Category Archives: fine arts

explaining the crisis in architecture

Tyler Cowen recently posed the “mystifying question: Why has our advanced, modern and wealthy world ceased building beautiful neighborhoods?” He notes that the “modern world has produced striking individual buildings, such as Guggenheim Bilbao or the Seattle Public Library, among many others.” But “modern residential neighborhoods are not very aesthetically appealing.” He adds, “This is not a purely subjective judgment (though it is my personal subjective judgment).” Instead, it is a fact that people “pay money to see … older neighborhoods, dating as far back as medieval times but pretty much never after 1940. Tysons Corner just isn’t as charming as Old Town Alexandria.”

As in the good old days of the blogosphere, his article has generated in-depth replies, e.g., from Scott Alexander and Scott Sumner. You can find some disagreement about Cowen’s premise, plus a range of explanations, especially economic ones.

I would offer a different type of explanation. For a millennium, European architecture unfolded as a series of styles: romanesque, gothic, renaissance, baroque, neoclassical, rococo. During transitional periods, more than one style could be found in a given place, but usually a single style prevailed.

This situation had three major advantages. First, everyone from stonemasons to famous architects acquired complementary training and experience. If a certain kind of ornament was part of the style, architects knew how to sketch it; masons knew how to carve it. Second, architects could work from templates and models: they didn’t face a blank sheet of paper. They weren’t expected to be creative geniuses. Third, each style had a powerful justification. It was loaded with cultural significance. Just for example, renaissance architecture was a deliberate movement to restore the ethos of late-Roman Christianity, seen as the best era in history. It is inspiring to use an architectural repertoire if you are convinced that it is the best possible one.

Beginning in the late 1700s, Europeans learned much more about–and became more appreciative of–the history of culture and the many styles that has unfolded over time. Simultaneously, they became more conscious and somewhat more respectful of styles from the Middle East and Asia. They began to see cultures as plural and styles as aesthetic choices. “All artistic styles [are] bound in place and time,” wrote Nietzsche.

That recognition ended the procession of period styles. In the 1800s, almost all architecture by Europeans and European settlers on other continents was revivalist. Buildings were self-consciously gothic, or renaissance, or “Moorish” or “Mogul.” I have learned to appreciate this work, especially when it merges new technologies and social needs with revived styles. A 20-story cast-iron gothic building is an impressive innovation. Nevertheless, few 19th-century buildings meet Cowen’s test of drawing tourists for their architecture, as older buildings do. Certainly, people travel to see the neo-gothic Big Ben or the neo-classical US Capitol Building, but not specifically for their architecture.

Modernists decried revivalism as fake and bourgeois. They proposed an alternative: functionalism or minimalism. Modernists argued that architecture could transcend style permanently by expressing a building’s true function. Gropius wrote:

We have had enough and to spare of the arbitrary reproduction of historical styles … The modern building should derive its architectural significance solely from the vigour and consequence of its own organic proportions. It must be true to itself … A breach has been made with the past. … The morphology of dead styles has been destroyed; we are returning to honesty of thought and feeling.

Modernism produced many masterpieces and even whole impressive neighborhoods of ordinary buildings, as in Miami or Tel Aviv. But soon it was obvious that modernism, too, was a style. In theory, you can do all sorts of things with basic elements like flat walls and windows. In practice, a modernist building looked a certain way. Postmodernism then emerged as a critique of modernism’s pretense to have escaped style. A perfect example is Philip Johnson AT&S Building, a minimalist box with a “Chippendale” baroque roof tacked on the top.

The resulting crisis explains why everyday architecture is not as good as it was until ca. 1800. We still see new works of architectural genius–often buildings that work like original sculptures and that take full advantage of technology. In the absence of a prevailing style, a great artist can invent something personal and original. But that solution cannot work for whole neighborhoods.

We also have plenty of revivalism, with imitations of mid-century modernism now joining neo-Palladian and even neo-Gothic homes. I think it is a fair generalization that most of this is worse than the revivalism of the 19th century, partly for economic reasons (like the Baumol effect), and partly because we instinctively share the modernists’ resistance to imitating past styles. New styles also pop up periodically, like the one I tried to describe here and that others have amusingly named “Simcityism,” “McUrbanism,” “blandmarks,” “LoMo”, or “Spongebuild Squareparts.” Vernaculars like this one don’t last or spread widely, because they quickly look dated.

Quotations from Levine, Nietzsche and the Modern Crisis of the Humanities (pp. 138-9). See also: architecture of the 2010s;  love what you see: Kogonada’s Columbus (2017); a way forward for high culture; what is cultural appropriation?; Notre-Dame is eminently restorable; Basilica of Notre-Dame, Montreal; etc.

