The Rape of Europa is a stunning documentary. It traces the systematic looting and destruction of personal property by the Nazis during World War Two. It also explores the extensive efforts of those across Europe to protect some of the world’s greatest masterpieces. I couldn’t help but feel, in watching it, a strange connection with those who helped to pack the entire contents of the Louvre, the Hermitage, the Uffizi; I’d have done the exact same thing -if I’d been lucky enough to escape the trains going to Bergen-Belsen, that is. The film shows just how much the Nazis understood the importance of art; they were thieves, yes, but they were smart thieves. They comprehended the ways in which culture could shape and manipulative society as a whole.
So with a mix of hope and resignation I read this morning’s latest news about the Canadian Portrait Gallery; apparently those involved with getting the gallery an actual, real building are going back to Plan A -to use the existing former U.S. embassy in Ottawa. It makes financial sense, and, it’s just sitting there: why not use it? Still, I feel like hauling Mr. Harper away from High School Musical and forcing him to watch The Rape of Europa. I’m not implying one’s better than the other -they are clearly different beasts -but I think it might be worth a couple hours of our PM’s time. The scenes of jubilant Florentines crying and madly applauding as the trucks containing their city’s art return is very moving. I wonder if he’d understand the larger truth of that scene.
Equally, I wonder what Canadian mayors would make of London mayor Boris Johnson’s recent proposal outlining strategies for the arts. Could we see any of them doing such a thing? Hmm. Of course there are very pressing concerns right now, but I think a bit of balance is in order right now, considering the hysterical nature of the times. Guardian writer Charlotte Higgins’ recent post on the cultural initiatives of “Bojo” is very interesting, and this line struck me, hard (italics mine):
I also agree with the authors of the report when they write the following: “It is often presumed that young people will only like art that they can immediately relate to. Working-class students may be steered towards popular culture like hip-hop, new media and film, on the basis that they will find older art forms like opera or ballet irrelevant. This approach patronises young people and limits their horizons. With proper support and encouragement, arts organisations can play a big role in opening young people’s minds, and deepening their appreciation of culture from any time or place.” It’s about time someone put that thought in black and white.
In light of that, I decided to send the link, with highlighted quote, along to a number of leaders of arts organizations. Happily, I’ve received numerous positive responses, too, among them a hearty “hear, hear!” from the Stratford Shakespeare Festival, a heartfelt ‘thank-you’ from the Theatre Centre, and this, from Marilyn Field, the head of DAREarts:
I’m not a blogger on internet writer / reader BUT I must address this (or you for me) since our 13 year experience working with ‘at risk’ kids aged 9 to 14 from Canada’s cities, small towns and rural areas has been that our young people are IMMEDIATELY INSPIRED by opera, ballet, Shakespeare, etc. The criteria is NOT working through their popular culture BUT RATHER presenting them with EXCELLENCE. Seeing my inner city, at risk, 14 year old students lining up after an Esprit Orchestra concert to get autographs of composer R. Murray Schaefer was my first revelation that if we give our kids excellence, they will identify with it and want it more in their lives.
Art matters to people -even, or especially, in these harsh economic times. No matter what form the hardship has taken, humanity has endured, and an expression of that triumph is the place that art and culture are given in our society.
Now open the damn Portrait Gallery already. Sheesh.