Art News Roundup: Generalissimo Franco Is Still Dead Edition

While it is always difficult to predict whether or how the Spanish government will do things, there’s a strong possibility that tomorrow, the country’s Council of Ministers will meet to begin the legal process for exhuming the remains of General Francisco Franco (1892-1975) from the Valle de los Caídos (“Valley of the Fallen”), the massive underground Basilica and Abbey outside of Madrid where he is buried. The complex contains the remains of roughly 40,000 people killed during the Spanish Civil War of 1936-1939, from both sides of the conflict. Even if and when Franco’s coffin is removed, however, there remains a longer-term question about the Basilica itself which, while architecturally quite impressive, has a rather controversial history to it.

I visited the Basilica for the first time a little over a year ago, and while it’s certainly quite an engineering achievement, I have to say that it left me somewhat cold. I have mixed feelings about Franco, which certainly contributed to this impression, but I’ll take the risk of offending both sides in this long-standing argument by saying that, perhaps if the Generalissimo had been buried in a side chapel, rather than inside the sanctuary, directly behind the high altar, the campaign to remove him might have been more muted. Franco himself never wanted to be buried there in the first place, but his family and successor government agreed to put him in the Valley of the Fallen despite the obvious anachronism that he (obviously) did not die during the Civil War.

Given that the Socialists are currently in power in Spain, it’s more likely than not as they seek to rewrite Spanish history in the way that they prefer, the exhumation will take place over the objections of the Franco family and the opposition or abstention of some conservative parties from the process – a process which, to be honest, I still don’t entirely understand, even having followed this story for quite some time now. The Archdiocese of Madrid is not opposed to the move, and since this church falls within its jurisdiction, it would seem that remaining legal arguments are few. Still, Spanish politics are highly unpredictable, and there doesn’t seem to be a long-term plan as of yet regarding what to do with this funeral complex, so keep your eyes on Chevy Chase.

And now, on to some less funereal art news.

Crafty China

A big hat tip to my friend M.P. for sending me this article, about a spate of art heists around the world targeting Chinese art and antiquities. To be honest, I have little or no interest in Chinese art, but the audacity of these thefts, which may have some relationship to the government of Red China itself, and the engrossing way in which this piece is written, kept me absolutely fascinated all the way to the end. Cheers to author Alex Palmer for doing a very thorough investigative job, and bringing together threads which, even for those of us who follow what is going on in the art and museum world, I suspect most of us would never have tied together. Palmer very effectively points out what may be the motivating philosophy here, which runs counter to how most Westerners think of concepts such as ownership. Whoever is ultimately responsible for these thefts, however, the article also addresses the phenomenon of the Chinese buying back their own works of art at unbelievable prices, which you may not have been aware of, like the cup pictured below which recently sold for $38 million.

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Changing California

Truth be told, I’m not a fan of what we can loosely term “street art”, which encompasses things such as graffiti, of both the commissioned and vandalism varieties, conglomerations of junk which someone with an art degree and a subscription to Mother Jones deems to be “sculpture”, or exterior murals of at best uneven quality and execution. However, I was struck by this story touching on an aspect of street art involving the poorer segment of the Mexican population in Los Angeles which, like other communities around the country, is experiencing the effects both good and bad of gentrification. As artist Nico Avina explains, growing up in the barrio there were images of Our Lady of Guadalupe everywhere. “It’s talking about the community that believes so much in la Virgen de Guadalupe,” he observes, and how images of her were put up as signs of respect. Mr. Avina’s art, depicting Our Lady reading an eviction notice, strikes me as borderline blasphemy, albeit not in an ill-intended way, but I will leave it to my readers to share their opinions on it.

