This week I went to see the film ‘The Monuments Men’ with Matt Damon and … who was it now? . . . Oh yes, George Clooney. I found it a surprisingly moving film, but was that just because I identified so strongly with the art side of things?
The film is based on a true story, that of rescuing thousands of masterpieces from the Nazis. During the course of this, two “goodies” lose their lives. “Is it worth it?” asks one character in the story. “Is this art worth dying for?” The camera shows you a warehouse, or the inside of a mine, spilling over with paintings by Vermeer, Manet, Rembrandt, Renaissance masters. George Clooney’s character insists. This art represents human aspiration, human achievement. To destroy it is the same as wiping out our history, our convictions of who we are and why we matter in the world.
I’m still thinking about this, as it ties in so neatly with the ongoing discussion in this blog about art as a spiritual activity. Raoul-Jean Moulin pinpointed three things:
– “the expression of a reality which is more complex than we suppose”
– That the prehistoric artist made art “to develop his powers”
– And to “make his presence felt” in the world.
Looking at a collection of the world’s most famous paintings embodies these suggestions, because it raises the profound question of what we value. It is about valuing something, not because of its material worth, but because of what it captures and portrays of the human spirit, and the striving of the human spirit towards that which breaks out of the confines of our material existence, something which art can do particularly well. Striving in a spiritual sense, or in a spiritual direction, seems to be a large part of our humanness to my mind, an aspect which ‘The Monuments Men’ captures so well.
Maybe it was this which caused me to be moved by the sight of so many of the world’s masterpieces languishing together, vulnerable and exposed, hacked out of their frames, stacked up in the dark of an underground hiding place. What vulnerability. How fragile are the most precious things of life. Yet in spite of being treated in this way, the paintings seemed to sing out all the more strongly on behalf of that which is noble in the human spirit, and the heights humankind can achieve, in contrast to the destructive bestial nature of war and mindless destruction. As the film made clear, Hitler had been collecting all the best art in Europe for his grand project, the Fuhrer Museum. He wanted subjected Europe to bow to his own particular tastes (he destroyed great numbers of modern paintings because he considered them offensive), and to admire the wealth of his collection. But the question arises, would those works of art have sung out as clearly in that environment, or would they have been more like caged canaries singing urgently to escape their bars?