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Le Stryge

It seems obvious that the present moment is the product of all the time that went before; what is not so obvious is that the past is also a product of the present. That is, we always see the past through the eyes of the present; the present has need of a version of the past that validates the way we see ourselves now.

History is uncontrollably large and what we consider the history, which we consolidate in books and Ken Burns documentaries, is a tiny fraction of what actually occurred, and each generation gets to pick the bits it wants or needs to justify itself.

All of which makes history not a fixed and certain thing, but a constantly flowing eddy of revisions and reconsiderations. And each age sees itself reflected in the mirror of its historiography.

Notre Dame de Paris 1841

The Enlightenment, for instance, saw the so-called Middle Ages as a time of irrationality and superstition. That age saw its ideals in classical Rome. But the 19th century, given in to Romanticism, idealized the very things the previous century had dismissed. So, in the 19th century (yes, beginning in the late 18th century — these things are not governed by calendar dates), you had a Gothic revival, a raft of novels set in castles, the knights of Sir Walter Scott, the cornball folly of Strawberry Hill and Victor Hugo’s Hunchback of Notre Dame.

And you found, in France, a renewed interest in the monuments left over from those discarded days. And discarded is the proper word: The cathedral of Notre Dame de Paris, for instance, was a crumbling shambles, stripped of most of its sculpture and left to be a ruin on the island in the middle of the Seine River. In addition to the ravages of time and 500 years, there had been various “updates” to the building, and then, before, during and just after the French Revolution, the sculpture on the door jambs had been removed and the Gallery of Kings above the western portals had been junked in a frenzy of anti-monarchical and anti-clerical sentiment.

Before restoration and now

But in an ironic stroke of luck, the central government appropriated church property in 1789, and thus became responsible for the administration and upkeep of churches, including the cathedral (know then as the Métropole), which had for a time been turned from a Roman Catholic cathedral into a “temple of reason” and then into a food warehouse.

Under the auspices of the state, a few clumsy attempts were made to restore the cathedral, but those attempts did more damage than good.

Then, in 1831, Victor Hugo published his novel, Notre Dame de Paris (better known in English as “The Hunchback of Notre Dame”), and began a personal crusade to repair and renovate the crumbling monument. He and others worked for a decade persuading public opinion and so, in 1841, a committee was established in Paris to consider the matter, and a year later, architect Jean-Jacques Arveuf was asked to submit a plan for the refurbishment of the cathedral. Several others decided to submit plans, also, and eventually it was the team of Jean-Baptiste Lassus and Eugène Viollet-le-Duc who were chosen to mastermind the restoration. Lassus had already spearheaded the restoration of Sainte-Chapelle, and Viollet-le-Duc had been in charge of the work at Vezelay. They were the two most qualified restorers of the age (and although Lassus died in 1857 before the completion of the work in Paris, Viollet-le-Duc went on to work on several more of the cathedrals and basilicas of northern France).

During restoration, mid-1850s

The project began in 1845 and didn’t finish until 1864. It was a huge project. Walls needed rebuilding, statues were carved and put back on the door jambs, all the gargoyle waterspouts that had been replaced over the centuries by lead pipes were redesigned and recarved. (The hideous lead pipes had caused the cathedral in the previous century to be compared to a hedgehog, with all the points spiking out from its walls). The windows were reworked, the doors remade, a new spire added to the roof above the crossing, and perhaps most remarkable — a series of 54 grotesques — “chimères,” or “chimerae,” as Viollet-le-Duc called them — were added to the gallery along the roof line.

This is where history and its progeny enter the picture. For most people, little says Paris and the Middle Ages more than the monster animals that stare down from the summit of Notre Dame de Paris. The most famous chimera — Le Stryge, or “The Vampire” — is perhaps the second symbol of Paris (after the Eiffel Tower). It seems to tell us more about the Middle Ages than any number of scholarly tomes. It is hard to imagine Notre Dame without its guardian spirits, yet they are completely the invention of Viollet-le-Duc. They are the 19th century imagining the Middle Ages.

It is true that Viollet-le-Duc justified his invention of them by claiming he had noticed in some old engravings the remnants of what he took to be the original chimerae, the remains of some broken birds’ feet left carved on the balustrade of the upper stories.

“On every corner of the balustrade,” he wrote, “birds have come to perch, demons and monsters have come to squat. These picturesque figures have just been reestablished; the originals exist no more, but some of them, in falling, have left their claws attached to the stone.”

