At the Moment

The Next Big Thing
Vince Gill

At the Moment

Rose Window, Strasbourg Cathedral

I am a schoolteacher. At the beginning of a school year it is important, I think, to consider what the new year has to offer and what ought to change and not change as a result of the summer’s reflection on the previous year. When is new better and when should the “old ways” be preserved. The song suggests that everything is ephemeral; it has its moment in the sun and then becomes passé and yesterday’s news. Vince Gill is speaking specifically of the music industry but this view of things permeates many other areas of our culture.

With the intense focus this view places on the new and the momentary it is difficult to put much of anything into a larger context. This view has also produced a dismissive attitude towards cultural landmarks, whether they are musical, literary, or some other aspect of our cultural identity. This preoccupation with the present also seems to bring with it a resistance to long term planning. Thinking too much about the past or the future makes it difficult to live effectively in the present moment. It is unwise to live too much in the past or the future, but it is difficult to build a meaningful future without some planning and it is difficult to plan well if we cannot fit our planning into an historical context.

The rose window on the other hand was designed to provoke contemplation, to free us from the “tyranny of the moment.” To me the rose window suggests a kaleidoscopic mandala and its beauty is in the way it diffuses light and color. The rose window also suggests the “next big thing” isn’t that big in the context of time and the universe. As a culture there may be a place for us to build a metaphoric rose window in the mind that invites us to contemplate things outside our own scope and experience and to measure our own accomplishments against a larger yardstick.

In this week’s Boston Globe there was an interview with Marianne Taylor on “The definition of cool.” As a term it resists definition, according to Taylor, and there is more to it than what is currently popular, though it seems that it is often a currency of the moment. Perhaps more than anything else “cool” is a kind of charisma that can attach itself to objects, ideas, or people. A large part of cool though seems to come down to attitude, an edgy, confront the status quo sort of attitude, though one must be careful because in some circles confronting the status quo is the status quo. I think, though, the discussion of cool suggests that too often we attach value to surfaces, as attitude is largely a “surface”, that conceals some turbulent currents beneath.

The Illinois
Frank Lloyd Wright

The sketch is of a building designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. It was planned to be a mile high and eventually had to be put aside as unworkable because at the time there were no elevators that could accommodate the design and folks were unlikely to climb stairs a mile in each direction. In order for the next big thing to become the next big thing, I suppose, the technology necessary for its support must exist. Still, it is an elegant looking building and with current technology might even be workable, though the cultural moment for a design of this kind has probably passed.

Ultimately it is about assessing value. What is worthy of preservation; what is worthy of study? Wright was one of America’s great architects, but not all of his buildings have survived. Some were torn down to make way for other buildings. What does that do to the “legacy” of Wright, where did the buildings that were destroyed stand in relation to the body of his work? There is also in this a suggestion as to the purpose of art, especially arts like architecture that are at least in part functional. What if these buildings of Wright’s that were destroyed no longer satisfied the function for which they were built. As an English teacher it is important to ask which literary texts are worthy of preservation and study and which need to be metaphorically pulled down to make way for other edifices.

Guggenheim Museum Bilbao
Frank Gehry

A building like the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao could probably not be built in Wright’s time. It takes architecture in a different direction and might be the epitome of architectural “cool” for our time. It reminds me of the buildings one often sees in animated cartoons, like the “Toon Town” section of Los Angeles as seen in Who Framed Roger Rabbit. But there has also been criticism of Gehry’s style because many of those that work in the buildings he has designed complain about their not being “user friendly” spaces. This is a problem because buildings are not sculpture, though there may be qualities they share in common, and though a well designed building ought to be pleasing to the eye, its ultimate purpose is to serve the people that work in it.

Books are not buildings and we do not live in a book in the way we live in a house, still there is a sense in which readers do occupy a book and in the course of reading it live in the world the book creates. But where a building ought to be designed with the comfort of those it houses in mind, the same is not necessarily true of a book. Good books often make us feel uncomfortable. Often books hold ourselves up to ourselves for scrutiny and that is often not a pleasant experience, but it is, nonetheless, an important thing to do from time to time.

