A Keen and Crankish Rant on a Crime Most Foul Against the Humanities

Some jackbag bint from Carcaliu, Romania told authorities that she stuffed seven original paintings by Picasso, Matisse, Monet, Gauguin, Lucian Freud and Meyer de Haan into her wood-burning stove and lit a match, rendering those particular visions of those master painters into ashes.  The paintings were taken from the Kunsthal museum in Rotterdam in October 2012.

The jackbag bint, Olga Dogaru, did it out of some consummate talent for codependency or some breathtakingly dysfunctional version of maternal love.  You see, Mrs. Dogaru originally claimed that she hid the stolen paintings at her sister’s. Then she buried them in her garden. Then she dug them up and buried them in a cemetery.  But fearing discovery, she decided that she simply had to destroy these irreplaceable works to prevent her worthless son, Radu Dogaru, from doing time for stealing them.

As the New York Times reports:

Mrs. Dogaru told investigators in May that months earlier, in February, she had shoved the stolen artworks into a stove used to heat a sauna at her family home and then set them alight, in a desperate attempt to destroy evidence and save her son from going to jail.

Mr. Dogaru has reportedly admitted to the theft.  

But then, also according to the New York Times, Mr. Dogaru is reputed to be highly experienced at stealing stuff:

“He has known only one thing since he was 4 years old, and that is stealing,” said Stefan Karpov, a Carcaliu resident who recalled Mr. Dogaru as a bully notorious for his brushes with the law.

But then again, the Dogarus are known as a lawless bunch:

Referring to the Dogarus, Mr. Oberlander-Tarnoveanu [the director of Romania’s National History Museum] said, “It seems they were not very honest, because apparently a lot of members of the family had a long judicial history.”

Now that Momma Dogaru is facing charges in Bucharest for destroying the paintings, she says she lied.  She never burned them.  But she can’t produce them, and neither can her son.  That’s because a “mystery man in a fancy black car” now has them.  Somewhere.  She thinks.

Sadly, forensic evidence supports her first story:  

[Mr. Oberlander-Tarnoveanu] said his team had discovered material that classical French, Dutch, Spanish and other European artists typically used to prepare canvases for oil painting, as well as the “remains of colors, like red, yellow, green, blue, gray.” The pigments included cinnabar, chromium green and lazurite — a blue-green copper compound — as well as tin-lead yellow, which artists stopped using after the 19th century because of toxicity. In addition, copper nails and tacks made by blacksmiths before the Industrial Revolution and used to tack canvas down were found in the debris. Such items would be nearly impossible to fake, he said.

So Mrs. Dogaru is now being charged under Romanian law with “destruction with very serious consequences” which carries a 3 to 10 year sentence, “supporting a criminal group” and “assisting criminals.”

If Olga Dogaru is found guilty of these charges, then she is also guilty of a crime against humanity, against the citizens of the world.  To protect her adult son from the consequences of his own admitted criminal actions, she took out, according to her first story, an irreplaceable piece of our western cultural heritage.

But if she did burn the paintings, as the forensic evidence suggests, I wouldn’t send her to jail.  I think a more appropriate punishment would be to make her sit through art history MOOCs over and over again, and make her write and rewrite and rewrite a series of lengthy, heavily researched essays on why what she did was such a bitch slap to western culture.  Although I’m against using writing as a form of punishment, I would make an exception in this case because I’m guessing that people who burn paintings would probably prefer jail to being forced to write essays every day.   Then, she should have to stand outside the Kunsthal with digital copies of the destroyed paintings displayed on whiteboards and a sign explaining what she did to the originals.  And she should have to listen to whatever the museum visitors choose to say to her on the subject.  And she would be required to explain, over and over again, to the world as it passes into the Kunsthal, why she burned Monet’s “Charing Cross Bridge, London” and listen to the public’s responses.  Every. Single. Day.  For ten years.  Then she can go do her time on the other charges.

