“The Second World War has passed on into history and has left a dazed and weakened world to take stock once more of the losses sustained during another period of self-immolation.” Thus begins the short introduction to a troubling book. It was written by Ernest T. DeWald, a renowned scholar of late medieval and Renaissance painting in Italy, and a lieutenant-colonel in the U.S. Army who directed the Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives Subcommission in Italy and Austria during World War II. The book was called Lost Treasures of Europe, published in New York in 1946, and it consists entirely in 427 photographs, learnedly annotated, of painting, sculpture, and architecture that were partially or completely destroyed during the war. The effect of the volume is sorrow. Rarely has the fragility of tradition been more crushingly documented. “Nor is it merely the material object that is gone,” DeWald remarks, “but all the values of human endeavor and beauty transmitted by them, which must henceforth be kept alive by the ghostly image in the memory or by the record of a photograph, both of which fade out with time. The spectacle of man’s destructive fury against himself and his achievements lies spread before us.” Decades ago, in an antiquarian bookshop in Cambridge, a friend gave me this book as a gift. She was a ferociously cultivated woman—not a dandy but a diligent student of the beautiful, and in her work over the years she smartly examined the validity of her worship of art. “This is the saddest book in the world,” she said as she placed the grim and elegant volume in my hands. In the pastoral calm of Harvard Yard we sat and morosely leafed through its pages. “The saddest book in the world,” she said again. But a different feeling was forming within me, an unexpected recoil against the intensity of our mourning. “The saddest,” I agreed. “But not the very saddest.”
We mourn many things, since we cherish many things. But as my friend and I mourned for the destroyed masterpieces, I worried that we were not mourning enough, or rightly. We needed a more comprehensive grief. There were also the other lost treasures of Europe, the other destroyed masterpieces, the many millions of them, I mean the people, to mourn for. My friend was certainly aware of this other duty, this other wound. She was not aestheticizing the catastrophe. She knew that the same civilization that produced the Camposanto in Pisa and the Palais de Justice in Rouen (plates 168 and 259 in the obituary volume) produced also the categorical imperative and other doctrines of humaneness, religious and secular, even if it also dishonored them. (Ideas have an advantage over stones: they cannot be destroyed by armies.) But on that afternoon our bitternesses were not properly balanced. I have been reminded of the imbalance now because I am seeing it again. To put it a little coarsely, I am weary of reading about the Holocaust as a provenance for paintings. Hitler’s primary crime was not art theft.
With the discovery of the Gurlitt trove in Munich, the fascination with paintings as victims is flourishing again—they “are the last prisoners of World War II,” declared Ronald Lauder. There is also Ocean’s Eleven Meets the Third Reich, or The Monuments Men, the trashy and supercilious film that George Clooney has made about the search for art stolen by the Nazis, a philistine film about a band of anti-philistines, a caper movie with a jaunty score whose pieties and solemnities cannot disguise the fact that the only thing it believes in is its own coolness. There is not a moment in this film as thrilling as the account by Pfc. Lincoln Kirstein—“there [in the salt mine at Altaussee] resting a foot off the ground, upon four empty cardboard boxes, quite unwrapped, were eight panels of ‘The Adoration of the Lamb’ ”—in Town and Country in September 1945, or as stirring as his verses about the adventure in Rhymes of a Pfc.
But there is a significant difference between then and now. The excitement of Kirstein and his comrades was for culture. The current excitement is for money. The Gurlitt pictures have provoked more valuations than lamentations. The millions that now leap to mind are dollars. What most people know about the florid Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer is not its Viennese origins or its Nazi captivity, but its insane price: it is famous for being expensive. The Nazi plunder of art has turned into a lucky break for the art market, one of the most powerful and most despicable of our cultural institutions. It is the art market, and the pornographic journalism about it, that is chiefly responsible for the cynical confusion of financial prestige with cultural prestige. Wealth has always been an influence upon taste, of course; but the price of art never dictated so much about the worth of art.
I believe in restitution as much as the next child of the dispossessed, and for many years my own family received a monthly pittance in recompense for the expropriation of our oil fields in Galicia—but no amount of restitution will compensate even slightly for the evil that was done to us, and insofar as the obsession with restitution weakens our sense of finality about our loss, we ought to renounce it and be content to raise our children, who are the real restitution, and to remember. Enough about money. Enough, too, about art as property. At the conclusion of his poems about the rescue of the Ghent Altarpiece, Kirstein wrote: “How marble molds itself into flesh, paint kindles gold in shafts / Makes me witness salvation first in comely handicrafts . . .” This aesthete risked his life for his aestheticism. But who would cower from snipers, or crawl through a mine, to save a Damien Hirst? And if a Balloon Dog were one day destroyed the way the Mantegna frescoes in the Ovetari Chapel in Padua were destroyed, what values and what experiences would we lack? No philosophical reflections about the cruelties of man and time would be warranted. The treasures of our day are hardly worth plundering.
Leon Wieseltier is literary editor of The New Republic.