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This topic leads to another question: what does it mean when significant works of art are purchased for private collections (these days at fantastic prices)? Is it right for them to reside for the foreseeable future far from public view? Or do masterworks of art belong to the world at large, properly housed in public spaces where they can be freely visited?
Little did I realize, enjoying our class discussion, that the next week would put me into a situation where this issue is not theoretical. While beginning a tour for which I’m lecturing in Germany, the organization kicked off our packed schedule with a lovely, surprise reception in a private home in Cologne. Built in Bauhaus style, this home stretches far back from its humble façade. It is open and airy, with a grand, windowed corridor flanked by quadrants of gardens. For the party, a pavilion was erected in the back garden. Tables filled the home and yard, and, mercifully, the threatening rain held off for the duration of the evening.
The hosts of this party are charming, highly educated, deeply respected members of Cologne’s business and artistic community. They regularly open their home for such events, in part because their house is filled with significant art. Large contemporary canvases, small sculptures from various eras, pieces of decorative art, and select paintings from the 19th, 18th, even 17th centuries define each room. And everything is displayed to seem organic to that room.
The deep obligation these owners feel to preserve art and make it available was tangible at every turn. The next day, I overheard bits of a conversation about upcoming events the family would be hosting. Let’s just say that opening their home is a regular part of weekly life, and it cannot be easy. But they have this mission deep in their bones, so to speak.
Most of us live in a world where art is rarely discussed, much less owned. Most of us do not carry the weight that comes with purchasing and preserving art. But the obligation to preserve and present our artistic heritage is present in each of our lives today. How to do this is easier to see in places like Cologne and Dresden, Paris and Prague where heritage cannot be ignored. In Cologne, modern buildings are set consciously upon the foundations of Roman walls. Families digging deep in their gardens really do unearth Roman treasures. Every inch of real estate is developed with an eye to its cultural significance and historical past. Art is part of everyday life, rather than a subject to be ticked off in a curriculum requirement.
Here in America, we have had (in the past) a good sense of preserving our artistic heritage, especially in our East Coast cities. Our most esteemed cultural institutions were built by families who devoted enormous private resources to do this, establishing galleries and museums, orchestras and theaters. These institutions, alas, tend to be taken for granted today. Fundraising for them gets ever harder. There is diminishing appreciation for the fact that individuals brought them into being. We had no kings, emperors, or archbishops to do the job.
Yet, here we are, whipped up by academics and ideologically inflamed citizens into a frenzy of stripping our cities, our campuses, and our public institutions of their past. There are individual situations, I acknowledge, where specific names and images need to be reconsidered, reconfigured, or possibly even removed. But those circumstances are rare.
Instead, total swaths of our historical culture are being ripped away in a manner so thoughtless as to have been inconceivable just years ago. With every monument toppled or name stripped, a chunk of our history disappears. Time is supposed to be the arbiter of how history is written, not a ravenous committee of professors and politically driven activists.
Of course, individual works of art are vulnerable too. In fact, one argument (historically) for having masterworks in private hands relates to the probability that they will be better protected from ideological wrath. It pains me to see awkwardly worded placards slapped up next to the identity tags on paintings and sculptures in today’s museums (in Europe as well as America). These placards, in essence, preach sermons reinterpreting items created three, four, even five centuries ago. They apply language and ideas that no artist of the time would recognize or understand. I most recently saw this phenomenon among Renaissance treasures at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. If it were not so damaging, it would be laughable.
Still the passage of time has a way of winning the argument. Vividly I remember being in Moscow a couple of years after the so-called Fall of Communism. Churches were reopening lickety-split. Books long purged could be found in the shops. The old names of streets and institutions were being restored. Monuments toppled by the Bolsheviks were being recast.
I knew this all to be true, of course, from reading about it. Still, encountering it in person was something else. I’ll never forget the physical shock of bumping into the pedestal of a newly cast bronze of a Romanov tsar while backing up to photograph a favorite view. “Where did he come from?” I uttered in surprise. “He didn’t use to be here!”
Actually, he did use to be there—right there, until his statue was melted down after 1917. When the Bolsheviks forced their violent ideology onto the citizenry, everything was done to quash nine-hundred years of tsarist heritage (not to mention more than nine-hundred years of Christian history). With a new light illuminating the Russian world, the past was being rebirthed. It had won its battle through patience.
We don’t know when the current fever for destroying our culture heritage will abate. Some of us may not live to see sanity restored. But for those laboring quietly, diligently for the renewal of education and the preservation of cultural history, do not waver. Take ownership of our cultural and artistic treasures. Whether we preserve them in the corners of our homes or are called to set them out for all to see, we cannot lose confidence in their strength, value, or efficacy.Published in