Isn’t it amazing how interconnected our cultural experiences are? For class, I’ve been reading (and railing at) Homer’s The Odyssey – a book I find deeply frustrating on many levels, but let’s put that aside for now. This week we discussed the ancient Greek concept of kleos, the belief that a person’s reputation or renown is paramount, not just in the present, during a person’s lifespan, but also in the securing of a legacy – granting him or her a continued life long after he or she has physically died. It’s an idea we still hold dear, even after all these thousands of years.
Immediately after class this week, I went to see The Monuments Men, a film, loosely based on a true story, about saving art from the Nazis during World War II.
The Monuments Men actively portrays saving art in two different ways: there is a literal saving of the art from destruction. Hitler made it clear through directives that if he couldn’t have the art for his own collection, then it was to be obliterated. But the film is also about rescuing the art from a loss of purity – of keeping Hitler from being able to claim it, and by extension, redefine the ideas and artistry of the works as being part of the Nazi heritage. If he had succeeded, he would have appropriated and subsequently eternally tarnished some the most important European cultural achievements.
And, in a salt-in-the-wound sort of way, by co-opting the art, Hitler would have erased the important work Jewish collectors did to preserve the artistic history of Europe – which the movie is very clear to point out.1
In fact, as I watched the film, I couldn’t help but feel that The Monuments Men is a deeply Jewish film, even as the two major artworks depicted – the Ghent altarpiece and Michelangelo’s Madonna and Child – are very definitely Christian pieces. The film’s message that ideas matter, their context matters, and that they change our whole world underlies Jewish philosophy. The importance of academic preservation of these ideas, these cultural touchstones, which The Monuments Men wholeheartedly embraces, sings to me on an internal emotional level that can only be called faith.
There was a quote, in a beautifully realized moment of the movie, that I couldn’t write down, obviously, in the darkened movie theater, but I’m going to do my best to get a close paraphrase here:
Frank Stokes (George Clooney) says, in a pep talk to the unit about the importance of art: “You can kill a generation, leave them as dust in the fields, but if you destroy their achievements, their history, it’s like they never existed.”
It struck me, in that moment, in the hush of a sold out theater, that he was talking about the kleos of a culture – of protecting that kleos – the protection and preservation of the reputation of the art, the artists, and the cultures, the people that revered them.
And then I thought about a book I read not too long ago, Saving Mozart, by Raphael Jerusalmy. It’s a short book, with a voice that reminded me of Camus, about a dying music critic who is horrified by Hitler’s attempt to culturally appropriate his cherished music, especially that of Mozart (hence the title). The critic decides to stop Hitler, even going so far as to attempt an assassination. What he ends up doing is far more ingenious, but I don’t want to ruin it for you. Let’s just say, the last five pages or so are some of my favorite I’ve read in years.
The book asks the same questions The Monuments Men does: how do you keep someone from co-opting your art, and by extension, your culture? From changing its meaning in extraordinarily violent ways? How do you defend your cultural kleos? And how do you hold on to those ideals you find most praiseworthy?
Critics pretty much universally hated The Monuments Men. The local paper told me it “had no heart.” Online, review after review called it episodic2, unfocused3, slow4. And, most damningly, it doesn’t easily fit into a genre; is it a drama or a historical or a comedy?5
I think the reviewers just didn’t get it.
George Clooney is doing something really interesting with The Monuments Men. He’s making an old school Hollywood war film, a style we aren’t so comfortable with in the modern era of frenetic, energy driven, hyper-focused films.6 It has more in common with Sergeant York or They Were Expendable. It’s a movie with pathos and humor, with idealistic Americans riding out to save the world, quite literally, as in this film, saving art is saving the world.
Clooney’s choices result in a sophisticated, multi-layered film. He recreates and by extension, preserves the American World War II film – a vanishing cultural storytelling construct – in his film’s very structure, even as the characters of the film attempt to save art and to preserve it for future generations, so they can see, learn, and embody their culture, so their society won’t disappear.
I don’t think the reviewers caught on.7
I opened this post with The Odyssey and I mentioned that I find it a deeply frustrating story. It represents, to me, a long ago society, classist, misogynistic, and unforgivably violent, rife with values and mores I find reprehensible. Because I believe that it is impossible not to internalize the stories we experience, I worry that its presence as a constantly told story is harmful to our modern cultural world, that it reintroduces and reinforces reductive elements to our philosophy. Certainly, I would prefer to focus on others of the ancient Greeks’ stories.
And yet, today, as much as I wish otherwise, I find I cannot bring myself to advocate for the erasure of Homer’s work. Just as the cultures of modern Europe, and indeed, any society on earth, should have their cultural artifacts safeguarded, so too should the ancient Greeks. I cannot hope for an end to their culture, their kleos. To do so would be as violent an act as any Odysseus commits. Clooney’s film reminds me that, while I may never be a proponent of Homer’s work, wishing for the complete censorship of this story would be a betrayal of my own soul, my own kleos.
For the ancient Greeks, Odysseus’ heroism occurred when he established his kleos, that is, when he created his renown. By being famous, he remains famous. For us now — for Americans, for Jews — it is the people who protect the ideas, who are even willing to die defending them, who are the real heroes. How can I, a scholar, an American, and a Jew, do anything less?
1 The history of what happened to the art after WWII is not a pretty one, and this film does not delve into it. I do not know, historically, what happened to all the art the real Monuments Men recovered, but the film very strongly suggests it was returned to its owners, and this may or may not be true. In many, many cases, however, Jewish collectors lost their entire collections. There are varying reasons, not the least of which is that, in many instances, owners no longer had records of what belonged to them. If you want to learn more about the history surrounding this, I highly recommend Lost Lives, Lost Art: Jewish Collectors, Nazi Art Theft, and the Quest for Justice by Melissa Muller and Monica Tatzkow, although fair warning, it is a tough read.
2 Kind of true, but is that a bad thing?
3 Sorry, I don’t buy it.
4 Well, it is, but I’ll explain why in a moment.
5 Hint: the answer is yes.
6 Complete with the typical monologues, patriotic music, and scenes of driving through Europe in military vehicles.
7 To be fair, this film didn’t hit you over the head with anything. It expected you to think.
The Monuments Men. Directed by George Clooney. Sony Pictures Home Entertainment, 2014. Film.
Jerusalmy, Raphael. Saving Mozart. Europa Editions, 2013.
Ller, Melissa, and Monika Tatzkow. Lost Lives, Lost Art: Jewish Collectors, Nazi Art Theft, and the Quest for Justice. English-language ed. New York: Vendome Press, 2010.