The Wall Street Journal‘s Terry Teachout says it’s not enough for supporters of the venerable Detroit Institute of Arts to fight calls to sell the publicly-owned museum’s treasures to pay the bankrupt city’s bills by saying, “How dare you!” Teachout says those who point out that Detroit has more important obligations — say, to its pensioners, or to its citizens living in fear of crime — than firewalling art must not be dismissed as barbarians:

Anybody who doesn’t want Detroit to sell its art must be prepared to go up against arguments like these. What’s more, the counterarguments will have to persuade locals who know how it feels to call the cops and get a busy signal. In my experience, art lovers aren’t accustomed to making that kind of argument, any more than they’re accustomed to living in a city without streetlights. Too many of them believe that the value of high art should be self-evident to all right-thinking people. It’s not an “argument” to suggest that anyone who advocates selling off the DIA’s masterpieces is an art-hating philistine. Even if they’re wrong, as I think they are, the sell-the-art crowd is making a morally serious case that can’t be countered by name-calling.

Teachout offers a couple of arguments that could work:

  • Contrary to popular belief, any money derived from the sale of the DIA’s art collection would not be used to turn on the streetlights of Detroit. It would go straight into the bottomless pockets of the city’s Wall Street bondholders. Why slaughter a world-famous museum for their sake?
  • If you truly believe that Detroit has a postcrisis future, then it’s your duty to preserve at least some of the things that help make the city worth living in—and visiting. Would you auction off the National Archives’ original copy of the Declaration of Independence to help pay down the national debt?

 Read the whole thing.