In November 2020, I helped to organise the Burlington Magazine/ Public Statues and Sculpture Association (PSSA) Webinar on “Toppling Statues.” It was a massive success, with speakers of a multiplicity of political views, representing multiple nationalities and ethnicities, multiple professions from curators to politicians to artists, with anything from Confederate monuments to Rhodes and Colston in Britain to the contemporary Philippines covered in the papers. I am publishing my own paper here and am most grateful to Nirmal Dass and the Postil Magazine for making this possible.
1. The Rule Of Law
Kudos to Sir Keir Starmer, the British Labour Party’s best leader for 25 years, for saying that Black Lives Matter protestors were “completely wrong” to pull down Edward Colston’s statue in Bristol, and if they advocated this, due process should have been followed. I was forcibly reminded of W.B. Yeats’s famous quotation: “Things fall apart. The centre cannot hold… The best lack all conviction, while the worst are filled with passionate intensity.” These were the parting words of my teenage hero Kenneth Clark’s Civilisation, reflecting on its fragility.
Had I been present at the scene, I too would have remonstrated with the protesters, demanding: “Don’t you know your Locke? ‘Where there is no law, there is tyranny.’” I rest my case, even if the likely rejoinder would be a word half-rhyming with Locke. Another important Lockean precept is the sanctity of public and private property in civil society. Colston was not the crowd’s to wrench off its base and toss into the water. “The law of nature hath obliged all human beings not to harm the life, liberty, health, limb or goods of another,” here the people of Bristol and their statue.
2. Have We Got Colston Wrong?
According to an eminent British historian who must remain anonymous, as opinions are so charged and friendships can be lost – yes, we have. They say this:
“Colston is less culpable than his public reputation has made out. Commentators on both sides describe him on the news as a ‘seventeenth-century slave trader’ pure and simple. He was not: he never ran a slave trading business himself and never made major investments into the trade or drew a steady income – even a minor one – from it. Instead, he made a fortune from trading in other commodities, though twice in his life he became a lesser shareholder in slave-trading voyages launched by others. This was – for whatever reason – not an attractive experience for him because he did not continue it. Instead he became the greatest philanthropist in Bristol’s history, the merchant who did most to help his fellow humans. In particular he ploughed back his huge fortune into three enterprises. One was a school where poor children could receive a free education good enough to enable them to rise in society. Another was a hospital, where those who could not afford medical fees would be treated for no payment. The third was a set of almshouses where elderly poor people were given comfortable retirement homes, each with their own flat. All three survive to the present day. I presume that the school was initially just for boys, but it has long taken girls as well, and all three institutions have lately benefited people from all ethnic groups. The late Victorians – themselves much concerned with finding ways of attaining better social justice – gave him a statue in gratitude for them. I myself think that his contribution to human misery, by those ill-chosen investments, is balanced by his efforts to relieve it in other ways.”
So, even an offending statue demonstrably has a far more complex sub-text once we’ve done our homework. Don’t let your opinions gallop ahead of your knowledge. Be a curious and respectful “pastist,” not a judgemental “presentist” – and remember that was then, this is now. I’ll return to this shortly.
3. Do We Ignorantly Bad-Mouth The Victorians? Are We Willfully Ignorant About Statuemania?
Yes and yes. Remember that not just Rembrandt or Andy Warhol but public statuary is art too, art which excels both in quantity and often quality. Before modernism did so much to de-skill art, if you had the standard training through a sculptor’s studio, art school or a large firm like Farmer & Brindley, your work attained a remarkably proficient technical level. Your attitude to imperialism was immaterial. Harry Bates, a working class, arts and crafts trained sculptor, could make a number of rather fine imperialist monuments.
What mattered was whether you could literally hack it. Very few of the myriad Victorian and Edwardian public monuments could be called inept. What has this got to do with toppling statues? Lots. Scratch a toppler and you’ll find they are with few exceptions ignorant of, or hostile to, Victorian art, whatever the quality. Professor David Olusoga has many interesting things to say about the politics of imperialist statuary but reveals disappointingly little art historical knowledge of, still less aesthetic responsiveness to, the works in question. Remember we’re dealing with art here, not disembodied political texts.
Talking of great Victorian art, earlier this year, I pointedly refused to sign an open letter organised by Australian academics, curators and cultural commentators, demanding the relocation of Captain James Cook’s memorial in Hyde Park, Sydney to a museum. Perusing the signatories, almost without exception, they were modernists or contemporary buffs; the number who knew anything about Cook’s sculptor, Thomas Woolner, and Victorian statuary was perhaps two or three, and they probably cared even less.
4. Beware Of Presentism!
Historically, topplers are deeply into presentism, which is worse than the Whiggery from which it derives. Presentism involves the wholesale application of present-day values, e.g., deploring slavery and racism, to a very different and often resistant past – a foreign country. Imagine if we could travel back in time in the Tardis just 60 years to Gilbert Ledward and his immense – and rather beautiful – Africa Awakening relief for Barclay’s Bank and confront him with a criticism made by a South African friend who should have known better, that it was “patronising.” Ledward would not have been offended, so much as completely baffled and bewildered. We have a nerve to assume we know far better than our equivalents in 1960 or 1860. What will they be saying about us in 2060? The Ledward relief badly needs a new home, but sadly is suffering for its – and his – whiteness.
5. How About A New Empire/Colonial Museum?
A possible new home for relevant statuary could be a UK Empire Museum, a museum of Imperialism if you like. Formerly there was one in Bristol (the British Empire and Commonwealth Museum), but the director’s conduct 10 years ago led to his dismissal and the subsequent liquidation of the museum; that’s another story. I was saddened at the time that they threw out the baby with the bathwater.
William Dalrymple is a prominent advocate of such a museum and I agree with him in principle. My main reservation about both Dalrymple and the prevalent political climate is that if established today, the museum would almost certainly be instantly dominated by decolonising “woke” forces, the Edward Saids of this world rather than the Robert Irwins (or Mark Stockers!). Politics – and Britain’s dire economy – conspire to put such a putative museum on hold, but let’s not lose sight of it. The museum could indeed serve as some kind of repository for victims of statue toppling or shifting.
6. Problems With Museums
Should offending monuments go to museums, as sometimes relative moderates in this debate argue? To contradict my previous point, mostly the answer is, No. How come?
Firstly, the basics – museums worldwide are critically short of storage space and offering them a 3-metre-high statue plus pedestal would exasperate any reasonable collection manager.
Secondly, Colston aside, and even Colston before June 2020, Robert Musil’s famous dictum that there is “nothing in the world quite as invisible as a public monument” held good and perhaps should still do so. It’s not as if a monument’s offensiveness will suddenly be dispelled by its more prominent location and visibility within a museum. The arguments against it won’t miraculously stop – or still more miraculously become more intelligent.
Thirdly, having a Victorian worthy or three in your atrium would almost certainly clash aesthetically with any desired installation of art after c. 1920.
Fourthly, which explains why any proposed relocation of Cook to a museum is crass, how can you possibly do justice to the modelling, the aspect, the halation, the everything really, of a colossal four-metre-high statue on a seven metre columnar base? It would dwarf its new setting, whereas its original location, carefully envisaged by Woolner, is ironically too commandingly successful and dramatic. Cook pays the price in today’s fraught political climate.
Yet a museum just might be a suitable location for a work like Francis Williamson’s statue of Sir George Grey in Auckland. Despite its te reo Maori pedestal inscription translating as “The Future will be grateful for thy universal goodness,” it wasn’t. Grey was decapitated by activists in 1987, while in recent months his replacement head, together with fingers, have been vandalised and his body daubed with paint, in obviously crude copycat actions. Marble is particularly vulnerable, Grey with his fairly recent head still more so, and in the absence of alternative measures a museum could provide an appropriate refuge when out there in Albert Park he’s too much of a risk to society.
7. Copycat Activism
I take a dim view of copycat attacks or calls to defund the police. Just as statuary needs to be appraised on a case-by-case basis, so do the historical records of respective nation states. New Zealand’s colonial past rendered deep injustices to Māori, but these should not be equated with the US’s brutal past. I said this in response to the New Zealand historian Professor Tony Ballantyne when he advocated removal to museums of figures “who propelled colonialism and whose values and actions are now fundamentally at odds with those of our contemporary communities.” I demanded to know “which statues does he mean?” and Tony didn’t answer me. The great white Empress Queen Victoria obviously upheld the Empire but was not racist, and her carving at Ohinemutu was honoured and indeed appropriated by the Ngāti Whakaue sub-tribe, placed on a splendid post and sheltered by a canopy. In Canterbury province, J.R. Godley established a colony which deliberately sought to avoid conflict with Maori and is immortalised in another outstanding statue by Woolner.
Sir George Grey’s role is highly equivocal, reviled in his lifetime by some Maori, eulogised by others; working closely with his friend Te Rangikaheke, he recorded Maori legends, traditions and customs, doing much more here than most academics today. The list goes on, and I concluded: “We should think twice before we violate our legally protected heritage.” Famous last words – but heated discussion has definitely died down locally.
8. Not Everyone Has It In For Statues
The art critic and cultural commentator Alexander Adams has noted the merciful immunity from iconoclasm in the European continent, which views woke excesses with intelligent scepticism, and the perceived heritage value of its historical monuments prevails over politics. President Emmanuel Macron has explicitly stated that France won’t indulge in tearing-down operations, while Ian Morley’s paper has just explored the refreshingly different attitude in the Philippines. Perhaps this is yet another unfortunate instance where the exceptionalist British world, as seen in Brexit, sets itself apart and tears itself apart.
An irony of the peaceful BLM demonstration in Wellington was the crowd gathering under the watchful eye of Thomas Brock’s parliamentary statue of R.J. Seddon, New Zealand premier from 1893 to 1906. While his relations with Maori were benign, Seddon’s racism towards New Zealand Chinese today appears disgusting: he denied them state pensions, imposed stiff poll taxes on them and called them racial “pollutants.”
I asked a good friend who is a Professor of Chinese if Seddon should go. She replied: “I’m probably more conservative than you on this issue. For me, we should leave the statues alone and they are only and can only be partial representations of history. Destroying statues doesn’t destroy historical injustice or biased historical narratives. Besides, historical fashions come and go. The Russians and the Chinese have destroyed enough statues but failed to rectify any historical wrongs. So, for me, debate historical figures and events as much as one likes but leave material historical remnants alone. I guess that also answers your question about Seddon. The statue can also enable a conversation about racism in NZ.”
Wise words, don’t you think?
Statues and monuments are art, they are heritage – and sorry, Professor Richard Evans, as a historian you need to realise they are also fascinating and insightful, highly charged historical documents. And unless they are Gilbert & George, statues can’t answer back when abused by the crowd. What we should do with them will be addressed by subsequent speakers, but I personally advocate additional plaques or virtual ones through QR codes and apps to spell out the case for people’s perceptions today. Conciliation not confrontation, love not war, and thank you Church Monuments Society, don’t expunge, explain. And, last but not least, heed the watchword of the PSSA, “retain and explain.”
Dr. Mark Stocker is an art historian and art curator who lives in New Zealand. His publications are on Victorian public monuments, numismatics and New Zealand art. His recent book, When Britain Went Decimal: The Coinage of 1971, will be published by the Royal Mint in 2021.
The image shows, “Pulling Down the Statue of George III in New York City,” by Johannes Adam Simon Oertel, painted in 1859.
It is indeed a high privilege to present this interview with Dr. Mark Stocker, the voraciously productive art historian. Readers of the Postil will know Dr. Stocker from the varied ramblings and amusements that he has been offering in these pages. Therefore, it is great delight to have him speak of his real work, his true métier, which is art. He is being interviewed by Dr. Zbigniew Janowski whom our readers also know well.Dr Stocker is the author of over 230 publications, including 10 books and edited books. His latest one, When Britain Went Decimal: the Coinage of 1971 will be published by the Royal Mint in 2021. His extensive research interests include Victorian public monuments, numismatics and New Zealand art. A Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries, Mark did his History of Art degree many years ago at King’s College, Cambridge, but firmly denies being either a spy or even a King’s leftie.
Zbigniew Janowski (ZJ): I would like to begin this conversation by reading to you an incident from Leszek Kolakowski’s “Totalitarianism and the Virtue of the Lie” (published in his My Correct Views on Everything, 2005).
“In 1950, in Leningrad, I visited the Hermitage in the company of a few Polish friends. We had a guide (a deputy director of the museum, as far as I remember) who was obviously a knowledgeable art historian. At a certain moment – no opportunity for ideological teaching must be lost – he told us: ‘We have in our cellars, comrades, a lot of corrupt, degenerate bourgeois paintings. We have never displayed them in the museum but perhaps one day we will show them so that Soviet people can see for themselves how deeply bourgeois art has sunk. Indeed, Comrade Stalin teaches us that we should not embellish history.’ I was in the Hermitage again, with other friends, in 1957, a time of relative ‘thaw,’ and the same man was assigned to guide us. We were led to rooms full of modern French paintings. Our guide told us: ‘Here you see the masterpieces of great French painters – Matisse, Cézanne, Braque, and others.’ And, he added (for no opportunity must be lost), ‘do you know that the bourgeois press accused us of refusing to display these paintings in the Hermitage? This was because at a certain moment some rooms in the museum were being redecorated and were temporarily closed, and a bourgeois journalist happened to be here at that moment and then made this ridiculous accusation. Ha, ha.’”
To someone who lives in the West – unless you happen to be a student of Communism or Russia – what Kolakowski says may sound surreal. But what is going on in the US – the destruction of monuments, removal of paintings and sculptures, suspension of purchases of European art by American museums, purchases of minority art, changing names of buildings and streets – is all too familiar and brings to mind the feeling of déja vu. What is your reaction to Kolakowski’s story; and do you see parallels between it and what is going on today?
Mark Stocker (MS): My reaction is to laugh in order not to cry. The 1950 response is chillingly reminiscent of the notorious Nazi ‘Degenerate Art’ exhibition – this is of course one of many resemblances between different forms of totalitarianism. Not for the first time, I feel compelled to ask “What’s the difference?” The convenient change of party line by 1957 is a step in the right direction in at least having such art on display, but the same man is suffering from convenient memory loss.
Before I go on to answer your question, I would like nonetheless to put in a plea for not suppressing the “official art” of that time. In this period, art school training in Eastern European countries continued on precisely the traditional lines, valuing technique and crafting, that you and I both admire. I remember being quite moved by a collection presented to a New Zealand art gallery by the Soviet Institute of Cultural Affairs over 50 years ago. No, I am not a “useful idiot.” I believe that however admirable or repellent the regime, art has a life of its own and should not be lazily written off in a determinist way.
To answer your question, I think there is still a way to go before we reach the parlous and risible state of affairs in the Soviet Union of the 1950s. But we must be vigilant and vigorous in terms of arguing for a genuine diversity in what the public sees.
ZJ: Indeed, Kolakowski’s story may seem laughable. But to me, a former denizen of the “socialist paradise,” where I spent the first 25 years of my life, it is not. This is what “socialist realism” was like. In 2020, in the countries of liberal-democracies, we seem to be “back to the future,” in that what is shown in museums must reflect “approved” and “correct” ideology. Indeed, in a umber of museums in the US (and Europe), the purchase of Western art has been suspended; some museums are selling objects from their collections in order to buy more minority art.
Until relatively recently, museum and art-gallery collections were for the human gaze, for observing. This was the understood purpose of such institutions. This is not so today. Art galleries and museums are now at the forefront of the ideological battle. Several months ago, I wrote a piece “The Power of Beauty and the New Museum Barbarians.” In it I made a point which you also made in an official letter to an art institution – that the function of museums is not “raising social consciousness” but to guard artistic heritage. Do you see what some curators are now doing as a betrayal of their mission?
