Tag Archives: New York

Let’s Convert Yoko Ono

Times Square is not, despite its perennial attraction to tourists, one of the nicest places in the world to visit.  In fact it’s rather alarmingly tacky, windblown, and uninviting, surrounded by businesses I would never willingly patronize, and a number of large but unimpressive buildings.  For many years however, it has been one of the centers of American popular culture, from the annual New Year’s Eve revels, to historic events like the V-E Day celebrations.

Now we see that a number of the gigantic electronic billboards in Times Square will be honoring the work of artist Yoko Ono and her late husband, pop star John Lennon, by displaying a three-minute film by the former.  Every evening at three minutes to midnight, a montage of the words “Imagine Peace” will be presented, in different languages, along with accompanying imagery.  One official involved in this project stated:

John Lennon’s ‘Imagine’ is the last song played on New Year’s Eve just before 11:59 p.m., when the ball on 1 Times Square begins to descend. Yoko Ono’s IMAGINE PEACE is undoubtedly a perfect match for the December Times Square Moment program as it taps into many people’s hope for a better world, the sentiment of both the holidays and the New Year.

Given that the “holiday season” is religious in origin, and that the song “Imagine” is the atheist equivalent of “Amazing Grace” – asking us to imagine how much better the world would be if there was no religion and no heaven, for example – one wonders whether the Times Square officials who green-lighted this project have been to church or synagogue recently.

The idea of “Peace on Earth” at this time of year is not just some idealistic wish for something better.  As a matter of fact, it comes from the song which the angels sang before the shepherds, when Christ was born in Bethlehem.  I would draw your attention to the fact that not only is the idea of hoping for peace on earth at this time of year fundamentally based in the Christian religion, but the peace which the angels call down upon humanity is, in fact, conditional.

And suddenly there was a multitude of the heavenly host with the angel, praising God and saying:
“Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.”
When the angels went away from them to heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go, then, to Bethlehem to see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.”

(St. Luke 2:13-15)

Many other religions pray for peace and an end to violence as well, of course.  Yet praying for peace at this particular time of year is fundamentally tied to the mystery of the Incarnation, which we Christians celebrate at Christmastime.  Ms. Ono could certainly have broadcast her message of universal harmony and equality for all – except for the celebrity intelligentsia, of course, who naturally must live in luxury – at any time of the year, but she chose to do so now.  Why?

The answer, sad to say, is our own stupidity.  For it must be said, dear friends, that we have become both spiritually and culturally lazy.  We have allowed people who do not believe in Christianity – and indeed, in many cases those who openly despise it – to co-opt a Christian holiday by degrees, to the point where we have forgotten what the point of this celebration is.

Christmas is not about achieving peace on earth, whatever Hallmark or Hollywood or some aging Japanese con artist may tell you.  Rather, it is about  God choosing to become Man, in order to save us from ourselves.  It is the awesome reality of the Eternal stepping into our linear timeline, purely out of love for us.

Unfortunately, projects such as Ms. Ono’s, which were once considered counter-cultural, are now in fact the cultural norm among so-called elites, or at least, those who imagine themselves to be so.  Hers is not the first nor the last such message we will see during the month of December.  We are going to continue to be bombarded with both overt and subtle messages that all religion, but particularly Christianity, is nothing but rot, and that only uneducated, prejudiced people would believe in such things.  The solution to this insidious message, it seems to me, is two-fold.

The first is to simply laugh at it.  I mean, honestly: a bunch of animated billboards in Times Square, where as soon as your “holiday” display time is over, there will be a nearly naked ten-story tall model hawking the latest Calvin Klein underwear? Forgive me for being unimpressed with your substitute for a house of worship – or maybe you won’t forgive me, but since you do not believe in an afterlife anyway, presumably you do not care.

Secondly, it is for you, gentle reader, to take this season into your own hands, in the way in which you choose to celebrate it.  Too many of us, as a very wise priest pointed out in a reflection I heard last evening, start celebrating Christmas during Advent, when we have not even reached December 25th.  And by the time the 12 days of Christmas roll around, we have packed away the tree and the tinsel and are concentrating on after-Christmas sales.  Many of us are not commemorating the birth of Jesus, but rather celebrating the holy days of obligation as ordained by Madison Avenue – which, by the way, are designed to make you feel inadequate and lonely, so that you will empty your bank account in search of meaning for your life.

We are at the beginning of the preparations for Christmas, so you still have time to pull back from the cliff of nothingness from which modern atheism and materialism wants you to jump – and as it happens, Ms. Ono still has time, too. For however much we may roll our eyes at her work she, too, is still capable of being brought to the truth: that God created her, loves her as His own adopted daughter, and wants her to get to know Him.  The rather obvious subversiveness of her message is so very easily defeated, if we recognize that God is infinitely more good and more powerful than any mere human being, no matter how vociferous they may be.