And there is recorded evidence that such things were once part of many Gothic churches. In the 12th century, St. Bernard of Clairvaux wrote a rant against them as being unsuitable for a Christian church:

“What are these fantastic monsters doing in the cloisters before the eyes of the brothers as they read? What is the meaning of these unclean monkeys, these strange savage lions, and monsters? To what purpose are here placed these creatures, half beast, half man, or these spotted tigers? I see several bodies with one head and several heads with one body. … Surely if we do not blush for such absurdities, we should at least regret what we have spent on them.”

But what these “savage lions” and “unclean monkeys” were looked like, and whether Notre Dame de Paris had ever featured them, are not known. But for Viollet-le-Duc, they were an essential part of what made the cathedral genuinely Gothic.

At any rate, Viollet-le-Duc designed and sculptor Victor Pyanet carved the 54 monsters. Each is of a piece with the portion of the balustrade atop which it sits, monster and fence a single piece of stone.

Viollet-le-Duc also designed the more-than-a-hundred actual gargoyles that stick out from the walls and buttresses of the cathedral, replacing the ugly lead that had defaced the architecture.

(We tend to use the term “gargoyle” for all the mythical beasts on a Gothic church, but a true gargoyle is a rainspout, the word coming for the Medieval French word for “gullet.” The other figures are usually called grotesques or chimerae.)

Viollet-le-Duc and his partners sat at the crux of a change in restoration theory — at midpoint between the older ideas of just replacing worn-out parts with modern equivalents and the more recent concept of saving everything original as best as can be done. Viollet-le-Duc’s idea was not to put Notre Dame back to any historically accurate version of the building, which had changed over the centuries with add-ons and updates, but rather to create a vision of the “perfect completed ideal” of what the building would have looked like, if it had ever been completed according to a single plan.

Viollet-le-Duc wrote that, for him, restoration should be a “means to re-establish [a building] to a finished state, which may in fact never have actually existed at any given time.”

So, Notre Dame as we see it today, is a fiction, a 19th century overlay upon the remains of a 13th century building in an attempt to recapture what the Romantic 19th century believed to be the soul of the Medieval era.

What we see now is the past through the lens of Viollet-le-Duc’s imagination, an imagination formed by the epoch of Victor Hugo, Honoré de Balzac, Prosper Mérimée, Hector Berlioz and Eugène Delacroix.

Now that lens is more than 150 years old itself, and we who are perpetually modern use our own lens to judge the motives and achievements of Lassus and Viollet-le-Duc and their colleagues.

Viollet-le-Duc

But we should not be too harsh on them. Viollet-le-Duc was an astonishing person, the best-informed restorer of his time, who published the standard encyclopedia of Medieval architecture and design. His energy and commitment were legendary, and although he had his critics, there was no one else in the central years of the 19th century better placed to give us the Middle Ages.

And without him, the cathedrals of northern France would today be more like the ruins of Ancient Greece than like the awe-inspiring churches in which the Mass has been celebrated for 800 years.

The fact is, there is no “original” and “authentic” Gothic building to which we can point. All such churches were constructed over centuries, with changing styles, and continuous updates and remodelings. The Gothic cathedral is less a thing than a process, and Viollet-le-Duc should be seen as simply part of that continuing process.

Click on any image to enlarge

Next: Sainte-Chapelle

Stories rise to climaxes, and our first trip to Paris reached that point on Sunday, when we accidentally stumbled into one of the most profound experiences of my life: seeing the Gothic cathedral in full tilt, with all its bells and whistles sounding. Later trips to France would be focused on the many cathedrals and churches built centuries ago across northern France.

Click any photo to enlarge.

NDP horiz with seine

Notre Dame: 2nd round
Sunday, March 30: Easter

A machine is always more beautiful when it is running.

A cathedral, as Carole said, is a machine to take you someplace.

Today, we saw that machine with all its gears rotating and its cylinders pumping.

Not that we expected it when we left in the morning. We were just going to walk along the river, on the Ile St. Louis. We had a petit dejeuner at L’Etoile d’Or down the street, and wandered over the Pont de la Tournelle and along the Quai d’Orleans, to get a good photo of the cathedral of Notre Dame de Paris on its island.

NDP gargoylesAs we crossed over to Ile de la Cite, we noticed hordes of people, tour buses and commotion.

“Sunday,” I thought. Must bring out more tourists. They were everywhere.

We walked around the north side of the cathedral, to photograph details and gargoyles. But as we passed the transept portal, we noticed that, for the first time, the doors were open. Why not wander in and see.

