When you try to keep current with subjects like archaeology, architecture, art history, or the art market., but you are capable of forming a rational thought pattern, you often find yourself in rather a lonely place. For every article about the reemergence of a lost masterpiece, or the discovery of fascinating buildings from ancient times, there are ten about – I kid you not – whether Kate Middleton is a bad influence on the art world. What I have learned over the years, watching the lunatics take over the asylum, is that the relative lack of interest in beautiful, old things, which has become so ingrained in the groupthink of the creative classes, has greater significance than simply in questions of taste. We are in serious danger of losing our artistic and cultural heritage of beautiful, old things, to the worship of all things ugly and new.
Some countries are much more on the ball about protecting and celebrating their beautiful, old things than others. Yesterday for example, the Israeli Antiquities Authority announced the discovery of a 4thcentury A.D. Roman shipwreck in the harbor of Caesarea – a town well known to Christ and indeed to you, if you’ve ever read the New Testament. Items recovered included a number of bronze statues in a remarkable state of preservation, from having been covered with sand for centuries. I’m always impressed by the way that the Israelis make a point of celebrating these historic works of art. They place a premium on preserving and sharing this history and beauty with their citizens and with visitors.
Sad stories about the lack of due care shown to our past, like the general neglect of Pompeii, are all the more remarkable when stories emerge about how earmarked taxpayer funds have gone to waste. It is true that brazen thefts of well-documented works of art sometimes have a happy ending, as occurred recently with the discovery of a cache of Old Master paintings that were stolen in Verona last year. Because of the chronic underfunding of museums and historic sites, it’s a thief’s paradise out there, and we hear less about what is missing than about what is recovered.
Yet I don’t believe that the answer to the problem of preserving and protecting artistic patrimony lies in simply throwing more money after it, at least not exclusively. The fact that there is so much decay and theft, it seems to me, stems not so much from underfunding as it does from a lack of leadership, which itself comes from a lack of appreciation. A greater value has been placed on trendiness over tradition, which spills over into issues like understaffing or a lack of security. The illegal trade in art and antiquities would not be possible without someone, somewhere, turning a blind eye, or giving up the fight out of frustration.
The real root of the problem is the ignorance of the supposed cognoscenti, an ignorance most easily demonstrated by a glance at sales figures from the art market. When art requiring little or no artistic skill, such as pseudo-graffiti created with stencils, cause institutions and philanthropists to dance to the tune of tens of millions of dollars, what does that say about our society? How can a wax dummy of Adolf Hitler, by a contemporary artist whose name I’ve already forgotten, go for $17 million, while a beautiful, old bust by Houdon, one of the greatest sculptors of the 18thcentury and indeed in the history of Western art, is only worth $25,000?
If the powers that be cared more about our artistic heritage, and less about getting Beyoncé or one of the Kardashians to appear at their cocktail parties, I believe the situation would be quite different. Collectors and philanthropists who spend hundreds of millions of dollars on the work of contemporary artists, but spend a fraction of that amount – if any – on the preservation and celebration of beautiful, old things, thanks to the infernal whisperings of alleged experts in the arts, have contributed in no small way to this mess. You cannot expect the public to sympathize when you call for the protection of ancient buildings and works of art, when you yourself fail to throw your weight and, yes, your money behind it.
Credit where it’s due, there are certainly many who do their fair share. The Italian luxury goods retailer Fendi, for example, paid most of the $2.4 million needed to restore the recently reopened Trevi Fountain in Rome. Other Italian companies are picking up the tabs for preserving the Coliseum and the Spanish Steps. The Italian government at least recognizes that it does not have the resources to address these projects on its own, and has reached out to companies who care about these things to get them to help.
Meanwhile in France, the government of Le Petit Hollande spent untold millions at the Palace of Versailles last summer to host a monumental sculpture exhibition by the decidedly untalented British sculptor Anish Kapoor, one of whose rather adolescent and prurient works was designed to evoke the nether regions of Queen Marie Antoinette. This summer the artist whose work was chosen to litter the gardens of the grandest chateau in France is the Danish-Icelandic sculptor Olafur Eliasson. Mr. Eliasson’s most recent work involves carting large blocks of glacier ice to public spaces and then allowing them to melt, in order to draw attention to climate change. God help us all.