Last week I went to see The Monuments Men with my mum. Despite the fact that it is set during World War II, I wasn’t desperate to see it. It looks a bit cheesy and to be honest, it was, lots of soaring music and emotional comradely moments . However, I found it surprising enjoyable and in fact deeply moving.
The reason I found it moving is not because of the emotional comradely moments, but because of the love for art. The film is based on a true story about the men and women that worked to save the great artworks of Europe during the war. They were not just up against the general devastation that characterises war, but the Nazis, who felt that they should be able to take all the great art for themselves and destroy anything that wasn’t to their taste. Such is the nature of dictatorships.
Arts funding is always up for debate, and I have my own feelings on that, as seen in my blog post on Girls. However, I do think that art is incredibly important and that is one thing that the film communicates very well. Art, be it painting, writing, music, sculpture or theatre, is the front of civilisation. The first thing to go in a restrictive country is free speech, and art is the most obvious thing to suffer from that. All art must be permitted else how can there be a free expression of ideas? The Nazis behaviour towards art perfectly encapsulated their attitude towards civilisation. Works they liked were stolen arbitarily for Germany and works they didn’t were burned. This was not just because they couldn’t stand different ideas, but because they were afraid of the thinking that might be stimulated by those ideas.
I think this also contributed to their elitism with art, especially the idea that it should only be for certain people. There was one awful bit in the film where the Nazis were retreating and they burned all the art they couldn’t take with them. I actually cried 😦 The thought of all those wonderful pieces of creativity that must have taken weeks and months to create gone with one blast of the flamethrower was absolutely heartbreaking for me. The effect that great art can have isn’t as tangible as things like medical research or democracy, but it is still important and can genuinely change lives.
In the film, the Monuments Men encountered a number of people who didn’t think that art was worth dying for. Personally, I disagree. I feel that what separates us from animals is our ability to feel. If our lives are reduced to the bare minimum, just trying to survive day to day, then you miss out on what it truly means to be human. Many of the most famous dystopias make this point. In 1984, Winston has everything he needs to live, but his life is empty. Furthermore, I think the history of art is important. When I identify with a character from Austen, for example, that creates a link between me and the world as it was 200 years. In Brave New World Shakespeare is prohibited because they think it is dangerous for people to see beauty in the old, lest the new is uninteresting by comparison. I think in 1945, with the world in pieces, that link with the old must have been vital in order to retain some sense of continuity.
I didn’t need to see this film to think this, but I think it is good that it raises the importance of art in the public consciousness. There’s been a debate going on this week about whether authors are being a bit pathetic to cry about the fact that they aren’t being paid very much for their work any more. I think it is important that if people want to read a book and they can pay for it then they should, otherwise who among us will be able to produce anything worthwhile, and I think that the attitude that we shouldn’t have to pay for books, films and music is very dangerous. It encourages elitism in the arts, and The Monuments Men shows us where that leads.