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October 29, 2008

Isn't it Pretty to Think So?

Early in the pretentious-yet-informative art history documentary The Rape of Europa, an interviewee poses the "age-old argument: Which is of more value, a work of art or a human life?"

The film covers the destruction of symbolic architecture during World War II, and the celebration of fascist art and theft of "non-degenerate" European art by the Nazis. Much of the looted art, including the Mona Lisa, was hidden away in Bavaria's Neuschwanstein Castle; some was stashed in a salt mine, some was horded privately by higher- ups in Hitler's organization. The actions taken 60+ years ago obviously had an impact on the cultural history of Europe at the time, but this is also (like any element of that war) a contemporary subject.

Just last year, paintings by Corot, Pissaro, Monet and Sisley were found in a bank vault which had been rented by Bruno Lohse, a German art dealer and the former head of the Nazi Einsatzstab Reichsleiter Rosenberg, the bureaucracy tasked with stealing art from European Jews and from galleries and museums. This is contemporary also in that any effort at destroying a cultural history, or at controlling cultural interpretation, is integral to the waging of war...the looting of the National Museum of Iraq being one recent example.

But the life/art issue still flummoxes. A former infantry officer interviewed for the film says of the Nazi plunder: "All of this accumulated beauty had been stolen by the most murderous thieves that ever existed on the surface of the earth. How they could retain the nicety of appreciation of great art and be exterminating millions of people nearby in concentration camps I couldn't understand then and I can't understand it today."

We know from history which humans the Nazis considered less than human. But what was considered worthwhile art by the Nazis, and what was degenerate? What symbolized best the ideals of a conquering nation? What memories were worth preserving? And what, in the end, was worth knowing?

The Nazi idealization of symmetry and order in architecture and political symbolism is obvious. Judging by the art stolen by the ERR, the preference for ordered representations of beauty, particularly a certain physical human beauty, was also strong. Goodness and rightness were implied in the beautiful, and the art worth stealing represented to the Nazis a pinnacle of human expression.

In the late 1930's, philosopher Walter Benjamin wrote an essay called "Eduard Fuchs, Collector and Historian" in which he praises Fuchs (a Socialist writer who died in 1940) for getting around the over-idealization of art. Benjamin wrote that Fuchs understood "the products of art and science owe their existence not merely to the effort of the great geniuses who created them, but also, in one degree or another, to the anonymous toil of their contemporaries. There is no document of culture which is not at the same time a document of barbarism." A collective-history view of creativity which sort of spoils the symbolic "worth" of the art plundered by the Nazis...and also, in essence, redirects the question about art versus human life.

In Errol Morris' recent film Standard Operating Procedure, a staffer at Abu Ghraib prison wonders aloud more than once just why she took the photographs of prisoners being "softened up". She could identify in herself that she knew something was wrong, but resigned herself to being a participant observer, using her digital camera as the substitute for her conscience. Yet by taking those photographs, those documents of culture and barbarism, she created art that truly symbolized the ideals of a conquering nation.

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