As the theft of the $55 million Van Gogh painting caused a national scandal, an impeding issue was disregarded, which is the cultural decadence in Egypt. As culture cannot be valued by money, its downfall is no big issue, but a painting stolen becomes a crisis because it costs millions. Of course, the theft is just a reflection of the dissipation of culture and the lack of awareness that is prevalent among most citizens. But one has to ask: Would anyone have cared if the painting didn’t cost so much. Does its value merely present itself in its material value?
Ahmed Abdel Aziz, the head of the sculpting department at the Fine Arts University believes that the phenomenon of measuring art by its material value is worldwide and not limited to Egypt and can be clearly seen in the auctions that are held for art collectors. As for the painting, Abdel Aziz believes that it derives its fame from the stories behind it, like how it was stolen before, or the stories surrounding Van Gogh and his rebelliousness and how he cut his ears. Nobody looks at the painting for its mere artistic value.
He elaborated by saying that regarding Van Gogh’s story, it could be a hint for understanding his paintings more, yet shouldn’t be the reason for his fame. “The fact that he cut his ear indicates that he was impulsive, which explains his brushstrokes,” he said.
In most arts there is an evident downfall in Egypt, from music to film to theater to painting and sculpture. That is not to say that art is not produced anymore, but it lacks resources and an environment appreciative of the arts.
One such example is an incident experienced by Salem Salah, the former manager of the Mahmoud Khalil museum, and was written about in an article in ‘Al Dostor’ newspaper. He has been part of a commission that was formed by the Fine Arts Sector in 1999. On a visit to the Alexandria museum he found the Security woman eating foul and taameya on some paintings by the Alexandrian artist ‘Seif Wanly’ spread underneath.
An incident as such proves the value that art has in Egypt. Artists put their soul and effort in their work and it is saddening to see it spread out underneath a woman’s breakfast. This image summarizes the state that art is going through.
The demeaning way by which the theft was conducted only proves further that even if the painting was looked upon by merely its materialistic value, it was neglected nevertheless. This makes the problem even worse. At least in international auctions, even if artwork gets its value from its cost and name more than its actual meaning, it is well taken care of.
“Workers in the museum wouldn’t care about the painting or its cost for that matter, because their low wages,” said Antoine Hafez, a Fine Arts architecture student “art has become a luxury.”
Another example also in the same ‘Al Dostor’ article by Salem Salah, was an incident preceding the first theft of the painting. When the security guard, who was responsible, got questioned, he pleaded to pay three pounds each month from his salary to pay for the painting. He was let go, of course, considering that he didn’t even know the cost of the painting.
Fatma Naoot, a writer and a columnist in “El Masry El Youm’, thinks that art has become a luxury under the current regime, even though it shouldn’t be. Her passion towards Van Gogh is expressed through several articles of hers at different times of her life and the theft has saddened her immensely. In one article she expresses the solace she finds in looking at pictures of Van Gogh, describing how she tracked down her old dusty ‘Van Gogh’ book after being involved in a gallery about the Duweiqua victims. “I had forgotten the pure joy that these brushstrokes and colors emit. They serve the same purpose as music. Whenever life is tough I find my escape in these works,” she wrote in her article in November 2008.
“Having one of his paintings in Egypt, is a kind of a heavenly gift or a treasure which we lost,” Naoot said “the people are forced to be ignorant so as not to appreciate it.”
She elaborated by saying that ancient Egyptians used to appreciate arts and that it’s the first civilization on earth to create arts and science. Yet, the current government made sure to keep people ignorant by starving them. “The education system should be blown up, then rebuilt from scratch on a new respectable formula paying respect to the mind and spirit and culture of the students,” she added and said that the current art scene in Egypt is amazing. She further elaborated that Egyptian artists are appreciated abroad.
“Every environment is suitable for art. Arts are a human essential and need, like breathing. Yet when you get hit on the head by the hammer of ignorance and hunger, art becomes a luxury,” Naoot said.
As Van Gogh struggled with his depression and demons throughout his last years he produced a myriad of paintings that he put his soul in. It is no wonder that in a country where a person’s soul is undervalued, such a painting would be neglected and only acknowledged by its high price: $ 55 million.
“I didn’t even know we have a Van Gogh painting in Egypt before the theft and I don’t think Egypt deserves a painting with such worth.” Karim Gabriel, a material engineering student.
“I think it’s fake. The original one got stolen in 70s and came back under suspicious circumstances. I think the theft as a whole shows how there’s no organization in any aspect of our life anymore. The guards were praying when it got stolen. Why do they pray, then?” Jasmine Zaki.
“We have to realize that thefts like this happen worldwide. Only a few months ago I was in Paris and an art piece got stolen. So it is not because we are a third world country, and have less security measures, that this happened. It is because the Ministry did not see it as a priority to keep top security (cameras, surveillance, monitors, guards) at all times in a place that holds many valuable pieces as the Khalil Museum.” Ahmed Omar, the head of the production unit at the Studio Emad Eddin Foundation.
“I feel like our society isn’t really aware of the value of modern art. Of course I’m not saying the average person has to have a better understanding of impressionism. We’ve got bigger problems. It’s funny because it’s exactly those problems that make this theft so ironic. Van Gogh was a poor man that wasn’t really recognized in his lifetime–he surfaced in the late 1800s when people like Delacroix were reviving Roccoco and being applauded for it. Van Gogh depicted the poor and the working class instead of the rich 18th century French people frolicking in gardens that you usually find in Roccoco work. And now in the 21st century, it’s those ridiculous decadence-glorifying Roccoco paintings and Louis XIV furniture that decorate the typical fancy Egyptian living room. On a personal level I’m just sad. I’ve read his letters, I’ve studied his work and I, like so many other people, love the man. That painting was the closest I was ever going to get to meeting him. It doesn’t feel like theft, it feels like a kidnapping.” Sarah Abdel Razak, art graduate.
“I don’t care ENOUGH. When I first heard of the whole thing I was disappointed and ashamed, let alone angry. It’s Van Gogh! But when given a little time, I found that I shouldn’t be that disappointed, that’s how things are here generally…. chaotic and messy and screwed up, so it’s rather expected… sad but true. The whole thing turned into a joke… with the statue breaking… the false statements.. Farce-like. Now, I honestly don’t care, maybe the painting is better off wherever it is (fact that it’s torn off its frame aside) instead of being neglected in some museum with no audience or functioning security.” Hagar Abada
“I care so much. I personally believe it’s a huge loss although I personally didn’t know there was a museum with all those paintings.” Nada El-Shafei.