The Courtier In The Federalist: How To Enjoy Art In An Age Of Selfies

Since I’m now *officially* The Federalist’s art critic – or that’s what my byline over there says, anyway – here’s a link to my latest for said publication, about how the phenomenon of selfie-taking has been affecting the art world. Special thanks to my editor, Joy Pullman, who is always extremely generous with me when it comes to the rather excessive length of my articles. If you’d like to comment on the piece, please consider doing so over on The Federalist website rather than here (although your comments are always welcome here, as well.)

Federalist

 

Piano Ignobile: An Ugly New Home For Ugly New Art In Spain

With tomorrow’s opening of the Centro Botín, a contemporary arts center in the Spanish city of Santander, the art world will have another ugly space in which to display ugly art, and the architecture world will have another white elephant to fawn over. Designed by Pritzker Prize-winning Italian starchitect Renzo Piano, perhaps most infamous for the Centre Pompidou in Paris and The Shard in London, this is Piano’s first building in Spain. Hopefully it will also be his last in that country.

In this museum Piano has succeeded in marring the already not-terribly-pretty waterfront of the city of Santander as he has that of other cities, such as his hometown of Genoa. There, in addition to the usual ugly pavilions that one has come to expect from contemporary waterside redevelopments, he constructed a giant terrarium which has nothing at all to do with the sea, and a rather pointless rotating crane with an observation capsule attached. Presumably he did this so you can see just how bad an architect he is from a great height.

While designing the Centro Botín, Piano maintains that he was consciously avoiding the so-called “Bilbao Effect”. As I’ve explained previously, this is a touchstone in contemporary architecture which takes its name from the impact of Frank Gehry’s (awful) Guggenheim Museum in another northern Spanish city, where a singular structure was built to draw in the gawkers, and hopefully revitalize both its neighborhood and the city as a whole. Such a structure has been the unholy grail of mayors, city councils, and museum boards for nearly two decades now.

Unfortunately, Piano’s conscious decision to avoid the showmanship of a Gehry or Zaha Hadid-style building does not mean that he has built a better building. The assymetrical halves of the Centro Botín, with their flimsy-looking posts and exposed gangways, look cheap and shoddy. They resemble an abandoned airport terminal more than a cultural institution built to stand for generations.

Anyone with a basic understanding of construction can tell you that you cannot build a glass structure supported on metal, plop it by the seaside, and expect it to long survive the corrosive effects of salt water and sea air. Keep in mind that Santander is not in the hot and perpetually sunny south of Spain, where it hardly ever rains. Rather, it is in the north of the country, where it rains roughly every other day between October through April, and has an average humidity of over 70%. In addition, furious winter storms come barreling in off the Atlantic with hurricane force winds during the winter months.

Lest you think that this scrivener is alone in his mocking of this building, a Spanish blogger has extensively catalogued some of the weather, public safety, and other concerns that may turn this contemporary carbuncle into a disaster for the city and for the project’s investors. Click through the pages and you can see how the museum will cause a myriad of problems, even as revised from the more blocky, original proposal. Whether or not you can read Spanish, you can clearly see from the illustrations how the net effect of the building will be decidedly negative.

It’s regrettable that the officialdom of Santander has decided to mar the coastline of their city for at least another 30 years or so, until the museum has to be pulled down for structural failure – as will inevitably happen. Fortunately I will never have to see this thing, but personally, it gets rather tiresome reading over and over again about how a spectacular new cultural institution has been built which is utter rubbish. It happens so often that I could probably blog about it every day and never run out of material.

So rather than fight against the inevitable, I can simply chalk up the expense and waste of this structure to the old adage, stupid is as stupid does. Let the contemporary art establishment have its way, and let us laugh at their expense. For when the sea eventually comes in and destroys their latest bibelot, it will at least have the added benefit of destroying a lot of garbage art along with a garbage

Don’t Touch That Stove!

We are all familiar with the expression, “getting burned” by someone or something.  We use it in the obvious sense, such as when we touch something very hot, and we also use it to mean that we have learned from a previous, negative experience.  We may also use the expression to mean that someone has given us a particularly harsh level of criticism.  Yet while this “burning” level of criticism rarely benefits anyone, we have now witnessed the banishment of virtually any type of corrective criticism in Western culture, to the point where no one seems to realize that something rather more important than someone’s personal feelings are burning.  And this state of affairs stems largely from the confusion of the fluctuating standards of personal taste with the unchanging standards of personal virtue.