Well, we should have realized, with the bells pealing all morning, that it was Easter. Not our religion, but still, we should have known.NDP Easter crowd

Inside, the big Easter mass was being celebrated. The church was packed. Most of the visitors were celebrants, but a good number around the edges were just tourists.

But at the altar, spotlighted like a good stage, there were priests and a choir, which was chanting plainsong that echoed through the building like surf.

A priest was swinging a censer around the altar, spreading smoke through the crossing of the transept.

It took a while to get past the “gee whiz, what did we stumble into?” But soon we recognized the beauty and theater of the ceremony. It was intoxicating to hear the chant, melismatically floating like the censer smoke, under the brilliant blues and reds of the Rose Window, high above.

NDP bishop presidingOne doesn’t have to be a believer to appreciate how the mass, spoken and sung in the space built for it, 700 years ago, addresses the magnum misterium. Both Carole and I were soon caught up in it.

The vaulting, the lights, the stained glass, the church, spread out in its cruciform, that is also the diagrammatic shape of my body and your body, with the vast ceiling which is metaphorical of the inner dome of the skull — we could see how the priest at the crossing of the transept — the place that counts as the heart of the cruciform homunculus — was casting us out into the cosmos, out into the mystery, out into an intense beauty we only rarely let ourselves be aware of.NDP priest swinging censer

I was shaken. I believe Carole was, too. One listened to the choir, now taking on a later music, a descant from the 15th or 16th century, with the soprano floating her melos out over an altos lower harmony, and looked up, and on raising eyes, one sees the axis of the rose window, with all the light pouring through the interstices in the tracery, very like the angels dancing around the divine center of Dante’s mystical rose.

The vastness of the cathedral interior became the vastness of the universe, the singing became the music of the spheres.

The particular music split between soprano and alto was early enough that it did not participate in the tonic-dominant of classical music, but instead flowed endlessly in shifting concord, opening into landini cadences here and there to redirect the tonality.

And I heard in that melisma something completely separate from an esthetic event. It became the closest thing I have ever heard to the human equivalent of a bird’s song, a sound beautiful beyond its need to be beautiful, uttered out of instinct and joy. Shelley’s skylark, perhaps.

I don’t want to trivialize the event with frivolous hyperbole. But I swelled inside, and tears broke onto my cheek.NDP doorpost temptation

The doctrine simply didn’t matter. The metaphor behind the doctrine — the metaphor truer than the sometimes unknowing doctrine — took over.

We were privileged to witness the building doing what it was designed to do, like driving a Maserati across the countryside, or seeing the dynamos at Hoover Dam spin out electrical power.

I’ve often talked about the “business end” of the cathedral — the choir and apse — in a kind of jocular way, but now I have experienced just what a meaningful business it is.NDP through tree lace horiz

We stepped out of the church after about a half hour. The bells were pealing all over town. Easter morning bells, not only from Notre Dame de Paris, but from every small church and chapel.

NDP north portalI continued making the photographs I had come to make, getting all the details of the West Facade, the sculptures and portals. While moving from point to point, I left Carole waiting in the crowded plaza so she wouldn’t have to keep up with me while I jumped around.

Then, I reentered the cathedral through the West door. I thought I’d see what the service was like looking down the spine of the nave. The choir was silent, but the organ was playing some Messaien. I could hardly believe it: The French composer was being taken seriously enough to play at an event as important as this. And the music was transformed by the place and event, too.

It was no longer an esthetic construct. Messaien is a joy, rich as pastry, if you have the ears to stand it. But Messaien didn’t write music — especially his organ music — so his listeners could get their jollies. No, he wrote it out of religious devotion to serve a function.

And it, like the cathedral itself, became a machine to take you somewhere. It couldn’t have been designed to be more perfect for its job.NDP church garden tondo

Bach organ music is great for a Lutheran service, but that deep, familiar tonic-dominant drive of the fugues and passacaglias would have seemed all out of place in the middle of Catholic mass. The Messaien is as powerful a music as Bach’s on the organ, but it is built on another schema, one that doesn’t give you an expectation and fulfills it. No, it is much more like the mystery, going into unexpected places and finding awe, finding sublimity.

To see the mass, hear the choir and the organ, on an Easter morning, in a 13th Century cathedral, Gothic to the core, with those windows, that color, that light, that theater: It is one of the highlights, not of this trip, but of my life. I was overwhelmed, which is the only appropriate response to the Great Mystery.

