When Notre Dame burned, people around the world noticed and grieved. (I will note here that, while the Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem caught fire at the same time, there is reportedly no serious damage from that fire, which is believed to have been started by children.) Practically everyone I knew had something that they worried about. Likewise, when the National Museum of Brazil burned, we noticed and grieved. I was a copy editor for my college newspaper in early 2001, and I remember the news item about the Taliban’s destruction of priceless giant Buddha statues. We grieved that as well. And then there are backlot fires, the 1965 MGM Vault fire. We lose so much, and it is a shared, human loss.
Authors Ian Stewart and Jack Cohen use the term “extelligence,” meaning “the knowledge we as a culture pass along from person to person.” We aren’t the only species with it—see, for example, other primates that teach their children about tool use—but it is definitely one of the defining characteristics of our species. It’s arguable that things like Notre Dame are signs of our extelligence; certainly they are the products of it. They are also part of what Stewart and Cohen call our “make-a-person kit.”
We as humans are capable of both great evil and great good, great ugliness and great beauty. This, too, is an apparent defining characteristic of our species. Our great good and great beauty shows itself in things like the astounding architecture of Notre Dame, as well as the incredible response of people helping to rebuild it. I would argue that our ugliness and evil are apparent in the fact that we’re more interested in preserving such symbols than in using those same resources to help, for example, the residents of Flint, Michigan, who are without clean water even now. Mind you this is not me saying that we should preserve Flint and not Notre Dame, because I believe both have value. But neither am I saying that those people fighting to preserve Notre Dame get off the hook for not being equally willing to help Flint.
You see the argument come up every time money is spent on the arts, be it the restoration of a priceless work of art or the creation of a big-budget movie—where else that money could be spent. And, yes, the amount that will be spent to repair Notre Dame would do amazing things if it were spent on infrastructure instead. How many bridges could be repaired or replaced with the budget of Avengers: Endgame? How many people could be provided with clean water, with high-speed internet? How much of our failing power grid could be replaced?
And all of that needs done. Only last month, I saw a major piece of Seattle infrastructure that had been agreed to need replacement before I was born that has only been closed within the last year, nearly twenty years after earthquake danger became so obvious that its replacement was agreed to be vital. However, I also believe that, if we spent not a dime for the next ten years on making art, things still wouldn’t get fixed, and we’d just have no art for those ten years. Worse, we’d get out of the habit of making art and convince ourselves that we no longer need it, which is at least as damaging to our society as failing infrastructure.
Art connects us. Not the same way as roads and power and high-speed internet, but it does. I have never been on the same continent as Notre Dame, as the lost Buddhas. The vault fire was before my birth, and some of the works lost in it were made before my mother’s birth—maybe even my grandmother’s. I am still diminished as a human when art is destroyed, just as I am when people are harmed. And art, I think, is one of the things that reminds us that other people are people just as we are.
(The Solute is acting wonky and not letting me add an image.)