Think about some of the things in this world that are worth risking life and dying for. Love. Family. Friendship. Freedom. Faith. Civil rights. Home.
Now what about art? Is art worth dying for? In The Monuments Men, it is. Based on the true story of the band of men who recovered stolen art from the Nazis at the end of World War II, this movie considers the enduring value of good art. It is, moreover, a reminder of the preciousness—and vulnerability—of our cultural heritage.
With George Clooney and Matt Damon casually assembling a team of experts, the film feels at first like another Ocean’s Eleven, but the nobler purpose of this mission quickly becomes evident. As the Germans had ravaged Europe, they had stolen thousands of art works from cathedrals and private homes and had amassed their collections in preparation for the creation of a museum for the Führer. Clooney plays a Harvard art historian, Frank Stokes, who puts the rescue of this art on the U.S. agenda. He gathers a small team of experts in painting, sculpture, and architecture, and among the Americans in the band are a Frenchman, a Brit, and a young German.
Despite their disparate fields and nationalities, the men share a common zeal to protect Europe’s oldest buildings, bridges, and art. That’s one of the noteworthy aspects of this story – the men’s capacity for empathy with people with whom they have little in common. They find stores of stolen art and see it as “people’s lives.” Their priority is to return each piece to its rightful owner. On one night, the Englishman, Donald Jeffries, is working with the priests in a Bruges cathedral to hide a sculpture of the Madonna and Child, and the priests ask him, “Are you Catholic?” He says, “I am tonight.”
The movie never comes out and said what art does – what it does for us that we should take the trouble to preserve it. But we all know. Works of art bless us with their beauty. They witness to the artist’s discipline, patience, skill, whimsy, loving creation, fallibility. They draw us out of ourselves and the biases of our own time and speak to us of what people wanted in other ages. They still us, inviting us to pay attention quietly. They deepen our senses of nuance, heighten our tastes, and teach us about our civilization. They unite us around a center of common admiration.
That is why we take care of art. Though all this went unspoken in The Monuments Men, it was clear that the men understood. When Jeffries walks into that cathedral in Bruges, you see it on his face. You could also hear it in the movie theater, when the team arrived too late to a cache of art torched by the Nazis, and found a charred empty frame inscribed Pablo Picasso—the audience groaned.
Another remarkable aspect of this story is that it contends that what is old is worth preserving. As Stokes puts it, “You can wipe out an entire generation; you can burn their homes to the ground and somehow they’ll still find their way back. But if you destroy their history—you destroy their achievements—then it’s as if they never existed.”
For those of us in higher education reform, the importance of what has gone before is revealed, in addition to art, in the Great Books and in college Western civilization courses. Today the studies of both time-tested literature and Western history are threatened by growing indifference, and by substitution with politically correct themes and a limited contemporary perspective. (For more on the endangerment of classic books in college, see NAS’s report Beach Books, and for more on the endangerment of Western civilization courses, see our report The Vanishing West.)
We have much to learn from the past, and there is much in our present that works from the past can help illuminate. Stokes tells the Monuments Men they are fighting “for culture, for a way of life.” What way of life is that? It is a way of history—for when people know and appreciate their heritage, they have more gratitude for what has happened before them and they have a solid foundation to choose a path informed by what worked and what didn’t.
The Monuments Men is an opportunity to ponder what the key works of art mean to us today. We can be thankful for this moment in history, that these men risked and gave their lives to preserve everything they could from being lost, stolen, or destroyed.
The movie is based on a book of the same name by businessman-turned-World-War-II-researcher Robert M. Edsel. Edsel’s non-profit Monuments Men Foundation for the Preservation of Art was honored with the National Humanities Award in 2007. Four of the living monuments men accompanied Edsel to receive the medal from President George W. Bush (NAS’s founder and longtime president Stephen H. Balch also joined them as a 2007 National Humanities Award recipient).
How historically accurate is the film based on Edsel’s book? The website “History vs. Hollywood” compares the reel story with the real story. The monuments men have different names in the movie, and the film focuses on a platoon of seven men instead of the more than 350 men and women who actually served in the MFAA (Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives) program. Some of the stories are combined or out of order, but most of the events in the movie really happened. The Allied unit did locate art hidden in salt mines; Hitler did order that if he was killed, all the plunder from the war (including the art) should be destroyed; two of the monuments men did perish in the war; and President Eisenhower did support the MFAA program. One document the Monuments Men Foundation has placed online is a December 1943 letter from Eisenhower to all commanders, opening, “Today we are fighting in a country [Italy, presumably] which has contributed a great deal to our cultural inheritance, a country rich in monuments which by their creation helped and now in their old age illustrate the growth of the civilization which is ours. We are bound to respect those monuments as far as war allows.”
Interestingly, reviewers of the Monuments Men movie were generally unimpressed – the film, they said, suffers from “very little action,” “dumb jokes,” and “tonal uncertainty.” It tells the audience what to think. Its portrayal of the French art historian as being pigheadedly uncooperative with the Monuments Men—when she is clearly on their side—is maddening (though this was really how Rose Valland behaved in the true story). Indeed, the movie does come off as more of a documentary than an action film, and in that light, it succeeds in telling a compelling account of real events.
These events came closer to home in November 2013 when German authorities revealed that they had found a large trove of Nazi-stolen art in an elderly man’s Munich apartment. The collection included paintings by Picasso, Matisse, and Dürer. Questions remain about why it took the German government nearly two years to disclose the discovery, and what will happen to the art now.
At the University of Oklahoma, controversy has arisen over an 1886 Pissarro painting donated to the University, “Shepherdess Bringing in Sheep.” A French woman, Léone Meyer, claims the work was stolen from her family by the Nazis during World War II. A Republican representative for Oklahoma City, Paul Wesselhoft, has made it his agenda to put pressure on OU to give the painting to Meyer. He used the occasion of the Monuments Men playing in theaters to hand out fliers to audience members asking them to urge OU president David Boren to return the art. Boren said that while the University is opposed to Nazi art theft, giving away the painting would be unfair to its donors, who he said was a Jewish family which “also had friends and family members endangered at the time of the Holocaust.” Boren did say that the University would give up the painting if compelled by a court order. Right now it is on display in the University’s Fred Jones Jr. Museum of Art.
Both the Munich and the OU cases show that the work of the monuments men remains unfinished, and that discernment and truthful history must determine the rightful ownership of each piece of art. The work also remains of preserving great art from oblivion; the art that the Nazis stole from museums and hid was not available for the public to enjoy and study. The art that was destroyed is lost forever.
Which brings us back to the need to preserve not only art, but also the Great Books and our own history, for future generations. The word curator comes from the Latin curare, which means, “to take care.” Like art, our civilizational legacy is delicate and must continuously be restored, or else it will fade and shrivel before our eyes. Those who care about the future of our society can help re-civilize it by reminding us of those ancient truths that have modern insights—by respectfully displaying them to be explored and critiqued.
Our role in this as scholars and citizens is essentially to be curators. We can, like the Monuments Men, preserve the monuments of our history for future generations. We can show them why art is worth dying for.