Lives, Art, and Priorities
Bad people, from the individual crook to world leaders hoping to further sow seeds of discord and division, are constantly seeking opportunities to do their evil deeds. It happens in the aftermath of earthquakes in Italy, with the looting of churches. It happens during war, of course. It always happens during times of strife, when the needs of the public at large demand that limited attention and resources must be triaged. That appears to be the case in the overnight looting of Vincent van Gogh’s painting, The Parsonage Garden at Nuenen in Spring, from the Singer Laren Museum in the Netherlands. Regrettable to be sure, but hardly surprising given the generation-defining global health crisis caused by the COVID-19 virus, particularly in hard-hit Italy, Spain, Germany, Belgium, and the Netherlands.
While Captain Deane Keller, like his fellow Monuments Men, believed in risking his life for a cause – the preservation of our shared cultural heritage – he also firmly stated his opinion that “the life of one American boy is worth infinitely more to me than any monument I know.” Keller was quite an accomplished painter and art professor, so his observations carry added weight. But Keller also observed examples of mankind’s better angels of our nature, men and women of ordinary means who worked together to preserve their communities and cultural treasures, especially when the confusion of war made it somewhat easy for a person to take something of value rather than pick it up and put it back. Oftentimes in our world, the bad things that aren’t happening get overlooked, but they are no less newsworthy.
During these stressful and worrying times, museum and other cultural officials must be particularly vigilant in their roles as stewards and guardians of those monuments and objects of beauty that define us as a civilization. Their already difficult job has become that much harder. However, our priorities as a society must presently be centered on the greatest need. That means helping people survive the COVID-19 virus outbreak, and as soon as prudently possible, get them back on their feet economically to resume the jobs that we all hope will still be there waiting for them. In that aftermath, as General Dwight Eisenhower once so poignantly observed, the world can emerge from a bitter experience with a renewed sense of appreciation for the arts and the joy they bring to our lives.