Sunday, 2 March 2014

Is Art Worth Dying For?

I went to see the film Monuments Men this weekend and had mixed feelings about it. The film is about men who journeyed across Europe during World War II to protect works of art. It was presented to me as “based on a true story” although I’m not sure how much of it is true. I generally detest any kind of heroism or romanticising of a past that makes me ashamed of being human. At the same time I do not wish to dismiss the courage these men showed to protect what they love, nor to disregard the loss to the families of those who died (if that part was rooted in fact). I did not like the fact that America was portrayed as the saviour in a good guy/bad guy narrative when what we should be reflecting on is how we got here in the first place and how as humans we can do it better. I realise that my personal objectives might not match those of mainstream entertainment or have anything to do with the plot of the film. However, I’m not sure how relevant the beautiful French woman’s unsuccessful attempt to seduce an American man with strong family values was either. I could only attribute it to a viewer’s perceived need to emotionally relate to stereotypes.

My Dubious Rendering of Renoir's Nude in the Sunlight
The quest to protect art seems admirable but I can’t help thinking that it’s because we swallow these kinds of discourses that abuse of power is enabled. Mainstream media gives us what we are willing to pay for. I am in no position to dictate what should and should not be shown on the big screen but I sometimes wish more people would question what is fed to us through culture and the media. The central question of whether art is worth dying for gave me some food for thought though. Whilst my answer is an emphatic “no”, my aversion to glorifying the fight against a malevolent force made me consider the question of who we would be if we did not have a polarity to define ourselves against. If there was nothing to achieve, protect or prove, would it make a difference to what we are currently applying our efforts to?

The concept of “fighting for something” in the face of oppression reminded me of an article I read as an honours student in psychology many years ago. I’ll have to rely on memory so I’m speaking under correction, but the article had a huge impact on me. It was about a series of suicide cases among previously disadvantaged men in post-apartheid South Africa. They were in an age group where people typircally pursue careers in a geographic setting that had formerly been characterised by division between white and coloured communities. These men have moved beyond their previously disadvantaged background to become successful. Because of this, they didn’t quite fit in with their old background any more, but neither could they integrate with their new peers. Not only have they lost their sense of community with people who had shared in their struggles, but what had been expected to be a better future had finally been achieved. Since they no longer had anyone to fight against, anyone to oppress them or people who could relate to them in shared troubles, they had to face a new kind of despair which they hadn’t anticipated while still striving for an ideal of perceived freedom. I’m sure the study could not accurately capture the complexity of these men’s decision to end their own lives, but it does point to the danger associated with believing that emancipation is on the other side of the fence.

When I was in high school, a multiple Olympic gold medallist visited us as a motivational speaker. She talked of her experience after winning her first double Olympic gold medal. Again relying on (my) memory, she said that after the high had worn off, she was faced with a terrible feeling of emptiness. She mentioned that there are more suicide cases of Olympic gold medallists than silver or bronze. On her personal journey, she had to find God to fill the void that was left behind by the striving for a victory finally achieved. Having resolved the dilemma, she could approach her sporting career with renewed vigour, which led to her breaking more world records.

Since I believe in a soul purpose beyond my ego self, I have asked myself what I would be doing if there were no such thing. My answer boils down to choosing life or death. I can choose to be the living dead, in which case I give up and accept that everyone else is in charge. In that case I would avoid any kind of difficulty while I go through the motions until I die. Alternatively I could choose life, which entails accepting that my life is my own and I decide what is important to me. If in choosing life even if I didn’t believe in a soul purpose my answer would be the same as where I’m currently applying my efforts to, I conclude that I am on the right track.

My Own Painting from a Photo
Returning to the question of whether or not works of art are worth dying for. The initial stance in the film was that no work of art is worth more than any man’s life. At the end the question was asked whether the men who have died during the quest would have considered it worthwhile if they knew that others could appreciate the works of art because of them and the answer was yes. The idea to me seems ridiculous. I doubt whether life would be worthwhile if the freedom to create and share art had to be taken away. But dying for any works of art that some great minds from the past have created is preposterous because new art can always be created.

There is one work of art that each of us will die for, whether we like it or not. While the canvas of life might not be entirely blank to begin with, we certainly have an extent of freedom in what we choose to create. The question I consider most relevant is how to make the one work of art that I will die for worth the while.