MS: Any “betrayal” probably happened 20 to 40 years ago. We’re too far down that trajectory to apply this term – younger curators in many cases simply don’t know any better. The prime aim of curators and art historians should be to focus on beauty, aesthetics, style, patronage and iconography. Raising social consciousness can be very worthwhile but, in my view, it comes second to these things.
I am very conservative about selling from collections – I wouldn’t want to leave my own art treasures to any state institution, if there was a real danger they would be deaccessioned. If, however, it’s a duplicate print and not in good condition, then it would be silly for the museum in question to be rigid about this. But hocking off anything that’s unfashionable is unforgivable. Why, why, why did the Met see fit to do this with Frank Salisbury’s superb portrait of The Sen Sisters which the artist generously presented to the Museum? He paid a terrible price for being unapologetically academic and a near contemporary of Picasso. An intelligent museum should have both artists represented.
ZJ: That’s the point – unfashionable! Would you apply this term to the Elgin Marbles, Rubens, Watteau, Rembrandt, Veronese, and a host of other greats? The situation in which we found ourselves in the 20th century is singular, I would say. Fashion became a criterion; so that art now is no longer valued for its intrinsic quality, its beauty, but some subjective feeling about “justice.” Of course, there is also the commercial aspect, in that a certain artist is worth investing in, as his work may go up in value. Thus artistic value cannot so easily be separated from profit.
MS: One of the problems that Modernism created was to open a kind of Pandora’s box. Subjectivity and relativism became all the thing, provided you heeded the elite critic’s or curator’s choice, in many ways a contradiction of that. Older, shared criteria of beauty and the concept of art as skill were thrown out the window.
An old friend of mine, now sadly dead, though a big fan of Modernism, said that in architecture, the classical language and Beaux-Arts training guaranteed a base level of consistency and decency, whereas Modernism rejected this. Don’t get me wrong – I’m not dissing modernism – I very much admire Henry Moore and Ben Nicholson, for example, and some of Picasso himself – but we sacrificed a great deal for it and people, even art professionals, are too ignorant to realise this.
ZJ: Do you see this problem as something that creates the danger of confounding artistic quality with the buyer’s inability to separate artistic beauty from monetary value in the art market?
MS: Modernism certainly made it much harder to judge.
ZJ: One can also say that this inability opens the gates for artistic charlatans who prefer to shock the audience with images, rather than enchant them with quiet spiritual elevation?
MS: Understated beauty has certainly been a victim of 20th century clamorousness. How many people today can judge the nuances of watercolour washes, as we can see in the work of my good friend Maurice Askew (who died recently aged 98); or, indeed, the deft inking and biting of an etcher’s plate, as in D.Y. Cameron’s sublime Winchester Cathedral?
I don’t totally believe in rejecting the “shock” factor, so long as it is underpinned by skill. Francis Bacon’s Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion is a good case in point; an unforgettable, unavoidable work. But, as Bacon himself found, it was a damn hard act to follow, and his subsequent attempts to shock, certainly after the mid-1950s, just don’t do it for me. Bacon up to the 1960s cannot be fairly described as a charlatan – but I think he came perilously close to being one later in life, using the same painterly tricks and making people who should know better say “Wow!”
What he did become, as many an artist before and after Modernism, was formulaic. The charlatan charge is one that’s easy to level but is in danger of closing the arguments. Certainly the “de-skilling” of art that Modernism encouraged increased the charlatanry component. Damien Hirst – not a skilled painter at all but a brilliant project manager. Josef Beuys – arguably more of a charlatan than a shaman. Marcel Duchamp – he skirted very close to it and stole from others (a time-honoured practice); but he was, I have to concede for all the damage he did, bloody clever.
ZJ: I can’t really abide Duchamp, but let’s move the discussion back to when, earlier, you said, “Raising social consciousness can be very worthwhile but, in my view, it comes second to these things.” Here is my problem: who decides? The curators? Many of them have recently succumbed to social pressure and peddle ideology, sanctioned by state authority – as used to be the case under communism?
Secondly, I’m all for being directed by someone, advised by Dr. Stocker, when I decide what to buy; but social consciousness is a group phenomenon. This raises another question: what are we trying to achieve by raising consciousness? Aesthetic appreciation? Not really. It is a call to social action, an attempt to change society. If so, curators are revolutionaries.
This is not the same as teaching a book. When I say, “Read the Bible, I think you will find it interesting,” my intent is not to make readers into believers. I am leaving the judgment to the reader. It is a process of appreciation.
Richard Sharp, the author of The Engraved Record of the Jacobite Movement, once gave me some excellent advice: “The best way to learn how to distinguish good quality prints from average ones is to look at them; after some time, you will train your eye and you will be able to discern good from average prints.”
MS: Sharp is right. You see what you know, as Gombrich says. As for social consciousness, it can be a dangerous trap and shouldn’t be allowed to obscure the prime concerns of curatorship. It’s a cop-out, but I would leave it at the curator’s discretion as to how much or little a part it should play. But I would be worried if I had a curator colleague who let it loom too large.
There are aspects of social consciousness which I think could and should be raised and which I find interesting – when for example an artist is outstanding but is the victim of changed fashion or economic decline. The collapse of the printmaking market following the Wall Street Crash is tragic to behold and it would be callous to disregard it in any history, even if the intrinsic qualities of the prints are ultimately more relevant to “pure” art history. Geniuses like F.L. Griggs were ruined. In turn, without becoming a socialist, you can admire someone like William Morris whose conscience was stirred by ugliness, pollution and grinding poverty. His close friend Edward Burne-Jones, though less overtly politicised, wanted to bring beauty into ordinary people’s lives – and his excellent exhibition at Tate Britain a couple of years ago was a powerful vindication of that ideal.
ZJ: One term that is part of the liberal toolbox is “cultural appropriation.” It largely means that the artists has gobbled the best of minority culture and falsely presented it as his own. Recently, Elvis Presley was accused of cultural appropriation (he supposedly “stole” themes and music); Olga Tokarczuk, Polish Nobel Prize Laurate, was accused of cultural appropriation because she wears dreadlocks. In the past it was called fashion, a borrowing. Today it is called “cultural appropriation.”
No culture is entirely self-sufficient; we borrow elements of thought, visual representations from different places, and, by transforming them according to our own perception, create something new, something original. Picasso comes to mind, as does van Gogh, who had a considerable collection of Japanese prints, which inspired him. There is a difference between “appropriation” and “inspiration;” but today inspiration is called “appropriation,” a term frequently and easily interchanged with “theft.”
MS: It is a boring and unhelpful word and concept, and is used all too often by pompous and politically correct academics to close the argument. I would like to remind such people that Picasso said, “Good artists copy, great artists steal.” Appropriation wasn’t always seen as a crime. The respected New Zealand Māori artist Selwyn Muru was asked many years ago who he thought the great Māori artists were. “Well, there’s Picasso!” he replied. As for musical appropriation, do Jamaican reggae lovers despise Led Zeppelin for their magnificently appropriated ‘D’yer Ma’ker’? (Get it?). I very much doubt it. They’d see it, surely, as a testament, a tribute, to their culture – attacking it would be a sign of vulnerability.
ZJ: I want to give you two examples: Rembrandt and Stefano della Bella (both 17th-century artists). Apparently, both were fascinated by the 17th-century Polish Sarmatian dresses. Rembrandt even painted his own self-portrait as Polish Nobleman; his student van Vliet made a print, after Rembrandt, of a Pole. Stefano della Bella did several engravings of Poles.
Is this “cultural appropriation?” In Britain, we see a similar fascination with other countries. In the 19th century, Orientalism was widespread. Lawrence of Arabia comes to mind.
MS: As I say, it isn’t a helpful concept. Weren’t the classicists “appropriating” the ancient Greeks? Did the Greeks complain? Get real.
Edward Said has a lot to answer for on that front. He essentialised Orientalism, and though he was a far cleverer and better-read person than me, his effect on countless admirers was to have ultimately trivialised it. Politically correct academics have continued to repeat his litany over the decades, blahblahblah. Full marks therefore to Robert Irwin for intelligently taking him on!
There is much, much more that of course could be said on this front. Sometimes ignorant appropriation can cause understandable offense. I was asked at one stage by Royal Doulton, if in all innocence they could use a Gottfried Lindauer portrait of a Māori chief as a character jug. I told them that this offended on almost every front – the head is tapu (taboo) in traditional Māori culture, and eating and drinking is governed by strict protocols – putting milk in the head jug – OMG – no! They heeded me, thank goodness. But this was an extreme case. Let me give a couple of more New Zealand examples – most people should get my drift.
The white New Zealand artist Gordon Walters received a lot of ill-informed, and I would say pretty offensive criticism in his brilliant use of the fern frond motif that you see in traditional Māori architectural decoration, such as roof beams. But this is by definition “low” ornament and you can’t very well claim he is appropriating your intellectual property.
So, inevitably the question of appropriation must be applied on a case by case basis. Oh – it can work in reverse – the Arawa people made the carving of Queen Victoria, that was presented to them, uniquely theirs – by erecting her on a traditionally carved post and protecting her with an elaborate canopy – Queen Victoria became Kuini Wikitoria – get it?! She was even told about it in the last few weeks of her life, and was genuinely moved by the loyalty of her subjects.
ZJ: As you say, the concept is not helpful in explaining the quality of art. But those who use it are not interested in art. They are in the business of fighting Western culture. By saying “appropriation,” they say there is nothing original in Western culture, and that the West is not a civilization that created great wonders, or liberated mankind from poverty and injustice – something the present day “reformers” claim to champion. Many years ago, Mary Lefkovitz wrote Not Out of Africa – a detailed analysis of the baselessness of the claim that the Greeks had “stolen” their philosophy from Africa – for which she was attacked on all fronts.
What underlies this reasoning is: if we cannot take down all the monuments, remove all paintings from the museums, let’s denigrate them, let’s show the Westerners – the Whites – those who defend Western tradition – that there is nothing special, unique or original in it. On the contrary, it is imperialistic, genocidal, unoriginal, and so on.
MS: Although you’re doing a bit of a reductio ad absurdum, I can’t deny a lot of what you say. I wish it wasn’t like that, but it is all too prevalent. Perhaps it was my luck as an academic that the majority of my colleagues were considerably more intellectually subtle – and in the best sense liberal – than your bleak picture suggests. The better academics put Lefkowitz on their reading lists; and to be fair, Bernal’s Black Athena was rapidly shot down.
ZJ: When you were a student at Cambridge, some 40 years ago, would you ever have thought or suspected that art and art criticism would be gone in the future, and that what you, and others, who had decided to study art, would be under attack?
MS: Perhaps I’m fortunate but my (almost) 30 years teaching at the academy were remarkable for not being attacked. Only once, many years ago, when I did a seminar defending (yet still criticizing) Camille Paglia, which was almost riotously well-received by most students and several staff present but not by a few angry left-wingers, was I reprimanded by my head of school. Call me cowardly, but out of self-preservation and a wish to advance my career, I took a deep breath, put the culture wars aside and settled down into writing a succession of entries for the Grove Dictionary of Art – on the patronage and artistic interests of Louis XV, Louix XVI, Marie-Antoinette and Louis-Philippe respectively. Perhaps this was a subtle form of subversion! So rather than buckle under any criticism, I’ve simply done my own thing, publishing a very large amount of what I hope is useful, factual research, often on no grants whatsoever, and enjoyed doing so in the process.
ZJ: I often wonder what Sir Kenneth Clark would say? What would his fabulous BBC program turned into a book – Civilization – look like in 2020?
MS: Well, they recently attempted to do a “Civilisation revisited” called Civilisations, with Simon Schama, Mary Beard and David Olusoga. It was well received, but got some criticism for focusing too much on class and oppression, and not enough on the core aspects of art that I identified above. Relativism replaced discerning aesthetic judgement and as for Clark’s beautiful language – creating art when talking about it, well, something surely was lost here. A few years ago, I published a blog-post whose sub-text was “Come back Kenneth Clark, all is forgiven!” My admirable Pacific colleague Sean said he enjoyed it and learnt from it – that’s the whole point, isn’t it?
ZJ: Over the last several years, we have witnessed another phenomenon: tearing down and removing monuments. The first was done by hooligan demonstrators, the second by city officials, who often, as happened in Baltimore, removed monuments during the night, when the public was asleep. Many monuments were not just representations of someone others disapprove of, but pieces of art. Do you see any hope for saving public monuments?
MS: Actually, I see some hope from the British Tories (though I often disagree with them elsewhere) in the very latest news. They are planning legislation to take decisions away from councils and make statuary subject to the minister’s edict. So long as the government is sound here, that will make it very much harder to molest public monuments, and cathedral and church monuments in turn. I’ve recently come across a specific instance of this in regard to a taxpayer-funded academic research project on the Napoleonic tombs in St Paul’s Cathedral. The proposal read positively scarily: “Unlike the early- to mid-20thC monuments to Confederate soldiers, the St Paul’s Pantheon is unlikely to be removed in the long term.” You bet it won’t be, now that I alerted the Church Monuments Society and the London Times – I (indirectly) received a hurried reassurance to this effect just days ago. But the very fact that the project hinted otherwise, and got government funding, shows there is no cause for complacency on this front.
ZJ: What about selling them?
MS: I like your idea of selling monuments but I don’t think there would be a big market for them. With a couple of sculpture-nut friends, we’re currently trying to find a home for a HUGE relief of very fine quality, celebrating Africa but carved by a white British sculptor in the early 1960s and nobody wants to know – it’s all too “sensitive,” you see; well, my response is to say “Bah!” It’s a history lesson in stone, and fascinating for it. Somebody who should have known better described the sculpture as “patronizing.” If you could travel back in time and tell the artist this, he wouldn’t be offended so much as baffled and bewildered. The past is a foreign country – and imposing presentism on it in this way is quite simply bad history (and bad art history).
Art And The Public
ZJ: Recent events – destruction of monuments, changes in the museums’ policies – raise the very serious problem of “art ownership,” not ownership in the ordinary sense, where I own an antique-piece or a house. The question is – who is entitled to a work of someone who has been gone for centuries and whose work was created in a very different world-view. Do we – today – have the singular claim of deciding what the “proper” subject of art must be – or indeed what the artist should have thought and what he should represented in his art?
But today, if someone happens to disapprove of something, we destroy it or remove it.
MS: There’s a big risk of not wanting to look at the monument in its own terms, to neglect the history surrounding it and say our history must dominate – in other words presentism. If it’s a statue in a public place, it belongs to the people but is being held in trust/custody for them, and we disrespect this at our peril.
ZJ: In the early 1980s, the Greek government wanted Lord Elgin’s Parthenon marbles back, claiming they are part of Greek national heritage. This claim is not as strong as it appears to be. Modern Greece is not a continuation of ancient Greece. That cultural continuity had been broken many times, especially during the Ottoman rule. Secondly, the Greek heritage, because of the unique place of ancient Greece as cradle of Western civilization, is as much English and European as it is Greek. Finally, the place that deserves guardianship of ancient relics is that which can preserve best them.
MS: They still do. I could write 5000 words on this and I have. The arguments for and against are quite closely balanced. To me, bleeding heart liberal if you like, the unfair thing about them was that it was not a “level playing field” when Elgin brilliantly and opportunistically exploited the wording of the Ottoman Empire’s permit to remove them – a matter of 20 years or so before the Greek War of Independence. The Greeks had no say about them. Short term, they had everything to be grateful for in Elgin “rescuing” them from what could well have been fatal destruction. But for 150+ years they have been saying “We want them back, please!”
