Art Agonies: Politics Over Preservation

At present we live in a climate in which lovers of great art must put up with the strangely tortured and often ill-informed opinions of others. From nonsensical tweets about the nature of art by celebrity astrophysicists incapable of dressing themselves properly, to lowest common denominator garbage from princes of the Church who have been inexplicably tasked with matters of culture, it’s enough to make this writer want to throw up his hands and just walk away from all of it. I would probably have much more fun simply interviewing and highlighting the work of creative friends and acquaintances – painters, cosplayers, musicians, chefs, writers, etc. It tires me to read about risky decisions being made about art for the sake of political popularity.

A perfect example of this may be found in a recent interview with Françoise Nyssen, France’s Minister of Culture, given on Thursday to Europe 1 Radio. Mme. Nyssen floated the idea of sending the most famous painting in the world, Leonardo’s “Mona Lisa”, out on tour in order to combat what the Minister calls “cultural segregation”. If any of my readers can explain how a work of art is “culturally segregated”, when it is on display to everyone in a public museum, by all means do your best in the comments section. As an aside, I shudder to think what the insurance premiums would be on moving and displaying such an important object, which for decades The Louvre has not even dared to attempt cleaning.

This is not the only half-baked idea to come from the government of France’s greatest aficionado of sheer cover foundation, President Emmanuel Macron. Another ill-conceived project is to send the Bayeux Tapestry, which commemorates the Norman Invasion of Britain and the ensuing Battle of Hastings, across the English Channel to be displayed in a British museum. Like the “Mona Lisa”, the Bayeux Tapestry is an incredibly fragile object, arguably the most famous of its type in the world, and has not left its home in France for many years. Many French historians, preservation specialists, and locals are appalled at the notion of even attempting to move the Tapestry off-site, let alone send it out of the country, but for political reasons Monsieur Maquillage seems determined to proceed with this idea.

Exhibitions which allow works of art to travel from one institution to another are not bad things in and of themselves. When handled properly, they can bring to new audiences objects which they might never be able to visit otherwise. Consideration of the state of preservation of such objects, particularly when of significant age, fragility, or difficulty in transport, must be given absolute priority: Michelangelo’s “David” is never going to leave Florence to go on tour, for example.

However, placing irrational, politically-motivated thinking ahead of issues such as preservation and integrity (and yes, Your Holiness, appropriateness) is morally reprehensible. It plays Russian roulette with the ability of future generations to see, appreciate, and learn from these objects, all for the sake of temporary political popularity. Those who engage in such games by putting at risk the cultural patrimony under their temporary care should be publicly criticized and called to account.



Four Years Of This: Tomorrow’s Anti-Trump Art Strike Will Miss The Target

Ever since the 2016 American Presidential election, the art press has grown more irrational than usual, which is saying something. The fear of a Trump Presidency, in tandem with a conservative-led Congress, has fired up the art world in a way not seen since the cultish swooning that greeted the first Obama inauguration eight years ago. A perfect example of this is the “Art Strike” taking place tomorrow during the Presidential Inauguration, an event which you would be forgiven for not even being aware of until now.

A summary of the reasoning behind this event is contained in an essay published yesterday in Apollo. The author, an art history professor at NYU, explains that the strike will be “in response to the feared imperilment of individual liberty and social equality that a Trump presidency might inaugurate.” He expresses the hope that this event may have legs well beyond just a single day, as the art world confronts Trump, et al., in the coming years.

The application of logic, a virtue little understood and rarely valued within the art world, requires that we ask two questions about this event. The first and perhaps most fundamental question is, are the organizers being a bit premature? Having such an extreme reaction to something which has not even happened yet is somewhat odd. It seems rather like going to the doctor because your toe hurts, and then insisting that he amputate your entire foot, before he has even taken an x-ray.

Yet the second, arguably more substantive question must be: who exactly is going to be hurt by this event?

Certainly an “art strike” will not hurt Mr. Trump, an appalling man of appalling taste who is not known for being a patron of the arts. Nor will it hurt Congress, which historically has shown little interest in or patience for the whingings of the art world. Nor is this event likely to have any impact on average American voters, whose rare dealings with the inherent attitude of condescension and relativism within the art world usually leave them unimpressed and unwilling to support it, morally or financially.

What is perhaps most curious about an exercise such as this, is that it may end up having the exact opposite effect of what its organizers intend. Beyond the noble values of the free expression of citizens and the unfettered creative process, the unspoken motivator here is that of money. Artists, museums, and public institutions are naturally worried that a new Republican administration will cut their funding, as has happened to them many times in the past in the shift from a leftist to a conservative government.  Yet if the art world is so concerned about Mr. Trump or Congress turning a giant, flaming eye from atop Barad-dûr in its direction, surely it could not make more certain of heightened fiscal scrutiny, than by going out of its way to insult, ridicule, and shriek at those who hold the purse strings.

In short, gentle reader, at least for this scrivener, it is going to be a long four years – or more.

The Politics Of The Manger

On Friday, the Vatican unveiled this year’s version of the Nativity Scene in St. Peter’s Square which, in addition to portraying the Birth of Christ, pays tribute to migrant refugees and to the recent Italian earthquakes. In a speech at the blessing of the scene, Pope Francis called attention to the sufferings of the migrants, and compared their situation to that of Christ at His birth in Bethlehem. Somewhat incongruously – to my mind, anyway – a donation box at the scene allows visitors to help pay for repairs to churches damaged during the earthquake, rather than aid the migrants.

Meanwhile in Barcelona, over the past several years the unveiling of the city Nativity Scene has become something of an act of political theatre. The display is set up on the square fronted by city hall and the provincial government and, depending on the political persuasions of the mayor, the visitor sees either a traditional representation of the Nativity, or an irreverent art installation with political undertones. The latter is the case this year, thanks to the city’s viciously anti-Catholic mayor, failed sitcom actress Ana Colau. I will have the great displeasure of seeing this monstrosity in person next week; stay tuned to my Instagram account for details.

Given the appalling state of Christianity in Europe at the present time, perhaps at the unveiling of its Nativity scene it would have been more prudent of the Vatican to focus on evangelization, rather than remonstration. In an increasingly pagan Europe, where many nominal Christians do not even bother to get their children baptized any more, it would seem that the Church’s problem is not one of raising awareness regarding the plight of others, but rather a lack of self-awareness regarding its own plight. In the case of Barcelona, and other cities whose governments use Christmas as an excuse to make a political statement, Christianity has become an easy target for the airing of all sorts of views. In fact, Christmas is now the perfect time of year in which to strike a blow against the reason for the holiday itself, by openly mocking Christ through taxpayer-funded art installations.

It seems to me that a Nativity scene, should one decide to display one at all, ought to be about celebrating the Incarnation, rather than drawing attention to causes. On a daily basis, in every form of media, we are inundated with messages about every cause under the sun: not just migrants and refugees, but the environment, disease, poverty, natural disasters, and every conceivable permutation of social justice issue. All of these problems and concerns deserve our concern, discussion, and, where warranted, support.

Yet, does not God deserve just a little bit of our undivided attention? Is a simple Nativity scene too tempting an opportunity to resist turning it into a visual press release? The Birth of Christ came about, not as a reaction to Roman political unrest or Jewish theological disputes or the like, but as the way in which God chose to save us from our sins. I don’t think it’s too much to ask that we be permitted to remember that, at Christmastime, in an unadulterated fashion.