Avina

Picturing Philadelphia

Speaking of changing urban landscapes, an exhibition underway in Philadelphia showcases how one British artist played a major role in the way that his contemporaries on both sides of the Atlantic pictured what was once America’s most important city. William Birch (1755-1834), who had successfully exhibited at the Royal Academy in London and received prizes for his work, decided to emigrate to Philadelphia in 1794. Upon his arrival in the bustling city – Philadelphia’s population exploded from around 100,000 people in the early 1800’s to nearly 700,000 by 1876, as I learned just last evening – he began drawing and engraving the sights of his new home, a task which engaged him for the next several decades as the city grew and prospered. Collections of his engravings featuring both the urban fabric of Philadelphia and the country houses of the people of means were popular in both America and in Britain, and his work chronicles the development of changing American architectural styles, from British Colonial to American Federal. I suspect that the exhibition catalogue itself will be of interest even to those who are not particularly curious about architecture or urban planning, but who may want to seek it out purely as a visual chronicle of an important, formative period in American history. “William Birch, Ingenious Artist, His Life, His Philadelphia Views, And His Legacy” is at the Library Company of Philadelphia through October 19th.

Birch

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If Everybody Looked The Same: Small Businesses In Increasingly Boring Cities

Last evening I was listening to Episode #389 of “Catholic In A Small Town”, the long-running podcast by my friends Mac and Katherine Barron – which you should subscribe to even if you’re not Catholic, as they are terrific, and hilariously funny. During the show, they discussed the travails of trying to cancel their account with a national service chain, in order to sign up with a local business providing the same service. They talked about how supporting local businesses was important to them, and that they had made the choice to do so in other areas of their purchasing lives as well.

Then this morning I learned with sadness that the venerable Embassy café, bakery, and restaurant in Madrid will be closing its doors after 86 years. An institution with a storied history, which you can read a bit about in this article, Embassy is a casually elegant holdover from a more civilized time. It is also very conveniently located in the same block as “my” neighborhood parish in Madrid. I was at Embassy last a couple of months ago, but unfortunately it will be closed before I return to visit Madrid in June. Despite the fact that it has plenty of business, the business it does have cannot compensate for the increasing rents for their property, which includes a lovely terrace under the trees on the Paseo de la Castellana, a wonderful place to meet friends for a meal or a drink.

Embassy is succumbing to the increasing homogenization of city life, which has led to the centers of many cities becoming more same-y, even as they come back from the dead thanks to a greater interest in urban living. Previously, when you traveled to another city, you might expect to see some chains, but these were counterbalanced by an equal number of one-offs – the kind of mom-and-pop businesses that locals or travel books would tell you, “If you’re looking for X, you really need to go visit this unique place.” Now, when you go to almost any city nationally or internationally, you will see the same businesses over and over again, with little in the way of local flavor.

When I first moved to Georgetown in 1991 for example, the main commercial thoroughfares of M Street and Wisconsin Avenue had a number of well-known names: Ralph Lauren, The Gap, Burger King, etc. Existing alongside these big-brand businesses were smaller, local businesses, who only existed in the village: Au Pied du Cochon, Little Caledonia, Café Northwest, and many others. People find it unbelievable when I tell them that back then, tiny Georgetown had four movie theatres, showing a variety of films from major release to art house to old movies. Today there is only a multiplex chain venue – and a very nice one it is, too, but the selection is almost entirely of the mainstream variety, that you could see in any suburban shopping mall cinema.

For most cities, neighborhood holdovers from 20, 30, 40 years ago or more are falling under an increasingly shortened list called “still there”. There is some inevitability to this, as business owners retire or needs change. Yet in many cases, these businesses are being driven out not because they lack customers, but by higher ground rent. The end result is that the chains that replace small businesses seem to last for a few years at most, and are themselves quickly replaced by another chain with outlets in every major city and airport.

Admittedly this post is more of a whinging lament, rather than a prescription for how to solve the problem. I’m not in a position to recommend solutions, or suggest that economies of scale are always bad. In fact they can be quite beneficial, when they bring in goods or services to an area that would otherwise be unable to support them. A diversity of choice creates options that improve our lives as consumers.

That being said, perhaps we have gone too far in the effort to expand perceived choice at the expense of uniqueness and individuality. The stereotype of seeing a Starbucks on every corner exists for a reason. When a local business pits quality and customer service against mass production, it can only succeed if it can keep up with its larger competitor on price, and that effort is seriously undermined when commercial landlords value rents first and foremost.

