Image Source: www.wikimedia.org

Rather than approach this with a single "yes" or "no," I must argue that the two are not so easily separated.  Instead, I want to dig to the root of the question.  When soldiers and civilians alike are being sacrificed every day on both sides of a worldwide revolution, why risk more lives to save inanimate objects?  There is obviously no replacement for human lives lost, whereas war zones reduced to rubble can be rebuilt.  So why can’t art, reduced to ashes, be recreated?   

Art, as humanity’s universal language, serves a crucial role in human history.  The best artists can’t help but leave an imprint of their soul on every finished piece.  Those who achieve the elite status of Michelangelo, Monet or Matisse, do so through their artwork’s unique ability to cross generational and cultural boundaries, which encourages the wider world to rethink its views on that particular subject matter.  Without art, society as we know it could never have existed.  

Beverly Sills is famous for saying, “Art is the signature of civilizations.”  Even prehistoric mankind found a way to record their beliefs, traditions and the events that shaped their lives.  Thousands of years before the first writing systems were developed, our ancestors began leaving tangible memories of their presence.  Far from rudimentary attempts, many of the surviving sculptures and paintings are still studied today.  By examining artwork from a particular time and place, you gain valuable insight about the inhabitants’ cultural influences, as well as your own.  By preserving and protecting historical works of art, we retain that intrinsic connection to our past.  By fighting to maintain public access, we prioritize our humanity. 

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