The Dictionary of the Khazars, pro and con

Milorad Pavic‘s Dictionary of the Khazars (1982) was prominent at the end of the last century, translated into scores of languages and much discussed. I didn’t read it then but got to it this past summer. Its subtitle is A Lexicon Novel, and it consists of alphabetical entries that are heavily cross-referenced. To Pavic’s delight, the order of the entries is different in each translation. He says that he doesn’t want you to read it from the first to the last page (as I did) but to follow links at your own will. The book was published just when hypertext was developing, and it surely owed some of its influence to being on that cutting edge. In a current Kindle edition, you can click words to move around–but we are used to doing that now.

The topic is the story (originally from Judah Halevy) that the Khazars, a real medieval people, converted to Judaism after holding a debate among a Christian, a Moslem, and a Jew. The Dictionary consists of Christian, Moslem, and Jewish sections. The book we’re reading is supposed to have had a long and tortuous history (one edition was poisonous), and the entries concern characters and events from the original conversion period, from the 1600s, and from the 1900s. That produces a 3-by-3 grid of religions and eras into which all the specific entries fit. The whole thing is intricately symmetrical, so that there is guaranteed to be a Moslem 20th-century analogue for a Jewish 17th- century character, and so on.

The whole text is very dream-like. It’s too magical to be magic-realism: people are constantly changing form and doing amazing things for mysterious reasons. Dreams are also an explicit topic, since the Khazars’ priests were “dream hunters.” They interpreted people’s dreams and could follow a thread from one dreamer to another when the first person dreamed of the second one. According to their religion, all our dreams collectively formed the body of the original man, or Adam. As you might expect, it turns out there are still dream-hunters among us today.

The Abrahamic faiths derive scriptures from their founding eras. But they also tell many subsequent stories: tales of saints and sages and miracles. These stories are dream-like, by which I don’t necessarily mean they are false. (That is up to you to decide). They are like dreams in that they are surprising stories with strong symbolic meanings and recurrent motifs. And the three religions’ stories pervasively interconnect. The same people often figure in the dream-like tales of Jews, Christians, and Moslems, albeit sometimes bearing different names, or changing their roles from heroes to villains, or appearing in new contexts. In that sense, an interlinked series of dream-like stories is a great way to represent the world co-created by the Abrahamic faiths.

This fictional world seems cosmopolitan (since the religions are equal and related), free (you can choose your own path), ironic and subversive, and avant-garde. You may or may not enjoy it, but it seems fit for enjoyment.

On the other hand … The Khazars themselves turn out to be a self-hating people, consistently favoring the Jewish, Christian, and Moslem foreigners in their midst until they subject themselves to conversion and then actually vanish. Just for example:

As is known, when a people vanishes, the first to disappear are the upper classes, and with them literature; all that remains are books of law, which the people know by heart. The same can be said of the Khazars. In their capital, sermons in the Khazar language are expensive, whereas in Hebrew, Arabic, or Greek they are cheap or free of charge. Curiously, once they are outside their state the Khazars are reluctant to reveal their Khazar origin, preferring to avoid one another and conceal the fact that they speak and understand the Khazar language, hiding it from their own compatriots even more than from foreigners. In the country itself, people not proficient in the Khazar language, which is the official language, are more highly regarded in the civil and administrative services. Consequently, even people who are fluent in the Khazar language will often deliberately speak it incorrectly, with a foreign accent, from which they derive a manifest advantage. Even with translators – for instance, from Khazar into Hebrew, or Greek into Khazar – the people selected are those who make mistakes in the Khazar language or pretend to do so.

This is plausibly how a nationalistic professor of Serbian literature might feel about his own ethnic group inside Tito’s Yugoslavia. Thus a book that was read around the world as a postmodern ironist’s game was apparently read in Serbia as a nationalist tract.

It might be harmless for a writer to adopt aggrieved nationalism, especially in a work of fiction that is pervasively playful. Maybe it was just a stance. However, it seems that Pavic continued to espouse similar ideas even while Serbian armies were massacring other former Yugoslavs. In 1992, he said “I am a Khazar too because the fate of my family was very similar and in the end we went back to our original religion” (quoted in Wachtel, p. 638). It appears that he was completely serious about the Khazar/Serb analogy and genuinely aggrieved as a Serb. At least, he did not distance himself from the nationalistic implications of his work.