Addendum: The martyrdom of St. Denis

NDP st Denis with angelsThe exterior of Notre Dame de Paris is covered with the tall, attenuated statues of saints. Most of the sculpture there today is the work of Eugène Viollet-le Duc, who restored the worn, weathered and often insulted cathedral in the middle of the 19th century. (After the French Revolution, the deconsecrated structure was used as a barn to store grain.) His work on Notre Dame, like his work elsewhere, freshened the architecture and sculpture. No one knows for sure who each of the saints are. Some are obvious from the symbolism, others are obscure. But St. Denis (Dionysius) is clear as can be: The third century saint was beheaded during the persecutions of the Emperor Decius, and he stands at the cathedral in stone, holding his head in his hands. According to Butler’s Lives of the Saints, after he was decapitated, he picked up his head and walked six miles north from Montmartre, where he was executed, to what is now the banlieu of St. Denis, where the basilica bearing his name was later built, and where so many of the kings of France are entombed.

luxembourg garden horizLuxembourg Gardens

We wandered through the crowds along the river, gazing at the bookstalls, walked up Boulevard St. Michel to the Luxembourg Gardens.rue de huchette

As profound as the cathedral is, the area around it in Paris is a tourist sewer. Even the bookstalls are geared to moving merchandise to a herd of passing tourists. The awful Rue de Huchette is clogged with places to separate you from your lucre, and sell you “naughty” French postcards or mass-produced “original” paintings of the cathedral or the Eiffel Tower.

But as we moved up the hill toward the Luxembourg Gardens, Paris reasserted itself and the tourists disappeared. We walked through the gardens, among the statues and horsechestnut trees and were in the middle, once more, of a living city. People all around were walking dogs, sitting under trees and reading, or cuddling or smoking. Teenagers rolled past on their inline skates and joggers puffed around corners. All I heard was French.jardin de luxembourg horiz

As we walked back from the gardens, we passed an older section of town (if that isn’t redundant in this ancient city) and had fun spotting all the sculptured apartment facades. octopusThere were not only the usual satyr faces and acanthus leaves, but giant elephant heads and lions. The Institute of Maritime Science had a great wrought iron octopus above its door.

Passing back around the Pantheon — an ungainly building — we came down the hill on Rue de Cardinal Lemoine and home territory. We stopped at l’Etoile d’Or again for a late lunch of Boeuf Bourgignon. Carole had a creme brulee and told the waiter that the crystalized caramelized sugar on the top of the custard was “like the glass in the windows of the cathedral.”

He laughed and appreciated the comment. Later we heard him telling the chef what she said, and the chef said simply, “Vrai.”

When we got back to the hotel, it rained a good clean rain.

Carole’s response:

NDP mary doorpostI had the sensation of being pulled up and up and up. First my eyes and then my body and then my soul. And I don’t know how to say this, but it makes you want to be better. Being inside that building appeals to the best part of you. The incense really worked: It appealed to my sense of smell. I was “smelling in a sacred manner.” And when we left the cathedral I carried some of that incense in my hair for a long time. It smelled a little like cloves, but more like the resin of some wonderful tree. Outside, when we saw some of the members of the choir, they were really young, laughing and being lighthearted, and just a moment before they had been angels. It reminded me of Bergman’s Magic Flute, the way the characters are also regular people and also in the play.
I loved seeing the statue of Mary, and she was wearing a crown and holding the infant Jesus, but she didn’t seem sacred to me because she was the mother of God, she looked sacred to me because she was a sweet little mother with her baby.

For as often as we’ve been to France, we still have never been to the Eiffel Tower. We’ve walked past it — and were nearly hustled by a team of pickpockets. The first, meant to distract us, walked quickly past us from behind, leaned over to pick up a shiny object from the sidewalk in front of us, and asked “Is this yours?” Meanwhile, his confederates, leaning against a wall to our left began to stir and move toward us. We had been warned of this scam, so I pointed at the youth meant to distract us and said, “Voleur.” He didn’t object or even react, but simply turned quickly to find another mark. But we’ve been to many places normal tourists don’t find: out-of-the-way streets, the guignol puppet show on the Champs de Mars, and the parenthetical “forests” — the Bois de Boulogne and the Bois de Vincennes, one on the east and one on the west of the city. And we’ve eaten our way across the town, trying everything from Indian food to Chinese to a McDonalds (just to see the difference).

