Tag Archives: civilization

Comic Book Colors and Western Culture

Contemporary artists and designers often pride themselves on the use of bright colors and bold patterns to attract us, the consumers of their products.  Whether it’s a piece of sculpture or a rug, a pair of socks or a cocktail dress, we like to think of ourselves as living in a world where we are daring if we pick a color that is not a neutral.  Those bright red trousers you’re wearing to work now that Spring and warm weather have finally arrived might make you think that you’re a bold, outspoken sort of fellow.

Except, of course, for the fact that this has all been done before: you were just never told about it.

If your visual experience of Western Civ 101 in high school or college was limited to viewing some grainy slides via a poorly lit projector, or paging through some hazy illustrations in a textbook, you could reasonably be forgiven for thinking that Western culture up until the 20th century was pretty murky and dark.  Yet when we look at a cleaned and restored work of art from our past, brought back as near as possible to its original state, we can appreciate how people who lived centuries ago not only loved to use color, but were just as bold as we are in the use of it, if not more so.  They surrounded themselves with domestic objects, buildings, and works of art that were brightly colored.  And they themselves dressed in those almost garishly bright colors which we associate with things like cartoons and comic books.

A perfect example of this is what I’m using for my wallpaper at present, appropriately for Easter, a painting of the Resurrection by the Florentine Renaissance artist Raffaellino del Garbo (c. 1476-1527).  Most of us today associate the Easter season with very bright colors after the months of dull, late winter grays and browns.  When it comes to public celebrations, ladies’ hats, and decorations such as Easter eggs, Easter grass, baskets full of colorfully wrapped candies, etc., we love to get out the virtual box of crayons and go a bit off the deep end in an explosion of color.  However this particular artist’s image of Easter is about as Easter Parade-y as you can get.

Look at the figures of the Roman soldiers and Temple guards reacting to Christ’s Resurrection from the dead on Easter Sunday morning.  It is a bright, sunny day, well past sunrise, and as Jesus rises from the grave dressed in white garments, the soldiers are falling down like dead men and running away, just as Scripture tells us.  One poor fellow in the lower left foreground has even had the stone slab from the tomb land on top of him.

Now take a moment to notice what incredible colors these fellows are wearing.  We see these tough soldiers dressed in salmon pink, coral red, periwinkle blue, spring green, dusty rose, saffron yellow, and midnight blue.  There’s no camouflage here: even the very few gray, brown, and white articles of clothing worn by these fighting men only serve to enhance the bright colors of their other garments.

It’s worthwhile to take a look at what the painting looked like before it was cleaned of its old varnish, and notice how dark and yellowed it was.  I think oftentimes this is the sort of image which misinforms our impression of Western civilization.  We’re taught, whether intentionally or not, to see the past and the people who lived centuries before us as collectively dusty, yellowed, confused, ignorant, and unexciting.  One look at this picture as restored should permanently dispel that badly-learned lesson from your mind, and this is but one example among many.

The truth is that there is always something heroic, fresh, and invigorating about Western culture.  This image neatly sums up that fact, for del Garbo clearly believed that he was living in an exciting, vibrant time when he created this work of art.  He chose to depict the boldness of his own day, in the figures of the soldiers he painted, rather than sticking strictly to an historical interpretation of what 1st century Judea probably looked like.  In doing so he preserves, almost like a snapshot, what people who lived 500 years ago thought of themselves, their faith, their culture, and their world.  Theirs is not some dark and gloomy, scary place, but an attractive, bright and cheerful spot worth a visit.  Who wouldn’t want to picnic beside the Roman ruins in the background of this picture, under the trees on a bright Easter Sunday?

Perhaps it’s time we get out some of the varnish stripper, ourselves.  Let’s try to wipe away some of the jaundiced coloring that has been shading our eyes to the bright, heroic achievements of those who came before us.  We are part of a long tradition in Western culture, if we would but recognize it.

