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31 December 2011

Does classicism have a future?

It all depends on how you define its past, and what you think of our present….

“To which the retort is: maybe it is precisely because professors of the classics have refused to engage with modern theory and persisted in viewing the ancient world through rose-tinted spectacles (as if it was a culture to be admired) that the subject is in imminent danger of turning into an antiquarian backwater.”
—Mary Beard, “Do the Classics Have a Future?” New York Review of Books, January 12, 2012, [my italics]

The above quote is from a consideration of the state of the classics in culture and education today. The author is in fact attempting a defense or, perhaps better, an optimistic projection, of the classics’—that is, knowledge of Latin and Greek—role in our culture, and she ends with a rather elitist argument for the classics as the province of a small cadre of scholars, and a celebration of their capacity to induce wonder. One wonders, then, why that pleasure should be reserved for a small few (which would not include me, since I was unfortunate enough to attend Catholic school immediately after the Second Vatican Council in a diocese all too eager to embrace the Council’s baby with the bathwater approach to Latin), but I am much more troubled by the parenthetical statement in the quote that opens this posting: as if it was a culture not to be admired?! If we do not find things to admire in the past, why bother studying it? Sure, the Romans could be awful, but they could also be just, rational, creative, adventurous, and ambitious. They gave us law and architecture as we know it, multi-culturalism, and a civilizing habit that underpins European cities from London to Paris. Collectively they could be ruthless, individually they could be the epitomes of tolerance, reason, and fairness. If the “great man” theory of history has lost its luster, it is no wonder we judge the past on its collective actions, and generally the worst of them.
            But since I should be blogging about the arts, lets turn to the classical today. Perhaps never in the last thirty years has it been in such crisis—there is currently no great voice of support for it, there is overwhelming cultural momentum against it, and even many of its supposed supporters have lost their sense of what defines it. I would argue it has something to do with the fact that we have not connected the dots between the greatest achievements of our past—the Old Master tradition, if you like, in the arts, or the Renaissance tradition in architecture—and our modern aspirations (do we even have any?). At the end of one year and on the cusp of a new, I will leave this as a question, and offer the floor to other voices from the recent and remote past for consideration (NB: they can not all be reconciled). Beatum Annum Novum.

If you know your history,
Then you would know where you coming from,...
—Bob Marley, Buffalo Soldier

Sooner or later we learn to throw the past away
History will teach us nothing
—Sting, History Will Teach Us Nothing

History can not teach us, but we can learn from it.
—Joseph Rykwert, The Dancing Column

Evening comes, I return home and enter into my study; and up there I change out of that daily attire, full of mud and grime, and I put on refined, dignified clothing; and thus changed I allow myself to enter into the ancient courts of men of old where, affectionately received by them, I partake of that food that is mine alone and for which I was born; where I am not embarrassed to speak with them, and inquire of them the reasons for their actions; and they, by virtue of their humanity, respond to me; and I don’t feel for four hours of time any boredom: forgetting every anxiety, not fearing poverty, not worrying about death; I am completely transformed through them.
—Niccolò Macchiavelli, letter to Francesco Vettori, 10 December 1513 [my translation]

 [I treat] history as a mirror, with the help of which I can adorn my own life by imitating the virtues of the men whose actions I have described. It is though I could talk with the subjects of my Lives and enjoy their company every day, welcome him as my guest,... and select from his career those events which are the most important and the most enduring to record. As Sophocles has written, “What greater joy could you attain than this?” and what could do more to raise the standards by which we live?
—Plutarch, Life of Timoleon

Diogenes & Alexander

17 December 2011


Or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Going Back

ORIGIN late 18th cent. (in the sense [acute homesickness] ): modern Latin (translating German Heimweh ‘homesickness’ ), from Greek nostos ‘return home’ + algos ‘pain.’