Click on any picture to enlarge

paris sign at bois
Saturday, March 30

Paris is a city of heads.

doorhead 1It seems over every door, or at the corner of every cornice is a head. Sometimes a Pan head, sometimes a kingly head, sometimes, as at the Opera, the Palais Garnier, it is the head of every mediocrity who ever composed an opera: Halevy, Spontini, Adam, and a dozen others. Yes, they have Beethoven and Mozart, too, but they seem to be there only to provide caché for the hacks.

We took the metro up to the opera because I thought I might be able to find the street and hotel I stayed at in 1965. But it was futile. Nothing looked right. Perhaps I stayed near some other opera house. Or maybe it was a railway station. It’s hard to tell the difference here: All the official windowhead femalearchitecture is monumental and any of it built before Francois Mitterand seems to be Baroque or Beaux Arts, and covered with rocaille, stone wreaths, volutes, acanthus and — most of all — heads.

Just walking down the street, apartment buildings have volutes supporting the cornices of their doorways, and often a medallion just above the lintel with the head of a grotesque or a muse.

And it isn’t only heads. There are caryatids and bas-reliefs, usually with some mythological import. Ovid seems so much more alive here than you would ever know in America. At home, no one under the age of 50 knows what the Metamorphoses is, or who its author was, but in Paris, when you go to the grocery store, there is Daphne or Syrinx staring at you from above the door.

Further, when it isn’t a definable character — a muse or an Olympian — it is one of those ever-repeating European stereotypes: the satyr, the putto, the nymph.

The Classical world cannot be easily forgotten in Paris, with so much architecture to keep it alive.door carving elephant

In America, we are used to statues only on New England town squares, opposite the white-steepled church, or scattered through Washington, D.C., or at Civil War battlegrounds. Statues are not part of the everyday experience of most of us. But in Paris, they are everywhere. Every park is full of classical Neptunes or Junos or Napoleonic generals. There are fountains with water nymphs and curlicue fish spouting water from their mouths.opera pigeon

It means, among other things, that art is not just something you go to the museum to see, but rather, a way to give directions: “Turn left at the statue of Leon Blum.” The statuary means that the ordinary Parisian (as if there were such a thing) lives in a world in which antiquity is not only still alive, it is the visual language of everyday. If the American eye is trained on commercial signage and corporate logos, the French eye is trained on the muscles of Theseus, the helmet of Ulysses, the straight nose of Artemis, the bust of Venus. There are putti galore, and wistful angels, of both genders, and flaming swords of St. Michael. It is all a great stew of history, art, religion and tradition.vincennes 1

Bois de Vincennes

We took the RER to the Bois de Vincennes, but the day, which had been gloriously overcast, broke out in dappling sunlight and ruined any possibility I had of photographing the trees. There was the Parc Floral, though, and it was filled with blossoms, even at this early point in the year.vincennes mille fleur

Carole noticed — and she is certainly correct — that the lawns are filled with little flowers in exactly the same way that the tapestries are filled in their millefleur designs. One place, in particular, was a slope, reducing the effect of perspective, so that the flowers, spotted evenly across the grass, was even more like the textiles. It was uncanny, and reminds us once again, how naturalistic — in their way — were the Gothic designers and artists.

I had trouble reading a legend on our subway map and Carole hailed a passing woman for help. Her name turned out to be Marie Ifrah and she might as well be a lifelong friend now.

She is Spanish, living in Paris and couldn’t have been more friendly and open. I mentioned that everyone we had met in Paris has been “tres amical,” but was surprised, because she says that Parisians are not always to open to outsiders.

vincennes astersWe talked for nearly an hour, in a macaronic melange of English, French and Spanish. Oddly, when we couldn’t understand a word, or she couldn’t remember one, Spanish became our lingua franca, and I was surprised to discover how comfortable I felt in Spanish. French is still a trial for me, though I’m getting better — speaking it, that is; understanding it is tough. But Spanish almost felt like a home tongue.

We agreed that Americans are naive as a people, but disagreed about whether that is a good thing. She felt it is, that it is America’s naivete that is its salvation.

At any rate, she couldn’t help us with the map, but we became fast friends, in a macaronic way, and planned to phone each other “sometime” to arrange a trip in her car to Montmartre, which she tells us is wonderful.

“Where all the peinteurs are, not the good ones, but the ones selling souvenir to the tourists.”

She also pointed out that the French are steeped in culture. That the opera, the theater and such, are as bread and butter. Not like the Americans, she said. She didn’t want to insult us, so she pussyfooted around the issue, but America is all cuisine rapide, she hinted, and bang-bang movies.