The question of modern Greece not being the same place is one of the strengths of NOT returning them; this must be conceded. But having them in the locality of where the whole great world of Western art – and democracy – started is an emotional one that many people find compelling. A good comparison would be if Paris or Munich owned Boadicea’s chariot!
ZJ: A critic can argue, however, that the best place for it is the original site. But, once again, one can counter-argue that the original site is not necessarily the safest. The prime example is the Roman city of Palmyra, vandalized and partly destroyed by ISIS a few years ago. By contrast, the Pergamon Altar was preserved because it was removed and beautifully preserved in the Pergamon Museum in Berlin.
MS: Or was till the anti-Satanist nutcases recently struck. In regard to the Parthenon marbles, Enoch Powell said clean up the Athens pollution and then put them back in situ. I got what he meant even if practicality (and emotions) meant that his typical intellectual logic was shouted down.
ZJ: True, the Elgin Marbles, the Pergamon Altar, the Ishtar Gate were taken away; yet, were it not for the passion of those who carried out this “theft,” they might well be entirely destroyed now – their “theft” in turn preserved them. This also tells us that the heritage of civilization belongs to those who can secure its welfare the best.
MS: At the time, the 1810s, I think even the Greeks would have conceded that. What they argue is that they are now a liberal democracy, part of the European Union, which Britain was till so recently, that they have the means, facilities and expertise to house these treasures in a beautiful, accessible way, just metres from where it all began. My feeling is that the return of the Parthenon marbles is about 60% justified – quite narrow.
Where I am totally opposed to the restitution of art objects is when you cannot trust the government that wants them back. Some years ago, there was a genuine, albeit politically incorrect worry that the consequences of returning Benin bronzes to the government of their country of origin would be Lamborghinis and wives’ shopping sprees in Harrods and Aspreys! Any “returning” institution needs to be given a pretty copper-bottomed guarantee that their treasures will be beautifully housed, displayed and loved. If not, they should stay put.
ZJ: My second question is a variant of the previous one. Ever since the French, American and Russian Revolutions, we have to deal with a new concept that implicates art in a way it was created for, in that art is the property of the people. Hence all kinds of claim can be made. It is a people who are true owners, not individuals. The proper place for art is museums; and private collections, even if they legally belong to private citizens, cannot be taken out of the country, sold in other countries, because, the claim goes, it is part of “national heritage.” How strong is such a claim in your opinion?
MS: This is a long and complex one to answer. Obviously if you believe in liberal democracy, you believe in the rule of law and the sanctity of the ownership of property (statue-topplers take note). The last, however, needs to be balanced with caring for the national heritage.
In the absence of protective legislation or the purchase of masterpieces by the government and private donors to keep them in their country of origin or long-term custodianship, the consequences can be disastrous. The New Zealand Māori in the first instance and our culture in the second suffered from the despoiling of ghastly, latter-day grave robbers.
Even when the repatriation is legal, the consequences can be near tragic – Japan exported so many of its glorious colour woodblock prints, the country was effectively despoiled of them and any uninformed international tourists who went there to see them were disappointed.
Modern Art And Architecture
ZJ: I would like to move to modern or 20th-century art. It is the period which is very often criticized. As far as painting is concerned, this era is often appreciated by art critics more than the public. Ordinary people find modern art difficult to understand (especially abstract painting), lacking in immediate aesthetic appeal, sometimes even appalling. Similar criticism can be applied to architecture.
In its simple form, criticism of art and architecture can, in my view, be reduced to three claims: it is “ugly,” i.e., lacking in aesthetic dimension, like in “this building is ugly.”
Second, it is ugly because it has no relationship to tradition, surroundings, regional and national features (this is true of much of modern architecture). Such art and architecture follows abstract geometrical patterns rather than traditions; thus, the ornaments which beautify buildings are absent.
Thirdly, it is ugly or not appealing because the purpose of a painting or a sculpture is not to convey a sense of beauty but to embody a social message, which turns art into a vehicle of ideology. Of course, there can be an overlap, something can be both ugly, rootless and ideological; and so because it is rootless it is often ugly.
Which of these three assertions would you consider to be the greatest problem for modern art? I realize that not all three apply to the same degree to architecture, sculpture and painting.
MS: That’s a big question. I do think your approach to modernism is too broad-brushed. I genuinely think that a lot of it is a lot less elitist than when it first appeared. Look at the crowds of people looking at Rothko. My old house in Christchurch was a charming slightly Lego-like postmodern affair that showed an obvious awareness of Mondrian.
Let me say this about Modernist architecture: when built on a strict budget, housing or officing (new word) the masses, it can be little short of ghastly. That great old architectural reactionary Sir Reginald Blomfield was unfortunately spot on when he called early Modernist buildings packing-cases. However, when it is built on a big budget, sometimes – depending on the sensibility of the architect – Modernism can look genuinely impressive. There’s been a tendency towards a kind of neo-modernism since the end of the century which focusses on lightness, whiteness and airiness – and people really like it.
ZJ: Let me invoke Nikolaus Pevsner, author of several important books on art and architecture. According to him, England’s “contribution to Western art has been stronger in the practical art of building than in the more esoteric arts of painting and sculpture.” And, Pevsner also said, “English political strength” turned out “detrimental to art:” “…The democratic rule by committee and majority. Building today more than ever before is decided by committees. Committees can never be hoped to be the best judges in matters aesthetics. To demand or merely to license a bold building requires a bold man.”
MS: How prophetic – and we’ve had 65 years of committees ever since! He’s proved to be somewhat wrong about English sculpture (Henry Moore anyone? Barbara Hepworth? The excellent Elisabeth Frink?) and I think he still had some way to go in ever warming to Victorian painting, though he did so splendidly to architecture.
ZJ: These words, as you noticed, were written in 1955, and we are as far away from solving the problem as we were then. I just spoke with an architect, who, to my rather dreadful remark – which I made jokingly – as to what we should do with architects who litter our cities with buildings which are admired only by fellow-architects, said: it is the investor who is responsible; we do what investor wants. I find such an answer to be nothing other than a cop-out, an easy excuse that covers architects’ lack of talent; or worse, it’s a total disregard for “the public,” traditional surroundings, or national culture.
MS: As I said earlier, one of the tragedies of the 20th century was when capitalists realized that cheap Modernist architecture was the way to go! So, your friend does have a point. But architects also have themselves to blame – they are arrogant and self-referential. Look at architects like Morris Lapidus, who was brave enough to design for the people – despised by his profession, and in old age he destroyed his drawings and models – tragic.
ZJ: We have three choices, it seems: the committees, the public, or the bold man, who always realizes his own vision, not necessarily shared by the rest (as Pevsner suggested). Personally, I would go for the second, but would add that the committees offer us – the public – a range of, say, ten designs, submitted by architects, and have them displayed in a big public place, and let the people cast a vote. After all, it is the public and future generations who will live with it, not the architect, not the coterie of members of the committee. Which option do you think is the best?
MS: They all have their pros and cons. Going against my liberal instincts, I have a soft spot for the bold man – provided his taste doesn’t totally offend me. The people aren’t always right – they are often very conservative in turn. Sometimes they have to catch up with an artist and realize his or her validity. Henry Moore is a good example, even if a lot of his later corporate work, loved by committees, is boring.
But sometimes time cannot heal an “in your face” ugly work of art – Richard Serra’s Tilted Arc is a prime example, as is “Brutalist” architecture of the 1950s and 1960s – a fair bit of that probably remains in Poland in cheap public housing. My friend Amanda was very upset when I published a letter saying a whole lot of Brutalist flats weren’t worth keeping in Wellington, utterly lacking in the “period charm” of their Art Deco predecessors of 20-30 years earlier!
ZJ: Only yesterday I had a conversation with an architect who used the language of “experimentation” in art, saying that a piece of architecture “was an interesting idea.” My response was that there is no question that Centre Pompidou is “interesting” as an idea; it never occurred to anyone before to show the inside of a building. But it is ugly.
Here I would like to suggest a topic for reflection. The two towers of the World Trade Center in New York were, for decades, seen by the public as a symbol of New York itself, the New World. When the towers collapsed on September 11, the question became – should we rebuild them? But no one entertained this for long. Rebuilding certain architectural objects is not new; it says something about national spirit, attachment to history, tradition. An example is the old city of Warsaw, razed to the ground during WWII. It was rebuilt as exact copy of the city from before 1939.
Most recently we have the example of the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris. It was a heart-breaking sight to see it in flames. There was no question that it will be rebuilt as it was, perhaps with small details which will be modern.
The two objects – the Twin Towers and the Notre Dame – are good examples of where the problem lies: -beauty of a building, as opposed to “an interesting idea.” I doubt whether the same French public would ever entertain the idea of rebuilding the Centre Pompidou if anything were to happen to it.
MS: What you’re saying is that there is something humanist that is enshrined in old buildings, that the public love and which we badly miss when they are gone. I can’t argue with that even if some old buildings were or are no great shakes. There are open and shut cases of ugly buildings – often, but not exclusively, Modernist – which nobody mourns if they go. And I don’t think merely being there for 40 years or more can redeem them.
The “Brutalist” flats in Wellington I mentioned earlier, known as the “Gordon Wilson flats” after their architect, had a certain “to-hell-with-you” quality when they were erected, and they haven’t mellowed – they were ugly then and ugly now, which you can’t say for a lot of Victorian architecture. Frankly, I wouldn’t grieve to see them go. Any decision has to be on a case-by-case, empirical basis. Personally, I don’t agree with you about the Beaubourg – when I first saw it, and I was definitely a bit of a fogey – I was impressed by its quirky, funky qualities, and it was obvious that in the piazza in front of it, buskers, jugglers, tourists and Parisians, took to it like a duck to water.
ZJ:Le Corbusier, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, Frank Lloyd Wright and Gaudi. They are giants of 20th-century architecture. The first two were giants of the new 20th-century style; the other two are modern too, but they are steeped in tradition; their knowledge of history of architecture is undeniable. Gaudi’s Sacrada Familia Cathedral in Barcelona is not a medieval cathedral, but only someone unfamiliar with history – Gothic architecture – could confuse it with something else. Frank Lloyd Wright’s houses, his use of stained glass, wood, triangular roofs, bricks, in short, traditional material, make us feel “at home.” None of this is part of van der Rohe and Le Corbusier’s vision. It is pure geometry of new material, which makes us feel alienated from the environment and history. Such “creativity” is responsible for much of the problem with modern art.
What is your take on it?
MS: A lot of Le Corbusier’s theories were cranky and it grieves me that he had so much influence on generations of architecture students – to be terribly provocative I tell them they should have looked at Corb’s contemporary, Ernest Trobridge, architect of startling “ye olde” suburban houses in Greater London, instead. Le Corbusier’s architecture is, dare I say, hit and miss – the much-lauded Unité d’Habitation was a flop; I haven’ been to Ronchamp but I’m pretty certain I would admire it. Mies van der Rohe had a genuine sensibility towards proportions and materials – his actual buildings are rather great – the problem is that lacking that sensibility, lacking that big budget, being a second-rate Corb or Mies – is a recipe for aesthetic, social and political disaster.
ZJ: Let me approach the idea of conservatism in art. It is a category external to art. If it makes sense to talk about conservatism in art, it concerns national attitude, national characteristics rather than artistic qualities. Pevsner wrote an interesting book, The Englishness of English Art, in which he pointed to certain creative stubbornness, so to speak, of the English.
Christopher Wren, for example, had to redo the plan for St. Paul’s cathedral, because the clergy refused to accept such “un-English a shape.” Wren also suggested that completing Westminster Abbey in Gothic style was appropriate because “to deviate from the old Form, would be to run into disagreeable Mixture, which no Person of good Taste could relish.” (A point that is relevant in rebuilding the Notre Dame in Paris). Pevsner’s book abounds in examples of this kind. What we deal with is “Englishness,” if I may say so, or English conservative attitude in general.
This was all a long time ago; things changed! In the 1990s Prince Charles left the confines of his regal realm and made a name for himself by his criticism of English architecture. He even wrote a book,A Vision of Britain. Another critic of English architecture is Sir Roger Scruton – one of its most vocal critics, in fact. Can you explain this criticism?
MS: The architectural consequences of Prince Charles is an interesting topic and would really repay research – a book in itself. There are not a few examples of how late 20th- and early 21st-century architecture ‘kept in keeping’ with pre-existing structures – a really good example of this is Downing College, Cambridge, which is pretty awesome and which Scruton doubtless admired. And the model village of Poundbury where pundits’ opinions are divided but whose residents appear to love it.
Prince Charles himself influenced the admirable addition to the National Gallery – his critique of the original plans is where it all started. So, this kind of architecture happens – not as often as I would like because, I’m afraid, of the mania for change, cost effectiveness and architects’ egos – not least their over reverence for 20th-century heroes. Where a less admirable form of traditionalism continues to thrive is in the mania for period features in British domestic housing, especially neo-Georgian.
I generalize, but a lot of it is awful, tacky and pretentious. Cambourne, outside Cambridge, falls into this trap. It’s bad, but I laugh at it and don’t feel appalled by it – I can see it worming its way into my affections if I lived there myself. Indeed, I have a feeling that maybe in 50 years’ time, if it lasts that long, it will have accrued a period charm, as the much-mocked mock-Tudor with its painted “beams” and gables of the inter-war years has done.
ZJ: George Orwell, in his essay, “England Your England,” attempted to come to terms with Englishness, the English national character. The essay covers a lot of ground, but one thing that struck me was his claim that the English have no aesthetic taste; and, second, that England does not have great art, great painters. If one compares England with Italy, that is certainly true; but if we take Orwell’s claim at face value, every nation would lose to the Italians. Do you agree with Orwell?
MS: It’s a complicated question but he’s being unfair. The pioneering modernist critic Roger Fry said something on the lines of “the fact that our school may be a second division one does not prevent it from being intensely interesting.” But the ginormous elephant in the room when you make this generalization is the phenomenal, the beautiful, the remarkable English and to a lesser extent Scottish country house – and its garden. British art historians should be shouting from the rooftops about how its landscape architects made the paintings of Claude Lorrain (some of the most gorgeous in art history) three-dimensional reality. It worked better in the cooler, damper British climate than it would have ever done in Claude’s Roman Campagna.
And another major point: a lot of British painting from about 1750 is remarkable and too many critics remain obtusely patronizing about it. I love artists like Burne-Jones (as you’ve gathered), Leighton, and much admire Watts. And in the 20th century, we have Henry Moore, Stanley Spencer, Lucian Freud – and those godawful YBAs, yet who have a huge place in the world of contemporary art. I don’t think it’s profitable comparing Britain to France or Italy – and I think it’s stupid, as the Courtauld Institute did for far too long – to ignore what’s on your doorstep and only bother to look at France and Italy. Many people are snobs like that about cookery – oh they LOVE Italian food. Well, all I can say is that dining out in Rome in 2003, despite using the normally reliable Lonely Planet, was a terrible disappointment and the best Italian meal I had was in Los Angeles, but I digress.
ZJ: You mentioned English art around 1750. The painter of this period that comes to mind is Hogarth. Nikolaus Pevsner, praises Hogarth, who in his The Analysis of Beauty (published in 1753) speaks of “the line of Beauty.” Or, in Pevsner’s words, “a shallow, elegant, undulating double curve. Now the fondness for these double curves is actually, although Hogarth did not know that, a profound English tradition… one that runs from the style of 1300 to Blake and beyond. But it is also an international principle of the Late Baroque and Rococo, and it will be found without any effort in individual figures and whole compositions of Watteau in France, of Tiepolo in Venice, of Ignaz Günter… Hogarth’s Baroque modelling and brushwork and international quality created something in England that had not before existed within English possibilities, in the case of serpentine or zigzag compositions and attitudes, an English quality in Hogarth and an international quality of Hogarth’s age worked hand in hand.”
