Experts on topics currently in the news
The Monuments Men: Fact or Fiction?
While the new movie The Monuments Men introduces people to an aspect of World War II they may not have been familiar with, it also omits some important things, according to three Southwestern University professors.
For one thing, the “Monuments Men” weren’t just men. “There were large groups of women involved in the whole operation to save art during World War II,” says Erika Berroth, associate professor of German.
Kim Smith, a professor of art history, says the scene in the movie where a painting by the famous Renaissance painter Raphael is torched is also inaccurate.
“We don’t know that that happened,” Smith says.
At the same time, Smith says the movie fails to adequately address something the Nazis did do, which was destroy art they considered to be “degenerate” − specifically the work of Jewish and Slavic artists . “The Nazis believed ‘degenerate art’ facilitated a ‘degenerate culture,’” Smith said. “It was a major omission to leave that out.”
Melissa Byrnes, assistant professor of history, says the practice of looting art was not new − the Romans, the Crusaders and Napoleon all did similar things. What set the Nazi’s actions apart was that by the 1930s, there were international agreements in place that prohibited the destruction of artwork. This is why the theft of artwork became one of many counts in the “crimes against peace” that the Nazis were charged with at the Nuremberg trials.
Byrnes notes that the Nazis weren’t the only ones who destroyed art in World War II. “The Allied bombing of Dresden destroyed a major cultural capital,” Byrnes said. “The people living there thought they would never be bombed, but that wasn’t the case.”
Berroth say many of the German cities that were destroyed in World War II have been rebuilt, which raises a new issue. “A couple of generations later, will we ever acknowledge that these cities were ever gone?” she says.
Berroth notes that as more and more people who have firsthand knowledge of what happened in World War II die, movies such as “The Monuments Men” will play a significant part in how we represent history. And that history is not necessarily accurate.
“For a whole generation growing up, what they know about World War II will be shaped by these movies,” Berroth says.
Berroth, Byrnes and Smith say “The Monuments Men” offers many good questions for discussion, such as “What counts as art?” and “Whose art is worth protecting?”
“The movie gives us a lot of food for thought about some contemporary issues such as what is happening in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria,” Byrnes says.
Southwestern University English Professor Talks About 12 Years a Slave
Most people were not aware of the story of Solomon Northup until it was made into an Academy Award-winning movie.
But Carina Evans, assistant professor of English at Southwestern University, has been familiar with the story of the free black man who was sold into slavery long before it was discovered by Hollywood.
12 Years a Slave was one of the slave narratives that Evans used in her Ph.D. thesis, which compared slave narratives published in the 19th century with the way slavery has been depicted in contemporary “neoslave narratives” such as Beloved and The Known World.
“12 Years a Slave was a powerful narrative to portray the evils of slavery to a 19th century audience,” Evans says.
Although Evans describes Northup’s narrative as “beautifully written,” she says it has historically been overlooked in favor of other narratives, such as those written by Frederick Douglass or Harriet Jacobs. But all that has changed with the release of the movie.
“The movie has created a whole new audience for Solomon Northup,” Evans says. She says she expects that 12 Years a Slave will become part of the standard texts taught in high schools and colleges.
Evans is developing a course titled “Representing Slavery” that she plans to teach at Southwestern next spring. The course will compare slave narratives with how slavery is depicted in recent movies such as “12 Years a Slave” and “Django Unchained.”
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