Les Americaines lack the discipline, she said. There are things she disapproves of in the French, but she admires their discipline.cafe with author in corner

We didn’t expect the chateau at Vincennes; we came for woods. The palace was a surprise. But it is extensive and old. We walked through the grounds, but didn’t get into any of the buildings. Many are closed for restoration, and others were only open for tour groups and at hours that were inconvenient for us.vincennes chapel and wall

But the Sainte-Chapelle there was a delight of Gothique flamboyant, with a huge Rose window, all out of proportion to its width.

Because we had to walk all the way around the chateau grounds — and they are extensive — we had a late dejeuner, but it was worth it. We tried a little Italian restaurant in Vincennes, and had le menu, with an entree, plat and dessert.

I had the mortadella, which Carole called “the world’s best bologna,” but she had several bites and seemed to enjoy it. Her own entree was the oeufes mayonnaise.

We both had the lasagne boulognese, and it was rich with cheese.big billboard

Carole called the maitre d’ over and said, in halting French with a North Carolina accent, “This is the best lasagne I’ve ever had, in my entire life.”

He seemed pleased.

It only got better with the chocolate mousse that was so dusky you could have parked a truck on it.

It is 11 p.m. as I write this and lunch is still with us, but in a good way.
It feels silly writing about our food every day, but it is truly a highlight. Paris is a city where your lunchtime conversation is likely to be about where you will eat dinner.

In the evening, I took a walk around the neighborhood to snap out of a drowse fit. Took beaucoup photos and stopped at the supermarket for a loaf of bread and some confiture so Carole wouldn’t have to take her medicine on an empty stomach.

Carole’s bests:

vincennes castle entranceSo enlightening and thrilling to look at the grass and wildflowers and see that the millefleurs are real, truthful expressions of the ground here. The flowers I saw that are precisely the ones in the tapestries are the little daisies, violets, and a little plant I call rabbit plant, but I think it’s plantain, and a little pink flower I recognized. I loved seeing the castle because it was like the white castles in the books of hours I’ve seen before. And I loved walking in the woods in the places where the horses feet fell when the king went hunting. I found a flint arrowhead and wonder if it is one and is from the stone age. In the courtyard at the palace, it was easy to picture all the royalty there coming in on horses or in carriages. Seeing all these ACTUAL places and scenes that were only conceptual to me before; now they seem real human. Also, I’d like to know why the church was so important to the king that he had such a huge and fancy chapel there at the palace. The lasagne was incredible, with bechamel sauce in it. The chocolate mousse was actually a religious experience. The wonderful lady we met, Marie. The poissonerie, with all the fish.  I am surprised that the women here do not have coiffures; they all seem to have medium short hair pulled back with a rubber band or clasp. But even so, they look chic, and almost every woman is wearing a dress-length fitted black coat. But no curls.

And today, I got a rose.

Richard’s picks:

night scene 5It was a quiet day in Lake Woebegone, which leaves lunch as the high point of the day, with the mortadella entree, tres riches lasagne and the chocolate mousse. For the second day, we didn’t eat supper because the lunch was so overwhelming. The Bois de Vincennes was disappointing because the sun was out, making too many shadows for good photography, but the flowers were ecstatic. Walking around the neighborhood after dark was good, too.

