Notre Dame and the war on art

Notre Dame and the war on art
© Getty Images

 

The world watched in horror last week as Parisians fought to save their beloved Notre Dame Cathedral, a unique icon of human achievement and beauty. When the spire went crashing through the 1,200-year-old roof beams (the oak trees were already hundreds of years old when felled), it appeared the firefighters were losing. We know now that all was not lost thanks to the bravery of those who defeated the blaze and volunteers who rescued many priceless relics from the inferno.

This is not supposed to happen to cultural landmarks, especially those that are, in French President Emmanuel Macron’s words, “our history, our literature, our imagination…the epicenter of our lives.” The Monuments Men, in particular the great French heroine of World War II, Rose Valland, would have looked upon this tragic event with shame. After four treacherous years spying on the Nazi looting operation in Paris, Rose spent the rest of her life fighting powerful forces — including some within her own country — to preserve the cultural inheritance of France.

ADVERTISEMENT

Fellow Monuments Man Captain Ronald Balfour, who was killed while evacuating church treasures from a war zone in Germany, shared Valland’s commitment to the arts. “Every civilization,” Balfour once noted, “is formed not merely by its own achievements but by what it has inherited from the past. If these things are destroyed, we have lost a part of our past, and we shall be the poorer for it.” The truth of his words could be seen in the tears of thousands of onlookers who lined the banks of the River Seine, and the hundreds of millions of people who watched news coverage about the raging flames from afar.

Some say the fire was an accident. This may well prove true as to what started the fire, but at what moment does accidental become negligent? Ignoring urgent and repeated funding requests for preservation and maintenance is the very essence of negligence. Who would think it prudent to allow power tools, electric lamps, and welding equipment near 1,200-year-old kindling without fire suppression solutions immediately available?

Others have criticized the financial resources — $150 million — needed to renovate a single cathedral (never mind the dozens of others in France that are at risk), and that was before the fire. The cost to rebuild? It’s anyone’s guess at this stage. Perhaps the $1 billion dollars pledged by a handful of French industrialists and corporations still won’t be enough. On an absolute basis, $150 million certainly is a huge sum of money, but preventative medicine always comes at a discounted cost to the alternative.

Before the world’s attention turns to the next crises or scandal and the cycle of news consumption begins anew, we would be well served to use this tragic event as a rallying cry for transforming the way governments, philanthropists and people of good will work together to preserve the artistic riches of our civilization for future generations. We have tools of technology that can perform staggering feats. As the French industrialists proved, there is plenty of private money available, and on short notice. The expressions of concern by a still-grieving general public over the damage to Notre Dame confirms that people do care about irreplaceable works of art. One critical element is missing however, and it is the essential ingredient for success: leadership.

Fortunately, there is a precedent for such leadership. When implementing policy endorsed by President Roosevelt and General Marshall, General Dwight D. Eisenhower demonstrated that it was indeed possible to balance the seemingly diametrically opposed objectives of fighting a war while mitigating damage to cultural treasures. The work of the Monuments Men and Women set a standard for the protection of monuments and works of art by demonstrating a respect for the cultural treasures of others and the rule of law that was without precedent before World War II and has not been repeated since.

War is the most dramatic threat to the survival of our shared cultural heritage, but there are many other dangers including terrorism, weather, pollution, financial mismanagement and corruption, budget cuts, indifference and hubris. Preservation work is inherently mundane, but priceless treasures created during past ages have not survived for centuries by accident. The lengthy process of preservation work conflicts with a society defined by ever-shortening attention spans. It can never compete with the drama and magnetic pull of a catastrophe like the one that befell Notre Dame. In many ways, successful preservation work is measured by all the bad things that didn’t happen, and that subtlety makes it an impossible sell to the general public without relentlessly consistent, informed and passionate leadership.  

It is a noble step that this group of French business leaders have so generously come forward to fund the rebuilding of Notre Dame, but where was such help when the cathedral so desperately needed a fraction of their outsized financial commitment, before the tragedy took place? Now, $850 million that might have otherwise been donated to equally worthy restoration projects in France and abroad will be spent on Notre Dame alone. An even greater tragedy occurred in September 2018, when Brazil’s National Museum burned to the ground. Consider that just $6 million in restoration funds would have, in all likelihood, prevented the destruction of most of the 20 million objects in the museum’s collection.

Diego Della Valle, an Italian fashion entrepreneur who in 2012 donated €25 million to fund renovations to Rome’s Colosseum to prevent it from tumbling down, rightly observed that the preservation of monuments and works of art is “not a question of money, but of mentality.” Keenly aware of Italian bureaucracy, Della Valle noted that “Initiatives of private citizens in cultural initiatives must be supported by the government and not obstructed.”

ADVERTISEMENT

Leadership involves making the case for why these things of beauty and historic significance matter. That’s the easy part. To the general public, it must explain the need for government taxes and visitor fees to sustain these cherished relics. To private enterprise and the wealthy, it must inspire them to do far more than their share to preserve these objects for future generations. Governments must assure all donors that their tax dollars will not be misused. More importantly, elected officials’ longstanding habit of explaining why something can’t be done must be replaced by working with private donors to figure out ways it will get done. 

At the end of World War II, amid the return of some 4 million stolen objects to the countries from which they had been taken, and with the rebuilding of Europe’s smashed cities soon to follow, Eisenhower said, “It is our privilege to pass on to the coming centuries treasures of past ages.” Eisenhower didn’t use the word “obligation.” Instead, he chose to refer to such stewardship as a “privilege.” Only with that mindset will future generations know the joys and beauty that we have been so fortunate to enjoy.    

Robert Edsel is the author of “The Monuments Men,” and the founder and chairman of the Monuments Men Foundation for the Preservation of Art.