Portrait of a lady: Concerning missing art treasures and a contested cathedral

“Cognitive dissonance” is a mellifluous phrase I’ve heard bandied about in the media during these first days of the Donald Trump administration.

The new president’s supporters are in the grips of this psychological malady, the Daily Kos tells us. In an interview broadcast by MSNBC “Bill Nye” the “science guy” postulated the president also suffered from “cognitive dissonance,” and as he had a “worldview that disagrees with what you observe.”

Writing in 1962 in Scientific American about this new psychological theory, (cognitive dissonance, not Donald Trump), Leon Festinger offered this explanation:

This theory centers around the idea that if a person knows various things that are not psychologically consistent with one another, he will, in a variety of ways, try to make them more consistent. Two items of information that psychologically do not fit together are said to be in a dissonant relation to each other. The items of information may be about behavior, feelings, opinions, things in the environment and so on. The word "cognitive" simply emphasizes that the theory deals with relations among items of information.

Such ideas are not new. Scripture tells us: A double minded man is unstable in all his ways (James 1:8). Once upon a time, a double minded man was one with a character flaw. Now he has a pathological condition.

If the president and his supporters are not sick, they must be evil, the pundits tell us -- witness the contretemps over “alternative facts” and Kellyanne Conway.  Moral opprobrium like burning coals has been heaped onto the head of the presidential counselor in disputes over alternative narratives of reality.

Stepping back into the GetReligion harness has resulted in a bout or two of cognitive dissonance for me -- the neural pathways used in my work as a country priest are not those of a journalism critic.

Nor did I keep all my bookmarks on the web. Looking for interesting items has led me to some odd corners, and the odd corners have unearthed odd stories.

I learned just the other day of a gallery opening in Minsk. The Belarusian Telegraphic Agency reports:

The National Art Museum of Belarus has received a new addition to its collection of Radziwill family portraits and belongings, BelTA has learned. Maciej Radziwill donated a Radziwill family tree to the museum as he unveiled the exhibition “The Radziwills: The Fate of the Country and the Family” at the National Art Museum of Belarus on 26 February. The exhibition showcases 99 items from Maciej Radziwill's personal collection and portraits from the holdings of the National Art Museum of Belarus which were kept in Nesvizh Castle until 1939.

Good for Prince Radziwill! He is showing a commendable civic pride. But I wonder what happened in 1939 that led to a change of curators for his family’s collection?

The article is silent on that point. Was there a burglary? A fire sale of assets? Maybe that fellow Stalin joined forces with Adolph Hitler and invaded Poland, carting off the contents of the Radziwill family home to populate the Minsk people’s palace of culture.

Prince Radziwill appears not to have pressed his claim for the return of his family’s treasures however -- and this may be a wise decision as their ancestral home now lies within the territory of Belarus -- one of the nastier places east of the Elbe.

Other art treasures confiscated during that era have been returned to their rightful owners, though. PBS Newshour summarized this trend in a piece entitled “Why finding Nazi-looted art is ‘a question of justice’.”

During World War II, Hitler’s army systematically looted great art collections of Europe from national museums and private families. This government-sponsored theft is considered the biggest robbery in history.

After the war, the U.S. and its allies tasked a special unit of 350 army personnel from 14 nations to find and return looted art to its rightful owners. These so-called “Monuments Men,” who were popularized in a 2014 Hollywood movie, recovered millions of items and returned treasures like a 15th-century Ghent altarpiece to Belgium and “Lady with an Ermine,” a Leonardo Da Vinci painting, to Poland.

But the Monuments Men returned art to countries, not individuals, which sometimes put the heirs of Holocaust victims at odds with their home governments.

PBS frames this story in terms of natural justice, of private citizens and organizations seeking justice from the state and the powerful. From a press perspective I have no quarrel with them over not offering the Nazi point of view -- which was that the art confiscated from Jews was acquired through illicit means. In the Nazi worldview this was not art stolen from Jews, but art restored to the Aryan people after it had been purchased with funds generated by Jewish capitalists. Balance is not always necessary when writing about Nazis.

Yet, not all victims of the terrors of the 20th century have received justice, nor received the sympathy of the mainstream media.

Continue reading "Portrait of a lady" by George Conger.

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