Stephen Spender   The English poet Stephen Spender wrote a poem whose first line I can’t get out of my head: “I think continually of those who were truly great.”
Of course, Spender was writing about political issues, but I can’t help thinking how this line might apply to art.
Because, we use such words rather loosely in the art world. This is “great,” that is “great.” But this devalues the word. I think continually, not of the great writer, painters and musicians who have populated our world, our college curricula and our anthologies — there are many: so many, no one — not even Harold Bloom — can read, see and hear them all — but rather I am thinking of what Spender might call the “truly great.” There are so few of them.
These are those men (and I’ll qualify that soon if you give me a minute) whose works either changed the world significantly or at least changed the culture, or whose works are recognized by a preponderance of humankind to have the deepest insight into the human condition.
It is best understood if we start with science. Who was “truly great?” You could name hundreds of great thinkers, from Watson and Crick to Louis Pasteur to Edwin Hubble. Their contributions have been invaluable. But none of them so completely changed our thinking or ruled it for so long as my three nominees: Aristotle, Newton and Einstein. Each remade the world.three scientists
Who in the arts can have had such effect? These are the people whose works are the core of our culture, the central axis of our understanding of how the world looks, feels, acts, and responds.
The Big Boys.
You may have your own thoughts on the matter: That is not the issue.  We can haggle over the contents of the list. The issue is whether there are some creators whose works are so essential to culture that to be ignorant of their work, is to be ignorant. Period.
In literature, I would say the list begins with Homer and Shakespeare. They are the consensus leaders. If I would add Chaucer, Milton and Dante to the list, so be it. You can add your own. But Homer and Shakespeare are “truly great” in this sense.
What I am suggesting is that in each field, there are probably such consensus choices. In music, you have Johann Sebastian Bach, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Ludwig van Beethoven. Surely others belong on the list. I would include Haydn, Wagner and Stravinsky. You can add your own, but again, if you are not familiar with Bach, Mozart and Beethoven, your education is incomplete.
Among painters, you have Raphael, Rembrandt and Picasso. No one will argue against them. There are many painters that could be included: Titian, Michelangelo, Monet, Turner — the list is expandable depending on your taste, but who has had more influence than Raphael? More depth than Rembrandt? More expanse than Picasso?
(I am purposely narrowing my list to European culture, not because I think that is is the only one that counts, but because I swim in it rather than another, and because I have not enough exposure to everything in other cultures to claim even the slim authority I have discussing Western culture. If I had my way, I’d add Hokusai to this list, but he is ruled out by the operating principles of my system.)
Who are the sculptors? Michelangelo, surely; Bernini and Rodin. Others are great, but these are the standard-bearers.
Try it for yourself. Among novelists, who are our Newton and Einstein? Tolstoy, Dostoevsky and James Joyce.
Again, you may put forth your Fielding, your Trollope or Dickens and I won’t argue. This is only my list and it is surely provisional. It is merely my meager assay. It is my claim that there are the “truly great.” And that they offer something bigger, larger and more powerful than even the best of the rest. They have altered the course of the planet. Or at least the people upon it.
One final caveat: Where are the women? I am not so churlish that I don’t recognize the many great artists who are built with X chromosomes. My argument is with history, not with women: Historically, women have been blocked from the world of art. This is not so anymore, or at least not to the extent it has been true in the past. I was an art critic for a quarter of a century, and I saw the art world shift from a boy’s club to a much more open thing. Most of the best artists I came across were women. Many of our best and most honored writers are now women. In the future, I have no doubt there will be women who shake the world the way Michelangelo did. But I have to look backwards for my list, not guess at the future.
So, does Gertrude Stein belong here? Or Virginia Woolf? This is not to gainsay their genius or the quality of their work. Everyone should read them. But I am not writing about the great: I am comparing them to Shakespeare. The lack of women on this list is a historical artifact, not a prescriptive injunction.
The world is sorely lacking for heroes these days. We don’t even trust the idea of the hero. He surely must be in it for himself; there must be some ulterior motive. It’s all about power, say the deconstructionists. It is all reduced to a steaming pile of rubble and we shout with glee over taking down the idols and smashing them.
But I am suggesting that we actually read Homer, study Rembrandt, listen to Beethoven’s late quartets with the intensity and importance we otherwise give to defusing a bomb.
We should read or listen or look as if our lives depended on it. Because they do.

"Michael Jackson and Bubbles" by Jeff Koons, and Elgin Marbles figure

“Michael Jackson and Bubbles” by Jeff Koons, and Elgin Marbles figure

In 1632, the young English poet John Milton, just out of college, took up residence at his father’s country estate at Horton, near Windsor. And for the next six years he managed to read everything that had ever been written and was extant, in all languages living and dead, that a European scholar of the time might have heard of. That included literature, history, biography, philosophy, science, mathematics — the whole throatful of it. milton cigar

Everything that had ever been written.

It boggles the mind. Today, we cannot even keep up with the magazines we subscribe to; most of human knowledge falls off the edge of the Earth, where the map of our erudition shows nothing but serpents. reading the oed

We can never achieve what Milton did; it’s foolish to even try. But shouldn’t we attempt at least some sketch of what was fully painted for the poet? There have been recent books by writers who have read every article in the Encyclopedia Britannica (The Know-It-All, One Man’s Humble Quest to Become the Smartest Person in the World, A.J. Jacobs, 2004), The Oxford English Dictionary (Reading the OED: One Man, One Year, 21,730 Pages, Ammon Shea, 2008), or the equivalent of the Harvard Five-Foot Shelf (Great Books, David Denby, 1996), but such ventures are little more than stunts.