MS: Firstly, let me say how I deeply admire Pevsner. Initially a card-carrying Modernist on his arrival from Nazi persecution (and the poor man’s biography reveals how seriously – almost like Chamberlain – he underestimated their true evil), he got increasingly hooked on his country of adoption and his attitude to Victorian art and, particularly architecture, intelligently mellowed. I am dubious, however, about this “line” of generalization.
As Pevsner himself realizes, it wasn’t peculiar or particular to the English. And there are strongly linear artists who don’t necessarily go to town with the undulating double curve – Flaxman and Gill for example. If you’re looking for English characteristics, I’d say that the bleak, almost drab palette that is so long dominant in landscape painting – Pre-Raphaelites aside – would be an important one – it explains why watercolour is so strong and we see it in Spencer, Freud and the wonderful L.S. Lowry.
All this relates to Britain’s long, bleak autumns to springs and is almost hard-wired in the English – Scottish even more (look at Joan Eardley). The art historian John Onians – author of Neuroarthistory and a good friend – would certainly agree. By the way, note how many artists I mention are modern ones – I am not some fogey who believed that all was good in art predates 1837 or 1914.
ZJ: Point taken! Sometimes I worry about you being a little too trendy! Seriously, there are other names, Richard Wilson, a great Welsh/English painter, who even wrote about the superiority of English art, and, of course, Turner. I may be mistaken, but it is unlikely that an art historian writing the history of modern painting can bypass these three painters. Perhaps Fry’s criticism in his Reflections on British Painting, from which, I believe, the sentence you quoted comes from, does not do justice to English art?
MS: No. I’m quite a big admirer of Fry, for all my misgivings about Modernism. I can even understand his reaction against bourgeois Victorian conservatism and complacency, though art history has shown his denunciation of Alma-Tadema to be terribly wrong – Alma-Tad was a far better artist than almost all of Fry’s Bloomsbury cronies, as the late Quentin Bell, son of crony-in-chief Clive Bell, generously conceded to me. Fry was certainly beating the Modernist drum, which he understandably felt was all the more necessary in the context of British artistic conservatism. In the process, he gravely underrated Edwardian art, some of which looks superb over a century on, and overrated his Bloomsbury “luvvies.” But critics can, do and even should make mistakes. Fry’s liberalism in the best sense was shown in his admission that British art was “intensely interesting.” Roger, Roger!
Artists And Art Historians
ZJ: Much of how we look at art is influenced by art criticism – that is, what we read. Many ingenious insights, which we could not come up with, do come from reading books by experts. I want to throw at you a few random names of art historians: Nikolaus Pevsner, Richard Wollheim, Sir Banister Fletcher whose History of Architecture, even today, has no rival, Sir Kenneth Clark, Erwin Panofsky, and Ernst Gombrich. I skipped many names of outstanding people who made contributions to more narrow fields, or who wrote about individual artists or epochs. How do you like my list? Would you like to add a few names?
MS: They are the greats, though I always found Wollheim unintelligible and overrated – and he was more of a philosopher of art than an art historian. The art historians I would add are H.W. Janson (a Russian German in origin), Robert Rosenblum (the two authored a magisterial history of 19th-century art in the mid-1980s). Then there’s Hugh Honour – a great writer and scholar; and from a slightly younger generation, I have affection and respect for Frances Spalding who is still alive and kicking. Fiona McCarthy, with her biographies of Morris,Burne-Jones and Eric Gill, is damn good too! She died very recently.
An outstanding populist who never got the national honour he deserved is Edward Lucie-Smith. Though he was a critic more than he was an art historian, Robert Hughes was one of my heroes too – though personally a nasty piece of work. One of the most interesting and original art historians is John Onians, author of Neuroarthistory, who looks at the impact of the mind, childhood and environment on art history in pellucid prose and with convincing reasoning. John would love what I say about Claude Lorrain and country house gardens; he was also the genius behind the World Atlas of Art. By the way, Neuroarthistory was generally panned by the academic left, so it must be good!
Neil McGregor, formerly the director of the National Gallery and the British Museum, said about Clark: “[he] was the most brilliant cultural populist of the 20th century… Nobody can talk about pictures on the radio or on the television without knowing that Clark did it first and Clark did it better.”
Would you agree that “to come after Clark” is an unenviable situation for today’s art historians? Not being an art historian, each time I read him, I envy him – this man spent his entire life moving through a world that looked more like an enchanted garden, so different from the lives of ordinary people who live in a world of aesthetic poverty which then prevents them from escaping their social and economic realities.
MS: I couldn’t agree more. Clark is a wonderful man – that comes over in my blog. He was my hero when I was a teenager. He was also a war hero, bringing piano music free to all visitors to the National Gallery when all the paintings had to be removed for safekeeping. He inspired me – and I bet a fair few other people aged 60+ who won’t admit it – to become an art historian. “What do you want to be?” I was asked at my Cambridge interview. “Another Kenneth Clark!” was my modest reply. I didn’t quite make it but I certainly tried. I did so in the wide range of themes I have researched and published – one of the aims was to flummox and irritate other academics who remained stuck in the same groove.
Back to Clark – anyone who could write with authority on Rembrandt, Leonardo, the landscape, the nude and don’t let’s overlook the Gothic Revival, his first, underrated book, has got to be a good thing. The other thing that I admire in him is his beautiful and accessible writing. In everything I write, I ask, “Would Kenneth Clark approve of this?” I hope so: we ignore him at our peril, and the Stourton biography along with the Tate exhibition are both timely reminders of this.
ZJ: John Ruskin said that beauty was everyone’s birthright. This brings me to the question that should make people like you, art historians, very concerned. Art education is probably the most neglected discipline in popular education, in every country. For years I made the reading of a few pages from Clark’s The Nude part of my “Introduction to Philosophy” course, where I sent my students to a museum to write a very specific paper connected with what we had read.
This assignment was probably the most fruitful educational tool I possessed. Student reactions were comparable only to the reaction they had when we read Plato, Nietzsche or Dostoevsky.
You write a regular blog, something that has very limited readership. I sent your piece on Dürer to several of my former students. The reaction to it was probably more than you would expect. Given how people, particularly younger people, react to art, why is art history so marginalized in Western education? Can anything be done about this lack? Getting students on a mandatory trip to a local museum so that they can awaken to art?
MS: It’s a big problem. I wish my blogs had a bigger readership but unfortunately my attempts to publish them on a wider front were not supported by my former museum – partly issues of copyright unfortunately complicated matters. The paradox is that never have more people been going to museums, before 2020, and wanting to see the latest exhibitions; but never in the past 30 years have fewer people formally enrolled to study art at university – and it was even proposed to discontinue the British History of Art A-level. I have several answers to this: the punitive fee regime at university, with careers advisers and family members saying “What’s the relevance of art history?” And the corresponding incentive to study STEM subjects.
And here’s another answer: art history is an overwhelmingly female subject in terms of its students. This is for two or three reasons: firstly, I think men are usually slower in responding to aesthetic matters than women; and secondly, at the risk of being controversial, art historians are ultimately the “servants” of art (or should be); women, in their traditionally supporting roles, adapt to this more easily than hunting, gathering, stomping, blundering men. With the ever-greater gender equalities of the past 30-40 years, which I generally welcome, women have become more masculinized in the choice of what they study. Art history has been the unfortunate victim of this.
ZJ: In the last 30 years or so, leftist art critics – mainly academics – turned art into an ideological instrument. Enough to glance at The New York Times art section, which peddles ideology under the mask of art. By contrast, the WSJ’s art section is still traditional; informative; and reading it one gets the impression that not much has changed since the 1970s or the 1980s. After reading pieces on art in the WSJ, it makes you want to visit a museum.
A long time ago, Roger Kimball of The New Criterion wrote an important book which he titled, The Rape of the Masters. Kimball, who is not a scholar but an editor, a very able art critic and a true art lover, did a great service to the American public by pointing out what is wrong with what passes for art criticism today.
Let me quote what he said in an interview: “For what we see in the academic art historians I discuss – it is something you see in literary studies, too – is an effort to discount, to deny the essential reality of things in order to enlist them in an ideological war. A family portrait of four young girls is no longer a family portrait of four young girls but a florid allegory of sexual conflict and gender panic. And so on. If one had to sum up the essential purpose and direction of the new academic art historians, one might say that, notwithstanding the variety of their political commitments, they are all engaged in an attack on the idea of the intrinsic. They start from the contrary of Butler’s proposition: nothing is what it is, it is always something else – and, they might add, something worse than it seems.” Do you agree with Kimball?
MS: In a word, yes. Too many of the new academic art historians are a bit, let’s say, messed up in the head. They want to politicise bloody everything. Too many of them are scared of just looking. I wish there were more Kimballs in the university but their younger versions probably, sadly, realise that after their BA, certainly their MA, it is not the place for them.
Talking of the painting of girls, the funniest instance of this – oh how I wish I had kept it – was a po-faced feminist discussion of “agency” in Sofonisba Anguissola’s painting, The Chess Game, which referred to the three main participants as “women.” Sorry, but apart from the wary looking maid, all three, even the eldest (certainly at the time) are girls!
And while I’m at it, Sofonisba’s painting is somewhat provincial, even somewhat inept – she was 20 when she painted it and she made her heads look a bit like puddings – perhaps in a Ruskinian way I love the painting for its very awkwardness. I’m slightly digressing, but the feminist response was a classic case of somebody who reads too much and doesn’t look nearly enough.
As for art criticism, perhaps I’m a bit of an exception but I’ve written probably 100 reviews, including a fair few in the Burlington Magazine – there’s still scope for the art historian to be a critic though there is a strange lack of competition which enabled me to go to the top, so to speak, here.
Always, always, I try to summarise what the exhibition is about, what its aims are, how well it succeeds, and of course I try to appraise the quality of the works too and their impact on me. Sometimes I’m converted by an exhibition – I found myself admiring the British 20th-century painter William Coldstream.
More rarely I’m repelled, as with the Australian painter Rupert Bunny who deserved to be shot! At times I am necessarily political – as when I reviewed 20th-century Jewish art and more recently Pre-Raphaelite women – but it’s essential to keep a sense of balance and not neglect these other, core aspects. I hope to keep up this criticism for a fair while yet – pandemics permitting – as there’s so much great – and indeed “intensely interesting” art out there in the world – to experience and share.
Although he could be maddeningly contradictory, John Ruskin powerfully and beautifully stated how the primary aim of the artist should be art and nature, not changing the world: “Does a man die at your feet – your business is not to help him but to note the colour of his lips.”
ZJ: John Ruskin, I love you! Thank you, Dr. Stocker, for this delightful conversation!
Culture in the broadest sense can be defined as a way of life. The great historian Christopher Dawson created an entire corpus focused on the intersection of religion and culture. He claimed that four central pillars form the foundation of culture: people, environment, work, and thought. He describes how “the formation of culture is due to the interaction of all these factors; it is a four-fold community—for it involves in varying degrees a community of work and a community of thought as well as a community of place and a community of blood.”
When Dawson refers to the importance of thought, he means especially religious thought, which provides the inner form for the material organization of society. He describes how “every social culture is at once a material way of life and a spiritual order,” because “it is the religious impulse which supplies the cohesive force which unifies a society and a culture.”
Although Dawson recognizes that we live in the first secular culture in human history, he also rightly claims that the modern world has its own spiritual ideas, or pseudo-religions, that guide how we organize the material world: ideas of inevitable social progress, extreme individual liberty, the primacy of material prosperity, and the dominance of empirical science. These ideas have created a spiritual imbalance, which made Dawson aware that “the real evil lies deeper—in the breach that has taken place between the technical development of our civilization and its spiritual life.”
Dawson not only recognizes the problem, but also offers a solution: “The recovery of our civilization is therefore above all a question of restoring the balance between its inner and outer life. The unlimited material expansion of our civilization has weakened it by making it superficial, and the time has come for a movement in the reverse direction—a movement of concentration to recover its inner strength and unity.”
Our culture has displaced faith from its central role, relegating it to the private sphere. Dawson recognizes that this has created a deep spiritual crisis within the individual, with material needs satisfied in abundance, but deeper, spiritual ones neglected. Christians play into this crisis by accepting the divide between the interior and exterior elements of life – communicating only spiritual ideas, while leaving them divorced from their social and cultural context.
The crisis can be resolved by placing religion back at the heart of culture, for “it is only through the medium of culture that the Faith can penetrate civilization and transform the thought and ideology of modern culture.” And he continues: “A Christian culture is a culture which is oriented to supernatural ends and spiritual reality, just as a secularized culture is one which is oriented to material reality and to the satisfaction of man’s material needs.” And for Dawson, only the faith is strong enough to penetrate and transform the depth of the crisis facing the West.
The Church has increasingly recognized the importance of culture and has given it a central role within her efforts of evangelization. The Second Vatican Council’s Pastoral Constitution, Gaudium et Spes provides the Church’s first extended treatment of culture, stating that “man comes to a true and full humanity only through culture” (§53).
Ten years later in 1975, Paul VI emphasized the importance of culture for evangelization in his Apostolic Exhortation, Evangelii Nuntiandi, teaching that “the split between the Gospel and culture is without a doubt the drama of our time . . . Therefore every effort must be made to ensure a full evangelization of culture, or more correctly of cultures. They have to be regenerated by an encounter with the Gospel” (§20).
John Paul II strengthened this focus on culture by stating that “creating a new culture of love and of hope inspired by the truth that frees us in Christ Jesus . . . is the priority for the new evangelization.” He explains this priority further in Christifidelis Laici: “Therefore, I have maintained that a faith that does not affect a person’s culture is a faith ‘not fully embraced, not entirely thought out, not faithfully lived’” (§59). Faith must be lived out as a way of life and cannot remain simply an interior belief; it must shape and guide all that we do.
Building upon these insights from Dawson and the directives of the Magisterium, I propose to address how our efforts at rebuilding a Christian culture should begin with the family. First, I will look generally at how family life relates to culture and culture and then propose four points to give direction for our catechetical efforts to help families live the faith as a way of life.
Culture, Catechesis, And The Family
Building upon the principle that the family forms the foundation of society, Pope John Paul II stated prophetically: “The future humanity passes by way of the family.” In light of the deep crisis we face in family life, it is imperative that we increase our efforts to support the family. Pope Benedict XVI emphasized that “the evangelization of the family is a pastoral priority.” When faith enters the family, it naturally forms culture, for “Christianity is a creator of culture in its very foundation.”
He also said in an address to the members of the Roman clergy on March 2, 2006: “Only faith in Christ and only sharing the faith of the Church saves the family; and on the other hand, only if the family is saved can the Church also survive. For the time being, I do not have an effective recipe for this, but it seems to me that we should always bear it in mind.” We have to help come up with this recipe. Catechesis plays an important role in forming the members of the family in faith, but it must also assist them to connect their faith to life as a whole.
Catechesis aims at deepening one’s faith: The General Directory for Catechesis (1998) states: “Catechesis is nothing other than the process of transmitting the Gospel, as the Christian community has received it, understands it, celebrates it, lives it and communicates it in many ways” (§105).
In relation to the family, its goal should be to strengthen the belief and practice of the faith in its domestic life. Family catechesis constitutes an urgent task, for as Pope Benedict affirmed, “only if the family is saved can the Church also survive . . . We must therefore do all that favors the family: family circles, family catechesis, and we must teach prayer in the family.”