"The Resurrection" by Raffaellino del Garbo (c. 1500-1510) Accademia, Florence

“The Resurrection” by Raffaellino del Garbo (c. 1500-1510)
Accademia, Florence

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That’s About the Size of It

Often we are told that in order to truly appreciate something, we need to physically go and look at it.  We understand a foreign culture better, or can marvel at the wonders of the natural world more readily, if we take these things in for ourselves.  Yet while oftentimes people think nothing of trekking off to an insalubrious part of the world to experience a completely foreign culture, I wonder how often they take the time to explore the genius of human creativity in their own culture, when given the opportunity to do so.

No doubt looking at the Himalayas in person tells us a great deal more about them than simply watching a documentary on television.  Yet so too in art, we learn far more from actually examining the historical treasures of Western civilization than we do from flipping through a book or clicking on images.  The benefit of going to see such things can truly change our perceptions of the subject matter, and increase our admiration for the level of skill and achievement which these artists were able to reach.

Seeing something in person fundamentally changes one’s perceptions, there can be no question.  I was at a Christmas party at a rather swank Washington hotel a couple of years ago, when two very well-known reporters from CNN showed up.  Both were of far, far shorter of stature than I had imagined them to be, which made them less imposing than I had imagined, and more approachable.  This is a common occurrence, for when we see someone on-screen or in print on a reasonably regular basis, we develop an idea in our heads as to their size, which sometimes bears no resemblance to reality.

The same holds true when it comes to works of art, for good reason. A book or a computer screen displaying a photograph of a famous painting is not necessarily displaying that painting at its true size. Rather, the image is blown up or shrunk down to accommodate the limitations of the display space. This is why although one can learn a great deal from books, in the end it is the experience of actually seeing the art that brings its full impact and increases our understanding.

Take for example the sculpture I chose yesterday for my Lenten Facebook wallpaper, before logging off. “The Merciful Christ” by Juan Martínez Montañés (1568-1649), a realistic portrayal of Jesus on the cross, probably completed sometime between 1603 and 1605. Someone dropping by my Facebook page may look at the photograph of the sculpture, and associate the image with the type of wall crucifix that one often sees in Catholic institutions, such as schools and hospitals.   In fact, “The Merciful Christ” is almost life-size, as one can see in the photograph accompanying this post.  This is not a wall crucifix for most people, unless you happen to have the acres of wall space necessary to be able to accommodate something this large hanging over your desk or bed.

In the 18th and 19th centuries, a lady or a gentleman’s education was not considered complete until they had made a tour of several countries in Europe.  Part of their education was to see famous paintings, sculptures, buildings, gardens, and so on.  The value of this practice was viewed primarily as being educational: they or their families thought that it was important to get a sense of Western heritage, of taste, of history, and shared values, which they would be able to employ in order to help lead their communities back home.

Visiting great works of art does not necessarily have to involve trans-oceanic travel, of course.  There are many fine museums in the United States where one can go and understand better why we are fortunate to live in our present society, whatever its myriad of faults.  And the objects contained in the galleries of these places are physical expressions of why we have the ideals, values, and freedoms we do have in the Western tradition.

A great painting or sculpture is something made by human hands, however many centuries ago.  Someone individually crafted an expression of their own human experiences – faith, love, sorrow, joy, hope, loss, etc. – which chances are you yourself have experienced and thought about.  The artist expresses that which they value, by using the creative talents they were given by their Creator.  So by going along to see their work, and hopefully recognizing that mutual bond you share, you will realize how much good and beauty our civilization has achieved and is still capable of achieving, as well as how much we need to remember and celebrate those good things we have managed to create, as much as we do natural wonders or exotic cultures.

Carmelite admiring the "Christ of Mercy" at an exhibition in London

Carmelite admiring the “Merciful Christ” at an exhibition in London

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Coffee: The Basis of Western Civilization

Every morning during the work week, I drop in at a French pâtisserie chain on my way to the office.  Being a creature of habit, when the staff see me coming in, they simply turn and start making my drink without even having to ask what I will have.  We exchange pleasantries, money is exchanged for good and service, and then I leave.  By the time I get to work, the coffee is finished, and I am ready to begin my day.

This is a scenario familiar to most of us.  What we often do not stop to think about however, is how this ritual is a far, far lesser version of what the ritual of drinking coffee used to be.  Neither, I suspect, do we stop to think about how much our modern civilization owes to the habit of coffee drinking. Let’s consider just two examples.

