Americans too often forget just how young a country we still are in comparison to the countries of Europe. Like any other youth, we copied our elders growing up. Our government buildings and monuments mimic those of the Greeks and Romans. Before there was anything recognizable as American art, American art collectors cherished European works. If the Robber Barons at the turn of the 20th century did nothing else for the good of their country, buying and carting to our shores what seems like half the Renaissance is more than good enough. After that long cultural love affair, it seems especially tragic that the global economic crisis begun in America might not only bring down Europe with it, but also the great cultural institutions of Europe as well. With stories of cultural sites pimped out for commercial purposes, robberies from poorly secured museums, burnings of paintings in protest, and even calls to close every other museum for good, it’s natural to ask if the failing Euro will bring Europe’s art heritage down with it?
The fall of the Euro, known since late 2009 as “the European sovereign debt crisis” in some circles, has hit almost all of the Euro zone had, but rarely as hard as the birthplace of democracy—Greece. Extreme austerity measures now come with utter temerity measures. As Dieter Bartetzko reported earlier, “Disparaging comments went to press practically before the Greek government spokesman had even reached the end of his declaration that the country’s ancient monuments would be used in future for commercial purposes. The Acropolis is thus to become a stage for advertisements and action movies; the Athens’ Agora, birthplace of parliamentary democracy, a playground for fashion shows and 007 stunts; and the Kerameikos, the nearly three-thousand-year-old cemetery, will become the backdrop for commercials featured perfumed sex maniacs touching themselves in their sleep. That’s more or less the future for Greece’s ancient cultural heritage in the looming shadow of the European financial crisis, as cultural pessimists paint it.” Faced with financial ruin, Greece is prostituting its cultural heritage to Hollywood and haute couture.
Perhaps even worse than the despoiling of Greek heritage might be the criminal negligence of it. This past February, armed robbers stole approximately 60 items, mostly bronze and clay statues, from a Greek museum in Olympia dedicated to the early Olympic Games. Austerity measures over the past 2 years have led to budget cuts that have led to the layoff of nearly 1,500 museum guards throughout Greece, a fact that potential thieves know by heart. By cutting corners in their budget the Greek nation has lost works of art priceless both monetarily but culturally.
In nearby Italy, seat of the nearly as ancient Roman civilization, austerity measures have forced the country to neglect their own historical sites, most prominently Pompeii, whose walls are crumbling as we speak. To illustrate more modern effects of this austerity-fueled neglect, Antonio Manfredi, director of the Casoria Contemporary Art Museum in Naples, has begun burning paintings from the museum’s collection. "Our 1,000 artworks are headed for destruction anyway because of the government's indifference," Manfredi explains. French artist Severine Bourguignon watched her painting meet its match online and approved Manfredi’s act. “Seeing my work go up in flames was extremely painful and I am in mourning,” Bourguignon explained in an editorial. “But in some way it did not belong to me any more. I never thought of its commercial value and it is a political act to destroy it. It is something quite beyond me.” Bourguignon hopes that the sacrifice, perhaps the first of many, “will help the Italian government reconsider Cam's situation,” especially because “Cam is located in a socially deprived part of Naples, and museums are not only dedicated to educated people and tourists. If Cam is forced to close its doors, it would be bad news for the local people of Naples too.” Whereas Greece hopes, however unscrupulously, to squeeze every cent from its cultural heritage, Italy seems intent on blindly letting it disappear.
Such a disappearance, but on a systematic scale, was recently proposed by a group of academics and cultural figures in Germany. The plan would close every second state-subsidized cultural institution in Germany. Whereas the United States government contributes but a pittance to the arts, a great deal of funding for the arts in Germany comes from the government. Closing and then presumably disassembling the collections of the losing museums would eliminate access to an immense chunk of the country’s cultural heritage. Even if the survivors could assimilate the orphaned collections, existing space restrictions would still make many works effectively disappear. A form of the proposal appeared in a book titled, Der Kulturinfarkt, which translates to English as “Cultural Heart Attack.” Suffering from aesthetic cardiac arrest over the announcement, a group of German arts figures, including Rosemarie Trockel, Klaus Staeck, Harun Farocki, Wim Wenders, and Günter Grass wrote an open letter against the proposal to “destroy the base of the public funding of culture” and “discredit the publicly funded support of culture.” On the other side of the debate, the “Piratenpartei” (or “Pirate Party,” a German anti-establishment political party along the lines of the American Tea Party; arrrrgh!) wants to pursue rethinking of German funding of the arts, even if it means making Durer and friends walk the plank.
I’ve always wished America could value its native cultural heritage as much as it does its Europe’s. The idea that Europe itself would ever devalue its own heritage seemed unimaginable, until now. When I was in Italy, I marveled at the art chosen to appear on the Italian Euro coins (a selection is shown above). Obvious choices such as Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus and Leonardo’s Vitruvian Man made the cut, but a more difficult and modern work such as Umberto Boccioni's Unique Forms of Continuity in Space found its way into my jingling pocket. Where once the Euro could champion the cultural heritage of the past, it seems now destined to destroy or at least irrevocably diminish that heritage as part of its downfall. It’s a bleak prospect to consider, but the alternative of ignoring the problem is just as bad as ignoring the impact of our actions on the environment. If we want our children to enjoy clean water, clean air, or just an opportunity to see and enjoy the cultural heritage of the past, action—the proper action—is needed now.
[Image: Italian Euro coin designs. Top row, left to right: Dante Alighieri by Raphael, The Birth of Venus by painter Sandro Botticelli, and Vitruvian Man by Leonardo da Vinci. Bottom row, left to right: Equestrian Statue of Marcus Aurelius and Unique Forms of Continuity in Space by Umberto Boccioni.]