Is Art Luxury or Necessity?

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Going for a walk this morning in Santa Monica, I was stopped by a couple of adorable toddlers helping their mother distribute leaflets, reminding people to vote today. There is an imminent danger that in the new fiscal year, funds for art education will be eliminated. This is a sad, but inevitable knee-jerk reaction by the powers-that-be who always make art and culture the first victims of financial pruning. The city fathers know that people will accept such a fiscal policy; after all art is good and lovely, but its importance to our collective well being is not at the top of the list. Or is it?

Friedl Dicker On Saturday, May 24th, the Los Angeles times published, on its front page, an article claiming that "more medical schools are offering courses in literature, painting and theatre to improve doctors' ability to connect with patients- Educators say the distilled emotions and insight in the arts offer students a crash course in the old-fashioned skill of the bedside manner. Art, they say, is a textbook on the human condition".

I do believe that the news of the destruction of the Iraqi National Art Museum in Baghdad resonated so strongly around the world precisely because it was a tragedy for all of us, not only for the Iraqi people. Don't ask, as the poet said, "for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee." I'm aware that talking about such sentiments in front of this audience is like preaching to the choir, but it's my belief that art allows us to discover hidden areas of our psyche, to explore the far reaches of our emotional landscape. Art does enable us to better understand ourselves and to establish common ground with the rest of humanity.

There is an exhibition in town that tells the story of a remarkable woman who proved the power of art in the most dire of circumstances. The exhibition at the Museum of Tolerance in the Simon-Wiesenthal Center presents the story of Austrian-born artist, Friedl Dicker-Brandeis. She was a star student at the famous Bauhaus. Paul Klee was one of her teachers. Her paintings and drawings demonstrate her undeniable talent. She designed theater sets for Bertolt Brecht and was involved in designing furniture, toys, fabric patterns, believing that art should, and must, be part of people's everyday lives.

Friedl Dicker When World War II erupted, Friedl was arrested and sent to Terezin, a camp that Nazi propaganda described as "a pleasant Jewish settlement- a gift from the Fuhrer to the Jews", but which actually was a way station to Auschwitz. From 1942 to 1944, Friedl managed to teach art to the children imprisoned in the camp. Miraculously, some of their drawings survived, were smuggled out of the camp and were discovered years later. The artist herself was sent to a death camp where she was killed on October 9, 1944. All interviewed survivors share the same sentiment; they owe their lives to her art classes.

The exhibition, "Friedl Dicker-Brandeis and the Children of Terezin", at the Museum of Tolerance runs through September 1st. This ambitious, beautifully installed exhibition, with 165 works by Friedl and over 60 paintings by the children of Terezin, tells a story that first breaks your heart, but then restores your faith in humanity.

"Friedl Dicker-Brandeis and the Children of Terezin:
An Exhibition of Art and Hope"
Through September 1, 2003
Museum of Tolerance
Simon Wiesenthal Plaza
9786 West Pico Blvd
Los Angeles, CA 90035
(310) 553-8403