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Art and eloquence: Philippe De Montebello.

Why Art?

An audible, collective ache rose from the audience and settled over the Sterling and Francis Clark Art Institute’s auditorium with the hollow silence of loss. Less than five minutes into Philippe De Montebello’s lecture, “Museums, Why Should We Care?the Metropolitan Museum of Art director had proven his point. Art matters.

As he spoke of the instinctive but difficult to articulate sense that art and art museums are important, a slide exploded onto the screen behind him—snapped at the instant of the 2001 bombing of the Bamiyan Buddhas. The destruction of the sacred cliff carvings outside Kabul, Afganistan, caused a global outcry that still resonated seven years later in a Massachusetts auditorium. According to De Montebello, this deep and sweeping reaction was the “most evident testimony that people should, and in fact did, care,” and became the clarifying touchstone in his quest to express the importance of art.

“Something that somehow was thought to belong to us all had been lost. . . . From mankind’s cultural family tree, a major limb had been sawn off,” mourned Montebello. “The fact is, on the branches of that tree, in the rooms of our museums—the ultimate cultural family tree—what are preserved are the world’s civilizations through works of art . . . things that embody and express, with graphic force, the deepest aspirations of a time and place, and are, as a result, direct and primary evidence for the study and understanding of mankind.”

In turn, museums are the vaults that hold these precious treasures, the places where the art and artifacts of our cultural history are studied, preserved and displayed. “Museums in a sense are the memory of mankind,” said Montebello. “And memory, as we know, is very closely linked to identity, individually and communally.”

He flipped through slides of magnificent and varied works, these relics of memory, with easy sophistication, undeniable passion, humor and consequence. His arguments were poignant, particularly in the current and dangerous climate of cultural primacy. “The art museum,” said De Montebello, “plays a great role in teaching us, where cultural matters are concerned, a certain degree of humility.” He explored art as the distinct proof of our cultural “interweavedness,” across time, faith and political boundaries. An ivory carving from medieval Spain, depicting a Christian scene replete with classic Muslim symbols and lined in Islamic silk, is a tangible reminder to perceive connection, not disparity.

Slide after slide, infused with De Montebello’s wisdom and experience, he explored the evocative, the exquisite, the challenging, the commonalities of vision, the uniqueness of human response. And with each slide, De Montebello proved his message further, “Who made these things?” he asked. And his unifying and hopeful answer was: “We did. Our species did. Isn’t that reason enough to renew our faith in human kind?”

“Wars, massacres, nature’s indiscriminant destructive forces occurred throughout recorded history, and always will. And through it all, men and women of genius have managed to give us their vision of the moment at the highest level of inspiration.” Art stands, said De Montebello, as a testament to “mankind’s awe-inspiring ability, time and again, to surpass itself.” Listening to De Montebello, one could not resist being drawn to his compelling passion, his final message—the world’s great art is a record of human “excellence, inspiration, transcendence, genius. And these are the qualities that tip the scales in favor of man.”

The longest serving director in the history of the Met, De Montebello recently announced his retirement. The lecture was a rare gift for the 350-strong, art-loving audience. Was he preaching to the choir? Perhaps. But inspire the choir, and they’ll go out and spread the word: Art matters. Art is the story of us all.

—Kathryn Lange

This lecture was the first in a series at the Clark, which will bring well-known directors of major museums to the institute to present free public talks.

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