Monument Men is about a group of art scholars who are trying to chase down caches of art taken by the Nazis before it is destroyed. Though I thought the film itself dragged a bit in places, it raised the compelling question whether preserving civilization’s art during a war was worth spending lives and using resources. The film’s answer was a resounding “yes.”
Statements at the end of the film outlined art and architecture that was lost, not only to Nazi pillaging, but to bombing by both Allies and Axis forces. It made me think of the loss of literature during the Middle Ages. Invasions and the resulting battles all over Europe, North Africa, and the Middle East resulted in destruction of literature. Goths and Franks, Huns and Muslims, Vikings and Normans, and Christian Crusaders all contributed to the destruction of classical and Biblical literature. On top of that, scribes themselves sometimes made a call of scrape off writings and reuse the paper since paper was scarce and everything had to be painstakingly copied by hand. As lives crumbled and cities burned some scholars, many of them monks, predominantly Irish, decided that preserving art and literature was worth the effort. Many important texts of Western culture survived to be studied by the likes of Washington and Jefferson. Reading Euclid influenced Lincoln’s phrasing in his Gettysburg Address. To a great extent centuries of scholars studied the same collection of literature known as the Western Canon.
American education over the last century formed a common cultural canon. A liberal education meant students were exposed to roughly the same set of pieces. With the ability to digitize, massive amounts of literature, arts, music is being preserved for the next generation. The question is whether the next generation will find it relevant and worth looking at it, much less sacrificing to save it. Through education and culture there does still seem to be a collection of literature, art, music, and film that provides a sort of post-modern canon, a collection of works experienced by most of us. With the variety of schooling options and subcultures, along with the trend toward personalization, over time, as a culture, we may have fewer and fewer pieces in common. I suspect each of us will form a personal canon based on individual values.
Recently I showed my film class the Coen Brother’s True Grit. Only one student recognized the theme song, Leaning on the Everlasting Arms, an old hymn of the church. I had that song on my radar for quite a few years, but as I moved to a less traditional church I forgot about it. It hadn’t made my canon. But as it framed the film and underscored its themes I found fresh meaning in it. When older pieces are referenced in movies, songs, literature, or pop culture they get attention and pick up a few fans who might add them to their canons and pass them on to someone else.
The way ideas are spread and cultural pieces are passed on is changing. We can only read, look at or listen to so much in a lifetime. And of all we read, see, or hear, we will each only find meaning in a small percentage. Monument Men communicated how art, music, literature, film, architecture, and other creative expressions reflect something about who we are as a culture. Our connections to specific pieces reflect something about who we are as individuals. I’m thinking about what makes up my canon.