At long last, the architectural monstrosity known as the Third Church of Christ Scientist here in the Nation’s Capital is coming down. Regular readers of these pages know about the odd twists and turns this story has taken, involving architectural preservation and religious liberty issues, among other topics. While the building which will replace this church promises to be little more than another glass shoebox, the conversation which has taken place over the demolition of this particular structure has been useful in many respects. However the occasion provides this scrivener with the opportunity to say a few words on the question of speaking one’s mind when it comes to cultural matters.
Last evening I was discussing various topics related to architecture, painting, and film with an educated friend who happens to be a fellow member of the bar. He expressed his interest in this upcoming demolition and in other stories which we might bring under the general heading of the arts. Simultaneously however, he raised his concern that he did not have the background to be able to write or speak about these issues on a level which he felt necessary, in order to put across a cogent point of view.
It is fair to say that most of what is being published and expostulated upon in the art world today originates from a small group of left-wing academics, journalists, and publications, although this was not always the case. There is also, rather perversely, a prevailing attitude that if one has not knelt at the feet of certain critical thinkers, that one’s opinion in these areas is invalid, or at the very least not worthy of notice. For all of its supposed egalitarianism, the arts community is decidedly intolerant of anyone who dares to question what its own, often self-consecrated, elites have put forward as being worthy of praise.
The end result is a polarization of the art world which mirrors what has taken place in political argument in this country and elsewhere. The different is, in politics there is at least the formalized opportunity for equal participation. The fallacy of the present Administration, after all, apparent to anyone possessed of a reasonable understanding of our representative form of government, is to suggest that one simply cannot debate or legally attempt to change the laws which said Administration has managed to pass, simply because they passed along divided party lines and the judiciary has given its imprimatur. American history is rife with examples of truly terrible laws, from the Runaway Slave Act to Prohibition, which were eventually dispensed with, even if at one time they gained enough popular and judicial support to become law.
In the arts, by contrast, there is generally little real room for dissent and debate in traditional forms of communication and media. If you do not find Frank Gehry or Tracy Emin to be worthy of the honors and adulation they receive from the art world in general, you cannot even come to the table, as far as most critics and academics are concerned. It is this kind of closed-mindedness, odd among a group of people who are allegedly fighting against closed-mindedness itself, which causes intelligent people possessed of the ability for pursuing a rational thought process to be wary of doing more than leaving a comment on an online article, at most.
The way to change this, of course, is to beat the other fellow at his own game, through self-education. Unless you are reading up on new architectural projects, or watching interviews with up-and-coming directors, or attending gallery openings, etc., then you cannot hope to be conversant with those who want to keep you quiet. Common sense and good taste have not disappeared, they have simply been muted, and unfortunately for far too long a period of time, because those who do not bend with the wind and like every new thing which rehashes some tired old aspect of narcissism do not know how to engage in the conversation.
Whatever walk of life you happen to find yourself in, it is your own personal duty to constantly be educating yourself. I am well-aware of the fact that I say this to you often on this site, but it bears repeating. You do not get a pass from debating the health of the society which like it or not you are a part of, simply because you do not happen to be an academic or a critic for a major newspaper. This is true in public policy and it is true in culture, as well.
The more you are able to study and look at exactly why such hideous things as the Third Church of Christ Scientist came to be, the more you will realize why your gut reaction to their readily apparent ugliness is correct, because these buildings often reflect a wider, even uglier philosophy about human nature and man’s place in the universe. Without knowing exactly why, you can cheer the demolition of this terrible building. Yet unless you can come to understand why it was built to begin with, then you will never be able to prevent even more ugliness from rising in its place.
The Third Church of Christ Scientist, Washington, D.C.