In the Western world, coffee developed its own set of rules and paraphernalia, in much the same way that similar expensive, imported beverages like tea or hot chocolate did.  Grand coffee service sets were manufactured by the great porcelain manufacturers in places like Limoges and Dresden, so that the well-to-do could enjoy the expensive beverage in style.  If you were well-off, or aspired to be, you wanted a coffee service, and there were plenty of businesses more than happy to provide you with that product, at whatever price point you could afford.

The notion of drinking coffee in a paper cup with a plastic lid would have been anathema to the people who treated it with respect, for coffee was viewed as something special.  It was savored for its unique flavor, rather than simply gulped down as a commonplace thing.  Serving coffee was a way for families and friends to spend time together in conversation, without suffering from the intoxicating effects of alcohol.  Then as now, the caffeine jolt put people in a better, more chatty mood, and the connections made over the coffee ritual kept polite society going.

Those who could not enjoy coffee at home were able to experience the emergence of coffee houses in Vienna, Paris, Rome, and elsewhere, in imitation of those found in places like Istanbul.  These cafes had a powerful effect on the development of Western economics, politics, and culture, which many of us may not think about when we pop into one of them for a pick-me-up.  They served as locations where people gathered to discuss and share ideas, debate the news of the day, and conduct business, again without risk of becoming intoxicated.  And because there was no distinction made between rich and poor, aristocrat and peasant, they allowed people from different strata of society to meet and get to know one another, in ways which they normally would not and could not.

For example, the modern stock market, as we understand it today, came about through the drinking of coffee.  London stockbrokers in the 17th and 18th centuries were considered too ungentlemanly to engage in business transactions inside the Royal Exchange, the Elizabethan-era market hall for manufacturers and merchants.  Barred from getting involved in trading on the Exchange themselves, these middlemen would gather in the coffeehouses around the building, to make deals with each other on behalf of their clients.

Gradually, these early caffeine fiends began buying and selling shares, commodities, and securities on a larger and larger scale.  Eventually they took over what had been the functions of the Royal Exchange, and created the London Stock Exchange, from which all modern stock markets (arguably) descend.  The principles adopted through trial, error, and debate in coffeehouse culture came to define how a large segment of the financial world operated.  Thus, the practical applications of capitalism in the marketplace, and the wide variety of consumer goods those of us in the West enjoy today are due, in no small part. to coffee.

So the next time you ask for your Americano with an extra shot to go, and slip on that cardboard drink sleeve, take a moment to think about what the ritual of coffee drinking once was, and what it brought about.  That bitter beverage played a tremendous role in the development of the civilization in which you happen to live.  While perhaps we cannot go back, on a practical level, to the days of treating coffee with the finesse which our forefathers did, we can at least remember to appreciate it just a bit more, every now and then.

Detail of a Meissen coffee pot (c. 1730-1735) Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Detail of a Meissen coffee pot (c. 1730-1735)
Victoria and Albert Museum, London

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Denver Diary: Water, Water, Nowhere

For part two of my Denver Diary, reflecting on some of my experiences in that city over this past weekend, I want to share a bit with you about something rather basic which many of us may not think about, until we find ourselves in a dry climate.  For Denver is very, very, very dry.  Not in the Prohibition sense thank goodness, but rather the air has a strange sort of moisture-wicking quality.  If UnderArmour could somehow bottle it into a line of toiletries, they’d make a fortune.

Flying over Colorado on Friday I was struck by how the landscape appeared almost lunar as one got closer to the Rocky Mountains.  There were hardly any trees, and a storm had recently come through, coating the dark gray earth in drifts of gleaming white snow.  The effect was heightened by the unusual, large circles one could see in the cleared fields, so different from the fields one sees on the East Coast.  They looked like impact craters interspersed with valleys and ridges.

All weekend I had a strange feeling as though my lips were about to crack into a million pieces, while other East Coast sojourners told me that their eyes felt completely bloodshot and dried out.  Because of the high altitude, I was expecting shortness of breath, or feeling faint, that sort of thing.  Instead, apart from some weird foot swelling when I got off the plane at Denver airport, the only environmental factor I found somewhat difficult to adjust to was the persistent dryness.