As a final thought, I must admit that I did have a little germ of an idea, when reading about this video installation.  Imagine – ahem – what would happen if a group of Christians were to meet in Times Square every evening during this Advent and Christmas season, to pray together for the conversion of Ms. Ono?  Now THAT’S what I would call counter-cultural.

YokoOhNo

Yoko Ono’s “Peace” installation in Times Square

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Preserving Our Unique Capital City

Over the past week here in the Nation’s Capital there has been a fair amount of chatter about the possibility of raising the building height restrictions which have kept the  Washington skyline relatively low to the horizon over the past century.  Among a number of other commentators, Harry Jaffe had an opinion piece in the Washington Examiner explaining why this was all about greed, and Josh Barro gave his own views in The Atlantic as to why New York is a much better city than Washington, in part because D.C. has such restrictive building codes, including the height restriction.  As it happens  I have written previously about why height restrictions in D.C. should not be loosened in any way.  To paraphrase the Emperor Charles V, when he saw what had been done to the Grand Mosque in the city of Córdoba after Spain had been reconquered from the Moors, people are seeking to build something here which might be found anywhere in the world, and in the process will destroy something truly unique.

The first issue we have to confront head-on is an architectural one.  The heart of the ongoing design problem of the vast majority of contemporary architecture is its bland disposability. People tend to focus on unique and interesting-looking modern buildings, such as The Gherkin in London, and forget that these are the exception, rather than the rule, in architecture today.  No matter how high you build a tall building, 99% of the time it is never going to be much more than a box of kleenex stood on end. Even worse, occasionally you get something like the laughably awful Sony Tower in New York, by the grossly-overrated architect Philip Johnson, who tried to differentiate his box of kleenex from the others by putting a giant broken pediment on top, and only ended up creating a rather expensive bit of kitsch.

This is not to say that all tall buildings are uniformly awful. Architects of the 1920′s and 1930′s for example, managed to produce some interesting and lovely ones, such as the Chrysler Building and the American Radiator Building in Manhattan. Yet again, these are the exceptions, rather than the rule, particularly because the idea of integrated ornamentation that enlivens the skyline and makes us want to soar like a bird is a rare commodity these days. Either we get the steel and glass box in the colors du jour, or we get some half-hearted attempt at stretching out semi-traditional-looking architecture past the point of ridiculousness, like a Victorian shopfront wrung through a pasta roller.

As Mr. Jaffe points out in The Examiner, there is nothing to be gained by increasing building heights in the Nation’s Capital, apart from making money. Those of us who are not in one of the circles where such money will be made, but rather simply live in, work in, or visit this city, will suffer the consequences of higher rents and taxes, to begin with. Never mind the fact, by the way, that there is plenty of undeveloped or underdeveloped land all around the city where at the present time there are only unimportant one and two-story buildings waiting to be knocked down, and where new communities well-within the existing height restrictions could be built.

And with a precedent of adding two more stories to buildings in Washington, why should we stop there? Why not add five, or ten, or twenty? In other words, why can’t we just try to be like New York, as indeed Mr. Barro advocates in his article?

The point of course is that Washington is not New York – and thank goodness for that.  The real estate market is not always easy here, but on the other hand one does not to hire a real estate broker to try to snag an apartment at a ridiculously inflated price plus commission.  Nor does one have to settle for a dark railroad car apartment with no outside space, which looks out onto some alley on 7th Avenue.  Those of my readers who live in Washington know that it is not at all unreasonable to want and to get outdoor living space when one is house-hunting here – whether a balcony, terrace, patio, or even an entire back yard – which in Manhattan would be positively unheard of, unless one counts sitting on a fire escape “outdoor living”.

What makes the Nation’s Capital special is that when you look out across it, you see dozens of parks large and small, noble monuments to those who loved this country, and low, restrained buildings in various architectural styles such as Federal, Victorian, Beaux-Arts, Art Deco, International Modern, and so on.  We have hundreds and hundreds of magnificent, beautiful trees all over this city, lining our streets in ways which cities like New York could not even dream of attempting, now.  And with the trees in blossom during the past two months, in green leaf now, and with the autumn to follow, there is a vibrant, natural canopy over the entire town that makes it a wonderful place to walk, pause, and enjoy nature in ways which other cities, who have built too high, must concentrate only in a few central locations.

Anyone who has visited Manhattan for example knows that, as exciting a city as it is, at least for a few days, it is very easy to feel a sense of darkness, claustrophobia, and malaise within a very short period of time. Most of the gigantic buildings that make New York so lovely from a distance are actually rather oppressive up close. For every beautiful Chrysler Building there are dozens of unremarkable concrete boxes that provide no shelter to the passerby, block the sun and air, and are distinguished only by their dirt and ugliness.

Those cities which have tried to copy New York City, assuming without foundation that it sets the standard for how all cities ought to look, usually end up ruining much of their unique character in the process.  Take a look at whatever vista you can manage from street level in cities like Philadelphia or Shanghai, and compare them to photographs of what these places once looked like before they Manhattan-ized themselves, and you realize that there is an appalling sameness to all of these places now, which were once beautiful in their own way.

