Would you give your life to save art?

The real monuments men rescuing stolen art at the close of World War II.
The real monuments men rescuing stolen art at the close of World War II.

RECENTLY BERT AND I watched a movie entitled The Monuments Men, based on a book of the same name, a true story written by Robert Edsel, an ex-American oilman, who moved to Europe and became interested in Art. He questioned how so much of it survived the double threat of Nazi destruction and Russian theft during WW ll and sought the answer. The movie, written, directed by and starring George Clooney, is a fascinating story of what human beings can accomplish when impassioned by the same love and sense of value for a common goal. The goal was to locate and save as much of the treasured Art of Europe as they could. The plan was to do it with volunteer museum directors, curators, arts scholars, educators, artists, architects and archivists.

The 345 men and women who ultimately served in this capacity came from fifteen nations. They were of all ages and joined the military sub commission MFAA (Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives section), went through basic training, and got dropped off in a combat zone to do their work – find the Art and rescue it. Their job was made even harder by starting late in the war. The Germans were in retreat and destroying their Art caches as they went.

These saviors from the MFAA were placed in situations of grave danger, little resources, no trained expertise in this endeavor and very little planning, but saw their work as having to succeed at all costs. We owe to them their vision, one which grasped how greatly civilization could be devastated by the loss of many of the greatest works of art every created.

Coming from a culture where art is the first thing we drop out of education when budgets are cut, and from a society where  only a small fraction of the population shows interest in Art, I wasn’t in the best of positions to understand what these volunteers knew inherently about its value  Not until I chanced on a young woman in Florence, Italy, whose delight it was to take her afternoon and show me the antiquities of her city, did I realize the effect Art could have on a society that honors it as a necessity of life.

The work of Rembrandt
The work of Rembrandt

But my real metamorphosis from ignorance to appreciation happened one dark January afternoon in Amsterdam when I visited the Rembrandt Museum. The collection is housed in a restored 17 th century building in which Rembrandt lived and worked for twenty years. The small rooms lent a sense of intimacy to the viewer, and that afternoon I was the only person there.  I walked into an upstairs room, looked around and then moved toward a painting on the far wall, but every few seconds I whipped around as one does when they sense someone else is in the room. Several times this happened until I finally stopped and stared at one of the paintings. I realized then what was going on. I could not distinguish the eyes of the subjects in the paintings from those of an animate being. They were so alive that it made me feel like I’d stepped through a veil and had actually entered the room where these men in the paintings were gathered. I could feel their eyes on my back which was why I kept turning around.

There I stood; my first introduction to what can happen, what can be created, brought to life that does not die in the works of great masters. Art is not only an archive of visual history but also a conduit that brings forward the state of consciousness that can create in this fashion. Treating that state of consciousness with the reverence it deserves, to me is the real importance of honoring and saving antiquities. That state of consciousness is a key to tapping vast creative potential within us all.

The danger toward Art today is not its loss through plunder; in fact a great danger exists in this era of endless distraction. Saul Bellow pointed to it when he said:

“…I wonder whether there will ever be enough tranquility under modern circumstances to allow our contemporary Wordsworth to recollect anything. I feel that art has something to do with the achievement of stillness in the midst of chaos. A stillness that characterizes prayer, too, and the eye of the storm. I think that art has something to do with an arrest of attention in the midst of distraction.”

Art is our mother ship in whatever medium it occurs. It is the ark that keeps placing us on the high hills and offering a vista about our true nature in this universe we’re still far from grasping. Would you give your life unto its keeping? I believe I would.


Please click the book cover images to read more about Christina Carson and her novels.

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