While I cannot say that my opinions are any less…well, opinionated now than they were 20 years ago, it is clear to The Courtier that his opinions on many matters have softened somewhat as he has gotten older.  This is not so much because of an abandonment of a sense of standards, or a befuddling of a line between good and bad.  Rather it is a realization that some things, which are not intrinsically right or wrong in themselves, simply come down to a question of taste.

For example, both watching a basketball game and eating chicken wings are, in essence, matters of personal taste; for me, these things are both awful, and I do not enjoy them. We can certainly talk about whether or not we like these things, and why, without addressing any deep, important questions of our time.  Depending on our answer, we may not be asked over to Phil’s house next week to participate in the combination of both these things, but that’s as may be.  What is disturbing about our present age, however, is that we have confused expressing our personal taste, and the relative nature thereof, with the expression of concern over moral issues, which are not in fact relative.

If someone were to say to you that they do not care for a particular reality television program – and sadly one is spoilt for choice these days – because the people in it behave in a completely depraved fashion, the common response to such a statement is not one of, “We should complain to the broadcaster and get this off the air.”  Instead, the response is dismissive: “If you don’t like it, then you don’t have to watch it.”  Is that simplistic response really a legitimate answer to this type of criticism?

It should be obvious that since I do not want to watch said television program, because I find it morally objectionable, I do not need to be told not to watch it when I express a criticism of its moral content.  Obviously I have already reached the conclusion that there is something wrong with this content, otherwise I would have said nothing, and my purpose in raising the issue is not really for my own benefit.  Rather, it is for the benefit of both of us.

To put it another way, if I see a pot bubbling away on a hot stove, I know that it would be dangerous to touch that pot without some sort of protection.  Otherwise, I shall end up burning my hand.  Yet what is my obligation when I see that you are about to pick up that bubbling pot without using a tea towel or an oven mitt: do I simply stand there and say nothing, because I am not supposed to judge your actions?

Let us take this analogy a bit further, and look at what happens next.  Ask yourself, what happens when you decide to behave stupidly, and pick up that boiling pot, while I keep my mouth shut.  When you cry out in pain and anguish, am I supposed to just ignore you and go about my business? No: you would expect me to help and comfort you, providing you with some type of treatment, and taking you to the doctor if need be.

Now imagine that not only did I say nothing before you picked up that pot, since I cannot judge your actions, but I did nothing, as you stood there screaming and crying after injuring yourself.  If I did not help you, you would criticize me for being inhumane, and you would be right to do so.  You might even conclude that I was lacking in basic human decency, and that I was a cruel person with no feeling toward others.

Therefore why is it acceptable for me to assist you after you have ruined your hand, but not acceptable for me to warn you not to burn your hand in the first place?  For surely the latter is far easier than the former, let alone less costly and time-consuming for both parties.  If of course you do not listen to my warning and burn yourself anyway, then we can take that as it comes,  However if I can persuade you not to burn yourself in the first place, aren’t we both better off, in the end?

Our culture has gone so far in the direction of not wanting to hurt anyone’s feelings, that we are terrified to open our mouth and say that something is wrong or inappropriate, for fear of being criticized or shunned by our peers.  I must stand by and watch you burn yourself on the stove while saying nothing, and then clean up afterwards, again while saying nothing.  This is utter nonsense.

If we are to bring Western society back from the selfish malaise into which it has fallen, we need to start asking the questions which our contemporary culture does not want us to ask.  In doing so, we will be rejecting the assumptions which we are told are those held by reasonable people.  And if that is what is to happen, gentle reader, then I say, so be it.  I am not going to stand idly by and watch you injure yourself.

At the same time, remember that being right does not absolve you from helping another pick up the pieces when things fall apart.  We must be the very first at hand when someone needs our assistance and we are in a position to provide it, even if we find it unpleasant or inconvenient.  Otherwise, we are standing by the stove, saying, “I told you so,” as our fellow man writhes in pain from his poor decisions.  Not only does this do no one any good, but it is simply a variant of the gross selfishness which got us into our present mess in the first place.