Adam Ant
Since the members of the jury of the erstwhile classical prize known as the Driehaus Award (this year’s winner, Michael Graves), along with the I[C]A+A (see my earlier post), are in a mood to lead us back to the ‘80’s and Postmodernism, I’ve decided to relax and go along for the nostalgic ride—if only because pop music back then was so much more interesting than it is today. And perhaps, in a certain way, those tantalizing glimpses back to the past that PoMo offered as an antidote to sterile Modernism did open up the doors to a whole series of nostalgias that, in a few cases, led to more serious stuff. I think about my own trajectory from juvenile Postmod devotee to young classicist as, to be frank, partly tied to the romantic classicism in certain strands of early ‘80’s alternative music, some of which I offer here for your aural and visual retro-stimulation:
Adam Ant, Stand and Deliver

After all, the Sex Pistols’ manager Malcolm Maclaren went on (after an interlude founding Bow-Wow-Wow—loved them!) to record an opera-inspired album (Fans). Not wholly coincidentally, I’m currently designing stage sets for a Baroque opera company in Chicago (about which more anon):

Like the movie Groundhog Day, perhaps, if we relive the ‘80’s, we can get it right this time ‘round and not be blindsided again by the neo-Modernism that was lurking just behind Graves’ pink pediments. Perhaps too, like the music industry over-managing the trajectory of pop music—giving us formulaic edge (Lady Gaga) instead of real edge (Wendy O. Williams and the Plasmatics)—we can avoid this time the facile acquiescence to the needs of the development industry that New Urbanism has succumbed to. In other words, we should listen to more of these folks
  • Lena Lovich (Lucky Number)
  • Nina Hagen (African Reggae)
  • Flying Lizards (Money)
  • Siouxsie and the Banshees (Arabian Knights)
  • Sue Saad and the Next (Young Girl)
and less of Bananarama and the Go-Go’s (not that I didn’t appreciate the latter once upon a time).

So, thanks to the folks at the Driehaus Prize for making me feel young again! And here’s to the guys in the tricorn hats. Like Sid said, I did it My Way:

Appendix: more Nostalgia Inducing Elements (thanks Colin)
The Stranglers, All Roads Lead to Rome

27 November 2011

In Memoriam

Lux Feminæ: Montserrat Figueras 1942-2011

On November 23, 2011 the world lost the presence of the magical Catalan chanteuse Montserrat Figueras, wife of Jordi Savall and co-founder with him of Hesperion XXI, interpreter par excellence of the Early Music vocal repertoire—especially those haunting, exotic sounds she called up from the ancient sibyls and female saints, but also Sephardic grandmothers and Baroque composers. Her and Jordi’s label currently features her visage and voice on their home page:

My wife and I had the good fortune to see the two of them at Ravinia a few summers ago, and she was (unlike so many others) even more powerfully haunting and gently commanding on stage than on their magical discs. While she left a raft of recordings that will comfort us as long as they last, she is one of those few artists about whom those who love them feel as if they know them somehow, and I for one will miss her like a dear friend. No doubt her equally brilliant and compelling husband is wracked with emotions no one else can comprehend, but for those of us who have followed them at least since the film Tous Les Matins du Monde there is the sense that M. Sainte Colombe embodied a presence of that loss.

The angels have gained a voice only the earth could generate.

16 November 2011

Not to Praise, But to Bury

In response to some of the conference supporters who questioned my questioning of the conference Reconsidering Postmodernism, I offer this from Architectural Record:

Old Debates for a New Era at Postmodernism Conference

November 14, 2011

An aesthetic that mined the past gets a historical consideration of its own at a New York City symposium.

By Fred A. Bernstein

“Lumping the classicists together with Robert Venturi—whose use of columns and architraves, even its supporters concede, can be superficial and ironic—seems a disservice to both.

Yet several speakers claimed that postmodernism made it possible for classical architecture to flourish in the United States and England. “Postmodernism allowed for that opening; you have to be thankful for that,” said the London classicist Demetri Porphyrios. But it seems likely that the opposite is also true—that postmodernism, as popularized by Venturi, Charles Moore, and Philip Johnson, made any use of classical orders suspect.”

I rest my case.

25 October 2011

Cheap Tricks

Up In Smoke: Anish Kapoor’s Venetian Wisp

Visiting Palladio’s San Giorgio Maggiore in Venice recently unfortunately involved dealing with “artist” Anish Kapoor’s installation “Ascension,” and apparently my lack of appreciation is actually matched for once by the critical press:

This trite macchina of mystery is really just a cheap trick, and speaks to the poverty of thought in so much modern culture. Indeed, the great burden of our time is not modernity, but mediocrity, and Kapoor’s mechanistic misfortune only looks the more trivial when juxtaposed to Palladio’s solid masterpiece, not to mention next to the often bizarre juxtapositions of modern and traditional life that abound in this wonderfully strange city. Indeed, when I commented to the staff at the church’s campanile that the work was “strange,” they sardonically replied that there are lots of strange people that pass through their doors, and when I followed with a more critical comment on the lack of respect for the sacred space the work evidenced they simply agreed. 

