Oh, the Humanities! Kev, Go Ahead, Sell the Van Goghs

A week ago, many of you thought Detroit needed an emergency manager. You said, on Twitter and at dinner, that it was “about time someone fixed Detroit.”

You haven’t noticed the school closings nor have you bothered to read anything about the failing state district Educational Achievement Authority, other than last year’s full-page advertisements. You can’t wait to shop at the new Meijer on what used to be public property.

Then Kevyn Orr said he might sell off some works of art from the DIA’s collection. Oh, the humanities! Not our art, you decry!

Wait a second: Your school wasn’t closed. Your fairground wasn’t sold. Your street lights didn’t get shut off. Your police force wasn’t downsized. Your democratic process wasn’t eliminated. How, then, can this be your art?

This is a beautiful quandary for southeastern Michigan. It frames the complexities of a city’s interrelationship with its suburbs. It is a proof of how an entire region benefits from democracy and public assets in one urban center. It reminds us that no matter what the ledger sheets of the day look like, they can never be unbalanced from the wealth of our history.

Of course the idea of selling off publicly owned masterpieces of art is an anathema to me. But it is the other items being sold at the totalitarian liquidation that troubles me as much, if not more so.

What makes these particular pieces of art so valuable to us, anyway? There are whole branches of philosophy devoted to that question, but kindly allow me to simply suggest that what makes a piece of art great is its capacity to visually demonstrate what paradoxically can’t be seen by the eye: the human spirit, the human experience.

Carved into stone, exposed on film or painted on canvas, we find ourselves actually seeing all that we ignore, that we glaze over in the real world around us.

Whether it’s Gericault’s “The Raft of the Medusa” or Billy Holiday singing “Strange Fruit,” art gives us a chance to learn, to empathize, to be more than we have been.

Yet, for all the spiritual glory that can be found in great visual art, the works themselves are still merely material.

Take paintings for example, if you remove our participation in their meaning, if you remove our spiritual inclinations, what remains is a framed canvas rectangle meant to hang on a wall. Large works require large walls, which are in large homes that are owned by a smallest percentage of the population. Painting on canvas is the most bourgeois medium as it depends on gluttonous architecture in order for it to be preserved.

Recently, Vincent van Gogh’s “Portrait of the Artist without His Beard” fetched $71 million at auction. The DIA has five works by van Gogh in its collection including a self-portrait.

How many more schools could stay open with $71 million? The average salary for a teacher in Detroit is $52,000 a year. With $71 million, the city could pay the salaries of 127 teachers for 10 years.

Our whole region suffers because our children are poorly educated. A large part of the current immigration reform debate is about how the United States lacks highly skilled workers, so much so that we need to import educated people from all over the globe.

With an estimated 18 percent unemployment (that’s the official number, the unofficial number is closer to 50 percent) in the city and a third of the residents living below the poverty line, don’t you think 127 more teachers providing quality education for kids in Detroit could transform the whole regional economy?

How many art programs could that fund to help inspire/train the next van Gogh or the next Diego Rivera? Or, could a great education in a diverse city help prepare a future Henry Ford to build industries, create jobs and commission great works from the future Diego Rivera?

The sum of $71 million could pay the average annual salary ($28,000) of 2,535 police officers or pay 253 officers’ salaries for 10 years. Wouldn’t that reduce unemployment in the city? Wouldn’t that reduce crime? How many murders would be prevented over a decade with 253 more cops working in the city?

And can you tell me that even one human life is worth less than a stained piece of cloth hanging on a wall? Or simply transferring that stained cloth from a public wall to a private wall (just like the fairgrounds) is less desirable than educating children and saving lives?

If the value of art, of the humanities in general, is the celebration of humanity, then you cannot ignore the human part. Without reverence for the human spirit and human life, those van Gogh paintings are no more meaningful than stained clothes. No more beautiful than advertisements. No more valuable than the canvas on which they were painted.

I’m not naive. I know if Kev does sell the art, the money is not going to go to the schools, the cops or even the pensioners; it will go to the crooked bond holders and the banks that got us into this mess.

Call me paranoid, but he’s not going to sell the artworks. He’s going to sell the water works. And the new private water company is going to sell the freshest, cleanest water in the world to fracking interests. The frackers will pollute the earth with that clean water in order to get oil to sell us to pollute the air.

And there will be earthquakes. And the price of water will rise because they sold it all to the frackers. And you won’t be able to afford a shower. And you won’t be able to afford enough food because food needs water to grow. And you will have to ration hydration. And the whole time you’ll just be glad that the van Goghs are still there.

“Thank heavens,” you’ll say through thirst cracked lips, while digging through the rubble of your home, “thank heavens they didn’t take our van Goghs.”

That’s the travesty of the loss of democracy. This is a distraction. We can have the art and the water and the schools. But the only way we, the people, will get to keep any of it is through the democratic way. Protest. Organize. Tweet.

Don’t let this distract you. Don’t let this divide you. Let this be a reminder — if it is your art, then it’s your damn city, too. And you deserve to celebrate and cherish everything in it, the masterpieces, the public institutions, the rule of law and especially the human beings.