The Laws of Nature

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

What's in an Arch? & Constructed Walls

Janet Fish

Art Without Compromise by Wendy Richmond
Chapter 2, "Culture's Frames and Filters"
section 8, "What's in an Arch?"
section 9, "Constructed Walls"

It's time to conclude Chapter 2, so I'm posting my summary of the last two sections at the same time so we may move on. These sections are closely tied in content, so it makes sense to consider them together. "What's in an Arch?" begins with the author's overwhelming reaction to the St. Louis Gateway Arch when she first experienced it. For those of you who haven't seen it, there's a picture below. According to Richmond, the arch was designed by Eero Saarinen, the architect who also designed JFK International Airport and Dulles Airport, the John Deere & Co. headquarters, the Kresge Auditorium at MIT, and so on. Unfortunately, he died in 1961 at the young age of 51. The arch construction didn't begin until 1963 and took two years to complete, so he never saw it.

Richmond reflects upon the fact that although the design for the Arch was considered radical for its time, it was no longer considered radical by the time it was built. This is because Saarinen had designed and constructed other modern buildings in the time between the Arch's design and construction that shifted and shaped public opinion. The author comments: Imagine yourself creating a design or artwork that is too radical to be accepted, and then your work over subsequent years influences the field to such an extent that your earliest work is considered groundbreaking.

OK - I'll imagine that. Although I'm not on the A-List of artists, I can identify with this to a lesser degree. My first eggshell paintings were viewed with raised eyebrows by many of my peers and jurors when I revealed them five years ago. After a couple of years, they gained favor and started winning awards at juried exhibitions. That led to solo exhibitions at galleries, and features in books. Then the eggshell paintings began to sell to the general public, so I own very few of them now. These days, I actually get emails from people who are using my concept in their own paintings and want me to see what they've created. I make no claim to greatness here, but, in my own small way I experienced what Ms. Richmond asks us to imagine.

The rest of this section is a philosophical exercise in answering the question: "What's in a Monument" and leads nicely into the final section of Chapter 2, entitled "Constructed Walls." Here, the author explains the impact of visiting Eastern European historical sites and memorials that evoked in her thoughts about the meanings of walls. She writes: My personal walls are built by me, by choice. On my trip, I saw these monuments as metaphors for cities where the personal spaces were others' constructions and were made not to protect feedom of thought but to annihilate it.

Since Richmond's second chapter is concerned with culture, I was hoping for a grand conclusion and was a little disappointed not to find one. Therefore, I'll write my own here:
Human history records numerous cultural revolutions in societies around the world over time. These were times when the existing culture was forcibly repressed during political and social upheaval. Intellectuals were persecuted or killed, art was destroyed, books were burned, and cultural symbols and practices were prohibited in an effort to completely eradicate the culture itself because its influence threatened those in power. But, no cultural revolution ever completely succeeded because, without killing the entire population, the survivors preserved their culture within themselves. When the oppressing regime is toppled, the repressed culture is resurrected in one form or another. And (here comes the grand conclusion!) the arts play an enormous role in the revitalization of a repressed culture. Poets, writers of prose, painters, sculptors, actors, and dancers remember, interpret, and relate to us what once was, what is, and even what will be. We artists reflect the culture we live in and that influences and informs us, but we are also responsible for keeping culture alive.

What I wanted to read at the end of this chapter, and did not, is the enduring nature of culture; the desire of the people who live it to continue it even at the cost of their lives and all that they hold dear. This is what informs and concerns our art.

Your thoughts??


Unknown said...

OMG! I've finally done it - I've driven away my discussion group. Where are you today?

hw (hallie) farber said...

Very funny, Kathy. I've read this at least four times today and cannot think of how it relates to me. I live in the Bible Belt. The culture didn't stick when I spent my first 18 years here; it's not even tacky now that I've returned. (The D.C. culture didn't stick, either.) I explain local customs to my friends who are "not from around here;" then I explain "not from around here" customs to my local friends. I'm in the middle and don't know what's worth preserving--a woman without a culture.

Stan Kurth said...

I think Wendy does give a sense of endurance here; at least that's what I get when she writes:

"Perhaps that is what is most powerful about a monument. The structure itself is just the beginning. Its purpose is to elicit and inspire an individual to carry the symbol in whatever way is most personally meaningful, whether it is a symbol of innovation, remembrance, democracy, or simply beauty."