With this focus, catechesis forms habits of faith. Family catechesis requires that families receive the message of evangelization and the content of catechesis, but the effort to form family culture through catechesis looks to the next step of how to apply and live that message or content. The goal of family ministry cannot focus on content alone, but should look to the incarnation or inculturation of faith in daily life, translating patterns of belief into a hostile surrounding culture.
In Catechesi Tradendae, §20, John Paul speaks of “the specific aim of catechesis,” which is to enact change in how one thinks and lives. He describes this aim as the development of faith, “which he explains is “a matter of giving growth, at the level of knowledge and in life, to the seed of faith sown by the Holy Spirit with the initial proclamation and effectively transmitted by Baptism. Catechesis aims therefore at developing understanding of the mystery of Christ in the light of God’s word, so that the whole of a person’s humanity is impregnated by that word. Changed by the working of grace into a new creature, the Christian thus sets himself to follow Christ and learns more and more within the Church to think like Him, to judge like Him, to act in conformity with His commandments, and to hope as He invites us to.”
This catechetical approach points to the family as the means for translating faith into the concrete expressions of daily life. The General Directory of Catechesis makes clear that “the care of the family always remains central, since it is the primary agent of an incarnate transmission of the faith” (§207). Faith meets culture primarily within the family. John Paul taught that “God’s plan for marriage and the family touches men and women in the concreteness of their daily existence in specific social and cultural situations.” The family constitutes the domestic church, where the faith of the parish and school meets the outside world, where the work of inculturation happens (or does not happen) in one’s life.
The family should be recognized as a cultural unit and producer of culture. John Paul proposed that “it is necessary to demand a healthy primacy of the family in the overall work of educating man to real humanity,” because it is the “fundamental creative environment of culture.” The basic cultural task of the family is to transmit culture by initiating children into a way of life. “The family transmits cultural heritage. It is in the bosom of the family that culture is passed on ‘as a specific way of man’s ‘existing’ and ‘being.’” We all enter into a specific way of life through our family.
Creating a Christian culture occurs simply “when the truths of the Faith are applied by the laity in their daily lives.” The Catechism speaks of “creating a home,” where children receive an “education in the virtues,” learn how to “subordinate ‘the material and instinctual dimensions to interior and spiritual ones,’” are shown a “good example” or witness of the Christian life, and receive discipline (§2223). The home is a locus of Christian culture, as it should embody the spiritual realities of the faith concretely in the many small ways of interaction, instruction, rejoicing, and even correction. The home should be a sacrament of the Church’s broader life.
We generally design catechesis narrowly in relation to sacramental preparation for children or adult faith formation. These tasks flow from the mission of the parish, but as parents are the primary educators of the faith (See: Gravissimum Educationis §3), catechesis for the family should assist the family in recognizing and fulfilling its distinct, catechetical role.
In his Letter to Families, John Paul situates religious education within the domestic church, stating that this role should “make the family a true subject of evangelization and the apostolate within the Church.” Catechesis makes the family the subject not just the object of imparting the faith, enabling the family to fulfill its own unique ministry. This mission “builds up the Kingdom of God in history through the everyday realities that concern and distinguish its state of life,” creating conditions which “foster . . . a living faith and remain a support for it throughout one’s life.” This makes clear that the role of religious education does not consist in a function, but in the creation of a family environment that conduces to faith. The creation of a culture, that is, a way of life, in which faith can grow organically in the fertile soil of family life.
Forming Culture Tn The Family
he constituent elements of family culture relate to the four general pillars proposed by Dawson. First, its foundation consists in a particular bond between people, particularly the members of the family but also the broader community. Second, the locus of culture or the family’s environment, found primarily in the home, but also the parish and places of work. Third, the function or mission of the family, its work and social life, which includes education. Finally, we have Dawson’s notion of thought, which includes the religious beliefs and practices of the family.
Pope Francis, in his long series of Wednesday audiences on the family, stretching from December 2014 to September 2015, affirms these key elements that form the rhythm of the family’s way of life: “celebration, work, prayer.” In addition, in this same group of audiences, he addresses the topics of education, evangelization and community. These six topics provide the central themes for a catechetical revitalization of family. I will address them as follows: Prayer and celebration first; then education through the lens of imagination; followed by work; and finally, community. All of these themes relate to the overarching goal of the evangelization and catechesis of the family.
Prayer As A Way Of Life
Just as religion stands at the heart of culture, so faith should provide the center of the family’s way of life. There can be no Christian culture unless a supernatural, grace-filled, relationship with God animates the life of the family. The supernatural life comes to us from the sacraments, which we receive in the parish. It from the domestic church, however, that we enter parish life and we live out the sacramental life within the home. As Pope Benedict noted: “The family . . . is the fundamental school of Christian formation on the supernatural level.”
The family will become a school of the Christian life primarily through prayer. Prayer is the font of Christian culture. If this is true, then the first and most significant priority of our catechetical efforts consists in teaching families how to pray. Prayer should set the rhythm of life in a fundamental way, as we “redeem the time” (Ephesians 5:16) or as Pope Francis said, give “time back to God.” The liturgy shapes time by creating a rhythm for the day, by praying in the morning and evening, for the week, by keeping the Lord’s day, and for the year, by celebrating the seasons and feasts of the Church. The supernatural life of the family springs from its “worship in church . . . and as its prolongation in the home” through family prayer.
Ordering the life of the family through prayer constitutes no small task. The domestic church may find inspiration from the monastery, with its daily rhythm of prayer and work within the stability of the monastic family: “Just as the monastery’s life is ordered toward God, so must the family home be.” Ordering life through prayer must be taught, and in this endeavor another religious community, the Dominican Sisters of St. Cecilia, provides helpful advice: “Please remember that merely saying the prayers is not the goal. The goal is praying: personally encountering the Lord, listening to Him, and giving Him your heart.” We may be tempted to focus simply on outward rituals with children, but the heart of the family community, like the religious life, is a search for God (quaerere Deum), meeting God in silent prayer.
Interior silence, though, progresses to outward celebration, arising naturally from the festivity built into the Catholic cycle of the liturgy. Sofia Cavaletti speaks of “celebration [as] a universal expression; it is not restricted to the religious world. Rather, it corresponds to the need of human beings to periodically experience basic realities of daily life in a particularly intense and focused way.” She says further that liturgical celebrations help us to live our biblical history: “Liturgical celebration is an essential instrument in rendering past events concrete and powerful in the lives of believers.”
The liturgical seasons provide opportunities to celebrate God’s goodness and the blessings he has bestowed upon the family. Echoing the thought of Josef Pieper, Pope Francis describe the nature of this affirmation: “Celebration is first and foremost a loving and grateful look at work well done . . . It’s time to look at our home, our friends we host, the community that surrounds us, and to think: what a good thing! God did this when he created the world. And he does so again and again, because God is always creating, even at this moment!” Pieper also affirms that “to celebrate a festival means: to live out, for some special occasion and in an uncommon manner, the universal assent to the world as a whole.”
Sunday is a moment each week to stop and to make this affirmation with rest and the enjoyment of family life.
Enlivening The Imagination
Although it may not be obvious, focusing on the imagination relates to prayer. Prayer builds upon our experience of reality, as the soil from which it draws life. Msgr. Timothy Verdun describes how the family cultivates the foundation for prayer by imparting language and by stimulating the mind through experience: “There is in fact an art of prayer that can be transmitted from masters to disciples as from parents to children. The places designated for its transmission are indeed, first, the family, where children initially learn words and gestures with which to enter into relation with God, and then the community of other believes.” He continues, speaking of the lex orandi, lex credendi, as “a rule in the service of creativity, for faith and prayer in effect are creative responses.” In the “long history of the Church, the ‘art of prayer’—the system of words and gestures with which believers turn to God—in fact has often been transmitted through the visual arts and architecture.”
What does this mean concretely for the family? The family’s mission of education must compensate for the poverty of schooling today and overcome obstacles, such as technology, which impede the development of the imagination. I think of the immense importance Pope Benedict XVI ascribed to listening to Mozart as a family when he was young: “You might say that there Mozart thoroughly penetrated our souls, and his music still touches me very deeply, because it is so luminous and yet at the same time so deep.”
Contrast this experience with the normal child today, deprived of beauty and immersed in distraction. The basic education parents can give their children, essential for any schooling, career, and even prayer, should focus on learning to listen (no small task today), to understand, and to communicate. We can no longer take these foundational points for granted. In terms of the imagination, we have to teach children how to see, to appreciate, and to discern the worth of things.
Pope Benedict reflects on the need for “the formation of children to respond appropriately to the media . . . Within this framework, training in the proper use of the media is essential for the cultural, moral and spiritual development of children.” Interestingly, he continues by insisting that we introduce our children “to what is aesthetically and morally excellent,” such as “children’s classics in literature, to the fine arts and to uplifting music.”
Without this formation in beauty, in a cultural patrimony, we experience a breakdown in identity: “The crisis of a society begins when it no longer knows how to hand down its cultural patrimony and its fundamental values to the new generations.”
Catechetically speaking, we have to impart a Catholic identity through the imagination, so that the family’s way of thinking and values reflect the Gospel. Cardinal Francis Arinze challenges us to consider the effectiveness our catechesis in this regard: “The Church in every country can ask herself what image of the Gospel is present in the mass media and in cultural thought patterns in the country in question . . . How much are they contributing to cultural patterns in their society? . . . What are the laity contributing to the fabric of society so that life in society will be as near as possible to the Gospel ideal?” We cannot bring the Gospel to the world, if it has not penetrated our own minds and habits.
Unlike immersion in the digital world, we form imagination most profoundly through a direct experience of reality. This experience in turn draws us naturally to work, our creative encounter with the physical world. Many thinkers have described the crisis of the family in modern culture as arising in large part due to a lack of common work, common purposes that hold family members together.
This element of family formation consists literally in helping families to form culture, that is, to learn to make things, to shape their home environment, and to become co-creators with God. John Paul exhorts us: “family, become what you are” and the Church needs to help families achieve this even in a natural sense.
John Paul describes what he means by this phrase: “Accordingly, the family must go back to the “beginning” of God’s creative act, if it is to attain self-knowledge and self-realization in accordance with the inner truth not only of what it is but also of what it does in history.” Pope Francis describes this looking back to the beginning for families as well: ““The family that responds to the call of Jesus consigns the stewardship of the world back to the covenant of man and woman with God. Let us imagine that the helm of history is entrusted entrusted—finally!—to the covenant of man and woman. . . . The themes of earth and home, of the economy and work, would sing a very different tune.”
Pope Francis affirms that work must be taught in the family for the “family is a great workbench.” Teaching work is not drudgery, but emphasizes the need for creative expression in the formation of Christian culture. David Clayton notes that we have been “good at forming consumers of Catholic culture, but not good at forming creators.” We need to learn “the practice of beauty-in-the-making. We are incarnational and learn by imitation and doing, and ultimately, as this progresses, by the creation of new works.” Teaching work as a cultural expression elicits the creative potential of each child. Clayton continues: “Each of us is called to be creative in a special way and to contribute to the culture. Our formation also, therefore, ought to involve a process of discovery of personal vocation.”
Work is also good for the family, drawing the members of the family together in a common effort, rather than allowing work and school to isolate members of the family in their own individual activities.
James Stenson, in his essay “On Fatherhood,” looks back to past home dynamics: “The home was a place of social and intellectual activity; people talked, read, played, worked, and prayed together.” Now, however, “the home itself has become a place of play rather than work,” even to the point that for our children, “life is play.”
Stenson also gives a description of how fathers should teach their children about hard work and the right use of material things: “Successful fathers . . . work alongside their children at home, teaching the relationship between effort and results, along with the satisfaction of personal accomplishment. They are sparing in allowances. They make the children wait for things, and if possible, earn them. They give generously of time and money to the needy, and they encourage (but don’t force) the children to do the same. They don’t fill the home with expensive gadgets and amusements. They budget and save for the future, and thus teach the children an important lesson: Money is an instrument, a resource for the service of our loved ones and those in need. And that’s all it is.”
Work is a key element of culture and families will have to rediscover its value as something that gives life and creativity to the home. Catechesis does not teach this work in itself, but rather helps families to understand the role of work in human development and its importance for family life and culture.
Forming Intentional Family Community
Families must overcome what has become a key characteristic of modern culture, isolation. The restoration of culture will not occur as long as this isolation remains, especially within families. The culture they form does not exist for themselves alone, but for the world more broadly. Families also need support for their efforts, as children see the values of the family reinforced by other adults and peers.
Pope Francis has urged us to recognize that “strengthening the bond between the family and the Christian community today is indispensable and urgent.”
Providing an example, Rod Dreher quotes Marco Sermarini, the founder of a community of families, the Tipi Loschi in Italy: “It’s becoming clear, Sermarini says, that Christian families have to start linking themselves decisively with other families. ‘If we don’t move in this direction, we will face more and more crises.’”
The mission of culture-building necessarily includes community, as culture itself, as a common way of life, unites people to accomplish a common vision. Therefore, “true Christian communities and culture at large, then, arise from the association of Catholic families that take it upon themselves to enculturate the Faith.”
Dilsaver continues: “For the formation of communities is but the extension of the formation of families.” Pope Francis also emphasized that the building of community by the family should have a broader impact: “The family and the parish must work the miracle of a more communal life for the whole of society.”
Archbishop Eamon Martin of Armagh, Ireland has taken this principle farther, in looking at the future of parish life: “The parishes of tomorrow will be “communities of intentional disciples” sustained by committed and formed lay people. The key to this will be the formation of cells, or smaller gatherings of committed people who meet and pray and develop together their understanding of faith, and who find there the courage to engage in mission and outreach.”
The family must counteract the individuality that fragments modern culture, reversing “the community desertification of the modern city.” Intentional and committed fellowships of families will recreate a sense of belonging, stability, and support so lacking in our parishes and families today. John Paul has called for a “special solidarity among families” and an “apostolate of families to one another.” The more families embrace their mission to form culture in the home, the more this culture will spread to other families throughout the Church and society.
Families also have a gift to offer others in opening their homes for this fellowship and to those especially without a sense of belonging. Familiaris Consortio notes that we should recognize an “ever greater importance in our society of hospitality in all its forms”
Hospitality indicates that a family does not simply exist for its self, but to serve by opening the life of the family to others. This points to a mission the family exercises in sharing the culture it forms without even leaving the home. Christian culture overcomes isolation in that it exists not for its own sake, but as a service for the good of humanity.
We should focus our catechetical efforts on helping families to live their Catholic faith, both within the home and in conjunction with other families. I call this effort the creation of an “open source movement.” It is a “movement” in that it encourages particular, spiritual practices. It is “open source” in that it inspires families with a vision, assisting them to form the culture with, in, and through the parish. This approaches makes the family central, relying on their own initiative, rather than on an office or program (although they will need inspiration to begin this process). This entails a movement from the family as object to the family as subject of catechesis.
The final consideration, and one that requires further elaboration, consists in how to bring about this new approach to family catechesis. We have relied traditionally on classroom settings to impart the content of faith. This will need to continue, but the task of forming culture focuses rather on establishing practices and habits to change family life. Therefore, it is necessary to model Christian culture to families. This can be done through retreats, small group mentorship, and parish missions. Any such event must include the formation of relationships and family communities so that families receive support in following through with their new practices.
John Paul affirmed that faith requires culture to be true to itself and complete (see, Christifidelis Laici, §59). Families need Christian culture to be faithful to their mission to live and communicate their faith in the modern world. In light of the general crisis of culture, catechesis cannot remain focused solely on imparting the content of faith, but must embrace the work of rebuilding Christian culture.
