Colors Into Battle

Today has two important associations for me, being September 11th, but it’s also a chance to reflect on the symbolism that we see on days like today.  We often don’t stop to consider where that symbolism comes from, so rather than wade into politics, I’m going to beg the reader’s indulgence and ruminate a little on that collection of pattern and color known as a flag.

Being a proud American citizen, and particularly living in DC, it’s hard not to be aware of the fact that September 11th is a day when we mourn those who died in 2001 during the terrorist attacks on this country.  I wore my Stars-and-Stripes socks today, along with blue and red, but truthfully didn’t see much of that sort of personal display on the way in, even though I work near the White House.  With the passage of time this is somewhat inevitable, as memory fades, so that our grandchildren decades from now will not mark 9/11 in the way that we do.  After all, most of us know when Pearl Harbor Day was, but fewer and fewer Americans every year can say that they remember it, and know where they were when they heard of it.

Meanwhile, being half-Catalan, ethnically speaking, I’m also very much aware that September 11th is Catalonia’s National Day, known as “La Diada” or “The Day of Days”.  This date marking the defeat of the Catalans at the hands of the Bourbons in 1714 is a strange one to choose for a national holiday, since most countries celebrate their victories, rather than their defeats.  However in the intervening years since the passing of the Franco regime, the use of the red and gold stripes of the Catalan flag on this date has increased along with Catalan pride and assertiveness, to the point that Catalonia is going to hold a vote on independence from Spain this November.  All eyes are waiting to see what happens in Edinburgh next week, but in the meantime huge demonstrations marked by giant flag displays are going on all day today in Barcelona.

It’s interesting that flags continue to have a hold on our psyche, when to some extent one could argue that their usefulness on the battlefield has largely been eliminated.  Previously, when you, your buddies, and the enemy were all covered in mud in the trenches, whether France in the 15th century or the 20th century, you would have to keep an eye out for the flag bearer to know where you were and where you were supposed to be. The flag bearer himself was a descendent of even more ancient human place markers, like the standard-bearers of the Roman legions, whose gilded eagles and other symbols were tramped all over Europe, Africa, and the Middle East.

The ability of either Old Glory or La Senyera – as the Catalan flag is known – to stir emotions and remind citizens of their principles, centuries after each of these designs first came into use, shows what a remarkably effective tool they still are, even though on the battlefield they are no longer the utilitarian objects they once were.  They continue even today to help people to find themselves, in a sense, for they concentrate into a single image or object what really matters to them.  Today, both in America and in Catalonia, seeing the flag means far more to the average man or woman than does any speech, policy paper, or the like, because imagery remains the single most important tool in capturing the public imagination, and in encapsulating what the people feel about the place they call home.

Detail of "Follow the Flag" U.S. Navy recruitment poster by James Daugherty (1917) Library of Congress, Washington DC

Detail of “Follow the Flag” U.S. Navy recruitment poster by James Daugherty (1917)
Library of Congress, Washington DC

Art Everywhere: Coming to a Billboard Near You

Beginning next month, many of my readers in the States who live in urban areas will be seeing the work of an initiative known as Art Everywhere US.  On both traditional and digital billboards, on bus shelters and train platforms, among other locations, the organizers will be displaying a selection of images from American art history.  The original pool of 100 of these works, “curated”, if you will, by experts from five of America’s major art museums, was narrowed down to a final fifty by online voters on the Art Everywhere website.  These fifty will be seen on approximately 50,000 different types of displays across the country starting August 4th in Times Square, and then continuing to spread throughout the country until August 31st.

Of the pieces making the final cut, that with the single highest number of votes was Edward Hopper’s iconic 1942 Nighthawks, which is now in the collection of the Art Institute of Chicago.  I do love the painting, though I must confess it isn’t my favorite work of Hopper’s, being somewhat overexposed both in terms of its fame and indeed the lighting of the piece itself.  Still, it’s nice to know that it will be included, and that it’s so well-regarded by the public.

Other works which will be featured in the campaign include probably my favorite work by James McNeill Whistler, his 1862 portrait titled Symphony in White No. 1; one of my favorite John Singer Sargents, his Repose of 1911, which like the Whistler is in the collection of the National Gallery here in D.C.; and Chuck Close’s astounding 1969 painting Phil, a portrait of composer Philip Glass from The Whitney in New York.  The fifty choices are for the most part fairly safe, since apart from photographs by Robert Mapplethorpe (clothed, thank goodness) and the overrated Cindy Sherman (yuck), the 20th century pieces tend to stick largely to the easy and familiar: Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, etc.