To absorb 5,000 years of human culture requires more than memorizing almanacs or dictionaries. It means to have a grounding in the art, literature, theater, music and architecture of our ancestors.

Of course, most of human knowledge, at least in ordinary life, in mass or pop culture and in our individual autobiographies is utterly trivial, and it would be a crime to stuff our brains with it.

But not all knowledge in this information age is trivial. There is still a core of useful literature — and I use the word in the broadest possible sense — that it behooves us to be acquainted with.

It is unfortunate that there is an argument over this. In the imbecilic culture wars that currently ravage the intellectual countryside, the lines are drawn between ignorant armies.

On one side, you find right-wing reactionary fossils fighting to maintain the canon of mainly European classics. On the other side, there is a cadre of victimization that wants to eliminate anything written by dead white males.

A pox on both their houses.

Milton didn’t have to worry about the canon. For him, the canon encompassed everything he could possible encounter.

Since that time, though, we have had to become more selective. Those items we have, as a culture, thought worth perpetuating we have called ”classics” and added them to the list — the canon — of ”required reading.”

But we misunderstand the very idea of culture if we believe the world froze solid with the publication of the Harvard Five Foot Shelf.

Corneille

Corneille

The canon is a garden that must be weeded and tended, and each season may call forth a different harvest.

The problem with the conservative view is that it values a former ”golden age” that our own time never measures up to. It is a sentimental view of life and history, and deaf to the fact that we live now, not in the imaginary ”then.” It is the voice of Cato, of Corneille, of William Bennett — a man of whom it is said he cannot sleep a-nights if he suspects someone, somewhere is having fun.

It is a view of an idealized perfection that we have disastrously fallen short of. It is one form of imbecility.

The problem from the other side is an egalitarianism that is just as moronic. According to them, nothing is better than anything else. Either it is merely a question of personal taste, or it is one of cultural identity.

By their standards, it is elitist to prefer Pablo Neruda to Rod McKuen. Let them, I say, let them renew their subscriptions to Us magazine.

They can deconstruct its gossip to death and find the parallels with Plutarch — if they only knew who Plutarch was.

To consider one “text” more important than another, for them, is to promote colonialism and the subjugation of the downtrodden.

Hence, they judge not by esthetic considerations — it’s all just personal taste to them — but rather by politics.

For them, politics overwhelms aesthetics — overwhelms reason, emotion, common sense and experience. For them, everything has a party line. Ah, but they forget, politics answers no question worth asking.

It also worries me that behind the masks of intellectual argument, I sense a fascism on each side — at the very least a certain priggishness to both sides that any reasonable human finds dangerous.

At bottom, the problem is that both sides make the mistake of believing the canon immutable and fixed. They see the canon as an end, one side blindly despising it and the other defending it like Texans at the Alamo.

But the canon, properly seen, is a beginning, not an end; a foundation, not a roof.

It is the ABC of cultural literacy, the cardinal numbers of thought.

One used to hear the warning that when you have sex, you are having sex with everyone your partner has ever slept with. Well, when you read a book, you are also reading everything that the author read. When you hear music, you also hear everything that composer heard.

Culture is the slow accumulation of thoughts and habits. To read Melville is to hear the diapason of King James under the rich melody of the prose. Every author is the product of multiplier and multiplicand: the writer’s imagination and the long road of history leading to his standing on the curb with his thumb out.

The fact is, we cannot read everything, the way Milton did. We must be more selective. Suggestions for that selective offering is what we call the canon. But it changes constantly: It now includes James Baldwin and Toni Morrison; it includes Derek Wolcott and Yukio Mishima;  The Beatles and Duke Ellington.

The Laocoon

The Laocoon

How can you understand Jacques Derrida without standing firmly on the firm ground of Kant’s a priori? How can you read Isabel Allende without sensing the spirituality of Calderon behind her words?

How can you understand Jeff Koons’ Michael Jackson and Bubbles if you don’t already have the Elgin Marbles in your system? You can’t. How can you get the joke on the back of countless Yellow Pages if you don’t know the Laocoon?

Certainly, the old rationale for learnedness remains: These are great writers, profound thinkers and brilliant painters and sculptors and we cannot consider ourselves educated without their acquaintance. Knowing them is its own excuse. But even more important is that when you hear the echoes in a piece of art, see its ancestry, the piece resonates. Resonance is what gives art and literature is power. kane

Like the mirror scene in Citizen Kane, one man is multiplied into an army. Like Isaac Newton said, if we see further, it is because we stand on the shoulders of giants. It is a wise man who knows his parents.