Families, as the foundation of society, are the ideal place to begin this slow, but necessary, work. Family catechesis ordered toward imparting a Christian way of life provides our best opportunity to begin the renewal of public Catholic culture.
R. Jared Staudt, PhD, works in the Office of Evangelization and Family Life Ministries of the Archdiocese of Denver and serves as Visiting Associate Professor at the Augustine Institute. He earned his BA and MA in Catholic Studies at the University of St. Thomas (St. Paul, MN) and his PhD in Systematic Theology from Ave Maria University. He and his wife Anne have six children and he is a Benedictine oblate. This article appears courtesy of Church Life Journal.
The image shows, “A Girl Praying,” by Roberto Ferruzzi (1853-1934).
High architecture, that of grand buildings, is a bridge between God and man, and a sinew binding state and people, the ruling class and the masses. Low architecture, that of daily living and daily use, is key to satisfaction in the life of a populace.
Thus, a coherent and uplifting architecture, high and low, is, and has always been, necessary for any successful society. I will return below to what architecture we should have, why, and what needs to be done to achieve it. Today, though, we most definitely don’t have a coherent and uplifting architecture, and Robert Stevens Curl, in Making Dystopia, explains what the abomination of Modernism is and why it utterly dominates our current architecture.
Curl’s aim is to prove that both architects and society have swallowed the most appalling lies, and been in thrall to the most stupid delusions, for many decades. And since architecture is not mere abstraction, but rather something that affects the lives of everyone, this is a societal disaster of the first order.
Built on propagandistic falsehoods designed to conceal the ideological nature of the project, Modernism is a cult, devoted to destroying opposition and both unwilling and unable to defend its myriad fatal debilities.
It has destroyed the urban fabric all over the globe, and thereby hugely harmed the social fabric. So-called post-modernist successors to Modernism, namely Deconstructivism and Parametricism, are little better. Curl offers no quarter; Modernism and all its works should be erased.
The author is a well-known British art historian, author of more than forty books. This book, written as an “exposé of the ideologies of those responsible for an environmental and cultural disaster on a massive scale,” with its great heft, thick paper, and numerous photographs, screams “expensive”—too expensive, in fact, for the casual reader, unfortunately.
Moreover, there is too much repetition and too much rantiness; the book could have done with less variation on the same prose points and more pictures to illustrate the innumerable references Curl makes in the text and the voluminous footnotes.
And Curl makes little or no effort to make his text accessible to someone who is a complete novice to architectural history (nor, for the same reason, is it possible for someone not well versed in architectural history, such as me, to wholly say how accurate the history Curl offers is).
The result is a book that is self-limiting. But I don’t think Curl wantedMaking Dystopia to be a best-seller. I think he’s aware of the book’s limitations. He is old, and most likely his target is not casual readers, but young architects—those who have been or are being brainwashed in the vast majority of architectural schools today (the sole exception he mentions, repeatedly, is the University of Notre Dame).
I suspect that he mostly hopes that select audience will read his book as part of their education, and that he will, after he is dead, thereby help to break the stranglehold of Modernism. He even offers the reader a drawing of himself, dead in a chair, with a personified “Death come as a friend to continue ringing the warning bell.” In this context, the book as written makes perfect sense.
Most of Making Dystopia is straight history of Modernism, focusing in turn on several different times and places, alternating (often on the same page) with hammer-and-tongs attacks on Modernism.
Since any style known as “modern” risks circular definition, Curl begins with classification. Namely, that Modernism in architecture and modern design is that style “opposed to academicism, historicism, and tradition, embracing that which is self-consciously new or fashionable, with pronounced tendencies toward abstraction.”
It originated, and the word first began to be used, in the 1920s, to describe “the new architecture from which all ornament, historical allusions, and traditional forms had been expunged.” Modernism, in its 1920s post-war context, made a certain type of sense as an experimental movement.
But for reasons Curl identifies, none of which are that “Modernism is better,” it swallowed the world, becoming the global compulsory style and destroying much of the world’s urban fabric with stale, ugly, unrealistic, short-lived, and expensive buildings that did not fit their environment and made no effort whatsoever to serve their actual primary purpose—to be places in which to live and work, or to make grand statements unifying the society in which they were built. Instead, Modernism created the inhuman, uncomfortable and divisive.
Modernism as a self-limited, organically-arising, change, where the style would have soon enough have passed on like Art Deco or Art Nouveau, might have made some sense. Change is in the nature of art, and while Modernism was a rupture, not normal organic change, it could perhaps have been accommodated as one of architectural history’s dead ends.
Some of the early Modernist architecture has a certain stark beauty, after all. But why should a few architects, standing in opposition to thousands of years of organic movement, have succeeded in destroying in the way they did?
Curl chalks it up to the general turn among the taste-making classes against tradition and in favor of anything cast as “original,” which while problematic in literature or food, was disastrous in architecture, a far more public form of art with far broader consequences than fads in more ephemeral areas.
Whereas prior to the 1920s even an average architect could create nice-looking buildings that fit their purpose, in the urban landscape and for the people who lived or worked there, simply by using pattern books, now a vulgar supposed originality was required.
Modernism aimed at Utopian social engineering totally unmoored from the past. And as with other similar twentieth-century ideologues, by convincing the right people, in this case the taste-making classes and, just as importantly, big business, Modernists were successful in their engineering efforts.
Still, they required a mythology, in the way of kings fashioning false genealogies. This was provided by Nikolaus Pevsner, who in 1936 published the still-influential Pioneers of the Modern Movement (republished as, Pioneers of Modern Design), an attempt to tie admired nineteenth-century styles such as Arts and Crafts to the modernism of men like Walter Gropius.
It was Pevsner who made silly claims, believed by nearly all today, such as that the Glasgow School of Art was a Modernist building, rather than “a brilliant eclectic design, drawing on Art Nouveau themes,” which was organically derived from other styles, instead of being a rupture with them.
Curl deconstructs Pevsner at some length, giving numerous textual and pictorial examples of his “selectivity and exaggerated claims,” propaganda “based on wishful thinking,” since proving that Modernism was a rupture is key to Curl’s criticism of it. Curl’s goal is to undercut this “Grand Narrative,” which is ubiquitous among architects today, and show that Modernism has no clothes.
The real origin of Modernism was sui generis, in Germany immediately after World War I. Everything was up in the air, so architecture was too, and all the visual arts. In 1919 the Bauhaus art school was formed by Walter Gropius under government aegis.
Nominally apolitical, the Bauhaus was in fact a den of radical politics (liberally larded with nuttiness), harshly opposed to all tradition, whose artists regarded art as a necessary herald and handmaiden of political change, and human life as meaningless without reference to politics.
Although architecture was not the main focus of the Bauhaus, in the ferment of the 1920s its principles rapidly infected German au courant architectural thinking, both in terms of design and in the rejection of the need for any underlying skills in craft.
German architects in the 1920s and 1930s not only embraced Modernism, they also embraced architecture as part of system building. As Thomas Hughes discusses in American Genesis, the 1920s were the time when technological inventions became servants to their own creations, large systems built around new technology.
Modernist architects embraced this as the wave of the future—that is, the future was technology and machines, and buildings, rather than reflecting human uses, should now reflect machine uses, from electricity to motor cars.
In architecture, the Bauhaus had ties to the Deutscher Werkbund of the previous decade, a group devoted to experimentation in architecture in pursuit of integrating modern mass production techniques into industrial design, and this type of system became part of the ground for further drastic change in architectural style.
Curl offers innumerable examples, in narrative and in picture, of different architects and architecture of this time. The most influential architect to emerge from the Bauhaus was Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, who over the period from 1910 to 1930 abandoned neo-Classicism for the so-called International Style of Modernism, much of which he originated.
Mies was a self-promoter eager to work for anyone in power; he was the last director of the Bauhaus, and having tried and failed to ingratiate himself with the National Socialists, he emigrated to the United States in 1937.
Many of the German avant-garde also emigrated; they later spun stories of their opposition to Hitler, some of which were true, but as Curl points out, the Nazis were not nearly as opposed to Modernist architecture as is often suggested—they were “ambivalent,” being most definitely not conservatives, but revolutionaries, and therefore attracted to certain of the ideological underpinnings of Modernist architecture. In particular, they “accepted Modernism for industrial architecture,” as well as for quite a bit of worker housing.
While some architects outside Germany expressed interest in Modernism, especially the long-lived and ever-varied Philip Johnson, making it a niche taste among the elite, it was only when many Bauhaus and Bauhaus-sympathetic architects emigrated from Germany (the “Bauhäusler”) that the International Style actually became international.
The Bauhäusler were eagerly promoted by ideological allies in the United States and Britain, and so rapidly became extremely influential, then dominant, then utterly dominant, in the Western architectural establishment, both among professional architects and among teachers.
It was not that a great deal of actually built architecture was modernist in the 1930s and 1940s; it was that all the taste-makers decided, nearly simultaneously, that the only type of architecture that was acceptable to the elite was Modernist. Architects who objected were pilloried, cast as bourgeois, marginalized, and sidelined.
The 1930s also saw the rise to international fame of the megalomaniac Frenchman Le Corbusier, that Rasputin, who became the most successful propagandist for Modernism, and established some of its most enduring dogmas, including divorcing all buildings from their context and siting, and pretending a house could be a “machine for living.”
This process continued, and even accelerated, after 1945, when actual construction of Modernist buildings began to dominate. For the next two decades, the cult resulted in the destruction of innumerable town centers and the construction of endless shoddy and ugly buildings totally unsuited for their claimed uses and unfitted for their sites, the very opposite of their claimed “functionalism.”
Modernism was never popular among people in general, but their betters told them what they needed. Without the eager cooperation of giant corporations, though, Modernism would never have succeeded in lasting as long or being as destructive.
Part of this was ideological (similar to “woke” corporate behavior today), through a successful propaganda campaign to cast Modernist architecture as representative of “progress” and “democracy, ” part of it was the desire to make profits by participating in industrial construction techniques (which, as Curl points out, were actually mostly more expensive than the classic techniques replaced, despite the claims of their proponents) and, as with General Motors, to destroy cities to make them better for cars.
(For that latter, Curl covers the famous revolt of Jane Jacobs against Robert Moses’s planned, and partly completed, destruction of New York). Anyone who disagreed was ignored or destroyed.
Curl also spends some time on post-Modernism, a varied set of styles, of which the two most prominent were, or are, Deconstructivism and Parametricism. The former, as its name implies, is deformations of Modernism, meant to provoke anxiety and unease among viewers and users.
The latter (of which London’s Shard is an example) is an attempt to use computer algorithms to construct non-linear buildings, mostly similarly disturbing but in a different way.
“Deconstructivism and Parametricism, by rejecting all that went before and failing to provide clear values as replacements, can be seen as intentional aggression on human senses, abusing perceptive mechanisms in order to generate unease, dislocation, and discomfort… Deconstructivism and Parametricism induce a sense of dislocation both within buildings and between buildings and their contexts. . . . By breaking continuity, disturbing relationships between interior and exterior, and fracturing connections between exterior and context, they undermine harmony, gravitational control, and perceived stability, [which is] crucial to any successful architecture.”
Now, I was curious what proponents of these post-modernist styles say about them. Maybe sense is coming back into fashion. So I went and read up what Patrik Schumacher, who named Parametricism in 2008 in a “Manifesto,” said. I knew we were in trouble when Schumacher called his own style “profound.”
Then he said tripe like “It cannot be dismissed as eccentric signature work that only fits high-brow cultural icons. Parametricism is able to deliver all the components for a high-performance contemporary life process. All moments of contemporary life become uniquely individuated within a continuous, ordered texture.”
Proponents of Deconstructivism say similar things. I wasn’t surprised, though I was disappointed. It’s obvious that both styles are merely the bastard children of Modernism, as can be seen by their use of the ancient technique of obfuscation through cant.
What does Curl want to happen? He calls for a reworking of both architectural education and the relationship of the public to architecture; the public should no longer allow itself to be treated as acolytes to the priests.
“Architecture is far too important to be entrusted to the products of talking-shops: as a public art, it matters hugely, and it cannot succeed unless it connects with the public in a positive way, conveys meanings, arouses resonances, reaches back to the past and forward to the future, and has the appearance of stability.”
Mostly, he wants a realization that Modernism is awful. He wants the spell to be broken; he offers less of a specific program than, like Puddleglum in C. S. Lewis’s The Silver Chair, a stamping on the Witch’s enchanted fire and thereby recalling himself, and his friends, to what was actually real and beautiful, as opposed to the unreality the Witch was trying to sell them.
This is fine as far as it goes, but that’s not really far enough. We should ponder what is the purpose of architecture, of buildings. As Curl says, “Architecture is the one art form which plays an important role in everyday existence.”
It is frozen music. Destroy architecture and you destroy a key component in binding a society together, through its role in offering a common art and through that, a common culture.
“Without the ability to comprehend basic truths about morality and beauty . . . humans are truly lost, adrift in a sea polluted with the flotsam and jetsam of discarded toys promoted by fashion, with nothing to which they can hold fast. High culture has been suppressed, even superseded, by advertising and the mass media. . . .”
In other words, architecture is the art that binds a society together. It is an antidote to centrifugal forces, including those so common in the modern world, whose destructive force is ever-building, yet tamped down by promises of unbridled freedom and the fool’s gold of consumerism, for now.
Foundationalism, my own aborning political program, is really two things: the renewal of society, or the rebuilding of a crumbled society, and the long-term maintenance of that society, both along lines recognizing reality, with a strong bias toward traditional Western knowledge and modes of thought.
No society can long exist, much less be a strong society, without a unifying component of the spiritual, in a broader sense than simply religious. Because, as I say, a coherent and uplifting architecture is necessary for any successful society, architecture, the right architecture, is the second of the pillars of Foundationalism.
The goal of architecture under Foundationalism will be a form of emotional resonance, where all sectors and levels of society feel they have something in common that ties them together and which impels to virtue.
Since Foundationalism envisions a bound society, tied together by many threads and wholly opposed to atomistic individualism, binding forces are critical to its creation and maintenance.
In Foundationalism, architecture will not be a set of rigid beliefs, an aesthetic canon for the elite, as is Modernism; it will instead, like governance, be an organic new thing based on the wisdom of the past, intertwined with all the people, high and low.
Pushing art as part of Foundationalism may seem odd for me, since certainly I have little artistic or creative sense, and therefore cannot knowledgeably discuss architecture or any other type of art.
But I don’t need to—that’s the advantage of hewing to classic architecture traditions, that they can express any meaning desired, in a variety of languages, and offer beauty and continuity, along with enough originality to prevent seeming calcified. Foundationalism has no need to create anything that is new, though some organically developing novelty is to be expected.
Oh, I am sure there is a great deal more that someone knowledgeable can say about architecture as aesthetics, and how that matters to a society. Roger Scruton has written a whole book on it (The Aesthetics of Architecture) which I am sure it would be immensely profitable to read.
But a careful, philosophical parsing of architecture and society isn’t what I’m after. I oppose instrumentalism as the lens for viewing human beings; I am not so much opposed to instrumentalism in the works of men’s hands. What I care about is the function architecture will play under Foundationalism, and the implementation of that function.
The general type of high architecture necessary for this is entirely clear. As Wolfgang Schivelbusch said in Three New Deals, “Scholars gradually recognized neoclassical monumentalism—whether of the 1930s, the Renaissance, the French Revolution, or the Napoleonic empire—for what it is: the architectural style in which the state visually manifests power and authority.”
Neoclassical monumentalism, let’s be honest, impresses everybody. You are lying if you think Le Corbusier holds a candle to, say, the Jefferson Memorial. True, there are limits to this.
