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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Art as Social Network

We have become accustomed in the 21st century to the term ‘social network,’ and often think it is a fairly recent phenomenon. Interestingly, the term ‘social network’ arose in the late 19th century as a new method to study human interaction, usually defined as the relational communication of individuals or groups with shared values and interests. Our contemporary proclivity to understand social networking as a condition of modern technology is an accurate reflection of the enormous role social media plays in connecting us, but there are important distinctions compared to the networks of the last century. Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest, and myriad apps on our smart phones, weave us in ways that are deeply personal, but also startlingly anonymous. Much of our networking is with millions of unknown people, some real, some fabricated; today, technologies have become the relational mechanism, encouraging ephemeral, passive postings and simple ‘likes’, with only a modicum of shared values and interests, other than a seemingly universal desire for visibility in a world of immense complexity and a tsunami of background noise.

Nonetheless, technology can be used to develop genuine communities of interest, and this inaugural blog, the first of several on behalf of the Bryan Memorial Gallery in Jeffersonville, Vermont, will focus on a social network that conforms to the more personal, shared ideas and values of the original term. The social network in question is ancient: the relationship between individuals and societies with art: the objects of artistic expression that include paintings, sculpture, photography, and other visual representations that comprise our culture. This network has existed for tens of thousands of years, and while the representations of artistic creation can significantly change, many of the elements of our relationship with and through art remain constant.
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