|Leon Wieseltier, Literary Editor of The New Republic, Source: Brandeis University|
Why did it take so long for the "New Republic" to write about cultural plunder and restitution of looted art? Is it really because of the incongruous convergence of the so-called “Gurlitt Affair” and the global release of that “trashy and supercilious film”—the Monuments Men? Or put differently, why the silence for so many decades despite the fact that “restitution [is] as much as the next child of the dispossessed”? There are probably no easy answers to those questions and perhaps they are best left alone. Still...
“The obsession with restitution” is an obsession with justice, as exemplified by restitution of lost cultural assets, those items, those objects, those artifacts, regardless of value or museum worthiness, those parts of ourselves that serve as our extensions and our means of expressing non-verbally our deepest sentiments, longings, loves, and aspirations.
It is not just about Fragonard, Bellini, Tintoretto, van Dyck, Rembrandt, Leonardo and countless other “masters”. It is not just about the finest silver and the finest gold and the finest stones set in the finest settings. It is not about those rarest of rarest of books and incunabulae, or textiles carefully woven with the most precious fabrics for that most precious person. Actually, we are talking about something that makes you and I and our friends, our children, our relatives, and those around us whom we do not know, it is what makes us human, it is about culture. And culture is what Hitler and his henchmen and collaborators across Europe sought to uproot wherever it was deemed to be “Jewish” and “degenerate”, in order to substitute something clean, tasteful, that was Judenrein.
A crime against humanity.
In order to proceed with the uprooting of culture and the mass of objects encapsulated under that moniker, Hitler’s henchmen and collaborators across Europe committed an act of genocide. That makes Hildebrand Gurlitt, Cornelius Gurlitt’s father, an accessory to genocide, together with all other art dealers, collectors, museum officials and curators, art historians, auctioneers, and appraisers who found opportunity in State-sanctioned mass displacement of property that accompanied the slaughter of millions.
The dispossessed lost their homes, their property, their sense of self, the beauty around them was extinguished and they were only left to wonder why such horrors had befallen them.
There exists a significant emotional and spiritual linkage between people of all ages and backgrounds and ethnicities and creeds and the objects that surround them, that populate their lives. It could be a candelabra, it could be an incense burner, it could also be a small drawing by Edgar Degas, or a satirical piece by Georg Grosz or even a surrealistic painting by Felix Nussbaum, or a ditty scrawled on a napkin. It doesn’t matter what it is; it is the meaning that it embodies which is precious to us all. The crime consists in rending that object from our bosom, as if part of our soul had been ripped to shreds, and for what? For being Jewish, for being “different”? for being “unacceptable”? “undesirable”?
We certainly do not place objects above people. We place objects in the constellation of people, much like satellites circling planets. And when the satellite leaves its orbit, all hell breaks loose and we are released into the wilderness of space, aimless.
Fighting for restitution does not weaken our loss, it acts as a vital reminder of the world that was consumed in flames and gas, not completely, but almost. Obtaining restitution is but a small step to establish the cardinal principle that justice does exist and that with resolve and perseverance and belief in ourselves and in our kin and in higher principles, even if the outcome is hopeless much like it was for those young fighters in the Warsaw Ghetto, my personal heroes, we can assert the value of justice and reaffirm our right to exist while honoring the loss of those who came before us and cannot be with us due to a crime against humanity.
For myself, I am the single child of two artists, two artists who sought out the famed “School of Paris” and bought a one-way boat ticket from New York to experience it all in the City of Lights, poor as could be, rich as could be. Miserable but filled with the soul and spirit of what they embraced and lived—art and culture. Breathing it, in and out, every day, as pure as the driven snow, which drove them into the ground, because, as you know, the art market is unforgiving, cruel, and indifferent to human plight. By the way, Lincoln Kirstein and his ilk are part and parcel of that market, that cultured elite which enjoys driving artists into the ground in the name of Kultur. I make no apologies for being so fiendish and cynical but that is the cold reality that artists must endure. By extension, the “Monuments Men” would not have given the time of day to most artists incinerated in the Nazi apocalypse. Sad but true.
Where are we now? Most people think that the excitement today is about money. It always has been. People are what they are. A cheap headline always includes money. Journalists do not write about a restituted collection if the word “million” is not included in the header. That state of affairs comes from ignorance and intellectual opportunism, the flip side of “pornographic journalism.” It is no different today than it was in the 1930s and 1940s and 1950s. Yes, it is true that high-priced restitutions are good for the art market. There is a certain twisted logic in the way that the press, comforted by today’s elites, creates a perverse and distorted linkage between the restitution of looted art and the staggering values derived from those objects that have been returned to rightful owners. As if the only objects that were stolen by the Nazis were of museum quality and affordable only to the 1 per cent. Let's not forget that the 99 per cent are ignored by the press and whose clamor for justice is never heeded? Why then claimants to give up and simply “remember"?
Once again, it is not just about Gustav Klimt or Egon Schiele. It is about those thousands of artistic minds and creative spirits from dozens of nations who produced all kinds of works, in all sorts of media, as extensions of their spirit. It is up to us to appreciate them or ignore them, but their sum constitutes our cultural and artistic patrimony, like it or not. As to your quip about rescuing a piece by Damien Hirst, he occupies a space in our culture, even if we do agree here that his work might not be worth saving. But, if I did not save Hirst, why should anyone save my parents’ works? Who am I to judge what is worth saving and what is worth abandoning to a hellfire? Such flawed reasoning puts us square in the lap of the Monuments Men whose mission was to rescue the “cultural treasures” of Western civilization, worshipped in countless museum studies programs, institutes of art, and revered temples of culture, at the expense of the lesser-known, the lower tiers of cultural and artistic output. Cost-benefit analysis correlates with the rarefied air of high-priced recoveries and restitution of stolen art.