Sunday, February 16, 2014

Hall Rant #2: Musing on The Monuments Men

I got another missive from Mike Hall the other day, this one prompted by his viewing of the film The Monuments Men (see the official trailer below). I haven't seen it yet and I have to say that a movie about a troupe of museum directors, curators, and art historians dedicated to retrieving stolen art from the Germans during World War II seems like hardly the material for a modern-day Hollywood blockbuster. (Although I do recall as a kid being caught up in the 1964 film The Train, which had a similar plot line.) Indeed, reviews of The Monuments Men have been less than stellar -- the film has a 34% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, with an average score of 5.2 out of 10, even with its all-star cast. But leave it to Mike to find deeper meaning in the most facile of popular culture artifacts.

The Monuments Men official trailer (2103)


Well, here we go again.  Art vs. Pensions.  Only this time, Hollywood serendipitously gives us a fresh perspective.  More specifically, George Clooney just released a film suggesting that art may actually be a form of pension -- a pension fully funded by the human experience and which pays regular dividends by richly reminding all of us who we are.

Don't get me wrong.  The Monuments Men is not a great film.  It is full of historic inaccuracies and plenty of the usual Hollywood clich├ęs and tropes -- but it also stands as a timely reminder that works of art in a public trust have value because they have been persistently assigned worth by real communities of people admiring and relating to them over protracted periods of time. 

Two things occurred to me as I watched this movie.

First, I quickly thought that Michigan's Governor, his legislature and the Emergency Financial Manager he appointed to move the city of Detroit through its bankruptcy need to go see The Monuments Men before they utter anything else publically (or privately) about the Detroit Institute of Arts.  Second, I then concluded that Detroit's pensioners and the various individuals holding Detroit's debt obligations should also go screen this picture.  There is a message here worth bringing to the table in Detroit as the State, the Museum, the city, the banks and the "public" wrestle over the fate of the Institute and its collection.

Of course, by now, we know that the Institute's collection is not actually going to be liquidated in a bankruptcy proceeding.  We also think that the Governor and his agents are cleverly going to "spin the Museum off" from public ownership after extracting a tidy "settlement" fee from the foundations that have lined up to "save" the DIA collection.  But the matter of the public interest in the Institute and its trove remains a moot point in Michigan political circles -- and also within the Michigan arts community at large.

About a third of the way though his film, Clooney delivers a soliloquy in which he ruminates over the place of art in human history and within the lives of countries and cities around the world.  I found it interesting that Clooney's argument (probably penned by some team of Hollywood screen writers) was a clearer and more persuasive advocacy for the value of artistic gestures in the human experience than anything I have heard yet from any of Michigan's art professionals or arts advocates through the whole of the present DIA nightmare.  Maybe this is what you get when you strip art from school curriculums, identify it pejoratively as the domain of the 1%, and teach your children that it is an investment to be acquired only after they "make theirs" in the business/financial world.  Does it really take Hollywood to tell us that the emperors are naked?

I asked a friend why he thought The Monuments Men could cause such a stir on its release and yet slip so easily under the radar in the Detroit situation.  He quickly responded: "Two reasons.  The film has Nazis and George Clooney -- Detroit can't match that."  Really?  Does this tell us there probably won't be an Oscar nomination for Michigan's ongoing reality show?

Michael D. Hall
Hamtramck, MI
Feb 8, 2014


  1. Sitting in Judge Rhodes courtroom listening to Herr Snyder repeatedly invoke attorney/client privilege to deflect pointed questions helped me see the self-authorizing system at work. I guess I should have learned to push papers around instead of learning to draw on them to search for truth.
    -- LtD

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