Beautiful, Old Things

When you try to keep current with subjects like archaeology, architecture, art history, or the art market., but you are capable of forming a rational thought pattern, you often find yourself in rather a lonely place. For every article about the reemergence of a lost masterpiece, or the discovery of fascinating buildings from ancient times, there are ten about – I kid you not – whether Kate Middleton is a bad influence on the art world. What I have learned over the years, watching the lunatics take over the asylum, is that the relative lack of interest in beautiful, old things, which has become so ingrained in the groupthink of the creative classes, has greater significance than simply in questions of taste. We are in serious danger of losing our artistic and cultural heritage of beautiful, old things, to the worship of all things ugly and new.  

Some countries are much more on the ball about protecting and celebrating their beautiful, old things than others. Yesterday for example, the Israeli Antiquities Authority announced the discovery of a 4thcentury A.D. Roman shipwreck in the harbor of Caesarea – a town well known to Christ and indeed to you, if you’ve ever read the New Testament. Items recovered included a number of bronze statues in a remarkable state of preservation, from having been covered with sand for centuries. I’m always impressed by the way that the Israelis make a point of celebrating these historic works of art. They place a premium on preserving and sharing this history and beauty with their citizens and with visitors.

Sad stories about the lack of due care shown to our past, like the general neglect of Pompeii, are all the more remarkable when stories emerge about how earmarked taxpayer funds have gone to waste. It is true that brazen thefts of well-documented works of art sometimes have a happy ending, as occurred recently with the discovery of a cache of Old Master paintings that were stolen in Verona last year. Because of the chronic underfunding of museums and historic sites, it’s a thief’s paradise out there, and we hear less about what is missing than about what is recovered.   

Yet I don’t believe that the answer to the problem of preserving and protecting artistic patrimony lies in simply throwing more money after it, at least not exclusively. The fact that there is so much decay and theft, it seems to me, stems not so much from underfunding as it does from a lack of leadership, which itself comes from a lack of appreciation. A greater value has been placed on trendiness over tradition, which spills over into issues like understaffing or a lack of security. The illegal trade in art and antiquities would not be possible without someone, somewhere, turning a blind eye, or giving up the fight out of frustration. 

The real root of the problem is the ignorance of the supposed cognoscenti, an ignorance most easily demonstrated by a glance at sales figures from the art market. When art requiring little or no artistic skill, such as pseudo-graffiti created with stencils, cause institutions and philanthropists to dance to the tune of tens of millions of dollars, what does that say about our society? How can a wax dummy of Adolf Hitler, by a contemporary artist whose name I’ve already forgotten, go for $17 million, while a beautiful, old bust by Houdon, one of the greatest sculptors of the 18thcentury and indeed in the history of Western art, is only worth $25,000?

If the powers that be cared more about our artistic heritage, and less about getting Beyoncé or one of the Kardashians to appear at their cocktail parties, I believe the situation would be quite different. Collectors and philanthropists who spend hundreds of millions of dollars on the work of contemporary artists, but spend a fraction of that amount – if any – on the preservation and celebration of beautiful, old things, thanks to the infernal whisperings of alleged experts in the arts, have contributed in no small way to this mess. You cannot expect the public to sympathize when you call for the protection of ancient buildings and works of art, when you yourself fail to throw your weight and, yes, your money behind it.

Credit where it’s due, there are certainly many who do their fair share. The Italian luxury goods retailer Fendi, for example, paid most of the $2.4 million needed to restore the recently reopened Trevi Fountain in Rome. Other Italian companies are picking up the tabs for preserving the Coliseum and the Spanish Steps. The Italian government at least recognizes that it does not have the resources to address these projects on its own, and has reached out to companies who care about these things to get them to help.    

Meanwhile in France, the government of Le Petit Hollande spent untold millions at the Palace of Versailles last summer to host a monumental sculpture exhibition by the decidedly untalented British sculptor Anish Kapoor, one of whose rather adolescent and prurient works was designed to evoke the nether regions of Queen Marie Antoinette. This summer the artist whose work was chosen to litter the gardens of the grandest chateau in France is the Danish-Icelandic sculptor Olafur Eliasson. Mr. Eliasson’s most recent work involves carting large blocks of glacier ice to public spaces and then allowing them to melt, in order to draw attention to climate change. God help us all.

