From today's NYT, a dispirited meditation by Michael Kimmelman on the failures of art in a Dresden where bigotry has been murderous:
What are the humanizing effects of culture?Powerful writing, especially in the face of some of the ugliest acts of which humans are capable ... but I disagree. I say that not because I believe that art will actually humanize us (and it appears that what Kimmelman means by humanize is something like "render tolerant, nonviolent, respectful, just"); more that I don't think humans ever have had a monopoly on art. To believe that art is ours alone -- something only we can cherish and preserve, something that we create but are separate from -- limits art so severely that it is suscepitable to becoming the passive, imprinted product that Kimmelman describes. But what if art was never human to begin with? What is art has always been inhuman?
Evidently, there are none.
To walk through Dresden’s museums, and past the young buskers fiddling Mozart on street corners, is to wonder whether this age-old question may have things backward. It presumes that we’re passive receivers acted on by the arts, which vouchsafe our salvation, moral and otherwise, so long as we remain in their presence. Arts promoters nowadays like to trumpet how culture helps business and tourism; how teaching painting and music in schools boosts test scores. They try to assign practical ends, dollar values and other hard numbers, never mind how dubious, to quantify what’s ultimately unquantifiable.
The lesson of Dresden, which this great city unfortunately seems doomed to repeat, is that culture is, to the contrary, impractical and fragile, helpless even. Residents of Dresden who believed, when the war was all but over, that their home had somehow been spared annihilation by its beauty were all the more traumatized when, in a matter of hours, bombs killed tens of thousands and obliterated centuries of humane and glorious architecture.
The truth is, we can stare as long as we want at that Raphael Madonna; or at Antonello da Messina’s “St. Sebastian,” now beside a Congo fetish sculpture in another room in the Gemäldegalerie; or at the shiny coffee sets, clocks and cups made of coral and mother-of-pearl and coconuts and diamonds culled from the four corners of the earth in the city’s New Green Vault, which contains the spoils of the most cultivated Saxon kings. But it won’t make sense of a senseless murder or help change the mind of a violent bigot.
What we can also do, though, is accept that while the arts won’t save us, we should save them anyway. Because the enemies of civilized society are always just outside the door.