Recently I watched “The Monuments Men”, a movie that I recommend although this isn’t a review. This is more of a mulling or pondering of the rationale the main characters used for their mission in light of how the world has changed since WWII.
For those who aren’t familiar with the movie the plot (based on real life) involves a group of art specialists who set out to save the art that has been stolen by the Nazis in their advance through Europe. They volunteer to serve in a special unit to find, identify and retrieve great works of art as the Germans retreat after D-Day. The rationale for the mission is that the art represents the culture of the invaded countries and if it is lost or destroyed it will mean the destruction of the culture. As the lead character puts it, people can be killed but new generations will be born and the culture lives on through the art, thus it is important to preserve the art.
As the Germans gathered up the art in their retreat they stored it in mines and it takes the protagonists some time to learn where it is. The rest of the army is too busy fighting to provide more than minimal assistance and pays little attention when the Monuments Men do succeed. The only discovery they make that gets attention is a cache of gold in one of the mines. That gets everyone’s attention including the media. Over the course of their self assigned mission the Monuments Men save and return millions of pieces of art, paintings, sculpture, etc. In the process they lost two of their unit plus two members of the team from allied forces. In the final scenes, Frank Stokes, the leader of the unit is reviewing the mission for his superiors and is asked “Was it worth it?”. He responds that it was.
After the movie I wondered about his premise in terms of the modern world. In prewar Europe I can see where it could be argued that the art and architecture was the embodiment of the culture in which it existed. In today’s global society I’m not sure that still applies. Yes, there are remnants of that old culture but it is rapidly fading and art is more an expression of the individual artist than of the culture and values of the society in which the artist works. Would any art curator today risk life and limb to salvage Damien Hirst’s pickled shark on the pretext that it represented our culture? Or how about Raffaello D’Andrea’s robotic chair? I wonder.