“Who cares about Art?”
With the release of George Clooney’s Monuments Men movie and the recent find of thousands of pieces of priceless Nazi-stolen art in a Munich apartment, much attention is being paid to wartime looting of artworks. Of course, the spoils of war have always been a side benefit of battle— a perk of the business of destruction, if you will—but the Nazis took looting to an extreme and methodical level. Hitler, a failed and ungifted artist, thought he cared about art and viewed himself as the arbiter of good taste for his people, an egomaniacal assumption of all dictators that comes as a surprise to no one. Under his rule, modern art was deemed “degenerate;” instead, patriotic and posturing art by sanctioned artists was the order of the day. The classics—Vermeer, Rembrandt, da Vinci—were acceptable also, and Hitler wanted those all to himself.
But, of course, it is a fact of life that no matter how the bad guys try, art will not be denied. The juxtaposition of preserving and protecting beauty amidst the hell of war, the story of finding beauty despite evil, of seeking keeping, preserving our artistic nature seems to continually resonate with us. It is an established narrative that seems to be enjoying a particular moment. In addition to the Monuments Men, there is the The Book Thief, the New York Times bestseller-turned-movie that is a Nazi-era tale of defiance and survival centered on the importance of the written word. Even Disney’s current hit, Frozen, is very loosely based on Hans Christian Andersen’s The Snow Queen, a tale of one child saving her beloved friend from the clutches of an evil queen who covers the lands with shards of glass that pierce people’s eyes and allow them to only see ugliness around them. Both these stories are about the futility—the impossibility—of suppressing our desire and need for art and beauty.
I recently saw the American premiere of the Mieczyslaw Weinberg’s opera “The Passenger” at the Houston Grand Opera. The story, adapted from a 1959 play The Passenger in Cabin 45 by Zofia Posmysz, deals with a newlywed German woman traveling on a ship to South America with her ambassador husband some years after the war. The woman sees a fellow passenger, whom she believes to have been an inmate at a concentration camp at which she was an SS overseer (a fact about her history that is news to her husband). The German woman indulges in narcissistic throes of torment at the prospect of being revealed (she long ago rationalized away her own guilt) as the opera descends into darkly rendered scenes from the camp that are wrenching, horrifying, and intensely moving. Women, young and old, hopeful and despondent, console each other in the hellish circumstances they have been forced to endure. In this desperate, God-abandoned place, a young Polish violinist – the beloved of an inmate in the women’s camp who is himself imprisoned in a nearby men’s camp—is ordered by the commandant to play a favorite waltz for his entertainment. The piece the officer likes is a schmaltzy ditty that he deems to be the height of German art. But instead, the prisoner plays Bach’s Chaconne in D Minor, searing, beautiful music that evokes the true power of art and man’s ability to summon beauty from the darkest void. Of course, the powerful defiance costs the young prisoner his life.
The choice to play the Bach piece reflects the human spirit’s will to survive, to connect to something eternal, even sacred, despite our own repeated failings to live up to the ideals our great art creates. We understand that need and the Nazis also knew the power of art and its role in our lives. After all, it was no accident that they built the Buchenwald concentration camp on the site in the forest where the great German philosopher, writer, and poet Goethe composed many of his great works. The so-called Goethe Oak, which he was said to have sat under when he was writing, was located near the center of the camp. The Nazis used it as a gallows.
As is shown in the Monuments Men, Hitler was prepared to destroy all the art if the Third Reich fell, so complete was his death wish for humanity. It’s for that reason that the story of the Monuments Men, only 70 years removed from the present day, is so worth telling. It’s the same reason any story is worth telling, through words on the page, paint on canvas, or notes floating in the air: Art endures, it must survive, it is the embodiment of our best selves. Art, says Clooney’s character, Stokes, in the Monuments Men, is “the exact reason that we are fighting.” Do you agree?