I’m not sure what I think about the ethics of having read this novel for fun. Of course, authors do not control their own texts, least of all texts like this one. So maybe the author’s political intentions are not all that important. I certainly did not become a Serbian nationalist as a result of reading the Dictionary of the Khazars, so maybe no harm done. And I deeply appreciate Pound and Eliot, notwithstanding their views. On the other hand, would I read a playful, possibly gimmicky novel that reflected one of the world’s other forms of bigotry? Caveat emptor, I suppose.

See Andrew Wachtel, “Postmodernism as Nightmare: Milorad Pavic’s Literary Demolition of Yugoslavia,” The Slavic and East European Journal, vol. 41, no. 4, 1997, pp. 627–644; and David Damrosch, “Death in Translation,” in Nation, Language, and the Ethics of Translation, edited by Sandra Bermann and Michael Wood (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005), pp. 380-398; and cf. Ivo Andric, Bosnian Chronicle, Or, The Days of the Consuls

Andrei Rublev by Andrei Tarkovsky

In the Guardian, Steve Rose called Andrei Rublev by Andrei Tarkovsky (1966) “the best arthouse film of all time.” When I had a day alone recently, I watched its three hours. Here are some notes that don’t duplicate anything I can find in English on the Internet. They do contain plot spoilers.

The setting is Russia in the first decade of the 1400s. The people are beset by Tatars, oppressive rulers, and plagues. The landscape often looks like an environmental catastrophe. Tarkovsky uses many long takes, panoramic shots, and set-pieces in which the actors are positioned like figures on a stage or in a painting.

Rublev is a monk and icon-painter. Despite being the moral focus of the film, he is on screen not much more than three other monks. Maybe it was just me, but I found it challenging to keep track of individuals from one scene to another. That task is easier in a written text, because narrators typically use names and may inform us when we have already encountered a given character. Tarkovsky seems content to present life in the confusing way that it actually unfolds.

In the opening scene, a man makes a solo hot-air balloon ride, rising next to an unfinished Orthodox cathedral and then across a river dotted by small boats. Some people help him while others try to bring him down. Although the balloon is anachronistic, it looks suitably medieval. It closely resembles the great bell that is cast in the final scenes of the film–for the same cathedral–and raised from its subterranean mold across the river to the belfry. The balloon and the bell have similar sizes, shapes, and trajectories. The balloon-ride appears to be a stunt that fails, whereas the bell is a spiritual and aesthetic success accomplished by the people, working together.

The second third major scene opens with a man being tortured in the public square as someone cries out that he might be innocent. The artist-monk Kirill walks past this execution and into the cool interior of a church, where he meets another icon-painter, Theophanes the Greek. They discuss the project that will involve Rublev and become his masterpiece. Back outside, we see the dead man’s bloody body.

In several key scenes, the Russian folk are shown in authentic rituals or celebrations–enjoying a jester mocking the Boyar nobility, enacting the Passion of Christ, or engaging in a midnight pagan orgy. (Compare Natascha’s dance in War and Peace.) In several scenes, they are cruelly crushed by Russian nobles, Tatars, or a conspiracy of both.

Observing these events, Rublev develops a populist and antinomian Orthodox theology. He feels he cannot complete his commission to paint the cathedral because it would require an image of the Last Judgment to terrify the people. Inside the bare cathedral, an apprentice reads 1 Corinthians 11 while the mute girl Durochka, a “holy fool” with long blond hair, watches in fascination:

“If a woman does not cover her head, she should have her hair cut off; and if it is a disgrace for a woman to have her hair cut or shaved off, she should cover her head. A man ought not to cover his head, since he is the image and glory of God; but the woman is the glory of man. For man did not come from woman, but woman from man …

Rublev gets an idea: “They are celebrating. It’s a holiday! They are not sinners. Nor is she [Durochka], even if she doesn’t wear a cover.” He will paint joyous scenes for the people.

The interior of the church immediately after Rublev has announced his plan, showing the Holy Fool and the monk Daniil, who had commanded the reading of Corinthians.

Muteness is a motif. The jester has his tongue cut out. Durochka cannot speak. Andrei takes a vow of silence and refuses to paint after he kills a man to save Durochka. The new bell almost fails to ring–and if it never works, the Grand Duke will have its caster flogged to death.

Andrei has several foils, starting with the man in the balloon ride. Another is Kirill, who betrays the jester to the authorities and later quits holy orders, decrying monkish hypocrisy but seeking worldly gain for himself.

An important foil is Boriska, the young son of a bell-caster who died–with the whole family–of the plague. Boriska claims to know his father’s professional secret. With passionate intensity and perfectionism, he leads a crew to make a great bell, using the melted plate of the Grand Duke. He has lied about the secret, but he turns to God for help. Whether the bell will work is genuinely suspenseful. Foppish Italian visitors observe the young artist with pity: “il povoro regazzo” is bound to die a Russian’s death, tortured by a tyrant, because the bell won’t work. Their foreigners’ chatter is interrupted by the bell sounding sonorously. Boriska confesses his lie to Andrei, who says, “Let’s work together, you casting bells and me painting icons.” He then paints the cathedral’s interior in resplendent colors that we see in the epilogue, after three hours of monochrome.

