“Is a piece of art worth a life?” This is the question raised in the movie The Monuments Men.
To put the question in its full context, the Monuments Men of WWII weren’t after a SINGLE piece of art. They were after MULTITUDES of collections … thousands and thousands and thousands of pieces … pieces that did not belong to Hitler or to Germany … pieces that need to be returned to their rightful owners … pieces that if destroyed, would erase something never again to be re-created. Like the destruction of books, the loss of our ancestor’s paintings and monuments leaves a gaping hole in our journey of understanding … of connecting … of moving forward rather than repeating sad mistakes of the past.
The scene where Matt Damon’s character returned a single painting to a room stripped naked of all possessions was haunting. I can’t explain the knot in my stomach as the camera panned empty walls – empty except for the solitary returned painting and a spray-painted Jewish star. How did a culture drift so far that a man’s very neighbors could be so pillaged … so dehumanized?
The Monuments Men weren’t simply reclaiming sculptures and paintings, they were restoring history as they created a history of their own by insisting that human decency should triumph over madness.
I’m art-illiterate. There was a time in my life when I would have called most art, except maybe Norman Rockwell (who was spurned by “true” artists of his day) and a few photographs, nice, but not worth all the fuss.
Then, several years ago my friend Kathryn, a pastor in France, marched me through the halls of the Louvre in the heart of Paris. With a three-month-old baby in my arms, I wasn’t sure I could endure the endless line for the Mona Lisa. A little whisper – “This is a once in a lifetime moment” – intervened and urged me forward.
“I’ve seen it in countless textbooks, seeing it live can’t be that different,” I told myself. Oh! So wrong! I don’t have the words … but to stand five feet from the real, honest-to-goodness, touched-by-the-hands-of-Leonardo-Divinci, survivor-of-several-centuries, painting of Mona Lisa … no words …
Art connects us … reminds us. I believe art even has the potential to heal us of wounds, suspicions and the vast overwhelming sense of aloneness that creeps into our souls. Other humans, scattered throughout wide-spread pages of time, worried as I do … laughed as I do … questioned as I do … worshiped as I do … I simply know this to be true. I see it in their art.
I read a review that criticized The Monuments Men for being yet another movie about the Holocaust. I’d like to think that such movies were redundant, but in a world that shirks more and more of our connections to the past, that insists evil doesn’t exist (or that we we would at least recognize it and not be deceived by it), I don’t think we have enough reminders. Are we really immune from the deception that swept Hitler’s followers?
I’ve been sharing photos from a trip to England with my daughter two years ago. How enriching to walk in the path of history makers, …to reflect on the hardships, struggles, and joys passed down from one century to the next.
I’ve heard it remarked that America is so bleak, impoverished even, when it comes to historic icons. I don’t know if that is fair or true, given the youth of our country. However, I have noted a move to remove much of our visible history. “Shocking!” you say. “Can’t be true!”
You have to keep in mind that much of our early history involves Christian beliefs and therefore, like many of the public displays in England, our monuments reflect the same. Google the phrase “removal of religious symbols in America.” There is an obsession in the last two decades to remove any such symbolism.
The removal of crosses, “The Ten Commandments”, and religious sculptures is wrong and a radical overreaching of the already misconstrued “separation of church and state”. Such symbols reflect the values and history of the people who came before us. Even if people today don’t agree with such values, we should never hide or erase our history. Add what you want, but let our children see where we’ve come from and make up their own minds.
As The Monuments Men reminded me, our history matters. We can change the future, but we should always fight to preserve the lessons of our past.
“You can wipe out a generation of people. You can burn their homes to the ground, and somehow they’ll still come back. But if you destroy their achievements, and their history, then it’s like they never existed.” – George Stout, museum director who helped start the Monuments Men