The solution, I was repeatedly told, was to drink lots of water; fortunately the Brown Palace Hotel and Spa, where I was staying, had plenty of it.  In fact they have their own artesianal well which, although not technically holding mineral water, did have a pleasing, slightly mineral taste.  It was a bit like room-temperature Evian, and certainly not like the overly-chlorinated tap water one finds in many East Coast cities.  It also made taking a shower a particularly enjoyable experience, since not only was there a combination of rather large showerheads to stand under, but the scent of the water itself was simultaneously relaxing and invigorating, if that is not too paradoxical a statement.

If you live in an area where there is plenty of water, as is the case here on the Eastern Seaboard of the United States, you tend to take it for granted.  For example, here in Washington not only do we have the Potomac, a large river with a number of local tributaries running through the heart of the city, but that river empties into the Chesapeake Bay, which in turn empties into the Atlantic Ocean.  Whether you are in Boston, New York, Philadelphia, etc., you are so accustomed to having water readily to hand, that the experience of being in such a dry environment as Colorado takes some getting used to.

I suspect that many of us rarely think about the fact that in the Western world today, all we have to do is turn on a tap, and we get plenty of potable water for drinking, bathing, cooking, etc.  Imagine how difficult it was for those pioneers who arrived in dry places like Denver during the great Westward Expansion, who had to try to locate and secure water just for basic survival needs.  And then having to find enough water to go on to build things like businesses and infrastructure projects, which cities need in order to be able to attract more residents.

The builders of the Brown Palace Hotel itself were certainly well-aware of the fact that water is a highly precious commodity in Denver.  At the time it was built in 1892, the hotel had running water in all of the guest rooms, which was practically unheard of at the time in the West due to the scarcity of that resource.  Recognizing not only how important water is, but also the famous silver mines of Colorado which helped lead to the development of Denver itself, the hotel has a pair of silver drinking fountains in the lobby, drawing from that same artesianal well atop which the hotel sits.  It certainly made me think, whenever I stopped to take a sip from one of them, about how much of civilization is dependent on good sources of water, and how often we forget that fact today.

Tomorrow in part three of my Denver Diary, I’ll be telling you about two beautiful, historic buildings in Denver which would not have been possible without the water which increased the population of the city, and the subsequent wealth which helped finance their construction: the dark but magnificently detailed Church of the Holy Spirit, and the almost blindingly snow-white Cathedral-Basilica of the Assumption where yes, good Catholic boy that I am, I got to kiss the Archbishop’s ring.  More on that anon.

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Silver water fountain in the atrium of the Brown Palace Hotel and Spa, Denver

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Read For Yourself

Recently I was watching C-Span Book TV ‘s coverage of author Robert Richardson at the 2013 Key West Literary Seminar.  As I was suffering from a rather potent bout of insomnia, the thought of listening to some old hippies rattle on about how they do not like the mess they have made of our society seemed to be the best way to put me to sleep under the circumstances.  Much of Mr. Richardson’s presentation was what one would expect., in that  we were condemned to a random rattling off of quotations from other writers, with a single adjective attached to each indicating his approval.  This sort of presentation is of course designed not so much to enlighten, as to impress the audience with the amount of books the lecturer has read.

During his presentation, Mr. Richardson recounted the passage in Dostoevsky’s “The Brothers Karamazov” in which one of the brothers justifies his quasi-atheistic views, doubtless as a foil for the author himself or at least some of his thought process, since if you have read other works by Dostoevsky you know that he was something of a mixed bag when it comes to his opinions on religion.  A story is recounted about an 8-year-old boy who is quite literally hounded to death, with a gruesome punishment for a minor misdeed, before the eyes of his own mother.  If God allows such things to happen, the story concludes, then the recounter of the tale was not interested in having anything to do with him.

That attitude, according to Mr. Richardson, aptly reflects his own views on the subject as well.  The rather obvious rejoinder to this of course, at least for the Christian, is that Mr. Richardson’s argument is something of a cop-out, since God Himself was brutally and unjustly killed before the eyes of His Mother on Calvary.  It also assumes that the concept of free will is something which must be imposed or lifted at will, as if God is playing a chess match with human playing pieces.  Be that as it may, such a simplistic and rather narcissistic understanding of the Divine is regrettably not uncommon among the so-called intelligentsia who dominate our universities, publishing houses, and media outlets.