Now, I would never argue that a landlord must take a hit in the wallet in order to keep a local business in bricks and mortar. A property owner is not running a charity, after all. They have to pay their taxes, account for inflation, and turn a profit, just as any other business owner does. But perhaps what is lacking is an ingrained appreciation for the intangible value of having something unique. If the business is doing fine, then shouldn’t there be a greater effort to keep that uniqueness intact if at all possible? Easy for me to question, I grant you, but if you’re bored when you travel, and settle for shopping or dining at some place that you could just as easily visit back home, then it’s a question worth asking.

When the Emperor Charles V came to the city of Granada in order to see the Alhambra Palace, where his architects were preparing a new residence for him to live in when he visited the city, he was horrified to see that part of the Moorish fortress had been demolished to build a fairly unremarkable Italian Renaissance-style building. “What you have built here can be seen in many places,” he is reported to have said, “but what you have destroyed was unique in all the world.” Perhaps the same could be said, on a smaller scale, for those unique local businesses that deserve our support.

[Correction: a smart reader has reminded me that Charles V said this about the alterations to the Mezquita (former mosque, now a cathedral) in Cordoba, not the alterations to the Alhambra Palace. Mea culpa.]

The author (l) at Embassy last summer

If You Think DC Is Snobby, Wait Until You Read This

Did you appreciate that title? Well unless you are one of my subscribers, you had to click on it to get here, so we must suppose the answer is, “Yes.” As you‘ve taken my clickbait, let’s consider the issue of clickbait itself, in light of an article published this morning which is already causing commentary across the country. It’s a perfect example of why clickbait is so effective in achieving its ends, but also so ineffective in fostering higher standards of media creation and content.  

If you haven’t yet read the piece, today’s post from roadsnacks.net purports to list the “snobbiest” cities in the United States. Washington, D.C. turns out to be one of the worst offenders, based on the “science and data” which was reviewed in order to come up with these rankings. DC is the only city on the East Coast to make the top ten, coming in at #7 – just behind Irvine, California, and ahead of Costa Mesa, California.

A quick glance at the Road Snacks site reveals the sort of media content it produces. There are pieces such as “These Are The 10 Most Redneck Cities in Delaware”, which of course will encourage those individuals whom Road Snacks considers to be “rednecks” to read about how the places they live are terrible clichés. The same no doubt holds true for the residents of “The 10 Most Ghetto Cities in Florida”, who apparently also get their time in the sun. Not having taken the bait to click on these, or any of the other similarly titled pieces on the site, let’s return to the “Snobbish Cities” list in question.

In truth, the piece itself is a masterful example of what has come to be known as “clickbait”. By my reading about the controversially-titled piece on a mainstream media site, then clicking through to read the original post, and finally passing that post along to you, the owners of the site have made some dosh through my efforts, without their having to compensate me personally, and without their actually contributing anything whatsoever to a meaningful consideration of the question presented. This is, of course, precisely why these sorts of pieces are written.

The snobbiness or otherwise of Washington, D.C. is something which ought not to concern anyone outside of the D.C. tourism board, which no doubt will be preparing a press statement in response to the piece. True, the author states at the outset that, “[t]his article is an opinion based on facts and is meant as infotainment. Don’t freak out.” While I cannot speak for my fellow Washingtonians, I found little information and no entertainment in reading what, in the end, is little more than a Regina George “Burn Book”.

We may all very well say to ourselves, “Well, I don’t read clickbait,” and perhaps for the most part that may be true. Yet if a significant number of people did not read such pieces, at least on occasion, then they would not continue to be published. If we keep feeding it, we have an insatiable appetite for sensationalism, as evidenced by the media career of the entire Kardashian-Jenner family. And that nadir of media content, gentle reader, is most assuredly not a good thing.

Admittedly, taking the time to write about a piece of clickbait means that I, too, am contributing in some way to the cesspool from which it sprung. Yet perhaps by regularly questioning its value, we can at least try to recall what we are doing to ourselves when we break down and click. We may not be able to fundamentally alter human nature, but without holding up media providers to higher standards, we all end up rolling about in the gutter, however snobbish our zip code may be.

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