Leaving the church and finding a barge with concrete mixers churning by only made the insipid installation’s shock value seem like little more than schlock value. And the strange scene of a massive cruise ship slipping by the edge of the Fondamenta Nani near San Trovaso was more distressingly poignant than any Rube Goldberg contraption that The Bean’s creator could come up with.

Would that we still, instead, made real macchine like the Salute....

06 October 2011

Rubens and Rome


It’s not for nothing that I chose my sketchbook drawing of Rubens’ Descent from the Cross in Antwerp Cathedral as the current background for the blog: it’s both one of my most ambitious Old Master sketches, and a testament to the Flemish master’s ability to combine Baroque energy with Roman gravitas. Happily, this weekend I found myself in S. Trinità dei Monti at the top of the Spanish Steps, and looked more closely at Daniele da Volterra’s earlier treatment of the same subject, long held to be (before its degradation) one of the perhaps three finest paintings in Rome (along with Raphael’s Transfiguration and Domenichino’s Last Communion of St. Jerome). I hadn’t paid so much attention before to what was undoubtedly Rubens’ source, or point of departure, for his canvas: the fame of the Roman fresco a natural challenge for the talented foreigner; the chain, if apocryphal, leading back to a possible idea of Michelangelo’s; the mastery of bodies in space, especially the robust figure extended over the transverse beam of the cross—a clear borrowing, albeit reversed, in the Antwerp painting; the narrative juxtaposition of the deposition and mourning; and the challenge of da Volterra’s foreshortening of Christ’s weighty, pallid body.

It is telling to note what Rubens’ changed in departing from his model. His canvas shows a more rustic, or less abstract (and so more credible) cross, and equally credible rustic ladders. He has reduced the number of figures somewhat, and reintegrated Mary’s mourning with the action. A soldier (Longinus?) no longer supports Christ’s body on the latter (an aversion to what armies had done to his beloved Antwerp?), but rather the Apostle John. He rejects the virtuoso display of foreshortening for a more natural, if contrapposto, sagging of the Savior’s body into the arms and sheet or pall that supports him. For all of its artifice Rubens’ revision of his model is more focused, natural, earthy and powerful; but it is more graceful at the same time. Art had moved on from the post-Michelangesque agendas of the mid-sixteenth century, and this canvas, on which he lavished so much care, is Rubens’ manifesto of a new art, rooted in past masters but exceeding them, only partly on their own terms.

21 September 2011

Postmodern Follow-up

Thoughts from an old friend

I’ve heard from several people sustaining my piece on the odd notion of Reconsidering Postmodernism; one in particular, artist Anthony Visco, offered a more substantive lament, which I am posting below. Anthony was somebody I mentioned in my piece, and he was an important influence on my work as I struggled toward something more serious and classical. His thoughts may resonate with others as well; please offer any responses to him directly….

Life: Before and After the PoMo Party

When I first received the notice of the conference I thought, how sad, do we have to go back? 

Was PoMo the end of something or the beginning of something? Or, was it simply a bridge for the Decons? It has become more apparent that it is still too soon to know either. If it was anything it was the beginning of the end of trying to fit classicism into modernism, mixing a Mondrian with a Rubens. It didn’t work. 

I sometimes look at our modernism and post modernism as our “mannerism” much like that period between the Renaissance and Baroque, or, Counter Reformation, but with only less bravura in the works.

As a church artist I do not find this ironical or coincidental that this mannerism should parallel Vatican II just as the first mannerism followed the Council of Trent. After all, both were and remain a period of reform. In fact, when we hear Pope Benedict XVI say it is time to “reform the reform” we are hearing the new beginnings of what I see as a counter reformation in art and architecture. We can already see this already in the church architecture of Thomas Gordon Smith, Duncan Stroik, and James Mc Crery. Note bene: remember that modernism was the first time the Church had ever followed a secular movement. Now as it frees itself, it will be much quicker than in the secular world where political correctness continues to shackle and condemn the content and origins of any Western cannons, either in art or architecture. 

