If you have only two pennies,
spend the first on bread
and the other on hyacinths for your soul
Middle Eastern adage

A lot to ponder in the current controversy regarding the Detroit Institute of Arts and potential plans to auction off its historic art collection, considered among the most outstanding in the U.S. With the Motor City having filed for bankruptcy last month, among the options on the table is selling the DIA’s nearly $3 billion in artwork, including masterpieces by Henri Matisse, Vincent van Gogh, and Jan van Eyck, among many others. It’s made possible by the fact that the institution is owned by the city of Detroit and is just one of a very few public art museums sustained by government funds.

detroit industry fresco diego rivera
To the highest bidder? Diego Rivera’s “Detroit Industry” at the DIA

The outcry has spread far and wide. Last week, art blogs and websites across the country came together for “A Day for Detroit” to spread awareness about what’s at stake should plans go forward with the proposed sale.

For art aficionados, the issue may appear as pretty much of a no-brainer, but there are some complex aspects at play as well. Here’s a take from a contributor to Forbes, Tim Worstall:

“What is it that we’re supposed to care about? A few pieces of canvas, or real lives as they are actually lived? Retired city workers getting the medical treatment they were promised for 40 years, or keep a few paintings that the well-to-do like to ‘ooh’ and ‘aah’ at? Get the ambulances back on the road, get cop cars to a 911 in under an hour, or please the arts establishment?”

The argument can’t be easily discounted, or as Peter Schjeldahl wrote in the The New Yorker (he’s since retracted the comment): “Art will survive. The pensioner will not.”

And one can harken back to a thought from the German playwright and poet, Bertolt Brecht: “food first” — art comes second. (I guess if I had a Picasso in the living room, and a family that needed to be fed, that decision would be a no-brainer also.)

Yet what about the less obviously quantifiable ramifications of the loss of such a cultural bastion on the soul of a community? In an environment as deeply troubled as Detroit, will doing away with this legendary oasis of beauty and inspiration truly be a beneficial solution in the long term? (The facility would face almost-certain closure.)

In an article that argues quite persuasively for the privatization of the museum as a logical alternative, Jordan Ballor quotes a 19th-Century theologian, Abraham Kuyper: “The motive of art comes to us not from what exists, but from the notion that there is something higher, something nobler, something richer, and that what exists corresponds only partially to all of this.”

Clearly many sides to the debate, but I’ll have to go with the one that understands the disquiet at the possible gutting of an iconic cultural institution. If art is at the heart of what allows any civilization to thrive, that proverbial “hyacinth” for the soul is surely worth more than a penny — or two.