Bomb the Church? What We Don't Tell Our Students in Art 1

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  • Bomb the Church? What We Don't Tell Our Students in Art 1Author(s): Albert ElsenSource: Art Journal, Vol. 37, No. 1 (Autumn, 1977), pp. 28-33Published by: College Art AssociationStable URL: .Accessed: 14/06/2014 18:32

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  • Bomb the Church? What We Don't Tell Our Students in Art 11


    In 1977, no more explosive issue confronts the art world than the protection of Art. Fair question is whether as teachers and scholars we are doing the best job of educating our students to be aware of, comprehend, and deal with the

    problems of art's protection. I think not. We train our students to advance knowledge, but little is said to them about the moral responsibilities of scholarship or how scholars have contributed to the plunder as well as saving of the past. For too many of us, art history and ethics are either

    strangers or enemy faculties. Academically, faculties of art

    history and law should become better acquainted to thereby give more meaningful answers to such questions as: What is Art? Who is an Artist? Who decides these questions? Who owns the art of the past? Why should we care if art is destroyed? Should art and the artist receive special consid- eration under the law? What is the public interest in Art?2

    We instruct our students in the difference between dry and wet frescoes, but not the differences between a work of art and a mere chattel, or any other form of movable personal property. (Perhaps too many young instructors are mesmerized by Marcel Duchamp and grant no difference.) French and American jurists have recognized the superior interest of the human genius that creates art, its uniqueness in terms of irreplaceability, its capacities to survive its maker,

    society, and the ages, and to inspire new art. We underestimate and shortchange our students if we

    think they take Art 1 to be able to identify the artist, title, country, date, medium, and style of a painting held by a man jumping out of a flaming building. We teach our students the engineering and iconography of Gothic cathe- drals, but not why they should be preserved. With our concern for the sociology of art we dwell on artist-patron relationships, but not on how an artist's personality can be vested in his work. Rare is the historian who has heard of the doctrine of moral rights recognized in civil law countries throughout the world, but not in ours. All students of modern art can write about the integrity of the picture plane, but not about the integrity of the work of art as a whole.

    Students training for museum work learn all about "inher- ent vice" resulting from the incompatibility of materials used by the artist, but do they learn of the moral limits to which museums can go in acquiring antiquities that were probably smuggled out of their country of origin? More recently American students are being taught that the history of art is a bourgeois conspiracy, but do they know the harm of fakes and forgeries? When our students have to decide as voters whether or not to preserve an old building, will the memory


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  • of the nomenclature and differences between the Doric and Ionic orders guide them in determining whether or not the threatened structure has any redeeming aesthetic or historic

    importance for the future? Too often missing from Art 1 is

    why we care about art, and what happens when we don't. What I plead for does not mean turning our backs on key

    monuments, chronologies, topical approaches, or research and publication in the Art Bulletin, but rather the asking of serious questions about art's importance, then and now, and sharing with our students the hard and continuous effort of their answer.3 I suggest that our students should be trained not only to advance knowledge, but to help preserve the past more effectively than we have done.4 We don't tell our students in Art 1 that the protection of art has often involved awesome sacrifice.

    Let me propose a hypothetical question to put to your students. This is known at Stanford as the "Bomb the Church?" question, and is actually based on historical prec- edents. In wartime, a great Gothic cathedral is being used by an army of occupation as an artillery observation post and for snipers. A liberating army which cannot detour around the city in the haste of its advance, is confronted with the dilemma of whether to bomb the cathedral, thereby causing its destruction, or try and dislodge the enemy more slowly by sending in troops and thereby risking casualties. In the balance are art and life. Ask your students what their decision would be if they were in charge of the attacking force, actually a decision comparable to many made in World War II by Allied commanders. Chances are the pro- life forces will predominate in number and volume, and

    quickly assert that nothing is worth the sacrifice of human life. Joining the pro-life advocates might be a few who would argue that military necessity dictates destruction. For this latter attitude there is a mixed precedent in history. During the Second World War the Allied command decreed that "the feeling of the nations [in northern and southern Europe] for their monuments made it imperative for the sake of good relations with the peoples of allied countries, that the allies show the utmost respect for their national treasures."5 As a matter of policy the Allied command was willing to sacrifice life for art, but under certain circum- stances. For General Eisenhower extreme military necessity always overrode the desirability of preserving what he oth- erwise recognized as "honored sites ... which symbolize to all the world all that we are fighting to "preserve."6

    The defense of saving great art in time of peril at the cost of life is a more difficult case to make, but is no more

    subjectively based or prone to miscalculation than that of the pro-life-military-necessity advocates. The destruction of Monte Cassino, cited by Eisenhower as an example of "mili-

    tary necessity," was later questioned as the Germans, it was

    argued, were prepared to abandon it. Always the diplomat, General Eisenhower, who knew little of the history and

    importance of the monuments he sought to protect up to a

    point, recognized that "good relations" with allies were at stake and that not to make every effort to protect friendly nations' great art would make the Allies seem to the world as barbaric as the enemy. The protection of culture ranked with political liberation of friendly countries. When the Allied armies moved into Germany, however, there was no

    comparable policy, and cathedrals like that of Cologne were

    repeatedly bombed without invoking military necessity. In 1944 during the Allied invasion of Italy, the late English

