Detroit, Keep Your Art! The Value of Great Paintings Underestimated

December 6, 2013 Updated: April 24, 2016

Detroit, on course to file the largest bankruptcy in U.S. history, is considering selling the precious art it has accumulated at its major museum, the Detroit Institute of Art (DIA). Christie’s auction house appraised the works at $450 million to $870 million.

That’s a lot of money, but this is a bad idea.

A city is supposed to be a state’s or a region’s cultural center, a sort of secular pilgrimage site that unites the minds and hearts of the people.  Take away the great art and you leave a people culturally fragmented and spiritually backward.

In fact, the power of our culture and art has been greatly underestimated in our modern science-driven society.  It is no coincidence that actor Paul Walker both died in a car accident involving speeding and is the star of the Fast and Furious franchise.  It is no coincidence that people who commit school killings play violent videogames.  What we take in naturally affects what we put out. 

Cities, at their best, enshrine the secular path of righteousness in places like museums, concert halls, and opera houses. Behind these classical forms, such as classical art, are universal values, including a shared exaltation of cultivated skill of the highest levels, a shared meaning of greatness and beauty, and a shared concept of what is proper and humane.

Detroit needs more, not less, amazing and inspiring art like Frederic Edwin Church’s epic landscape and historical allegory “Syria by the Sea”; William Adolphe Bouguereau’s exquisitely detailed portrait of innocence “Sisters on the Shore”; Rachel Ruysch’s rich and creative still life “Flowers in a Glass Vase”; and Hans von Aachen’s striking moral tale “Triumph of Truth.”

I would wager that if everyone in Detroit actually saw these paintings and experienced their power and beauty, then the financial and other problems facing Detroit would naturally solve themselves.

Save Detroit. Save beauty.

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