Category Archives: fine arts

Notre-Dame is eminently restorable

I’m sure others have made this point or are typing it this minute, but I will pile on …

Notre-Dame de Paris is a stunning building but not a well-preserved medieval one. It has been through a lot, including the 18th-century removal of the original stained glass in the nave, the smashing of statuary and most of the remaining glass during the French Revolution, and a profound reconstruction that began in 1844. Some of the most famous features of the cathedral are the work of Eugène Viollet-le-Duc, a Romantic-era restorer who was comfortable redesigning medieval buildings in ways that are now obvious to us. The gargoyles, the spire that collapsed yesterday, portions of the interior architecture, and much of the stained glass is by Viollet-le-Duc, not by anonymous craftsmen of the 12th and 13th centuries. Many other Gothic buildings are much better preserved.

John Ruskin wrote in 1849 (not specifically about Notre-Dame but about the general approach to restoration in his time):

Neither the public, nor those who are responsible for the maintenance of public monuments, understand the true meaning of ‘restoration’. It signifies the most complete destruction that an edifice can suffer; a destruction from which not a single vestige can be recovered; a destruction that comes from the false description of the thing destroyed. It is impossible, as impossible as it is to bring the dead back to life, to restore whatever might have been grand or beautiful in architecture….the enterprise is a lie from the beginning to the end.

Notre-Dame is not a “lie,” but it is to a large degree a legacy of the French Romantic period, as much a creation of Victor Hugo and Viollet-le-Duc as of the first builders in 1160-1260. It is part of the city that we know today, which was profoundly influenced by Georges-Eugène Haussmann (1809-1891), the flattener of ancient neighborhoods and planner of boulevards:

Old Paris is gone (no human heart

changes half so fast as a city’s face) …
There used to be a poultry market here,
and one cold morning … I saw

a swan that had broken out of its cage,
webbed feet clumsy on the cobblestones,
white feathers dragging through uneven ruts,
and obstinately pecking at the drains …

Paris changes … but in sadness like mine
nothing stirs—new buildings, old
neighbourhoods turn to allegory,

and memories weigh more than stone

From Richard Howard’s translation of Baudelaire, Les Fleurs du Mal

It is not a criticism to place Notre-Dame in the 19th century. The years from 1848-1870 mark the apogee of a certain Parisian culture that is admirable and attractive. It was the age of boulevards and cafes, Seine embankments, and Impressionist cityscapes, all of which shape our view of Notre-Dame. The reason the history matters is that we can reconstruct late-19th-century buildings when they are well documented, as every stone of Notre-Dame is. In contrast, we would have neither the materials nor the craftsmanship to reconstruct the stained glass of the nearby Sainte-Chapelle if that were lost.

The fire is a tragedy; the crown jewel of 19th-century Paris will be badly damaged for some time. But in the long run, this will be a footnote.

See also: seeing Paris in chronological order; Paris from the moon; and Basilica of Notre-Dame, Montreal.

architecture of the 2010s

These are brand-new or planned buildings within walking distance of our home in Cambridge, MA.

I see this kind of design all over Boston and have also noticed it as far away as Kyiv. The typical urban architecture of our decade seems as distinctive as that of the 1890s or the 1930s.

The facades are divided into rectilinear panels of various sizes, avoiding regular patterns and symmetry. To differentiate the panels, a range of materials is used–notably, exposed wood, painted wood, brushed steel, some concrete, and tinted or clear glass. Often the panels are set in different planes. The architectural elements use a modernist vocabulary (e.g., windows without moldings, flat roofs, no cornices), but the overall impression is anti-modernist because the patterns have decorative–not functional–purposes.

I don’t know what search terms to use to test this uninformed observation. If you search “architecture 2010s,” the results are all about marquee buildings by world-famous architects, and the trend is radical experimentation with materials and forms–usually organic rather than rectilinear. I’m not sure whether there is a name or a recognized handbook for the kinds of relatively routine (no offense) buildings shown above, but I think they all would have looked odd in 2000 and have become ubiquitous since 2010.

See also love what you see: Kogonada’s Columbus (2017); Boston, recovering city; a complaint about ceilings in modern architecture; and anxieties of influence (a poem about Cambridge MA).

love what you see: Kogonada’s Columbus (2017)

Kogonada’s Columbus (2017) is beautifully filmed in Columbus, IN, a small city stocked with distinguished modernist architecture. Casey (Haley Lu Richardson) had a rough adolescence, but in the midst of that turmoil, she started relishing one particular modernist structure in an ugly strip mall. (I think it is Deborah Berke’s First Financial Bank, below.) She begins to explore the history of modernist architecture and discovers a possible exit from her current life into a world of art and ideas. 

