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Must Pensioners Suffer For Art?

Peter Schjeldahl, the art critic of The New Yorker, is sad about the prospect of the Detroit Institute of Arts having to sell off its (publicly-owned) collection to help bail the city out of bankruptcy, but says it’s necessary:

The clincher for me was voiced by a spokesman for the state-appointed emergency manager Kevyn D. Orr. Caplan-Bricker commendably quotes it, from the Times: “It’s hard to go to a pensioner on a fixed income and say, ‘We’re going to cut 20 percent of your income or 30 percent or whatever the number is, but art is eternal.’ ” To expatiate: Vita brevis, ars longa. Art will survive. The pensioner will not. I do not view the impending decision as a close call.

Later, though, Schjeldahl changed his mind. Excerpt:

I am now persuaded that a sale of the D.I.A.’s art, besides making merely a dent in Detroit’s debt, could not conceivably bring dollar-for-dollar relief to the city’s pensioners. Further, the value of the works would stagger even today’s inflated market. Certainly, no museum could afford them. They would pass into private hands at relatively fire-sale prices.

He was also persuaded by a reader who wrote to ask if Greece should sell the Parthenon to settle its massive debt. Schjeldahl: “The principle of cultural patrimony is indeed germane, and it should be sacred.”

I’m not sure about that. The Parthenon would not be the Parthenon if it weren’t in Greece. Those paintings would still be those paintings if they were hanging in galleries in other cities. After all, Detroit bought them from someone, somewhere.

The question of the paintings passing into private hands and out of the public realm is a serious one, however, as is the point about the paintings likely leaving the public’s access. Still, with so much pain yet to be inflicted on Detroiters, especially pensioners, I find it difficult to see why publicly-owned art “should be sacred,” as Schjeldahl believes. I mean, my biases incline me to believe that is true, but I’m having trouble being convinced.

about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. He has written and edited for the New York Post, The Dallas Morning News, National Review, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, the Washington Times, and the Baton Rouge Advocate. Rod’s commentary has been published in The Wall Street Journal, Commentary, the Weekly Standard, Beliefnet, and Real Simple, among other publications, and he has appeared on NPR, ABC News, CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, and the BBC. He lives in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, with his wife Julie and their three children. He has also written four books, The Little Way of Ruthie Leming, Crunchy Cons, How Dante Can Save Your Life, and The Benedict Option.

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