It was disappointing however, to see that the earliest painting which was included in the final cut – and the second earliest in the original 100 voting list – was John Singleton Copley’s 1778 Watson and the Shark. While the piece has its merits as a form of composition, it’s not my favorite Copley by any stretch of the imagination.  Moreover, in only choosing one pre-Revolutionary portrait for the voting list, one has to question the thinking of the jury with respect to their art history parameters.  If 1776 was not in fact the cut-off year, then why not go back as early as possible into American art history?

Be that as it may, I won’t quibble with the results.  There are some truly great works of art on this list, and I am looking forward to seeing how they pop up around town.  August is always such a dreary time in the Nation’s Capital, with the oppressive heat, humidity, and flocks of tourists.  It will be terrific to be visually refreshed with images like these, and reminded of the great art collections in this city, just a short train or bus ride away.

"Nighthawks" by Edward Hopper (1942) The Art Institute of Chicago

“Nighthawks” by Edward Hopper (1942)
The Art Institute of Chicago

Technology and the Church: Why Can’t We Have This in America?

In conversation recently with a few friends, I brought up a wonderful online service which I have mentioned before on these pages. It always surprises me to learn that people are not familiar with it, so this is a good opportunity to extol its virtues to you.  Moreover, and more importantly to those in the U.S., I’d like to issue a challenge to those with the resources and know-how, and ask why we don’t already have something like it on this side of the pond.

Church Services TV provides both streaming and archived video from a growing number of cathedrals, churches, monasteries, and chapels around Ireland and the United Kingdom.  Each location has its own “channel” in a drop-down menu, so that one can quickly search for the feed from a particular parish, or switch between one church and another.  Visitors can check the schedule posted on the site to see what events are coming up that day, such as Daily or Sunday Mass, and there is also a special events calendar, useful for future planning purposes.  If you’re lucky, sometimes you may stumble across an unlisted event: I’ve caught concerts, talks, and things like baptisms, weddings, and funerals on the Church Services site this way.

What I find to be one of the most special aspects about this technology however, is what it can bring to the visitor throughout their day.  When you’re at the office or at home, trying to get work done and the phone, the kids, and/or the dog are all driving you crazy, it would be nice to be able to just take a break and go away and pray for awhile.  Oftentimes, that option is nowhere near practical.  Since Church Services leaves nearly all of the camera feeds on the site running all day, even though you may not physically be able to get to church for a few minutes of prayer after you’ve nearly blown your top, you’re one click away from having a live window into God’s house whenever you want it.

Although at night, most of the cameras on the site switch to black-and-white security mode, and the churches themselves often turn off all the lights, that doesn’t mean the site becomes useless.  Even then, I think there’s something profound and encouraging about seeing the sanctuary lamp burning before the tabernacle, in the midst of the surrounding darkness.  When all may otherwise appear dark, the light of Christ’s Presence is shining forth.  It’s not Adoration, but it’s not a waste of time, either, especially after a rough day.

Now of course, an image on the screen is not the same thing as actually being present before the Real Presence, let alone receiving Holy Communion.  Nevertheless, one can see how there are many positive aspects of this kind of technology, which could be put to good use.  Much as radio and later television broadcast of the Mass has helped people like shut-ins to be able to pray and worship alongside their fellow Christians, while not a substitute for Mass or Adoration, this more recent technology also provides an opportunity for spiritual growth and refreshment to those who want to take advantage of it.

So this brings me back to my original question, because it strikes me that, if the good people of the Emerald Isle can put a service like this together, why don’t we have something similar in the U.S.?  Certainly, there are some churches around the country that have had low-tech webcams for years: I know of a few in places like Philadelphia and St. Louis, for example.  Yet to my knowledge, there is nothing comparable in America to this centralized site with so many participating churches, where not only can one watch live footage, but even go back and watch previous video.  There is clearly an opportunity here, waiting to be discovered and implemented.

In the meantime, gentle reader, I highly recommend that you bookmark the Church Services TV site, as I have, because you will be able to make good use of it when and if you need to.  And talk to your parish and your diocese about whether they might be interested in doing something similar where you are.  It would be great to see this service spread to more communities around the world, both as a source of spiritual growth for practicing Catholics, and as a tool for the New Evangelization.

Screenshot of the Church Services TV site

Screenshot of the Church Services TV site