Tag Archives: civilization

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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Civilization and Contemporary Art – Part II

Yesterday in the first half of this two-part blog post, we explored the question of why a lack of respect for property rights among certain contemporary artists and their aficionados is a departure from some of the basic principles of our civilization.  Today we look at a different, but not unrelated, aspect of how contemporary art and civilization interact.  Specifically, I would like us to think about how much residual right should an artist have in their work?

The Visual Artists Right Act (VARA) was passed by Congress back in 1990, and you would be forgiven for never having heard of it, gentle reader.  In a nutshell, the law was designed to protect artists from having their name attached or detached from works of art without their permission, and from having their artworks significantly defaced or vandalized during their lifetime.  This latter protection includes work which they themselves no longer actually own.  It is in effect largely a moral law, rather than a commercial one, but its application can have significant financial implications.

Back in 2008, mural painter Kent Twitchell received a $1.1 million settlement under VARA from the Federal government and private contractors, who had painted over one of his works, a monument to pop artist Edward Ruscha, without his permission.  The mural was located on the outside of a government building in Los Angeles which was being renovated, and no one contacted Twitchell to let him know that his painting was being destroyed, either to allow him the opportunity to have it removed or for him to seek some sort of legal remedy to prevent its destruction.  Whatever one feels about the art in question, or the size of the settlement, we can certainly understand why an artist would be upset to see something he created being destroyed.  But what happens when an artist decides that the laws protecting his work do not go far enough?

In an article published yesterday in The Art Newspaper,  a curator claimed that prior to a retrospective at the Metropolitan Museum of Art back in 2011, artist Richard Serra made a number of changes to works which had been lent to the exhibition.  In some cases, Serra re-created works of his which had been lost or irreparably damaged, and rather than list their new creation date insisted on dating them from the time when their predecessors had been created.  It was also alleged in the article that Serra threatened a private collector that he would “withdraw” a work of his which was owned by the collector from the owner’s collection, if Serra was not allowed to make the changes he wanted – a charge Serra himself denies.

Serra is arguably among the most prominent contemporary artists working in America today; his works are sought by collectors and museums all over the world.  To be frank, I loathe his work.  Yet let us remained focused not on the man’s art, but on his mindset.  To that end, I found this quote rather telling:

Serra says it is not important whether audiences know which version they are seeing. “There’s no aura of originality because it’s an anonymous surface. It’s a difference without a value. I try to keep surfaces as anonymous as possible.”

To re-create a work of art and then back-date as per Mr. Serra is simply ludicrous, and insulting not only to art collectors, museums, and historians, but also to future generations, who will have to try to figure out exactly when he created what.  If I wrote you a letter today, but dated it to October 12, 1992 because I am copying a letter I wrote you then, does that make the result an actual letter from 1492?  Of course not.  So to argue that re-creating a lost work and back-dating to the past, rather than in the present when it was actually made, is completely nonsensical, and frankly rather disturbing.

This bit of irrational art-speak nonsense on the part of Mr. Serra aside, the really interesting contrast here is between the Twitchell case and the Serra incident.  The former involved the destruction of a public work of art, owned by the public, while the latter involved a work owned by a private individual.  Under long-established principles of our law, a private owner has at least a reasonable expectation that he can do what he wants with the property in his possession to which he owns clear legal title.  It appears that what some contemporary artists are attempting to do, under VARMA and similar laws elsewhere, is to assert that they retain a type of ownership which they can assert at any time they see fit, even once they are no longer the legal owners of one of their works.

Throughout art history there have been examples of artists who, after one of their works leaves their hands, have asked the new owner if they can have the piece back, in order to make some changes or repairs.  Whether or not they are granted this request has always depended largely on the good will of the owner.  While VARMA tries to offer some protections, out of interest for preserving the artist’s reputation, clearly this law was not intended to allow an artist a right to take back possession of his work.

Imagine that you were fortunate enough to possess an original work of art by a major living artist, who one day knocked on your door and insisted that he come in and see how well you were taking care of his work, and that he be permitted to carry it away so that he could make some alterations to it.  You would be well-within your rights to call the police, but then what would the courts ultimately decide?  Do you actually own the work of art, or do you simply possess it in some sort of bizarre tenancy in common?

This is now a serious question, as ridiculous as the situation may be, because more and more artists like Mr. Serra will be using this law to assert what they believe this law gives them, morally.  There is a growing perception among some contemporary artists, and the collectors too afraid to challenge them, that artists have a right to reclaim their work from whoever has subsequently legally purchased it.  If this were to become legal precedent, it would be so outrageous a development in jurisprudence as to call into question many aspects of our real property system, and all for the sake of some very egotistical, well-paid artists with the deep pockets necessary to bring such claims.

As is so often the case historically, the art world is ahead of the curve when it comes to how society is going to change over time.  Recognizing that this is the case, it must be said that far too little attention is being paid to what is going on in contemporary art by those who are simply on the lookout for the next outrageous act of anti-Christian blasphemy.  By staying so narrowly focused, they miss the truly subversive thinking that is going on right alongside such works.

That being said, in considering these matters it is important to point out that not every artist working today believes that the ideas and behavior described in these blog posts are legitimate ways of either thinking or behaving.  I am fortunate enough to call a number of very talented, professional artists my friends, and none of them would behave like the people described in these articles.  Nor should you assume that merely because an artist does not create works portraying recognizable subjects, that they are out to destroy Western civilization.  We will leave that task to Planned Parenthood.

Rather my intent here, as is always the case in my writing, is quite simple: to encourage you to go educate yourself.  And should you find, upon further investigation, that you completely disagree with my concerns, then by all means please come back and engage me in discussion, and tell me so.  For it is only by shedding light on this type of thinking and behavior that civilization can be prevented from crumbling into anarchy.

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“Monument to Ed Ruscha” by Kent Twitchell (1987) [destroyed, 2006]
Job Corps Center, Los Angeles

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