The Arts Are Always Worth Fighting For

Lauryn Ellis
4 min readFeb 15, 2022

The arts are always worth fighting for.

This sentiment can be seen as controversial depending on where you find yourself in the United States, especially in this new era of book banning and in the parts of the country where beer and football and the whitewashing of history reign supreme. When it comes time to re-evaluate American school budgets, the arts are usually first on the chopping block. And working artists constantly face issues when it comes to the rights of their intellectual property, or their work being valued in the eyes of non-artists as true “work”.

But I would argue that this hasn’t always been the case.

World War II is easily the largest and deadliest war in modern history. It saw the rise and near success of fascism and the world domination of a madman. In his pursuit of cleansing the world of the Jewish people, Adolf Hitler set out to destroy every bit of evidence of their existence, including the art they created and the collections they had put together. They had no rights to these precious, priceless pieces of art because in his mind, people that were less than people couldn’t possibly appreciate them.

The Allied Powers knew this pillaging couldn’t go unanswered. American president Franklin Delano Roosevelt once compared the preservation of cultural artworks to the preservation of freedom. His appreciation of art didn’t extend just to the artwork of the masters in Europe; part of his New Deal included an initiative called the Federal Art Project, which saw to the creation of hundreds of community art centers and the commission of over 200,000 pieces of public art that can still be enjoyed today.

In 1943, thirteen nations came together to fight the Nazi thievery alongside the rest of the day-to-day efforts of the war, forming the Monuments, Fine Arts & Archives section of the armed forces. Their mission was to preserve the cultural objects and pieces of art that were in danger of falling into the hands of the Nazis. At its height, there were 350 men and women working in the MFAA, all ranging in age and education and social backgrounds. Their goal was to undo what has been called one of greatest heists in history, and their mission continues well into today.

“The conditions for democracy and for art are one and the same. What we call liberty in politics results in freedom in the arts. There can be no vitality in the works gathered in a museum unless there exists the right of spontaneous life in the society in which the arts are nourished.” [1]

Throughout the duration of the war, the Nazis managed to get their hands on nearly 5 million cultural objects all in the name of the Third Reich, for “If the Reich couldn’t have them, no one else would”. The systematic seizure of these objects did more than just fill Hitler’s coffers; it furthered his and the Reich’s aim of wiping out the culture and the history of the land that they sought to overrun.

The mission of the MFAA wasn’t universally embraced by all in the armed forces. Some enlisted and officers saw no value in the operation, and some found the restrictions their mission placed on battlefield maneuvers too cumbersome. It was too much to ask, in the minds of some, to ask soldiers to avoid bombing churches, museums, medieval ruins or other structures. Since most of the MFAA officers weren’t enlisted as soldiers and were only advisors, it was easy for the commanding officers to brush off their input or instructions.

But their mission has never been entirely in vain.

“If you destroy their achievements, their history, it’s like they never existed at all, and it’s the one thing we can’t allow.” The Monuments Men, 2014

The recovery of these works is still going on. Just last month, Germany announced the return of 14 pieces of artwork previously in the possession of the family of a Nazi-era art dealer. In 2019, the FBI removed a piece from the Arkell Museum after it was learned that it had been stolen prior to the start of World War II.

The arts do more than entertain or distract. They provide a connection to the past, a window into societies long gone, such as the Bayeux Tapestry, The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp, and The Ghent Altarpiece. They make bold political statements, like Guernica, and celebrate the love, faith and fear that underscores the human experience like The Sacrifice of Isaac, Knight, Death, and Devil or The Madonna of La Gleize.

“These monuments are not merely pretty things, not merely valued signs of man’s creative power. They are expressions of faith, and they stand for man’s struggle to relate himself to his past and to his God.”[2] — James Rorimer, Monuments officer

Without these pieces of the past to look at and reflect on, it becomes easier for those of future generations to forget the things that happened, and the events that shaped the circumstances that they shape their lives. It allows for the selective cleansing of collective consciousness, and in essence, an erasing of the past. And this doesn’t stop at fine art. The recent waves of book bans throughout the United States are being carried out in the name of so-called “decency”, but ultimately seek to deny the knowledge of what has been, and to ignore the foul inhumanities that Man has committed against one another.

Many of the artworks stolen during the war are still missing. And let’s be honest — many may never be found. But that doesn’t mean that those who take up the task, will ever stop trying. For once you stop trying, the battle is already lost.

And the arts are always worth fighting for.

[1] Franklin D. Roosevelt speech, 1939 | MoMA

[2] The Monuments Men, p. 23