Jeanine Michna-Bales, Photographs of the Underground Railroad

The Phillips Collection in Washington, DC is showing a series of photographs that Jeanine Michna-Bales has taken on key points along the Underground Railroad. She captures these images at night, as if to illustrate what enslaved people would have experienced as they made their way north. This is the project website.

Online reproductions do no justice to her original photos, which are amazingly luminous chromogenic prints; they grab your attention from across the room.

The forests, rivers, starry skies, and swamps are beautiful–a challenging sensation, since the overall topic of the series is human evil and resistance. Even while people persecute other people, the moon still glows through lush canopies of leaves. Although the natural settings are enjoyable to see in a museum, they would have been frightening at the time–try to imagine crossing a Mississippi swamp by night, even if there weren’t bloodhounds and shotguns behind you.

Most of the signs of human habitation are points of refuge along the way; they look inviting. Michna-Bales accentuates lights left in windows to welcome fugitives. Yet arriving at each “station” must have been a moment of terror, because who knew whether it had been compromised?

The view across the Ohio River into a deeply dark Indiana symbolizes the uncertain future–if one can get that far. (I illustrate this post with a different view, across the Tennessee River in Alabama.)

sighs, short and frequent, were exhaled

April is the cruellest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.

I thought of the opening of the “Waste Land” during an international Zoom call with a dozen lovely people, as they described how spring is breaking in their respective countries during this pandemic year.

If your mind turns to extraordinarily famous classics at such moments, you may be both pretentious and unimaginative. Then again, sometimes a new situation provokes a new look at a canonical text that has become a cliché from too much repetition.

Both T.S. and Vivienne Eliot contracted the Spanish ‘flu during the global pandemic. That experience, along with the First World War, might be in the background of his 1922 poem. Rereading it during a respiratory epidemic prompts new interpretations of passages like this one:

Unreal City,
Under the brown fog of a winter dawn,
A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many,
I had not thought death had undone so many.
Sighs, short and infrequent, were exhaled,
And each man fixed his eyes before his feet.

Even the phrase “Madame Sosostris, famous clairvoyante, / Had a bad cold …” has new implications when read during COVID-19.

As for the opening, the combination of “memory and desire” seems apt for our moment, when many familiar experiences have become distant memories that we yearn to repeat. Lilacs look and smell lovely, but their springtime “breeding” may be a painful process. Each of the first three enjambed lines splits a participle from its object, creating a series of false starts. Are we moving again?

Eliot is surely responding to the cheerful opening of the first great long poem in English:

Whan that Aprille with his shoures soote,
The droghte of March hath perced to the roote,
And bathed every veyne in swich licóur
Of which vertú engendred is the flour ...

However, the opening of “The Waste Land” depicts rebirth as cruel.

Later, Roethke will ask …

This urge, wrestle, resurrection of dry sticks,
Cut stems struggling to put down feet.
What saint strained so much,
Rose on such lopped limbs to a new life?
 -- Theodore Roethke, from "The Lost Son and Other Poems" (1948)

Eliot’s entitles his whole first section “The Burial of the Dead,” referring, perhaps, to that rite from the Anglican Book of Common Prayer. The Anglican prayer emphasizes peaceful rest followed by joyous resurrection: “Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord …” In contrast, I think Eliot’s narrator adopts a tone of metaphysical pessimism, as in classical Buddhism, Schopenhauer, or Silenus’ Greek phrase: “for humans, the best is not to be born at all, not to partake of nature’s excellence; not to be is best.”

This does not mean that pessimism is the spirit of the whole poem, which deliberately presents many voices and perspectives as Eliot portrays a metropolis in the aftermath of trauma.

In fact, it’s worth recovering an alternative to pessimism from the same poem. Apparently, the sequence Datta, Dayadhvam, Damyata (quoting an Upanishad) means: “be self-controlled, be charitable, and be compassionate.” Eliot presents that advice in a passage that is liquid, when most of the poem is bone-dry, and calm, when most of it feels tormented:

Damyata: The boat responded
Gaily, to the hand expert with sail and oar
The sea was calm, your heart would have responded
Gaily, when invited, beating obedient
To controlling hands.

And the whole work ends with the mantra “Shantih. shantih. shantih” (or “peace. peace. peace.”) So may it be.