“The welcome release from the fears and anxieties of war will, as always, be reflected in a resurgence of attention to cultural values.”
These were some of the words spoken by General Dwight D. Eisenhower on April 2, 1946, when New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art decided to award him an Honorary Life Fellowship for being being a “soldier, diplomat and statesman, through whose wisdom and foresight irreplaceable art treasures were saved for future generations.”
Saving people and art
The award was to recognize Eisenhower’s unprecedented efforts and orders to American soldiers during World War II to preserve and protect as many art and cultural artifacts and monuments as they could in war-mongled Europe.
In December, 1943, he ordered that soldiers were “bound to respect monuments so far as war allow.” In May, 1944, before the American invasion of Northern Europe, he reiterated those same instructions, stating that “it is the responsibility of every commander to protect and respect these symbols whenever possible.”
The “Monument Men”
He also oversaw the “Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives Section,” a group of military personnel and civilians who salvaged hundreds of stolen artworks from Nazi-occupied buildings and returned them to their countries of origin. The group is now better known as the Monuments Men.
According to director Robert M. Edsel, “this was the most comprehensive effort in history by any army to fight a war while mitigating damage to cultural treasures and monuments.”
Met director Francis Henry Taylor, who was present at the ceremony, stated that Eisenhower, “more responsible than any other man, made it possible for the world in which great civilizations of the past could continue for future generations.”
Though Eisenhower has long since died, the memory of him and this particular award resurfaced recently when Edsel recovered audio footage of the General’s acceptance speech that was recorded onto fragile lacquer discs in the Met’s Watson Library and Museum Archives.
Monuments Men then gave the Met a grant to preserve, digitally remaster, and publish the speech, which is now available online as part of the museum’s digital collections. Although the speech has always been available in transcript form, “when you have General Eisenhower saying it and when you hear his words, it’s electrifying,” Edsel pointed out.
“It’s a remarkable audiotape,” said Eisenhower Presidential Library director Karl Weissenbach, who also commented on its rarity in that the entire speech is dedicated to the topic of art. “There’s always a difference between reading a transcript and hearing the general give a speech about the importance of art.”
The “value of art in our lives”
“The freedom enjoyed by this country from the desolation that has swept over so many others during the past years gives to America greater opportunity than ever before to become the greatest of the world’s repositories of art,” Eisenhower stated in his speech. “The whole world will then have a right to look at us with grateful eyes; but we will fail unless we consciously appreciate the value of art in our lives and take practical steps to encourage the artist and preserve his works.”
Careless with our own artists?
Here, a voice long gone returns to comment on America’s shortfalls when it comes to supporting and preserving our own art and artists. We talk about Egypt and the Middle East, casting angst over artifacts perishing amidst the uprisings, yet very few are seeing this same feared decay in our own country, where major museums are being censored by conservative politicians, arts endowments take the chopping block before any type of frivolous military spending, and museum visitors will even actively try to destroy a classic painting because its imagery happens to offend them.
Is this what our freedom of speech has come down to? In a society where we are supposed to value plurality and intercultural exchange, art is not only helpful, it is critically vital to instigating dialogue and challenging us to progress beyond our comfort zones.
And in Iran?
As I write about Iran, I ask artists what excites them the most about Tehran’s art scene, and I always get the same answer: the people who come to support it. For the youth in Iran, going to see an art show is more than something to do; it’s a social rite of passage.
Compared to them, the gallery crowds in the United States and even Europe are desolate, these artists tell me, and I can’t help but wonder if our abundance of options has blinded us to it, desensitizing us to difference and causing us to take the seemingly simple acts of choice and expression for granted.
“There are many lessons to be drawn from World War II, and no better instructor than General Eisenhower,” Edsel said. “We as a nation should honor his leadership and basic decency, by demonstrating in all future conflicts no less concern and respect for the cultural heritage of others than in winning the peace we as a nation seek.”
Follow Ike’s example
“I hope this extraordinary discovery, and the example set by General Eisenhower, will inspire our current leaders, most importantly the President of the United States, to do something no leader in the United States has done since World War II: restate our nation’s commitment to respect the cultural and artistic heritage of all people in our increasingly global community.”
It’s not enough to advocate for art. We will fail if we don’t take it on as our responsibility. If we allow support for it to dwindle away with every next budget cut, then we will only have ourselves to blame for an eventual cultural demise.
Photo courtesy of The National Archives via Wikicommons
General Eisenhower inspecting stolen artwork in the Merkers salt mines, 1945