The Destruction Of Monet’s Water Lilies – The Harm Of Private Art Ownership
In 1915, any sense of romanticism regarding the Great War had disappeared from the minds of Europeans as the conflict that came to be known as World War I reached horrifying heights of cruelty and barbarism. Gas warfare was introduced to Poland in that year. Aircraft were used for the first time to attack Britain and the Dardanelles. Humanity appeared to be descending into a purgatory of industrialized carnage.
Only a day’s travel by train from the horrors of war, Claude Monet, began work in his studio at Giverny on three massive canvasses that were intended to be viewed as a single triptych. The paintings that took shape over years of consideration and labor depicted an impressionistic view of Monet’s now-famous lily pond that he had made by diverting the water of a nearby river to his renowned Giverny garden.
Monet referred to what has become known as The Agapanthus Triptych as a “grand decoration”. This description of his wall-sized paintings can be misleading if one assumes that by choosing the word “decoration” Monet is somehow trivializing the artistic expression in the work. Nothing could be further from the truth. The grand decoration of Monet’s description points to an idea of artistic immersion. Like his fellow Impressionists, of whom Monet could be said to be the last, this artist avoided the technical details of scene in favor of the impressions that scene made on his consciousness. In so doing, impressionists take us into our own minds as we react to color and light with visceral responses that intellectual detail simply cannot evoke.
Monet took the impressionistic concept even farther by painting massive canvasses that envelope one’s entire point of view. He was not merely interested in providing observers with something beautiful to look at, but rather he was attempting dominate the observer’s entire awareness in order to take them into the meditative consciousness rooted in the essential beauty of the lily pond. The importance of Monet’s immersion approach cannot be underestimated. In a world engaged in murderous war, Monet was trying to create the world’s first virtual reality, a bubble of art that could keep a mind safe from the horror and ugliness of conflict.
So guarded is this doorway into the total immersion of lily pond consciousness, that Monet painted over, and thereby removed, the depiction of a grouping of Agapanthus flowers, commonly known as African Lilies, that had given the triptych its name. The African Lilies that were originally depicted in the left panel jutted vertically into the scene that had otherwise avoided any real frame of reference. Monet does not even provide a horizon line in the painting in his attempt to undermine any sense of spatial reference. The Agapanthus flowers occurred as an interruption to meditative quality of the triptych and were rightly removed.
The paintings of The Agapanthus Triptych sat in Monet’s studio after his death until 1950. The three canvasses were divided and purchased by three different museums in the American Midwest. They have hung in separate cities for decades and in so doing have destroyed the very essence of what Monet was trying to create. There is no way to get the immersive effect of The Agapanthus Triptych without sitting in front of all three canvasses as the singular artistic expression that the triptych is. To divide these paintings is tantamount to slicing the Mona Lisa in quarters and displaying them in four separate museums as if each museum now possessed a unique treasure. The value of the Mona Lisa and The Agapanthus Triptych can only be had as a fully assembled whole.
The Agapanthus Triptych is currently assembled and is being exhibited at the St. Louis Art Museum, an owner of one of the three canvasses that makes up the work. It seems absurd that these canvasses should ever be separated again. To do so destroys the very sanctuary of consciousness that Monet so painstakingly labored to create. At some point, we must allow the greater good of artistic contribution to transcend the base practicalities of ownership. The fact of the matter is that The Agapanthus Triptych cannot be owned in pieces. The very separation of the panels destroys the art reducing each individual canvas to the status of a fragmentary artifact of diminished use or interest. To see only a single canvas may be to look upon a thing of beauty, but it is also to miss the point entirely.
As congress debates copyright laws that favor large corporate interests at the expense of the expansion of human consciousness, we, as a society, must question whether our absolute fixation on ownership, profit and self-interest continues to be in the best interest of human evolution and the fulfillment of the potential of consciousness itself. Perhaps as a species we have outgrown the idea of absolute ownership in favor of a more universal distribution of benefit from hard assets. This is suggested by the dilemma of The Agapanthus Triptych. Ownership of the work in fragments destroys the potential of the art. It makes Monet’s impressionistic sanctuary unavailable to anyone in favor of museums owning hard assets of immense cash value. What could possibly be the point of a system that produces a result like this? It is a value system that is choking on its own absurdity.
In the old world order, our structure of ownership and asset accumulation was based on notions of possession. The rules that evolved to describe this system of ownership were designed to avoid conflict and even war in an attempt to manage human competition for resources. As society has become more complex, these notions of ownership rights have become archaic and have created a dominant class of people who control an inordinate amount of the world’s useful assets. This house of cards is built purely on a system of possession that lends itself to accumulation the hording of value.
The truth is that no one really ever owns anything. We merely agree as a society to recognize, as a matter of right, a system of priority of access for assigned periods of time that cannot in any case transcend our own lifetimes or the life expectancy of what we possess. This system that once helped eliminate clan wars for agricultural land and squabbles over horses has always been misused and has restricted the benefits of earthly resources to the few who can accumulate enough to accumulate more. In the era of digital communication and global organization, the evolution of human welfare depends on the ability to develop a system that distributes the benefit of assets to greatest useful effect.
The Agapanthus Triptych raises an essential ethical question: should our system of possession-based ownership be allowed to deprive the world of a highly beneficial piece of art or science? Is it appropriate to allow a wealthy person to buy a Van Gogh so that he can have the freakish pleasure of burning it in his fireplace? Should a cure for a disease be patented and withheld from those who need it but cannot afford it? At what point does the broad potential benefit of something transcend the usefulness of allowing an individual to control access to the benefit? This is the mischief of possession-based wealth accumulation generally. What starts out as a means to ensure survival becomes a means of domination endangering the survival of others. Do we really want possession and accumulation rather than other values, such as innovation, to be the principle factor that empowers human evolution? What is the larger usefulness to giving heiress like Paris Hilton a survival advantage. Just exactly what does the human genome gain from creating such a priority?
As we question how it came to pass that a handful of people in the world wound up with most of the wealth and as we decide whether or not we, as a species, shall let them keep it, we must consider the damage that private ownership of the great treasures of humanity has done to the collective consciousness of the human race. Maximizing the distribution of benefit favors innovators over accumulators as the foundation of human evolution.