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Art and Human Conflict

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Article by: Chuck Henry

What is the value of the Bryan Memorial Gallery?

A response to this question was the focus of a previous blog that explored the deep interconnection between art and the complex social networks it creates and is sustained by. A painting in the Bryan Gallery can be the result of conversations and interactions between teacher and pupil, more abstractly between artistic fashion generations ago and contemporary sensibilities that inform our perceptions today, as well as the internal conversations we, as gallery patrons, bring to the images we behold. The lovely paintings that line the gallery walls are never really silent. They are aspects of the celebratory intellectual and emotional commerce of art: the power and sustainability of a public gallery open to our ideas, interests, and engagement, suffused with respect for the past and those who have honed their talent to bring us an enlightened understanding of who we are and our place in the world.

But there is a dark side of circumstance pertaining to art, an unfortunately consistent theme in our history: when the objects of our imaginative expression are purposely hoarded, destroyed, or reduced to a commodity as a result of violence.  Many people today have witnessed this twice in their lifetime in the most striking terms: Word War II, and the current Middle East tragedy brought about by the Islamic State, or ISIS. A brief look at these phenomena also underscores the value the Bryan Gallery brings to our community and the wider world beyond our village.

The 2014 movie Monuments Men offers a schematic portrayal of an actual military operation toward the end of the Second World War: a mixed group of professional art historians, most with military experience, was commissioned to find and retrieve the artwork looted by the Nazi regime.  In the course of the German invasion of Europe, museums, libraries, and other cultural institutions fell to the invaders, and a staggering amount of those artifacts were stolen. While the scale of theft was unprecedented, the attention to cultural heritage was not surprising. Art figured prominently in Nazi propaganda: the National Socialist movement was explicit about the ‘degenerate’ and debilitating qualities of modern (mostly 20th century) art, but prized the more traditional sculpture, paintings, and other creative works that preceded it. While personal gain figured in many of the thefts, a vast trove was amassed that was to be the core collection of the Fuehrermuseum, planned as a triumphant trophy to Nazi supremacy and Hitler’s artistic ‘vision.’ In the process of this looting, many confiscated modern artworks were burned or mutilated, and otherwise lost forever.

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The museum was never built; many of the stolen art works were recovered by the Monuments Men, though a significant amount remains missing. (As recently as 2012, over 1,300 framed and unframed art works hoarded during World War II were recovered from a private home in Munich). It is important to note the ideology that informed these thefts and destruction. Bigotry, prejudice, and fear (of the new and the difficult to understand) contributed to the looting and vandalism. Hatred of Jewish people and their traditions, along with dehumanizing minorities and foreigners, figured prominently as a justification of the thefts of family and regional collections. The concept of the Fuehrermuseum was itself a kind of antithetical inversion of our idea of art and its display: rather than an exhibit to widen our understanding of the creative impulse and interpretative power of images, it would have been a lifeless, prescriptive embalming of art in liege to a monstrous destroyer of communities and free thinking.

Today, it can be said unequivocally that nearly every act of violence in the Middle East perpetrated by ISIS is funded by art. ISIS, in its videos and other propaganda media—magazines, press releases, blogs—boasts of its destruction of ancient and modern art as ‘cleansing’ the region of its cultural impurities. Less known, and far more pervasive, is the looting of art works, mostly ancient ones, which are then illegally sold to dealers in the Middle East who, with forged papers, then re-sell the works to collectors. It is estimated that over a billion dollars worth of stolen and looted property has fueled the violence and suffering to date, a large percentage of it artworks, most of which are irreplaceable.

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While the distinctions between the Nazi usurpation of art and the perpetrations of ISIS entail different conceptual frameworks, the core rationale involves a reduction of art that leaches out its spirit and multivariant significance, denying its often elusive and profound meaning, in much the same way human populations of differing beliefs and different traditions have been silenced by those ideologies. The new term, “blood culture,” describing the cruelty and destruction that was once directed at human life, now at cultural objects—kidnapping for ransom, mutilation, and execution—aptly testifies to the intrinsic correlation of art with life.

The open door of the Bryan Gallery should be acknowledged as a profoundly important symbol each time we step through it, for it allows the freedom of walking among its beautiful displays, the explicit encouragement to think deeply, to be immersed without constricting, reductive instructions–to celebrate the nature of New England as reflecting our nature. This small Vermont gallery is a testament to one of the most enduring, illuminating qualities of being human, an extraordinary gift to our community, a privilege that is far too often threatened and denied in the terrible mire of human conflict.