For nearly four years running, the U.S. art community has suffered significant decreases in sales. The first noticeable signs of a retreat from personal art investing coincided with the nation’s economic crash in late Summer, 2008. Even the snooty auction houses report a sustained downturn in the U.S. art market.
The omission of art from Americans’ shopping list is not surprising during a meager economy. Beauty is nonessential for people living in the lower three-fifths of Maslow’s hierarchy. And art is not included as a basic element in the physiological foundation of the pyramid, where many Americans exist today. I believe that we will miss it.
There is many a lesson to be learned about the component of art in society from the history of the civilizations surrounding the Adriatic Sea, in south central Europe. One of the most enduring influences on American architecture came from Rome in the first century. The distinctive architecture manifested in many iconic buildings of Washington, D.C. is derived from Marcus Vitruvius Pollio, the master of Roman design.
Better known as Vitruvius, this chief architect for Julius Caesar developed a philosophy on creating enduring systems, which he refined to firmitas (strength), utilitas (functionality), and venustas (beauty). In his Ten Books On Architecture, thankfully translated to English in the early 1900s by Morris Hickey Morgan, Vitruvius frequently compares edifice design to the human body. Placement and proportion equate to functionality and power, with beauty being the considered essential. Vitruvius elevated architects to a special class of professionals who could thoroughly appreciate the purpose of a structure as it was being conceived.
Some five hundred miles north and seventeen hundred years after Vitruvius worked for Caesar, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was born in the Holy Roman Empire city of Salzburg, now Austria. Mozart eventually relocated to Vienna where he flourished as a composer, generating over 600 works during the course of his career. Anyone with a soul will listen to Mozart’s most famous compositions and believe them to be evidence that humans are more significant than evolved plankton. Mozart gave up the ghost at the tragically young age of 35 in the year 1791.
Just 123 years later, in the same year that Vitruvius’ architectural instructions were first published in English, the famous “shot heard round the world” struck its target in Sarajevo, killing the Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria. The assassination sparked the beginning of World War I. The region would experience decades of embattled tumult, marked by severe destruction of infrastructure, unconscionable treatment of women, and multiple redrawings of territorial boundaries.
In the most catastrophic European conflict after the end of World War II, the Bosnian War erupted across the region east of the Adriatic. Over 100,000 people lost their lives and over two million lost their homes between April 1992 and December 1995. This birthplace of such beauty, art, and creativity had become wretched and somber. One particular building epitomized the loss of artistic expression; the Vijecnica, The Great Counsel Hall, an architectural marvel in Sarajevo that housed the nation’s historical records. It was seriously damaged by heavy artillery in August 1992.
While surviving is the primary act of a culture, it will not last long without hopeful, creative expression. And the Sarajevo Philharmonic Orchestra stepped out in the midst of the war, presenting a breathtaking moment for the citizens. On July 19, 1994, Indian-born director Zubin Mehta was joined by eminent soloists José Carreras of Spain, Idiko Komlosi of Hungary, and Italians Ruggero Raimondi and Cecilia Gasdia in a concert that should be historically remembered as a high point for humanity.
Set among the ruins of the Vijecnica, these extraordinary musicians and singers performed Mozart’s Requiem using salvaged instruments, as well as many provided to them from supporters around the world. The event is moving and epic in the contrast of great art amid great peril. The concert can be enjoyed safely in your home on DVD. It is titled “Mozart: The Requiem from Sarajevo.”
The threat that we face in the United States in 2012 has none of the violence that Sarajevo endured; at least not yet. Our freedoms are being lulled away much more softly, by the political version of Willson and Lacey’s screenplay, The Music Man. The hucksters of the left have made dependents of nearly half of America’s citizens. Beauty cries out for the same money that is consumed by a voracious government. But with so many people simply struggling to retain ownership of their homes, there is little left to spend on art.
We either vote well this November, or “Arrivederci, torta Americana.” (That’s Italian for “Bye, Bye Miss American Pie.”)