Key word being, carry. She then ties it all together with the psychological impact the monuments of Eastern Europe had on her (remember her own thoughts of a diversified cultural background) and how they related to her previously described feelings of time alone in public. It is monuments such as these represent that the carriers of the symbols are willing to die for. That is my read. I believe the best that any culture has to offer is in the culmination of its art represented by its monuments. Those monuments speak volumes of the endurance of culture.

< gumpvoice > I may not be a smart man, but I know a symbol when I see one.< /gumpvoice >

Unknown said...

Hi Hallie - you called my bluff :) I can relate to your situation. I used to live on the Eastern Shore of Maryland and felt like a fish out of water, even though I loved it there. Thanks for your comment!

Hi Stan - thanks for filling in the blanks! I read all that but felt like I needed a grander synthesis. Maybe the Hollywood ending is a bigger part of my enculturation than I realized!! Sorry, Ms. Richmond, for my attitude :-)

Deborah C. Stearns said...

I can resonate with Hallie's feeling of having no culture -- I too have a feeling of being a cultural outsider in many contexts. But culture is the pervasive context within which we live, and we often just don't see the ways in which we have been enculturated. It's like asking a fish about water. We are immersed in cultural norms that we have so completely absorbed that it is only when we go to an entirely different cultural context that we are aware of our enculturation. That isn't to imply that we have absorbed every cultural norm -- as Wendy noted, we experience a variety of social influences, and there is no reason to believe that a person is a simplistic replica of a single monolithic culture.

Kathy, I like your summary of the section on culture. Culture often endures through its artistic expression, even through repressive regimes. I have seen the power of dance and music and art to resist eradication, although it certainly changes over time and in response to oppressive forces. However, I would also note that art is also used in the service of repression. I am thinking of the state-controlled art that is used as propaganda, as well as the ways in which art can be used in the service of prejudice. I'm not sure where to place this type of art in the discussion of culture, though. Is this just a different aspect of the culture, or is this an artificial cultural expression?

Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
layers said...

I think the Cultural Revolution in China is a perfect example of how a repressed society in which art and music and literature is 'wiped' out-- erased-- never can really wipe out the arts-- it simmers below the surface-- breaking out in ways no one can really control or stop.

Dan Kent said...

The human spirit cannot be stilled, only repressed for a time, and art is a reflection of the enduring human spirit.

See? It's just a paraphrase of what you said, Kathy, but when you're right, you're right. When you've said it all, what more is there to say? At least I showed up. ;)

Celeste Bergin said...

The first thing I want to tell you is that I have been up in that arch and it is one shaky claustrophobic ride in a teensey rattle-y car with no windows. Once you are at the top you can see out --but the trip up is creepy. If you get a chance to go up in it--I recommend--pass.
Now, culturally I am in the midst of this "plein air movement" thing..and I am happy for that--because it makes me think (often) about how all the tools and even the ideas (impressionism) harken back to the original outdoor painters. We're
"throw-backs" in a way. The camera came along and made it so no one really had to try to "capture light" anymore--and yet, we are still engaged in that endeavor in 2010. I am glad I am involved in this "popular" and "contemporary" plein air movement....because it is a very great place to be (outside...with paint).

-Don said...

I enjoyed my trip up into the arch a few years ago. Being under it was even more impressive to me, though. With that said, the wonderful art museum just up the street was even more enjoyable...

Yes, I can imagine myself creating something influential and groundbreaking. Isn't that the first step to actually doing it?

Hang on!


Unknown said...

Hi Deborah - you have a wonderful way of unwrapping a concept, and I agree with your viewpoint here. Your discussion about art in the form of propaganda is, in one sense, a tribute to the power of art to convey meaning and influence society to think a particular way (even if those thoughts subvert the pre-existing culture). In answer to your question, I think that propaganda art is contrived because its message doesn't necessarily come from the artist but is imposed upon the artist. Thanks for your substantive comments.

Hi Pam - thank you for commenting, and I think you have much to contribute! I always learn from your insightful comments. Hope the next post resonates with you :-)

Hi Donna- I was thinking of the Chinese cultural revolution as well as what happened in Cambodia during the Viet Nam war. But, there are so many other tragic situations throughout history as well. Thank you for mentioning this one.

Hi Dan - and, I so happy that you did show up!! Thank you.

Hi Celeste - I've been to the arch but haven't gone inside. From the way you describe it, I'll pass!! Thanks for the warning. I've really enjoyed your plein air work and how quickly you execute it. You've achieved mastery and are a wonderful representative of the 2010 movement!

Hi Don - you ARE creating something influential and groundbreaking, and it's great watching your star rise!