A fine modernist building is an exquisitely planned abstract design composed of a limited number of elements. So is Columbus. The patterns are “subtle” (which is the effect that Casey “goes for” when she cooks for her mom), but also pervasive. For example, Jin (John Cho) and his father are Korean or Korean-American men who form parallel friendships with Midwestern women. Jin and Haley have difficult relationships with parents of the same sex. Near the beginning, Eleanor (Parker Posey) walks across Eero Saarinen’s Miller House toward Jae Yong Lee. Near the end, Casey walks across the Miller House toward Jin. Just like Eliel Saarinen’s First Christian Church, as Casey describes it, the whole film is asymmetrical yet carefully balanced.

Jin’s father left a line-drawing in a notepad, and Jin tries to identify its subject. It could be Mill Race Park Tower by Stanley Saitowitz. Or it might represent negative space, such as the gap in the brick facade of Columbus City Hall by Skidmore, Owings and Merrill. Jin’s father, in his coma, is negative space, and the drawing he left probably does depict the gap in City Hall. But Casey doesn’t like that building, ranking it “low teens, high twenties” on her list of Columbus’ architectural monuments. She strives to bridge gaps–much like James Stewart Polshek’s Mental Health Center, which is built across Haw Creek, with the water flowing beneath for the benefit of the patients.

The film is about appreciating where you are and what you have, taking time to observe. Gabriel (Rory Culkin) even delivers an amusing speech about attention spans, ostensibly summarizing the views of a famous–but absent–critic. Everyone wants Casey to get out of Columbus and escape from her family life, but her moral excellence lies in her genuine love for both. This is not a story about a teenager who needs to break away from a small city in Indiana, but about a person who has learned to see and to love what she sees. Columbus is a lesson in both.

notes on cultural appropriation after the royal wedding

In the current debate about “cultural appropriation,” I would offer these premises: everything is mixed, mixing is good, having your culture borrowed can give you more power, and demands for authenticity are problematic. Although I recognize exceptions and complications, we should start by welcoming “appropriation.”

I have not seen anyone complain that the recent royal wedding was an example of appropriation, and I’m interested in why not. After all, very rich white people incorporated African American culture into their ceremony, literally bringing it into their castle. It seems evident that Black American Christianity arrived in strength and confidence and made the whole ensemble much better than it would otherwise have been. That shows that you can’t judge an act of borrowing without looking closely; and often you will find it admirable.

The wedding was a mashup of English or British traditions with African American culture, the latter in the form of Bishop Michael Curry’s magnificent  sermon and the music (“Stand By Me” and “This Little Light of Mine”). But, like everything human beings do, it’s much more mixed than that. When Rev. Curry read, “Set me as a seal upon your heart, / as a seal upon your arm,” he was sharing his patrimony, a great text of his tradition. He chose the New Revised Standard translation, which subtly echoes the King James Version (particularly prized by African American preachers), which was commissioned by Prince Harry’s eponymous ancestor, James I of England. That Bible was basically an appropriation of the translation by the heretic/martyr William Tyndale, who knew Greek and Hebrew but seems to have read the Song of Songs in the Latin translation by St. Jerome (an Illyrian), who had translated the Greek Septuagint version (made in Egypt), which–in turn–translated the Hebrew original songs, which have parallels with Mesopotamian and Egyptian love poetry of the same era. The songs are attributed to Solomon, who loved the daughter of Pharaoh and “women of the Moabites, Ammonites, Edomites, Zidonians, and Hittites” (1 Kings 11). Solomon sang for all these nations. 

In other words, it’s all borrowing, as far as the eye can see. And not just on Rev. Curry’s side. Prince Harry is a British royal. If you trace his paternal line back a millennium, you reach Elimar I (1040-1112), the Count of Oldenburg in Saxony, from whom also descend the royal families of Russia, Greece, and Denmark, among others. Windsor Chapel was founded by a King of England of Viking descent whose motto was the Middle French phrase Honi soit qui mal y pense

I can’t resist noting that if you discuss “appropriation,” you are using a word derived from the Latin appropriare, which is first attested in the medical work of Caelius Aurelianus, who was an African man, a subject of Rome, best known from translating from Greek.

But doesn’t borrowing a cultural product mean taking it from the people who rightly hold it? Isn’t it therefore an act of power that benefits the taker?

