Detroit Industry, south wall (detail), Diego Rivera, 1932-33, fresco. Detroit Institute of Arts

For art lovers, there was more depressing news out of Detroit last night.  The Detroit Free Press reported another move on the chaotic chess board of the Detroit bankruptcy case, this time one that could affect the Detroit Institute of Arts. Top creditors, including bond insurers, European banks, and the city’s largest employee union, filed a motion in federal court seeking to have representatives placed on an independent committee that would oversee the assessment and financial valuation of art in the DIA collection (much of it owned by the city).

As the Free Press reported: “The filing suggests major creditors are unlikely to agree to any restructuring plan if they believe Detroit emergency manager Kevyn Orr is offering a low-ball figure for the value of the art.”

So it’s hardball. The language in the motion sweepingly dismisses the importance of the art as anything more than a city asset to be put on the auction block: “The City, however, has the Art, a valuable asset (speculated to be worth billions of dollars) that is not connected with the delivery of any core services the City provides to ensure the health, safety and welfare of its citizens.”

A representative of FGIC (a bond insurer), quoted in the Free Press, stressed the same brute reading of the city’s responsibilities and purpose: “Art, is not an essential asset and especially not one that is essential to the delivery of services in the city,” said FGIC managing director Derek Donnelly.

One fascinating thing about this bankruptcy case is the way it brings into collision different understandings of the city. Donnelly, and the lawyers pursuing the city’s art collection, is simply talking the legal language of assets, monetization, recovery and fiduciary responsibility.

Another view of the city, with philosophical roots going back at least to Plato’s The Republic, views the “essential services” of what was once called the polis as far more than a matter of water, roads, sewers and emergency responders. The city educates, it molds character, it prepares one for life and even more important, for death.

The idea of a city having responsibilities to its citizens larger than simply running basic services isn’t popular these days. The implications of this will seem to many socialist, and in Plato’s dialogue they become terrifyingly authoritarian. But the notion that the city has in its care our intellectual and even spiritual (though not necessarily religious) wellbeing is deeply embedded in our contemporary culture of museums, parks, libraries and education–even if people who believe this don’t feel comfortable simply saying it.

This larger, more sweeping view of the city is difficult to justify to a skeptical public, especially one overburdened by financial stress and deeply suspicious of government at any scale.  And it’s been decades, at least, since public figures were comfortable talking about art as something essential to life–not just the cherry atop the ice-cream sundae of our basic hierarchy of needs. Indeed, using culture to mold character–or worse, to “civilize”–was often directly tied to a melting-pot agenda based on a single, class-based and ethnically hierarchical definition of what it meant to be American.

Those ideas, freely articulated by the founders of our major cultural institutions a century and more ago, now sound terribly patriarchal and condescending. But it’s hard to see how one makes a case for keeping the art in Detroit, and our museums inviolate, without a broader intellectual argument for the civic necessity of cultural institutions. One of the few positive things that may emerge from the wreckage in Detroit is the realization, by people who honestly believe that museums and art are essential to daily life, that they need to say just that.

It will be curious to see if anyone emerges to defend the following propositions: That the nurturing of the mind and the care of the soul aren’t secondary or tertiary niceties, they are at least equally important to the other basic needs the city meets;  and cities, perhaps better than any other government entities, can play a constructive and necessary role in that process.