There was an article by Susan Straight in the New York Times this week, “Reading by the Numbers“ about how reading is being assigned and assessed in schools. It concerns a piece of software used by some schools to help encourage students to read. The program assigns point values to books and when students accumulate so many points for the outside reading they have done they are awarded (in some schools, though not in all schools that use the program) a prize.

The article focuses on the point values assigned to various books and tries to understand the “reading” values the program is trying to inculcate and the correlation between the number of points a book is worth and the quality of that book as literature. Some books that are not particularly challenging are worth quite a lot of points while other books that are quite challenging are not worth many points at all. Heart of Darkness, for example, is worth ten points while Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix was worth forty-four points. Hamlet was worth seven points while the Gossip Girl series was worth eight points.
Perhaps it is just because I teach English, but something does not seem right here.

Wivenhoe Park, Essex (1816)
John Constable

Of course one must be careful. We all live on the cusp of change as one style of writing (or of doing most any art) is morphing into what comes next. The paintings above and below suggest this potential problem. Constable and Turner were contemporaries, or nearly so, but Constable remained true to a realistic style of painting that was popular when he began to work while Turner’s style was anticipating the Impressionist painters that would come a bit later. Both painters did fine work but one was a bit behind the times and the other a bit ahead of his time. An attitude toward literary texts that is too focused on past greatness is going to miss the work of writers who, like Turner, are producing the “next big thing”, the thing that will make our time memorable to those who will back at it.

Chichester Canal circa 1828
J. M. W. Turner

It can be difficult to make judgments about the work that is done in our own time because we are too close to it. C. S. Lewis once observed in a book, The Allegory of Love, about the courtly love poets, “For it must be noticed that such dominance (the dominance of a literary form in any given age) is not necessarily good for the form that enjoys it. When everyone feels it natural to attempt the same kind of writing, that kind is in danger. Its characteristics are formalized. A stereotyped monotony, unnoticed by contemporaries, but cruelly apparent to posterity, begins to pervade it.” Contemporary literary forms that enjoy some popularity, like meta-fiction or stories that rely heavily on stream of consciousness, are probably in danger of falling into this kind of stylistic “monotony.” This may not be obvious to readers today but is likely to be very obvious to readers a few generations from now.

The Shock of the New: “David Hockney on What’s Unphotographable”

This film clip from the television series The Shock of the New suggests another aspect of how we assess an art form. David Hockney talks about how he experimented with photographs and discovered that though both photographs and paintings are visual representations of a subject they were not equally effective in capturing the essence of that subject. Hockney is specifically talking about a painting he did of the Alhambra in Spain. He said he could never capture it adequately in a photograph, but he was pleased with the result of his painting. The image of the painting is not realistic and does not offer a recognizable representation of the Alhambra. If it were put next to a photograph of the building the viewer may not realize that the photograph and the painting were of the same building, nor would someone having seen Hockney’s painting recognize the Alhambra if she or he visited it in Spain.

But it is not the purpose of a work of art to produce “photographic” images of a thing. An historical novel with Abraham Lincoln in it as a character is not as obligated to produce the “real” Lincoln in its pages, as is a biography or a work of history. Novels often tell stories that mix elements of fantasy or the fanciful in an otherwise realistic story. Novelists like Garcia Gabriel Marquez or Robertson Davies tell stories that move through a world that in many ways resemble the world in which we live and move, but at times these worlds are penetrated by a “non-realistic” reality that does not coincide with the world as most people experience it. This artistic license does not detract from the artistry of the books but in fact serve that artistry in much the same way that Hockney’s art serves his painting.

It can be difficult maintaining a balance between the artistic legacy we have inherited and the modern age. It is important to preserve a sense of the past and the historical and cultural streams that have brought us to where we are but it is also important to remain receptive to the work that flows from the influences of this legacy. As rose windows provided an opportunity to contemplate what is holy in the world, the gargoyle provided the opportunity to contemplate those forces that are dedicated to our ruin and the ultimate ruin of those forces. Perhaps in this gargoyle from the National Cathedral in Washington D. C. there is an apt object for contemplation that focuses our meditations on the value of the traditions that have brought us to our moment and the value of our moment’s contribution to those traditions and perhaps that which has value from each stream will cleanse the mundane from both.

Darth Vader grotesque on the tower of the Washington National Cathedral