Theft & Plunder

May 14th, 2008 § 0 comments

The Rape of Europa seems to fit in with a discussion myself and others had somewhat recently with a certain nameless historian (Shem) about if art simply reflects the condition of a culture, or if it is a force in changing that culture. As a documentary I thought the film was sporadic, unfocused and somewhat pointless, but it illustrated what in culture is valued and at lengthy costs preserved. Most artists I know argue against the idea that we are reflectors rather than innovators or the illustrators of perspectives otherwise unseen, though each side seems to depend on how the role of art is perceived within a particular society. The effort taken (during the second world war) to destroy, preserve, hide, restore, and protect works of art and monuments, proves to me at least that art is more than reflection. In Europe, something I found rather interesting, the self-identity of each city rested with a particular church, building, or museum. Thinking of our own country I know I am more compelled by landscape, it seems more a part of my “American” identity than any particular place.

Having studied in great detail the art of the Third Reich and the “artistic” minded tactics of Hitler as a politician, I find this a compelling argument for art as a leader of change. He was infatuated with mediating and controlling the art of his time, on keeping its potential danger away from the general public, perhaps because certain artists were “reflecting” the wrong vision. Many of our most recognized Modernists were seen as a threat to the dominant party, and those artists were part of a wider movement that was pushing ‘thought’ of all kinds, not just art, into new territories. As the film pointed out, the list of artworks Hitler wished to possess predated the countries he chose to invade and occupy.


Most of the film focused on the damage and destruction the war caused for art and history (a refreshing perspective considering the popular general topic of WWII and the death camps), but I was most fascinated by images of empty museums, starving staff members in Russia working through the winter while they died to preserve the Leningrad museum, the storerooms of “possessions” that had been taken from the dead or displaced. A quote from the end of the film ran something like “art gives us our humanity, without it we are animals.”

Listening to conversations of legality between wealthy grandchildren fighting to regain lost family paintings, I can’t quite understand the rational behind the impetus to preserve, at the same time I cringed while watching as the Europe I wish I could have seen was decimated. It is clear that we treasure art, of all the items that were lost these seem to be the most cruel. I found myself wondering, however, if the objects themselves became a kind of personified object that represented a frame of mind, a belief in being right, the worry that if the Mona Lisa were lost to the Germans Paris could never go on. As a maker it seems slightly less of a concern, I have never been convinced that we preserve simply to preserve, and I thought of all the art that would come (came rather) regardless of what was lost. All in all it was an interesting and compelling documentary, I only wish the documentary itself was better put together.

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