The monstrous proportions of buildings proposed, but never built, by Hitler and Stalin take this arc too far, becoming anti-human and enshrining the state as a false god (the Amazon series The Man in the High Castle portrays many of these buildings as if-built; this reality comes through clearly).
Any such program, especially one perceived as right-wing, therefore has an uphill battle, since the gut reaction is that here Albert Speer reborn. But monumental classicism has a long history apart from the regimes of the 1930s (which, as Curl points out, often approved of Modernism, especially Mussolini’s Italy).
And anyway, when my program is being put into place, those who would complain the loudest in that ideological vein will be picking sugar beets in Saskatchewan as part of my rustication and lustration program for those who did the most damage to our society.
Therefore, as far as high architecture controlled by the state, Foundationalism will kill two birds with one stone—every ugly government building built since the 1940s will be torn down, and to the extent new ones are needed, neoclassical buildings will go up. A lot fewer will go up than are torn down, since there will be far fewer government employees.
The extra land will be given over to parks, or perhaps public buildings tangential to government, such as libraries, which will also be done in classical style. Since we will not be exalting government as such, or government workers, we will not need giant new halls to act as the focus for our rulers; most new buildings will be actual monuments or multi-use, Roman Forum-type constructions.
(There will be, of course, government, and strong government. It will have limited ends, though, even if unlimited means, and will not aspire to order every aspect of daily life—far less than our current government does). And no private creation of any significant ugly building, Modernist or other, will be permitted. Those that exist already will be torn down as resources permit.
What of low architecture, that of daily life, of houses and workplaces? There, too, forms of classical architecture will be strongly encouraged, but the goal will be less monumentalism and more organic coherence with how people actually live and work, combined with beauty and the inspiration and joy in living that comes as a result.
The government will not mandate such architecture, as it will with high architecture, but rather encourage it, through education and subsidy. Such encouragement will take the form of only allowing government funding, and student loans (if those still exist) for architectural schools that, at a minimum, teach the execution of classic architecture as a priority.
All government contracts will only go to approved architecture, as will tax benefits for privately constructed buildings, which will, over time, ensure that architects tend to gravitate to where the money is.
The Foundationalist state will seek ways to ensure that honor and prestige, as well, accrue to architects of preferred styles. Moreover, given the well-known association of the Left with Modernism (something Curl spends a fair bit of time on, focusing on the nihilism and destructiveness common to both), since the Foundationalist state will, as its very first act, utterly and permanently break the power of the Left, that alone will clear the way for traditional architecture to rebound from the boot that Modernism has placed on it for so many decades.
Other aspects will have to be worked out; this is not an ideology, but a set of principles to use. (Prince Charles has recently put forth ten principles that are a good place to start, in a December 2014 article in The Architectural Review; he is pretty odious otherwise and not very bright, but he has always been sensible on architecture).
It is worth noting that Foundationalism does not idolize agrarianism. The rural life and culture has its place, and nature and its forms influence good architecture, but high culture, and the drive to create a successful society, always revolves around cities.
Foundationalism strives to offer a goal for, and outlet for, and inspiration for, human aspiration, and rural life does not build spaceports (aside from today not occupying the daily life of any significant percentage of the population).
And the Foundationalist state will take a similar approach to other art (though a more restrained one, since architecture is the most important art for the state), and we will return to the traditional approach where artists work in cooperation with the pillars of society, state and private, rather than being destructive agents of the Left as they mostly have been for the past century (a topic I intend to discuss the whys and wherefores of at some point, as it is not the natural order of things).
And, at that point, Making Dystopia will have accomplished the goals of its author, and be merely a chronicle of an overly long, and overly destructive, but fortunately vanished, period of architectural and societal distress.
Charles is a business owner and operator, in manufacturing, and a recovering big firm M&A lawyer. He runs the blog, The Worthy House.
The photo shows an Untitled piece by Zdzisław Beksiński.
I have always found structural engineering fascinating, though I’m a consumer of the results, not a producer like Roma Agrawal. No doubt the life of a structural engineer is number crunching, not glamour. But the result is something useful to mankind, and even sometimes beautiful, so it must be satisfying for an engineer to see what he creates. Both facets of the engineering life come through in Agrawal’s book, Built, an upbeat look at engineering through the lens of her career, though the book is marred by some ideologically driven fictions.
Agrawal is based in London, but grew up in India, and spent a few years in her childhood in New York. This has given her a breadth of vision that informs her book. Her claim to fame, if she makes one, is that she worked as part of the team that did the engineering for the Shard, a London landmark completed in 2012, which is still the tallest building in the United Kingdom. Builtweaves together engineering principles well explained to the layman, Agrawal’s personal experiences, and examples of implementation of engineering, all to create an interesting, readable package. You may like it more if your interests run to How It’s Made rather than Jane Austen, but you’d have to be pretty dull yourself to find it totally uninteresting.
We cover ancient times and modern times. We cover construction and collapse. We cover solutions for earthquake zones and for tall buildings in wind. We cover bricks and concrete, steel and glass. We cover force and torsion, underground and aboveground, bridges and tunnels.
The book offers a judicious combination of history and science, and comparing and contrasting along both axes. Scattered throughout are many very well-done drawings (apparently done by the author), along with some black-and-white photographs, which are unfortunately mostly terrible, since you can’t see the details that are being highlighted.
The piece I found most interesting was on the stabilization of the Cathedral
of the Assumption in Mexico City, built by the conquistadors on the site of a
leveled Aztec human sacrifice pyramid, using stones from the destroyed temple
of the Aztec god of war Huitzilopochtli (that’s awesome). Mexico City’s soil is
a soup, since much of it was formed by dumping dirt into the lake on which the
Aztec capital, Tenochtitlan, was built.
The Spanish were perfectly well aware of the engineering challenges, and cleverly built a raft foundation, with an overlaying raised foundation floor designed to sink. But it sank unevenly, so four hundred years later, one corner was eight feet higher than the other. Basically, this was like fixing the Leaning Tower of Pisa, on a far grander scale.
The solution was digging large cylindrical access shafts down through the foundation, thirty-two of them, and then digging at right angles 1,500 holes, removing the dirt in a pattern calculated to gradually lower the high points. The work was finished in 1998, but the system remains in place, covered up, so it can be reactivated if future problems (carefully monitored by lasers) show up.
To her credit, Agrawal does not spend any relevant time in the text trying to make political points about women in engineering. That’s not how the book is sold, however—the blurb in the book is full of cant about “underrepresented groups such as women” and Agrawal’s supposed “tireless efforts” on their behalf.
There are very good, indisputable, and insurmountable reasons both why there are few women in science and engineering, and why the top accomplishments in those fields are almost always those of men.
But aside from that, two sections of this book shows how falsehoods become embedded in the public consciousness, because they are useful lies to advance an ideological agenda, in this case a tale of supposed oppression of women (and implicit denial of the real reasons why there are few women in science and engineering).
This type of ideologically-driven falsehood spreads like an oil slick because nobody dares to contradict such untruths, knowing if they speak truth they will be attacked without mercy as sexist, racist, and so forth. As a result, more and more lies become embedded in the public mind as truth.
The most egregious example in recent years is the fantasy that Ada Lovelace was the first computer programmer, which you hear everywhere, even though it’s equivalent in truth to saying she was the first Egyptian pharaoh. But there are many, many, others, being piled up to the sky.
In Built, we can observe the creation of such a new myth from whole
cloth, and the extension of another. Marc Brunel and his son, the famous
Isambard Kingdom Brunel, built the Thames Tunnel in the early nineteenth
century, a fantastic engineering marvel using many techniques created by the
father-son team. Agrawal describes their accomplishments in great detail.
But then we are treated to this parenthetical: “Sophia, [Marc] Brunel’s
elder daughter, was nicknamed ‘Brunel in petticoats’ by the industrialist Lord
Armstrong because Marc Brunel, unconventionally, taught his daughter about
engineering. When they were children, Sophia showed more aptitude than her
brother [Isambard] in all things mathematical and technical—and in
engineering—but it was her misfortune to be born at a time when women had no
such career possibilities. She is the great engineer we never had.”
Now, this sounded interesting, but also forced and reaching. No source was offered, so I went looking. Sophia appears to be totally obscure; she doesn’t even have a Wikipedia squib about her, much less a biography. (Her mother, also Sophia, gets considerably more mention).
No mention other than one noting her existence is made in the Wikipedia article about Marc Brunel, or the one of Isambard Brunel, and you can be certain that if it were commonly held that Sophia was a proto-feminist genius/martyr she would have a large section devoted to her in both articles, as well as her own article.
However, I did manage to find the phrase attributed to Lord Armstrong, “Brunel in petticoats.” It comes from a 1937 biography of the father and son, by Celia Noble, and is quoted in Angus Buchanan’s 2003 biography of Isambard, where the context is clear. Namely, that Sophia “understood her father’s and brother’s plans.” No mention is made of her aptitude, much less her superior aptitude, or her supposed education, in either book, and Buchanan is somewhat mystified about the claim, since Armstrong only knew Sophia when she was in middle age. Buchanan makes no other mention of Sophia in his lengthy book.
The logical next question is whether some other source fills in the gap. The
only relevant mention online of the phrase “Brunel in petticoats,” out of a
total of ten results in Google (including two to this book), is a pamphlet from
the Brunel Museum, which looks like an intern wrote it, and which attributes
the quote, without sourcing, to Lord North. Nothing is said about aptitude or
training. I could find no other mention of any such thing, or any mention of
the younger Sophia Brunel at all, anywhere, other than of her existence in the
context of her father and brother. I ordered two books on the Brunel family,
along with what could be found on Google Books, and found nothing inside any
What appears to have happened is that Agrawal heard an urban legend circulated among female engineers, told to each other to further the myth of persecuted talent, probably based on the Armstrong quote taken out of context, and on her own initiative embellished it with falsehoods that sounded good.
But I can assure you, that in ten years we will frequently, in the engineering context, hear as fact that Marc Brunel and Isambard Brunel were decent engineers, if toxically masculine, but the real hero was their oppressed daughter and sister, who would have been certain to spin straw into gold, if the patriarchy had not put its boot on her.
Probably new falsehoods will be added: I predict one will be that much of Isambard’s work was actually done by Sophia. Any academic or engineer who points out none of this is true will find his career immediately over. Thus, as in Communist societies, are lies woven into the fabric of reality.
Once might be an accident, but twice is a pattern. We can prove definitively
that Agrawal modifies the truth by examining her discussion of the Brooklyn Bridge.
She discusses the Bridge, built by Washington Roebling, at length. The giant
supporting towers were built using caissons, excavated reinforced holes, held
under high air pressure.
As a result, the men doing the work, including Roebling, got “caisson disease”—i.e., the bends. Since her husband was debilitated, Emily took over as the frontman, dealing with the press, politicians, and the investors, shielding her husband from having to have direct contact, and acting as his intermediary and, to a degree, project manager. Such a central role is not uncommon for strong women married to strong men, even when they are not debilitated; it is true that behind every great man is usually a great woman.
But Agrawal strongly implies, and clearly believes, that Emily replaced
Washington entirely. “With unwavering focus, she started to study complex
mathematics and material engineering, learning about steel strength, cable
analysis and construction; calculating catenary curves, and gaining a thorough
grasp of the technical aspects of the project.” She concludes that everyone
knew that Emily was really doing the engineering, from such evidence as
occasional addressing of letters to her instead of her husband.
We are meant to conclude this is another example of a woman whose true
contributions have been ignored; the bridge did not demonstrate the power of
man, as contemporaneous speeches said, but “the power of woman.” She “excelled
and triumphed” “even [though] she was not a qualified engineer.” In some,
accurate sources (not specified) “she is highlighted as the true force behind
the project. In other sources, there is absolutely no mention of her at all.”
Most of what Agrawal says about Emily Roebling is obviously cribbed from David McCullough, in his comprehensive 2012 edition of The Great Bridge (the only book on the topic listed in the bibliography, and all the other facts Agrawal adduces are taken directly from there). But McCullough directly contradicts Agrawal. It is evident, reading the source, that Agrawal deliberately distorted the truth.
What McCullough actually says is that while Emily Roebling necessarily acquired “a thorough grasp of the engineering involved,” as she needed in order to speak competently to her various audiences she expertly juggled, “She did not, however, secretly take over as engineer of the bridge, as some accounts suggest and as was the gossip at the time.”
“Some accounts,” of course, mean modern ideological distortions like Agrawal, which embellishes the truth nearly beyond recognition. Still, again, I am sure that any mention you hear of this topic in the future, or any future history of the bridge itself, will embed a fictional treatment of Emily Roebling, even more embellished, and thus will another folktale turn into historical fact.
Why should we care? Aren’t these tales just nice, feel-good stories that
make everyone happy? Don’t I need to prove I’m not a misogynist? (No, I don’t.)
We should care because it is a corruption of reality, and there is far too much
corruption of reality in the modern world. Sex differences, their immutability
and their very existence, are regularly denied as equivalent to believing in
the Little People, only with supposedly worse consequences.
A toxic blend of demands for emancipation from fictitious oppression, past and present, with the modern Left vision of all human relations as power relations, means that we are force fed lies, day and night.
The goal is not just the destruction of reality, but the inversion of the masculine and feminine, with women adopting masculine traits, and men becoming unnecessary, often buffoons, such that the feminine traits are lost entirely. (This pattern of propaganda is ubiquitous in modern movies, as Jonathan Pageau has shown, from the recent Star Wars movies to Incredibles 2).
Destroying those who would destroy human flourishing, that is, those pushing
these ideological lies (of which those about sex differences are only one
manifestation) begins with declaring that Reality Is, and shattering our
enemies is made possible by forging an axe from that Reality. Like Truth,
Reality will always out, but let’s help it along. Live not by lies, as
Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn said.
Aside from false history, we are treated by Agrawal to occasional carping
about how women are treated differently in her profession. Here more unreality
crops up. “I’ve heard stories from other women in the industry about how
they’ve been (illegally) asked in job interviews when they plan to get married
and have children.” Illegally, perhaps, but totally rationally. The reality is
that women, far more than men, choose to leave their careers, or not achieve
maximum competence in them, in order to have children.
They always have, and they always will. That’s a good thing, as it happens, and wholly natural given the biological differences between men and women. A society that deludes itself into thinking that men and women should both share equally in providing and caregiving is a society going nowhere but down. (Along these same lines, I increasingly think that some men, such as those with families, should be formally privileged over women by employers and society in certain jobs).
That doesn’t mean women shouldn’t work in some circumstances, but the
baseline assumption should be that men should be, whenever possible, the main
providers for a family, both because it is economically rational for companies,
and, far more importantly, probably critical to a decent society. But that is a
For example, in my former profession, law, you often hear whining that while
a majority of new associate hires are women, relatively few big firm partners
are, and this is necessarily attributed to some kind of discrimination, though
what that is nobody can seem to determine, or bothers to guess. In fact, it is
men who are massively discriminated against at law firms. Law firms are
slaveringly desperate to keep female lawyers, both because of their own
ideology and because of (illegal) demands placed on them by woke corporate
No law firm would ever criticize, much less discipline, or (horrors!) fire,
a woman for failings that would instantly get a male associate instantly
bounced. For the same reason, law firms offer many months of paid leave to
pregnant associates, hoping they will return when they have a child, sweetening
the pot by promising reduced work loads and no movement off the partner track
(that is, illegally discriminating against those who produce more, mostly men,
by shifting the competition in favor of women). In the majority, perhaps the
great majority, of cases, the woman takes the money, has the child, and says sayonara.
The exceptions are women who need the money, and a handful of women who
really like the job (which is rare—almost nobody, male or female, really likes
the job, so certainly the woman’s choice to leave is wholly rational). But that
professional firms should ignore these truths is asking them to stick their
head in the sand—again, with the denials of reality. We should not permit it.