Yes, Momma Dogaru pisses me off.   But there is a possibility of redemption.  If this punishment should accomplish the unlikely result of Olga Doguru becoming a brilliant art critic, through constant writing and rewriting and exposure to art history, then I suppose we could get something back in the form of a strange evocative story of a panicked woman burying master painters’ works in a cemetery, burning them, and then being able to speak of nothing but that atrocity while eking out an existence writing about art.  Imagine the tropes that could spin off from that story over time.  Imagine the fiction and poetry and paintings that could come from it. Horrifying as the original is, the elements hold an undeniable archetypal interest.  So western culture could possibly get something back from future artists and writers playing with the tale.  But that’s all fancy.  The horror of what happened will fade like horrors do.

However, the other misery-inducing aspect of this story are some of the comments that keep showing up in the New York Times and elsewhere, and what they say about us and our relationship to art.  Some people are outraged at the loss of the paintings, and at the sheer savage ignorance that facilitated their likely destruction.

Others are outraged that this is even a news story.  Their complaints fall like this:

That the paintings weren’t the best work of the artists so somehow, by the fog lights of our winner-take-all society, it doesn’t matter that they got destroyed.  It’s not like Olga Dogaru got Monet’s “Impression, Sunrise” or one of the “Water Lilies” paintings, so why care?  Because of course a master painter’s minor works have no intrinsic value in a culture where only “the best” (usually meaning the best known) matters.  This argument gets made all the time in America, where people are either #1 or considered losers.  It reflects the awful degradation of our appreciation for the sort of excellence that falls just short of #1.  It leads to dissing even Matisse’s minor works.  It’s embarrassing.

That artists destroy their own work all the time, so what difference does it make?  Uh, if you can’t distinguish between an artist destroying his own work as a form of self-editing because he knows he can do better, and a jackbag bint from a family with a “long judicial history” burning museum paintings to save her son from jail, I would respectfully suggest that a course of serious humanities studies is a great way to get exposed to critical thinking.  It’s a damn shame that sort of thing is turning to metaphoric ashes in the USA.

That the “real crime” is poverty, and the “real issue” is Detroit declaring bankruptcy.  No, the “real crime” is burning the paintings, and the “real issue” is, well, burning the paintings.  Sure, what’s happening to the US economy is another crime, and perhaps there’s an argument that the destruction of the middle class is in some ways another crime against humanity.  But it’s a both, not an either/or. To say otherwise is just plain weird. 

That at least we have digital copies.  Sure, and god bless technology, but that doesn’t make the burning of the originals any less mortifying. There’s a difference between standing in front of an original painting and experiencing the intensity and immediacy of the artist’s energy, and seeing a digital copy on a website.  But I agree that digital copies are a mercy in this situation, so here’s a link to digital copies of what we lost.

That the art world is a joke, anyway.  Yes, absolutely.  The contemporary art world is another slap in the face to the western cultural heritage – you’ll get no argument from me there.  But what does that have to do with burning an original Monet?  I’m sorry, two original Monets, because according to her first story, Momma Dogaru also took out “Waterloo Bridge, London”. 

And the worst argument – that any mother would burn an original Picasso to help her son get away with committing a major crime.  Of course, this is all normal, civilized behavior.  We should be more understanding.  So maternal love gets a pass on destroying a piece of my cultural heritage?  What about stupidity?  Does that also get a pass? Olga Dogaru didn’t have to destroy the paintings to “protect” her son.  Those paintings were worth millions of dollars.  She could have offered to return them to the museum in exchange for the promise of reduced charges.  Or she could have kept them buried in the damn cemetery.

Frankly, the comments make me uncomfortable.  Because if western culture (us) can minimize or excuse this act, we’ve lost something even more precious than the paintings.  We’ve lost the ability to mourn the obliteration of a piece of our collective imaginative heritage.  And to the extent that heritage forms part of our identity as westerners and world citizens, some of the comments suggest that part of that identity went to ashes long before Momma Dogaru lit the match.  If there is a “real story” beyond the travesty of the burning, it’s that one.

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