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Part of the Roman bronze collection found in Israel this month

The Courtier in Aleteia: A Papal Pilgrimage in the Holy Land

Check out my latest for Aleteia today, reviewing Diana von Glahn’s new series, “A Papal Pilgrimage in the Holy Land”, which begins airing on Catholic television networks tomorrow. In this three-part travel documentary, Diana chronicles Pope Francis’ historic visit to the Holy Land, and in her own well-informed, enthusiastic way she introduces us to the people and places of this sacred but troubled part of the world, where Christians in particular have suffered so much in recent years. Follow the link in the article for air dates and times in your area, or visit TheFaithfulTraveler.com

My special thanks to the always gracious Elizabeth Scalia and her team at Aleteia for letting me share my thoughts with their readers once again!

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Dangerous Instruments: Your Online Life And Your Creative Legacy

I get email inquiries all the time from visitors to my side project, CatholicBarcelona.com, which is an online guide in English to all of the historic churches, monasteries, etc. in Barcelona. People want to know which sites are closest to their hotel, or if I can recommend a particular Sunday Mass, or where they can get married. A common question involves requests for Masses in other languages.

Some months ago I received an email from a lady whom I will call “T”. T had recently moved from her country to suburban Barcelona, but she had started to look into becoming a Catholic before she had left her home country. She wanted some suggestions on joining a parish, and also whether I knew of anywhere that she could receive instruction on Catholicism, through the program commonly known as RCIA, the Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults. I gave her a couple of recommendations and wished her luck, assuming I would never hear from her again.

Then yesterday morning, I received an email from T, some four months after I last heard from her. She told me that not only had she joined the parish I suggested would probably work for her, but one of the priests there was giving her private RCIA instruction. She is thrilled and hopes to come into the Church next Easter.

Now at the end of the day, what is happening in T’s life is the working of the Holy Spirit, not me. If she hadn’t found the information she was seeking through me, she would have found it somewhere else. However I wanted to share this story with you for an important reason.

There’s no question that the connections we make via online media can be toxic. All you have to do is read the comments section on just about any blog to realize that there are a lot of bitter, unhappy people out there, who not only espouse crazy theories, they are more than happy to share them with you. Twitter and Facebook, at times, can seem little more than a flame war, while even the most seemingly innocuous Instagram account can take on a different tinge, when you look not at the images being posted by that user you’re following, but at the images that they are “liking”.

I‘ll be the first to raise my hand and declare that I’m as big and bad a sinner online, as I am in real life: the Seven Deadly Sins and I have been shacked up for quite a long time. It’s easy to think, when we look at someone’s online presence, “Wow, what a hypocrite/whackjob/jerk!” Except that if we turn the mirror around, I expect most of us will find ourselves doing the same things.   

Online media is not intrinsically evil, it is merely a tool: a means, not an end. It can be a tool of darkness, absolutely, for it can create all kinds of evil things. Yet it can also be a tool for good. We all, myself included, need to take a step back from time to time and ask what sort of online instruments we are.

Certainly we are all rusty, dangerous instruments when we chose to do evil. The fellow downstairs is more than happy to use us to injure others, if we let him. In the process, we end up injuring ourselves, becoming weaker and duller until we eventually snap and get tossed in the garbage.

Yet if we put ourselves in God’s hands, even in our sorry and decrepit state, by choosing to work the way that He wants us to, we can be as beneficial and healing in our online relationships as a well-wielded scalpel in the hands of a gifted surgeon. That is where, as the saying goes, the struggle is real. And it is a struggle all of us, myself included, need to be reminded of, when we are doing anything online.

Whether you are writing a blog post or tweet, sending a direct message or chat, or uploading an image or document, in creating online content you are creating a body of work that speaks not only to who you are as a content creator, but also about whom you are taking as your creative advisor. You can be an instrument for creating good, or you can be an instrument for destructive evil. Don’t let that choice go by, unexamined, in your online activities.

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"Against The Common Good" by Francisco de Goya (c. 1814-15)