For forty years or so we have witnessed the build-up of an intellectual establishment built not on universal truths, let alone intellect, but rather on relative opinions, and Mr. Richardson is merely one cog in that infernal machine.  We have seen the effect of the worship of Priapus instead of God, for example, in the enormous amount of sexually transmitted disease that runs rampant through our society which, as a very wise theology teacher of my acquaintance pointed out the other evening, no one seems to talk about.  The supposed freedom granted by the Sexual Revolution has in fact enslaved us to, among other things, the pharmaceutical industry.  This chasing after temporary personal pleasure in lieu of preparing for eternity, following millennia of human intellectual endeavors to instill virtues of self-control and self-sacrifice, has had a devastating impact on our world.

Yet there is something to be said for the example of those like Mr. Richardson, who stand at podiums and preach their gospels of nothingness, and that is the fact that they do actually read.  They may largely be reading a lot of garbage bound between two covers and presented as books, but nevertheless they do undertake the effort to continue to work on the exercise of their minds  through the exploration of writing.  Of course, part of the reason many otherwise educated younger people do not read today, is precisely because they had professors like Mr. Richardson in college.  If you are burdened with a teacher who turns you off to the world of literature by insisting that everything is about oppression and sex, there can be no better barrier to raise to the concept of reading as a form of ongoing education and the formation of ideas.

Fortunately, there are remedies to the situation.  I have always found that one of the best ways to critically evaluate a work of fiction, biography, and so on which you cannot bring yourself to agree with, is to always keep in mind the question of whether the author actually understands the truth he is rejecting.  I do not have to agree with a writer’s point of view in order to be able to find merit or even truth in his work.  This is not an easy task, of course, yet if you know what you believe, then you can be at the ready when you perceive that a scrivener or a professor is trying to convince you that they are right, and you are merely ignorant.  (How one establishes what is right and what is wrong when everything is supposedly relative is another matter entirely.)

By no means am I suggesting that you go off and read the collected works of Engels and Marx, unless of course you are a glutton for punishment, or for that matter wish to fully know thy enemy.  After all, without having at least some idea of what the devil looks like, when he tells you there is no such thing as personal accountability for example, you will be hard-pressed to recognize him when he presents himself in one of his countless guises.  Just as the lawyer in the courtroom needs to be able to anticipate his opponent’s argument in order to be able to successfully defeat it, it is insufficient to say that simply because part of what an author believes or concludes is incorrect, that it is therefore impossible to gain anything from his work.’

It is often unpleasant to read the work of those who are still fighting the culture wars that led our society into the morass in which it wallows in at present.  However to back away and give those digging us in, ever deeper, into such muck is not helpful either.  One may be able to refute Mr. Richardson – and indeed Dostoevsky – without having read any of their work, but it would be a difficult endeavor to sustain over a long period.

Thus while it is certainly inadvisable to take your views on the question of eternal life from those who write novels, or indeed biographies of existentialists, it is important to at least be somewhat familiar with such thinkers, however misguided they may be.  It is through a systematic emphasis on the dumbing down of Western society, paradoxically as access to higher education has never been more widespread, that we have found ourselves in a culture that is rather shallow, materialistic, and interested largely in the seeking of personal pleasure, much like the ancient pagan societies we emerged out of.  The fight to make us into a fat, lazy, and ignorant society which can be easily controlled and placated has very nearly been achieved.

In order to take back this battle then,  you cannot rely solely on your wits: you must work. And by work, I mean you must read.  Read all of the writers you love and admire, yes, but also take the time to read those whom you are suspicious of, and do so with a critical eye as to why you find them so untrustworthy.  It is entirely possible to examine what the world is trying to sell you as truth, without actually buying into its message in the process.  And unlike Mr. Richardson, I would posit that reading someone like Emerson does not require that you actually throw yourself head-first into Walden Pond.

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“The Three Ages of Man” by Giorgione (c. 1500-1501)
Pitti, Florence

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