Moreover, the reasons why you have to fit so many people onto the island of Manhattan or other urban centers do not exist here in Washington.  The only industry in this city is the Federal government: there is no shipping, manufacturing, finance, publishing, entertainment, etc. to really speak of, certainly as compared to New York City.  Why do we need to make ourselves look like a city with which we have virtually nothing in common?

Even with large, grand buildings along Pennsylvania Avenue, or glass office blocks along K Street, there is still a feeling of the small American town about this place.  You walk under the trees, rather than under giant buildings funneling dirt and debris through murky canyons and down into your eyes, your skin, and all over your clothes.  Anyone who has wiped their face with a white towel after stepping off the street in Manhattan knows exactly what I mean.

As I see it, Washington’s strength as a city is its relative smallness, and its human scale.  The tallest and most prominent buildings inside this oddly-shaped former parcel of Maryland are those which speak to the nobility of what man can achieve when he acts selflessly, rather than when he celebrates his own powers of acquisition.  I hope that Congress continues to see sense, and leave the Nation’s Capital the way it is.  Flawed it may be, but it remains uniquely beautiful.

View of tree-covered Washington from the National Cathedral

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An Angelic Treasure in Manhattan

Turning over the wall calendar at the manse last evening from August to September, I was pleased to see that the image for this new month was a wide-angle shot of the main doors at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Manhattan.  For those of you who have never seen or noticed them before, the massive, bronze doors in the center of the West Portal, which faces 5th Avenue, weigh 20,000 pounds each. They feature what I consider to be one of the most beautiful pieces of public sculpture in this country, an image of the first American Indian to be put on the path to sainthood in the Church.

Because the doors are open during the day to allow worshipers and visitors to enter the church, they may not seem familiar to many of my readers, even if they have actually visited St. Patrick’s before.  One tends to rush in to see the interior of the building, rather than pausing to notice such details.  Among other elements of sculpture, the doors feature statues of saints and blesseds who were either American-born, or came here from other countries to spread the Christian faith.

The figures on these great doors were sculpted by the aptly-named British artist, John Angel (1881-1960), who emigrated to the United States in the 1920′s, and who today is probably not as familiar a name as he ought to be. He himself was an Anglican, not a Catholic, but a man very much a part of the Western tradition in art. In his 60′s, in an interview with Time magazine, he described himself as being an uneducated artist: “I never went to school; I’m an ignoramus.” This is not entirely accurate, but it does give us some indication of how the artist saw himself, compared to his contemporaries.

Be that as it may, we need only look at his work for St. Patrick’s, or at the Protestant cathedral of St. John the Divine not far away, to see that Angel was clearly no ignoramus. Reproduced below is a photograph I took of my favorite element from the doors of St. Patrick’s. It is a sculpture of Blessed Kateri Tekakwitha (1656-1680), a convert to Christianity from the Mohawk-Algonquin tribes in what later became New York State, and the first Native American to be beatified by the Church.

Not being of American Indian heritage myself, nor having a particular devotion to Blessed Kateri, I must admit that my attraction to this sculpture is largely an aesthetic one. And yet seeing the piece in person, in the round (or rather semi-round), it is hard not to be moved by it, whatever your ethnic background or religious affiliation. There is something about the sculpture that makes the viewer linger over it, wanting to experience the same tranquility that the figure appears to be lost in.  John Angel, if you will forgive the pun, could produce something truly angelic.

While the statue is strikingly simple, showing Blessed Kateri with her eyes closed in prayer, the reader will note that her face is raised toward Heaven, rather than downcast as one might expect. She is presented to us completely lost in contemplation, communicating with something beyond the physical world – a something that is both internal and external to her and to our senses. And when the sun strikes her features in the afternoon, the effect is particularly stunning.

People often forget that Catholics were a fundamental part of the history and formation of what eventually became the United States from the very beginning, albeit initially in smaller numbers than those who immigrated from Protestant countries. One need only look at the fact that Blessed Kateri lived in the 17th century in New York, long before there was a United States, to realize that this is the case. French and Spanish missionaries came to convert native peoples and minister to colonists, and even sometimes to die as martyrs. Catholics from Britain, including one of my ancestors, settled in places like Maryland and Virginia in the early 1600′s, in part to be able to practice their Catholic faith and make a living for themselves without fear of reprisals, lack of opportunity, or imprisonment.

I highly recommend, gentle reader, that the next time you find yourself in Midtown Manhattan, you take the time to pass by and see this sculpture for yourself. John Angel’s image of this deeply devout woman is not only aesthetically beautiful, but also honors her significance in the spread of the Christian faith in this country, and the contributions that Catholics have made and continue to make to our culture. It is something I suspect will stay with you, in your mind’s eye, as it has with me.


Blessed Kateri Tekakwitha by John Angel
St. Patrick’s Cathedral, New York

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