Think of your favorite painting. Is it a Monet, Picasso, Matisse, Rembrandt, O'Keefe, a piece in your city museum, an artist in a gallery near you? If money were no object, how much would you pay to own it? Why is it worth that to you?
Would you die to protect it?
Is there a piece of architecture that makes your heart sing or swell with joy? Would you die trying to protect it?
Recently I saw a documentary, "The Rape of Europa", about circumstances regarding art and architecture in World War II. Much art was stolen and moved from country to country. Many people took great risks to protect, hide and track the movements of their country's art from museums and dealers. The French emptied the Louvre. The stained glass windows in Chartres were removed and hidden.
There was a too-small team of American curators and archaeologists called "Monuments Men". They worked to identify and try to protect treasures as the army moved through Europe. Battle plans by both Allied and Axis forces were affected by decisions to protect or not protect historic places and art.
The filmmakers interviewed citizens who witnessed destruction and theft as well as heroic preservation efforts. These citizens described their mixed feelings and the impact on their lives then and now.
Why does art matter? Why does it seem painful to imagine bombing ancient monuments, or the permanent loss of paintings or works like the Camposanto frescoes in Pisa, or the destruction of the Hermitage in Moscow? Yet it is equally painful to know of lives lost to protect an ancient monastery in Italy----only to have it destroyed later with no impact on the battle.
Why would a shy French woman risk torture and death to chronicle the dispersion of art from Jewish art dealers in Paris? Why in the last 60 years has there been such intensive effort to return art works to rightful owners and national museums?
The great art of humanity means something to us. It is not just great beauty and history. Nor just about monetary value, although, for some, it is about acquisition of power, treasure, status. Art bears witness to the best in us, to resilience, creativity and transcendence. Art records our longings and seeking. Art speaks to and creates connection. It is about individuals and the collective. It is about worlds in the past we can no longer know except through art, monuments and stories passed down to us. Historical works of art make their way into the collective unconscious, informing not just present art, but the metaphors and meaning we make now.
Think about the art you encounter every day, or when you visit museums or travel. Centuries ago, millennia ago, artists made sculpture, structures, jewelry, pottery, murals. Did they imagine these things would last, be viewed lovingly and in wonder in a far distant future? And what about the commitment of the cathedral builders? Workers for generation after generation, for 200 years or more, constructed what they knew they would not see completed in a lifetime.
Today there are artists everywhere driven by those some creative urges and longings that made our ancestors paint on cave walls. Know any local artists? Write them a thank-you note for keeping our pathways lit up with beauty, discovery, truth telling and joy.