Not necessarily, because culture isn’t zero-sum. Everyone can draw from the cultural commons. Jefferson said, “He who receives an idea from me, receives instruction himself without lessening mine; as he who lites his taper at mine, receives light without darkening me.”

Power is relevant, and it’s not OK to steal other people’s patrimony, like Napoleon carting off 695 Roman sculptures to fill the Louvre. But culture has power of its own, even when it’s set against guns and money.

Again, consider the juxtaposition of English aristocrats and African Americans at the recent wedding. There is no doubt that Black Americans face structural as well as intentional racism, in a pattern that extends across the Atlantic; Britain is implicated in it. White English people who are invited to a royal wedding are far more privileged than Americans of African descent.

But not more culturally powerful. Surely in our world of 7.6 billion, the 40 million Black Americans have some of the most “soft power.” Influence is currently flowing from Black America to places like Windsor Castle in a mighty stream.

One of the reasons is sheer excellence. I don’t think you can properly assess cultural transfer unless you are attuned to quality. Perhaps we should appreciate all the cultural traditions of the world for what they are, but there are great peaks as well as modest hills. The African American church is one of the mightiest ranges. It contributes theology, rhetoric, music, a political repertoire, and a distinctive moral vision to the whole world. Of course, it is made from a mixture of elements: so is everything human. But this mixture is particularly powerful. In the exquisite setting of a late-Gothic royal chapel, representatives of the traditions of the Black church added their unique voices and made the whole greater than the sum of its parts. There are excellent reasons not to call such moments “appropriation.”

See also: what is cultural appropriation?when is cultural appropriation good or bad?cultural mixing and powerMaoist chic as Orientalismeveryone unique, all connectedJesus was a person of color.

notes on John Ashbery, Paradoxes and Oxymorons

A “plain” is a level place. Some plains are places that were leveled. Isaiah 40:4: “Every valley shall be raised up, every mountain and hill made low; the rough ground shall become level, the rugged places a plain.”

A “level” is a device for seeing whether things are flat. It helps us put different objects on the same level or on the same plane.

If you “level” with people, you give them the plain facts, no playing around.

“Play”: an activity conducted for enjoyment, not for a practical purpose. It is activity without an end. Two people can play, which requires cooperation as well as competition. You can be played. “To play”: to turn written music into sound. A play is also a thing with an opening and an ending.

“Attitude” is the orientation of an object, such as an airplane, relative to the level ground. A level would be needed to measure a plane’s attitude. If you were trying to hit a target with a plane, a level would help you keep the attitude right so that you wouldn’t miss it.

If you Google “division of grace,” the first hit is Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologiae, First Part of the Second Part, Question 111, “The division of grace,” which begins, “Whether grace is fittingly divided into sanctifying grace and gratuitous grace?” Part of his answer: “gratuitous grace … is bestowed on a man … not to justify him, but rather that he may cooperate in the justification of another …” Aquinas proves this point with authorities and reasons.

John Ashbery didn’t have Google. I have no idea whether these obscure puns that I found by searching the Web were on his mind. But he already lived in a world of words, excessive words, words that referred to each other, that demanded attention, that bored, that confused. “It gets lost in the steam and chatter of typewriters.”

(“It?” There is literally a missing word “it” in the phrase “And before you know /It gets lost …” What gets lost? “It” is so lost that it’s not even printed in the poem.)

A poem is just a string of words. That is all it is at a “plain level.” We are deluged with words. Most text is not poetry, but even poems are enormously common, and most of them are worth very little. To write something that qualifies as a poem is easy–you just type. You make a keyboard chatter until you have rows of words. Unless your name is John Ashbery, chances are low that anyone will read those lines.

Still, if you’ve poured yourself into those words, you want someone to follow them, to play with them, to concentrate on their levels of meaning, including the levels that were plain and the ones you never noticed. You don’t want them looking out a window and fidgeting. (Let alone pretending to fidget! Who pretends to fidget?)

A poem and you are like possible lovers, but the poem doesn’t have much of a chance; there are so many other words that you could notice instead. The poem will be sad if you don’t play with it.

But suddenly, in the final stanza, you and the poem are joined by a third party. “And the poem / Has set me softly down beside you. The poem is you.” Who is this “me”?

As long as the story is about a poem wanting to connect and feeling sad, it’s all fun and games: wordplay. But when you realize that the poem is the voice of a human being who wants to connect with you, suddenly it’s not just play but also love.

“Paradoxes and Oxymorons” from Shadow Train by John Ashbery. Copyright © 1980, 1981 by John Ashbery. Source. See also “signal” and “a poem should.”