At the museum, we’ve been in a discussion on and off for the past several days about whether or not one would die for a piece of artwork. We came to this question after the Conservator brought up the topic of his position as co-chair of the Disaster Preparedness Committee, and the museum’s need to prepare a list of the top ten most important objects to retrieve in the event of a fire, flood, bomb threat, etc.
Though everyone agrees that such a list should exist, it is difficult to compile on account of different curators having different ideas of what is most valuable.Is our basis of value entirely pecuniary, or does it emphasize historical and/or cultural significance as well?The value of a given object, after all, fluctuates.As decades progress, different generations relate more or less to certain works of art—so just listing the top ten most expensive items in the collection is often not adequate; the question requires the expert consensus of curators with a powerful sense of foresight.
But say the decision were up to you. Say a fire broke out and you could save a monument, or you could save yourself, what would you do? Or say some mobster came knocking on your door, asking for the access codes to a safe containing the View of Toledo or the Pietà , and he would kill you if you didn’t give it to him, what would you do? Any number of hypothetical situations will suffice for this question, as long as the core remains the same: at what point is a human life worth more or less than a work of art?
For several of the other interns and for the registrar the answer is a resounding “never!” Their argument is that no object is worth more than human life, that things are things, but people are on a wholly different value scale, entirely incomparable. The Registrar related to me the story of how she lost her entire family photo collection when her basement flooded, a tragedy that made her understand that things are just things, and never so important as people. Her response is the result of experience-based pragmatism, and seems on the surface to be a sound argument. But she doesn’t see any difference between her family photos and the The Birth of Venus (just look at her!)
Before I explain why I disagree with the Registrar, I have to, for the sake of our hypothetical situation, clarify the issue of instinctual responses in life-or-death situations—that is, no one can know what his or her actual response would be in a life-or-death situation until it actually occurs, when the adrenaline is rushing, when the fight-or-flight animal impulse and Lady Irrationality take the reins and high-tail your scared butt out of the hypothetical burning building faster than a Nantucket sleigh ride. (Does anyone else hear the Mighty Mighty Bosstones playing right now?)
Furthermore, one who jumps into a life or death situation usually understands the situation to be just that: life or death. Rarely is the situation so clear cut, as in the case of Harry Potter, that death is guaranteed. Most heroes genuinely expect to survive—it is their willingness to take the risk at all that makes them heroes. For the sake of our hypothetical situation, there is no chance of survival. Only one survives: you or the art.
My judgment that my life is worth less than the Pietà comes from my assessment that whatever effect my little life will have in this world, whatever I may do, wherever I may go, it will never amount to the positive effect that the Pietà will have on humankind as a whole for generations to come.
Take Edward Jenner’s discovery of the small pox vaccine. I’m sure there is a precise number, but generally we can say that Jenner’s discovery has directly saved the lives of many thousands. This object therefore is directly worth human lives. In this case, there is no longer even a question of whether or not this vaccine is worth dying for because there is a direct relation to human life.
But artwork doesn’t save lives, right?
Let’s take a monumental piece of literature, the Aeneid, or the Platonic Dialogues, or whatever. These are works that have been read by countless people, changed the way people live and continue to do so, sometimes indirectly, sometimes directly. I (and many others) can physically point to passages from the Aeneid that have changed my world view and life for the better. Just about everyone can say this for some great work of art—though the specific works may vary on an individual basis. Great art has this effect. My point here is that these monuments are very much like the small pox vaccine. All one has to do is receive the inoculation, and suddenly they have a better chance at a happy, healthy life. Similarly, all I had to do was read that book or experience that art, and suddenly I live a happier, richer life.
Now that it is clear that objects can be valued in comparison to human life, the question of whether or not one should die for a monumental work of art is no longer interesting. Of course one should! Particularly if it is a work that is of special significance to the person; but even if it is not, one should recognize his or her own limitations in the appreciation of great art and respect that, even if one doesn’t particularly like the Mona Lisa, the failure of appreciation is the failure of the viewer—the greatness of such monuments is no longer in question.
Am I suggesting that some people’s lives are worth more than others? Am I suggesting that there is a hierarchy of value to human life?—that Edward Jenner ought to really consider running into the burning museum to save artwork before he finishes his vaccine, because perhaps his life might actually be worth more than a work of art? Yes—absotively! This logic stems from the very same logic that puts women and children onto the lifeboats first and asks a security guard to take a bullet for JFK: the value of a human life varies based on the potential for goodness.
So if it came down to destruction of some hypothetical original manuscript of the Aeneid, or some like form of it, yes—take me instead.
But to return to the concerns of the Conservator, one seldom expects life or death situations to occur, and when they do, there is rarely time to consider the right course of action—one must act! So take some time now. Sit with yourself. Consider your own disaster preparedness.