    statesman, Sir Harold Nicolson, wrote a brilliant protest against bombing the church.7 His reminder of cultural values worth dying for still commands respect. To those in his government who regarded mortal and momentary hopes as more important than the immortal and eternal values, Sir Harold offered this principle: "The irreplaceable is more important than the replaceable, and the loss of even the most valued human life is ultimately less disastrous than the loss of something which in no circumstances can ever be created again." Sir Harold claimed this principle only for exceptional works and admitted that their designation by a concensus might not be easy. He also recognized that his was a minority view and that the British public "are not merely unaware of aesthetic values, but actually prejudiced against them." He concluded, "It is a reproach to democratic education that the people of Britain and America should either be indifferent, or actually hostile, to these supreme expressions of human intelligence. It is a reflection upon our leaders that they have shown but a perfunctory aware- ness of their real responsibilities." Written 30 years ago, can we say that much has changed and that "democratic educa- tion" has given the public and our political leaders a greater conscience about preserving great art in times of peril? Art history should be a required course at our military acade- mies.8

    Lacking in our country monuments of great antiquity, it is difficult for American students to understand how educated people could consider personal sacrifice for Chartres, the Piazza San Marco, or the Scrovegni Chapel. Rare would be the American architectural historian who would go to the stake for the Jefferson Memorial, the Washington Cathedral, or Times Square. But read the cultural patrimonial acts of countries such as Poland, Israel, China, and England and realize how art validates national identities, confirms a na- tional spirit or genius, and is a crucial passport to the future. In Japan certain living artists are declared national treasures.

    Legal systems reflect societal attitudes towards art, and it is not surprising that this country has one of the least sophisti- cated systems for protecting its irreplaceable national treas- ures, which have not even been so designated nor invento- ried.

    As historians we usually fulfill only part of our professional obligations. We concern ourselves with how and why a work of art comes into being, its pre-history, so to speak, but not its history after completion. As one writer put it, today the cosmos of culture, though smaller, is in as much

    peril as ecology. Part of the problem is that art historians lag behind law makers and international bodies in being aware of and concerned about what constitutes the public interest in art. As an example, it was not an international congress of art historians, nor the College Art Association, but the authors of the Hague Convention of 1954, who issued the

    following principle: "Damage to cultural property belonging to any people whatsoever means damage to the cultural

    heritage of all mankind, since each person makes its contri- bution to the culture of the world."

    Do we tell our students in Art 1 why this principle could not have been adopted in any previous period in history, and how it was artists, rather than art historians, who were the first to validate the credentials of much of the world's art outside of Europe? I fear not.

    In 1971, at our annual meeting in Chicago, there was a

    panel on the tragic consequences of smuggling and looting,

    FALL 1977 29

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  • which I introduced by saying, "There is no more explosive issue before the art world than that of illegal international traffic in works of art." Much has happened since 1971.

    Many museums adopted self-policing regulations.9 American scholars supported these changes when faced with the loss of archaeological sites in Mexico and Guatemala. The strug- gle to preserve art means continued war on illicit traffic in art that inspires art experts, dealers, collectors, smugglers, and robbers to rip off art of the past, whether from pre- Columbian sites or Italian museums.10

    Art historians should take a more active and continuing part in public and private discussion of who owns the art of the past, and for how long-as well as the ethics of acquiring antiquities by public and private sources. Museum directors and curators have been active in these discussions, but they often plead for the interests of their institutions. Sherman Lee acknowledged in print that some Far Eastern works in the Cleveland museum's collection "might have come out

    illegally years ago," but he pointed out that they had been

    published in art journals and seen by Asian scholars "who didn't say boo."1 Samuel Sachs has taken the position that the culture of Guatemala, as represented in the Minneapolis Institute of Art, may be better protected in museums such as his. Granting the point for now, when and by whose criteria must small countries like Guatemala prove to mu- seum directors and trustees in this country that they are

    capable of protecting their own heritage? Because art has become big business, one museum direc-

    tor feels that this is the reason "for all the fuss." Assuming he is right, why didn't art historians raise the fuss and stand

    up and say boo? Partly because it is their scholarship, at times motivated perhaps by vanity, that contributes to theft and looting and ratifies the claims of American dealers, collectors, and museums to acquiring the world's art. In the words of a highly respected American art dealer, Andre Emmerich, "The art of ancient mankind is part of mankind's cultural heritage and does not belong exclusively to that

    particular geographic spot where ancient cultures flourished. I think that this country more than any other has a special claim to the arts of all mankind. . . . American institutions have bought the objects they have acquired and have not

    only paid with money, but we have paid the debt with

    scholarly contributions."'2 Our graduate students should be disabused of the myth

    that scholarship exists apart from the art market. The art business, legitimate and illegitimate, depends upon knowl-

    edge. As a justification for America's extensive acquisitions of humanity's artistic heritage, the old right of conquest rationale has been replaced by the concept of "To the wealthiest and brightest go the spoils." Art historians are warned by curators such as Gilette Griffin of the Princeton Art Museum that "People who sit up on high perches are missing huge amounts of material," and one infers that if

    morality is not suspended, as she puts it, "everything will go to European collectors."13 Clemency Coggins of the Peabody Museum, who has been a leader in the fight against illicit art traffic, counters by saying, "As long as [art historians] c...