I never planned or wanted to be a postmodernist, nor did I consider myself to have ever been one. Coming back from a Fulbright in Florence, I was trying to make the best out of a bad situation.  I was and continue to do the best I could with what I had, which was no classical training whatsoever. So if the work looked “mannerist”, which it was often accused of being, I couldn’t help it. Often it looked awkward and not in sync with the architectural context, as the work was either for a modernist church of drywall and exit signs or renovated post Vatican II 19th century churches that had received a gift and chose not to purchase something from “church depot”, or the catalogue of religious goods stores. My work most times looked inappropriate in both places, as I never worked with the architects living or dead. And so, for the classicists, I wasn’t classical enough; for the modernists, I was a moribund copyist trying to revive the past. 

Things started to change drastically once I met John Blatteau, then President of the Classical America Philadelphia Chapter. Aside from being introduced to other architects and a library of books, like Ware’s American Vignola, and of course, Drafting of the Orders, I learned I was not only not crazy but I wasn’t alone! We would talk about the sisterhood of art and architecture and how wonderful it would be if someday we two could do a church together, something I imagined and drew over and over again. Sadly the PoMo years passed by and church design commissions where all around but none came our way. Still stuck on post Vatican II rhetoric and purposely confusing the word “contemporary” with “modernist,” Philadelphia failed to build any church that would lead us out of the desert. And so for forty years we wandered watching the work given to the “hired hand” again and again. All the while the exit out was right there. I regret for John, and myself, as well as all the others capable of pointing the way out, never having received that opportunity as we watched the Archdiocese of Philadelphia chose one bad architect after another, and over a dozen new churches be built that everybody continues to hate. It all would remind me of what a teacher once warned me that it was “difficult to be talented and desire to make high art in a low art period”. “This”, he added, “is a low art period.”   

During those years I would go to the foundry to work on my reliefs for Bryn Mawr Presbyterian, watching large works be cast for many Pomo buildings around the country Yet the PoMo architects would walk in the foundry to approve another sculptor’s work in progress for one of their buildings, see someone (me) or not see (me) working on a Christ figure or an Assumption relief, and would dismiss it based on narrative content. In fact it was because of this issue of narrative content alone that no Pomo architect ever wanted to include my work (or any else like it). 

After drafting the Orders, I could not take PoMo work too seriously. I knew better. It was like studying anatomy for me, and I took to it instantly. Measuring a column by diameters was no different than measuring a body by its number of heads (the common unit in anatomical cannons of proportions); there was such direct correlation between the measuring of the orders and that of the human figure that it became all the more obvious as to why the Catholic Church would employ this corporeal form of architecture to represent the Body of the Church. I couldn’t wait to show Blatteau my first rendered elevation of a Corinthian capital! 

Yes, we saw some figures reintroduced to PoMo architecture; but then again in the 80’s the figure, as long as it lacked content, was making a temporary comeback even in the galleries as well. However just as the figures on or in the PoMo building always seemed to lack content, real narrative content, they did as well in galleries and institutions of painting and sculpture: perhaps because the buildings themselves lacked the true sense of the corporeal so inherent in the proportions of classical orders. The orders for me are akin to anatomy for the figurative artist, indispensable. PoMo did not follow that anatomy; or followed it only in part. It was a stripped classicism, stripped to the bone. Where modernism had thrown it away, Pomo dug it up and had the skeleton rearranged. As for fleshy parts, it gave us eye lashes, teeth, nails and hair, often making a deliberate confusion between inner and outer body parts. Any hierarchy of proportions remained vague at best. 

Should the PoMo Masters think themselves the Forerunners of the “New” Classical Movement, what do we then call those who, like John Blatteau, had been practicing all along? Forerunners to the Forerunners?  Or was Blatteau too old fashioned to have known that one must be modernist first and then convert? As John once said when I complained about how more and more modernist European painters and sculptors were becoming, he noted “Classicism is in exile here and living here in America”. 

What I find sad here is that we hadn’t, and perhaps haven’t yet, accepted the true heart of classicism. Perhaps if there is anything good to come of this conference it will be this one point. As I said above for the Church, we have turned the corner both here and in Europe. I meet architects, painters, and sculptors—both here and abroad—who are either working with classical architects on new churches or embellishing those classical buildings that had been stripped during the modernist renovations.  Yes there still are a few churches to be suffered that will be done in that post Vatican II Pomo gathering space, clam shell pew arrangement with a walk-in baptismal tub all done in the interfaith style, or what I prefer to call “Hagia Ikea”. But their generation of priests and architects are on the way out and will soon join the nether world. As we leave the desert, where we left the garden is where we shall reenter with the most corporeal plan of all, the Cruciform. Gloria tibi Domine

Anthony Visco