Oh, none of this means you shouldn’t read this book. But forewarned is forearmed; don’t let the lies sink into your brain.
Charles is a business owner and operator, in manufacturing, and a recovering big firm M&A lawyer. He runs the blog, The Worthy House.
The photo shows, “La Danse” by Jean Dupas, a drawing from the 1920s.
Believe it or not, but the inspiration for this highly unusual engineering structure came from Russian wicker baskets. Despite being made of brittle twigs, they are able to withstand considerable weight. It is commonly known that a large wicker basket turned upside down can readily support the weight of a person, thanks to the interlaced weaving.
The first Shukhov tower was publicly unveiled at the All-Russian Industrial and Art Exhibition in Nizhny Novgorod in 1896, where visitors were shown some of the most interesting and advanced engineering inventions of the day.
The tower was no mere curiosity. It was there on duty, serving as a water tower and supplying water for the entire exhibition. What’s more, a viewing platform was installed above the water tank for all exhibition guests to come up and enjoy.
Shukhov’s tower was not the only construction he presented at the Nizhny Novgorod exhibition. Another was an oval-shaped pavilion with a hanging steel-mesh cover. Soon afterwards, Russia adopted Shukhov’s pioneering technique for installing overhead covers on buildings, a prime example of which can be seen atop Moscow’s GUM department store.
The world’s first Shukhov tower immediately found an owner in the shape of Russian aristocrat, industrialist, and philanthropist Yuri Nechaev-Maltsov, whose place in Russian history is ensured as one of the founders of the Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts in Moscow.
Nechaev-Maltsov purchased the tower in Nizhny Novgorod and had it transported to his estate at Polibino, where it was used as a water tower and viewing platform. Writer Leo Tolstoy, poet Anna Akhmatova, and Russian academic and cultural figure Ivan Tsvetaev (father of poet Marina Tsvetaeva) are all said to have climbed the tower at various times.
Today, the Nechaev-Maltsov estate is located in Lipetsk Region. The first Shukhov tower was preserved at Polibino, where it stands behind the main manor house. The tower almost perished in Soviet times, but was miraculously saved by the local history society. The tower has since been restored, and tourists can climb up to the viewing platform once more, as happened more than a century ago.
There are other Shukhov towers in Russia, of course. The most famous are surely the former TV tower at Shabolovka in Moscow and the world’s only hyperboloid multisectional transmission tower, which stands on the banks of the Oka River not far from the city of Dzerzhinsk.
Shukhov towers and other structures conceived by the great Russian engineer are found across the globe. The TV towers in Sydney and Guangzhou, Aspire Tower in Doha, and Kobe Port Tower in Japan (destroyed during the 1995 earthquake, but since reconstructed) all sprang up thanks to Shukhov’s genius.
Shukhov’s techniques are widely used in modern Russian engineering projects, not least in the construction of the Moscow International Business Center (aka Moskva-City), a major high-rise commercial development that dominates the capital’s skyline.
Contemporary German architecture set its main trends in the first thirty years of the 20th century. The strongest influences came from Weimar and Dessau, where the Bauhaus school was founded in 1919.
Under the leadership of Walter Gropius (1883-1969) and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe (1886-1969), the Bauhaus style spread to the far corners of the earth. Today masterpieces of its synthesis of architecture, technology and functionality can be found all over the world.
The origins of Bauhaus were far from the earlier methods of education in industrial art, art proper and architecture. Its program was based on the newest knowledge in pedagogy.
The idealistic basis of Bauhaus was a socially orientated program, wherein an artist must be conscious of his social responsibility to the community, while the community has to accept the artist and support him. The word, “Bauhaus” is from two German words, Bau, or “building” (from the verb, bauen, “to build”), and Haus, or “house.” The literal meaning is, “architecture house.”
But above all the intention of Bauhaus was to develop creative minds for architecture and industry and thus influence them so that they would be able to produce artistically, technically and practically balanced utensils.
The institute included workshops for making models of type houses and all kinds of utensils, and departments of advertising art, stage planning, photography, and typography. The neoplastic and constructive movements of art to a great extent steered the form lines of Bauhaus. Teachers were such masters of modern art as Wassily Kandinsky and Paul Klee.
To better understand the aims of the Bauhaus school, one has to read the following extracts from Walter Gropius’ Manifesto: “The ultimate aim of all creative activity is a building! The decoration of buildings was once the noblest function of fine arts, and fine arts were indispensable to great architecture.
Today they exist in complacent isolation, and can only be rescued by the conscious co-operation and collaboration of all craftsmen. Architects, painters, and sculptors must once again come to know and comprehend the composite character of a building, both as an entity and in terms of its various parts. Then their work will be filled with that true architectonic spirit which, as “salon art”, it has lost.” … “Architects, painters, sculptors, we must all return to crafts! For there is no such thing as “professional art”.
There is no essential difference between the artist and the craftsman. The artist is an exalted craftsman.” … “Let us therefore create a new guild of craftsmen without the class-distinctions that raise an arrogant barrier between craftsmen and artists! Let us desire, conceive, and create the new building of the future together. It will combine architecture, sculpture, and painting in a single form.”
Often associated with being anti-industrial, the Arts and Crafts Movement had dominated the field before the start of the Bauhaus in 1919. The Bauhaus’ focus was to merge design with industry, providing well designed products for the many.
The basic idea of the Bauhaus teaching concept was the unity of artistic and practical tuition. Every student had to complete a compulsory preliminary course, after which he or she had to enter a workshop of his or her choice. There were several types of workshops available: metal, wood sculpture, glass painting, weaving, pottery, furniture, cabinet making, three-dimensional work, typography, wall painting, and some others.
It was not easy to get general allowances for the new type of art education. A political pressure was felt from the beginning. In 1925 the Thueringer government withdrew its economic support from the education. Bauhaus found a new location in Dessau. The city gave Gropius building projects: a school, workshop and atelier building (1925-1926) has remained in history by the name ‘Bauhaus Dessau’.
In October 1926, the school was officially accredited by the government of the Land, and the masters were promoted to professors. Hence, the Bauhaus obtained the subtitle “School of Design”.
The training course from then on corresponded to university studies and led to a Bauhaus Diploma. Later this year, because of some political and financial difficulties, the Bauhaus center could no longer remain in Weimar and was closed. In April 1925, Bauhaus resumed its work in Dessau.
Personal relations in Bauhaus were not as harmonious as they may seem now, half a century later. The Swiss painter Johannes Itten and the Hungarian Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, who taught the Preliminary Course, left after strong disagreements in 1928, Paul Klee – in 1931. Some, for instance Kandinsky and Albers, stayed loyal until the closing of Bauhaus in 1933.
In spite of the success, Gropius left the Bauhaus leadership in 1928. His successor was the Swiss architect Hannes Meyer. He promoted the scientific development of the design training with vigor. However, Meyer failed as leader due to political disagreement inside Bauhaus. He was dismissed in 1930.
The German architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe was invited as director. He was compelled to cut down on the educational program. Practical work was reduced. Bauhaus approached a type of ‘vocational university’. It began to loose the splendid universality that had made it so excellent. Training of vocational subjects started to dominate the initial steps of education. As a matter of fact this tendency became stronger after Mies van der Rohe had transformed the school into a private institute in Berlin in 1932.
The Nazi majority of Dessau suspended the seat of learning. Paul Schultze-Naumburg was the architect that they sent into the school to re-establish pure German art instead of the “cosmopolitan rubbish” the Bauhaus artists were doing. He described Bauhaus furniture as Kisten, or boxes.
Bauhaus was even as private institution so much hated by the National Socialist government that the police closed it up on 11th April, 1933. By September 1932, the Nazis had won a majority in Dessau, and cut off all financial support to the Bauhaus. The school was forced to move to Berlin, where it survived without any public funding for a brief time. On April 11 1933, the Berlin police, acting on the orders of the new Nazi government finally closed it.
The Nazi’s “degenerate art” exhibition in 1937 featured works by several former Bauhaus teachers. The Nazis failed in their efforts to completely erase the Bauhaus.
Its forced closure and the subsequent emigration of many of its former staff and students, ensured that it would become famous and influential throughout the world, especially in the United States, where a Bauhaus school was established in Chicago in 1937. The Bauhaus had a lasting impact on art education and in architecture.
The New Bauhaus, founded in 1937 in Chicago, was the immediate successor to the Bauhaus dissolved in 1933 under National Socialist pressure.
Bauhaus ideology had a strong impact throughout America, but it was only at the New Bauhaus that the complete curriculum as developed under Walter Gropius in Weimar and Dessau was adopted and further developed.
The former Bauhaus master Laszlo Moholy-Nagy was founding director of the New Bauhaus. The focus on natural and human sciences was increased, and photography grew to play a more prominent role at the school in Chicago than it had done in Germany. Training in mechanical techniques was more sophisticated than it had been in Germany.
The method and aim of the school were likewise adapted to American requirements. Moholy-Nagy’s successor at the head of the Institute of Design, Serge Chermayeff, however, remained still quite true to the original Bauhaus.
In the 1950s the New Bauhaus merged with the Illinois Institute of Technology. The Institute of Design is even now still part of the Illinois Institute of Technology in Chicago, and rates as a respected and professionally oriented school of design.
The beginnings of the Greek Doric and Ionic orders lies rooted in temple architecture. Early designs were simple and practical, where a shrine was constructed to house the image of a deity.
Under a low-pitched gable roof, the interior was a windowless rectangular room called the “cella,” which sheltered the cult statue of the deity. The “portal,” or doorway to the cella was on one of the short ends, which extended outward in a “portico,” or porch, faced with columns to form the “façade,” or front. Sometimes columns were erected around the building in a series known as a “colonnade.”
The construction was simple: a platform of three steps, the top one known as the “stylobate,” from which rose the rose the upright “posts” that supported the “lintels,” or horizontal beams.
When these columns and lintels were made of marble, the weight and size of the superstructure could be increased and the “intercolumniation,” or span between the supporting posts, widened.
The history of Greek temple architecture was largely the refining of this “post-and-lintel” method of construction, which permitted the architects a steadily increasing freedom of expression as time went on.
And it is in this method that we find the beginnings of the Doric and the Ionic orders, as well as their refinements. Let us now examine both these styles, and their evolution.
The Doric order is the oldest classical style of temple architecture, characterized by simple, sturdy columns that rise without a base to an unornamented, cushion like capital. The “capital” or crown of the Doric column is in three parts: the necking, the echinus, and the abacus.
The purpose of any capital is to smooth the passage between the vertical shaft of the column and the horizontal portion of the building above. The “necking” is the first break in the upward lines of the shafts, though the fluting continues up to the outward flare of the round, cushion like echinus.
This, in turn, leads to the abacus, a block of stone that squares the circle, so to speak, and makes the progression between the round lower and rectangular upper members.
Above the columns and below the roof is the “entablature.” Directly above the abacus is the architrave, a series of plain rectangular blocks. These stretch from the center of one column to that of its neighbor to constitute the lintels of the construction. They also support the upper parts of the entablature, namely, frieze, cornices, and pediment. At this point, sculpture is called into play for decorative purposes, beginning with a carved band known as a “frieze.”
In the Doric order, the frieze is made up of alternating triglyphs and metopes. The rectangular triglyphs are so named because of their grooves (“glyphs”), two in the center and a half groove on either side.
They are the weight-bearing sections, and as a rule, one is placed above each column and another in the space between. The sameness of the triglyphs contrasts with the differently carved relief panels of the metopes. This alternation creates a visual rhythm, which illustrates the classical principle of harmonizing the opposites of unity and variety.
The frieze is protected by the overhanging “cornice” (and enhanced by its shadow), and the “raking cornice” rises gable like from the side angles to the apex in the center. The triangular space enclosed by the cornices is called the “pediment,” which is recessed or set back to create a shelf on which freestanding sculpture can be placed to climax the decorative scheme.
As well, a “peristyle” or colonnade, of freestanding columns completely surrounded the temple (as in the Parthenon). The columns were placed far enough from the cella walls to permit an “ambulatory,” or passageway. The number of columns used on the porch of a Greek temple was determined by the size of the building rather than by any rigid rule. The usual number was six, although some temples had as few as two, others as many as ten or twelve.
The outer surface of the Doric column has twenty grooves, or “flutes,” that form concave vertical channels from the bottom to the top of the shaft. Fluting serves several purposes, the first being to correct an optical illusion.
When seen in bright sunlight, a series of ungrooved round columns appears flattened. In addition to maintaining the round appearance, the fluting makes a constant play of light and shadow and makes a number of graceful curves to please the eye.
Also, the increased number of vertical lines quickens the visual rhythm, and the eye is led upward toward the sculpture of the entablature.
The Doric order can be seen in the Parthenon, which was built entirely of Pentelic marble. When freshly quarried, this fine-grained stone was cream colored, but as it has weathered through the centuries, its minute veins of iron have oxidized, so that today the color varies from light beige to darker golden tones, depending on the light.
For sheer technical skill of its Doric construction, the Parthenon is astonishing. No mortar was used anywhere; the stones were cut so exactly that when fitted together; they form a single smooth surface.
The columns, which appear to be monoliths of marble, are in fact constructed of sections called “drums,” so tightly fitted by square plugs in the center that the joinings are scarcely visible. The harmonious proportions of the Parthenon have long been attributed to some subtle system of mathematical ratios.
But despite close study and analysis, no geometrical system has so far been found that fits all the evidence. However, there is a recurrence in several instances of the proportion 9:4.
This proportion has been noticed in the length of the building (228 feet) relative to its width (104 feet), when measured on the stylobate, or top step.
The next evolved stage of the Greek column, the Ionic, developed in Asia Minor and is distinguished by slender, fluted columns and capitals decorated with volutes or scrolls. Thus, the Ionic order is more slender and has its greatest diameter at the bottom, in marked contrast with the Doric style.
The Ionic shaft rests on a molded base instead of directly on the stylobate, and they have twenty instead of twenty-four flutings. Most striking, however, is the Ionic capital, with its “volutes,” or scroll-like ornaments.
The fine columns rested on molded bases carved with a delicate design. The necking had a band decorated with a pattern, and above it was a smaller band with another decorative motif, followed by the volutes and then a thin abacus carved with various designs.
The columns supported an architrave divided horizontally into three bands, each receding slightly inward. The architrave thus consists of a continuous carved frieze rather than the alternating Doric triglyphs and metopes. Above rose a shallow pediment without sculpture. The Ionic order is perfectly demonstrated by the Erechtheum.
The plan of the Erechtheum is as complex as the Parthenon is simple. The rectangular interior (about 31½ feet wide and 61¼ feet long) had for rooms for the various shrines on two different levels.
One was 10¾ feet higher than the other. Projecting outward from three of the sides were porticoes, each of different size and design. The east porch has a row of six Ionic columns almost 22 feet high.
The north porch has a similar number but with four in front and two on the sides; while the smaller porch on the south is famous for its six “caryatids,” the sculptured maidens who replace the usual columns.
Thus, at their Acropolis, the Athenians brought to the highest point of development two distinct Greek building traditions: the Doric (with the Parthenon) and the Ionic (with the Erechtheum as well as the Temple of Athena Nike).
By displaying the two architectural orders, the Athenians made a symbolic reference to their city as the place where the Dorian people (of the western Greek mainland), and the Ionian people (of the east coast of Asia Minor across the Aegean Sea) had for centuries lived together in peace and harmony.
The photo shows, “The Temple of Athena Nike. View from the North-East,” by Werner Carl-Friedrich, painted in 1877.