Thursday, July 3, 2014

Hall Rant, Take 3

In this third and final installment on his thoughts regarding the Detroit bankruptcy's "Grand Bargain," artist, curator, and critic Michael Hall reflects on the 1964 film The Train, starring Burt Lancaster, Paul Scofield, and Jeanne Moreau, and its relevance to the "Art vs. Pensions" question. 

There is no doubt that preserving the Detroit Institute of Arts as a cultural asset serves the greater good. And yet, the way in which the process has evolved is dispiriting to say the least. As Hall notes, there is something bigger at play, namely, the role of art within what we might call "the civic ideal," what Alexis de Tocqueville in Democracy in America (still the best book on democracy and also the best book on America) terms the "habits of the heart," which in America have historically sought to strike a balance between liberty and equality, the rights of the individual and the responsibility to the community. 

In democratic theory, it is the role of civil society, of which cultural institutions are integral part, to mediate between the private sphere of the market and the public sphere of the state. This is not to say that privatizing the DIA will result in its walking away from its community mandate. Settling the issue will enable the staff to get back to business and not be distracted by the machinations of those for whom truly nothing is sacred outside of the grim and relentless pursuit of profit. But it is to note that the change in status is another, in my opinion significant, splintering of the city's collective consciousness. For a penetrating analysis of the "Pension" side of the debate, see this article on "Detroit's Grand Bargain" by Aaron Petkov published recently in Jacobin.  

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The Train Theatrical Trailer (1964)

MOVIES IMITATING LIFE: Cultural Patrimony and Train Wrecks

This time it was Detroit public television jumping into the debate swirling around the ongoing Detroit art museum mess.  How curious it was! You have to go back to a time before Nixon to find public broadcasting substantially supported by public dollars. Long suspicious of culture as a civic good, American lawmakers have incrementally (but steadily) pushed public broadcasting down the road to “privatization” (read mendicancy) for decades. So was it an intentional irony or an inadvertency when Detroit Public TV broadcast The Train (1964) from the DIA film archive on its Friday night Film Festival?  Knowingly or not, by airing this film, the station offered Detroiters what I view as one of the best critiques to date of the inevitable privatization of Michigan’s preeminent “public” art museum.

The Train is set in WWII France—during the last days of the German occupation. The plot of the film involves a willful, effete German colonel (Paul Scofield) hell bent to ship a trainload of stolen Parisian art treasures to Berlin in the face of the oncoming Allied liberation. To achieve his aim, however, the Colonel must thwart a series of plots and subversions initiated by French Resistance fighters determined to keep the train in France without damaging its precious cargo.  In the ensuing gauntlet, the imperious Nazi officer matches wits with a wily French railway dispatcher (Burt Lancaster) who reluctantly takes charge of the effort to “save” the train.

Let’s review: a heartless connoisseur of fine paintings is pitted against a gaggle of heroic, oppressed burghers in a desperate struggle to control a load of wooden crates stuffed with priceless cultural patrimony. The haughty Colonel asserts his personal, cultivated “taste” as his claim to the trove; the colorful but boorish resistance fighters unite to thwart his theft as a patriotic duty. With no orientation to “the finer things,” they, nonetheless, periodically muse among themselves about how when the war is over, it would be nice to see some of the pictures—in some museum, somewhere…sometime.  The Germans strap a gaggle of French peasants to the front of the locomotive to ensure safe passage for their loot. The Allied Supreme Command (speaking through a furtive intermediary who directs the Resistance) benevolently—but tentatively—puts the train on a “no kill list” and deploys its bombers to attack other targets of higher strategic value. 

Fast forward to Detroit today. The train has left the station. The elites have made their claim to the treasures in the boxcars and an array of unwitting city workers have been strapped to the engine as hostages—the politicians and lawyers erratically jam and reset the switches on the tracks as the train lumbers along its juggernaut. Judges restrain the bombs they could rain down from their benches, but claim to be keeping “all options on the table.”  For its part, the press breathlessly reports every new development in the saga and fatuously cheers on all the protagonists. The journey (thus far) has seen lots of twists and turns, offense and defense—and more feints and deceptions than you could count. 

In the final four minutes of The Train, Lancaster finally stops the locomotive—cold. Enraged by this latest setback, the Colonel mows down the train’s fleeing hostages with a machine gun and then attempts to commandeer a passing convoy of German trucks to carry “his” precious trophies on to Berlin. The convoy commander ignores his directive and waves his troops and vehicles onward in their frantic evacuation.  Art, after all, is a luxury—certainly not something to deem a priority (or a necessity) in the midst of a frantic retreat.

Alone with his crated treasure, the Colonel confronts Lancaster for the last time.  Arrogant to the end, he chides and berates the dispatcher for his ignorance and lack of cultural refinement. Lancaster dispassionately eliminates him with a quick blast of automatic weapon fire and then, wounded and exhausted, limps off into the forested countryside.  He has completed “the people’s work.”  As the credits prepare to roll, the camera pulls back.  Its pitiless eye surveys the martyred hostages, the lifeless body of the Colonel and a few dozen plain wooden crates (each stenciled with the name of some great, modern, French master) all scattered about in the tall grass beside the derailed train.  Fade to silence.

Like this movie, the Detroit bankruptcy story will most likely never have a triumphal conclusion.  Yes, the paintings did stay in France (so goodness did win out).  Still, nobody in The Train ever uttered a line to suggest that there was any sort of public stake in the purloined paintings. The Nazis stole trophies worth lots of money. The resistance saboteurs fought to keep them in the name of the motherland.  And the Allied Command simply passed out strategic directives from afar, confident, perhaps, that fifty years down the road George Clooney and a team of Ivy League art historians would give voice to the idea of art as a public good—in another movie.

To my eye, the state of Michigan could learn a lot about its escalating political and intellectual decrepitude from this oddly cynical film.  While approving $195 million to “save” the Museum’s collection, the Michigan House of Representatives also passed a bill (no. 5571) barring the DIA from ever renewing the annual multi-million dollar support millage recently awarded to it by voters in the three counties comprising the city of Detroit and its surrounding suburbs. Subsequently, the Senate defeated bill 5571 and several regional corporations (including, most recently, the auto makers) rallied to save “our” art—ours, presumably because corporations are people, too.  The lawyers, bankers, and bondholders continue to argue about appraisals and about how to best monetize the museum as a financial asset. Meanwhile, nobody is really talking about the real train wreck in American education and the stenciled crates along the tracks running to and from Detroit that loom as eerie tombstones for the idea of art in the public interest.

From the perspective of someone with a belief in civic culture, I view the privatization of the DIA as a crisis as dire as the city’s bankruptcy, itself.  In Michigan’s ongoing Art vs. Pensions debate, the idea of culture as a civic good has no advocacy and no voice.  Just ask Detroit public television. 

Michael D. Hall                                                                                              
Hamtramck, MI
June 12, 2014

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