I recently watched The Monuments Men, a George Clooney film about the men who saved European art from destruction at the end of World War II. It was very much a throw-back to the movies I grew up on, like The Great Escape or Bridge on the River Kwai and so on. One of the interesting decisions that Clooney made was to focus the movie on this central question: what is about this art that makes it worth dying for?
And another interesting decision was how he chose to answer that question. He did not choose the obvious answer, that this is Great Art. Clooney’s character (a thin disguise for Clooney’s viewpoint, I guess) was not that this art had some intrinsic value that necessitated its saving. Men did not have to die because Michelangelo’s Madonna and Child was just So Damn Good. The movie obviously doesn’t deny that the art is amazing and repeated study.
The argument is, instead, framed quite elegantly in terms of a thought experiment: if Hitler destroyed all the individual people of Western civilization, it would strangely still pop up again soon enough. If Hitler really wanted to destroy Western civilization, he would have to destroy things like its art. Art is our communal identity.
And here I muse off in my own direction. This art was not Great Art, in that it bore in itself such surpassing worthiness to cost two men’s lives in its protection. No, this art carries with it, sacramentally, who we are. It is molded by us and its greatness is the way it too molds us even further. Western culture molded Michelangelo and he expressed what we taught him better than we ourselves could have conceived. Michelangelo has molded us.
But the value of art is contingent. It is not inherent; it would not exist in a vacuum. It is context-specific. This does not mean that standards go away, or that I am favoring artistic relativism. Those who would insist on an artistic relativism can be refuted easily without insisting on the idea of Great Art that exists in some ideal world of forms. We don’t need to become Platonists to appreciate art.