Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Monuments & Anti-Monuments: The Death of Artistic Vision

I was confronted by three strands of cultural connective tissue this week which portend the death of artistic expression. No, it has nothing to do with the First Amendment or government suppression. It has everything to do with the tearing down of greatness and the worship of mediocrity by the dominant cultural elite.

First, Terminal 5 at John F. Kennedy International Airport.

Second, the Zurich Opera's production of Richard Wagner's Parsifal.

And third, that gaping hole in the ground where New York's World Trade Center once stood.

Terminal 5 was and is an architectural wonder.

Designed by Eero Saarinen nearly 50 years ago it stands as a soaring monument to flight and mankind's unquenchable desire to reach for the heavens.

Unfortunately, Terminal 5 was also the site and the title of an ill-fated "Art Exhibit" in 2005.

Organized by the Generation Y nouveau dilettante Rachel K. Ward, Terminal 5 featured works of quackery that spoke directly to those to whom they speak directly--folks who would not know a work of art from a hole in the ground.

In fact, these imbeciles often worship holes in the ground as breakthrough works of art.

Case in point, Vanessa Beecroft whose naked narcissism is hailed far and wide by adoring acolytes who admire naked narcissism.

In addition to the Beecroft masterpiece, which was never shown, there was a square carpet made of padlocks, a red carpet leading nowhere, and a breathtaking message board with nothing on it.

Look out Michelangelo, the giants of 21st Century art have you in their sights.

Bottom Line: The opening night gala turned out to be a closing night disaster.


Because the scions of the New York art scene descended upon Kennedy Airport, got drunk, trashed the terminal, vomited on the floor and added their own personal artistic touches--in the form of spray painted graffiti--to Terminal 5's iconic white curved walls.

Then there's Parsifal. Now, I must confess that I am a theater throwback. When I buy a ticket and take my seat I willingly suspend my disbelief. Same thing at home when I pop the NetFlix DVD into the player. So if I'm watching a story that's supposed to take place in a forest in the Pyrenees I don't mind if the trees are made of papier mache and the rocks wobble a bit at the slightest touch.


Not today. No, now we're treated to theater pieces designed and produced by people who hate theater.

So the clearing in the forest becomes a minimalist classroom with abstract furniture.

The Grail Knights are now represented by a professor in dusty frock coat and his slobbering pupils.

The wounded King is a pathetic wimp in a bloody white leisure suit being wheeled around on a stand-up hospital gurney.

Thankfully, as with Robert Wilson's putrid interpretation of Lohengrin, there's always the music. Close your eyes, drink in the monumental score and let your imagination run wild. It's better than watching the visual atrocity on the stage.

Which brings us to the hole in the ground in downtown New York.

As it stands, or more accurately as it doesn't stand, the World Trade Center site is an Al Qaeda victory monument. Every day that the site stands vacant is an expression to the world that Osama bin Laden has won the battle. Politicians debate. Interests groups demand a seat at the negotiating table. Construction workers and heavy equipment lay idle. And the overwhelming majority of Americans wonder...


There was great hope that the completion of the Calatrava Transit Hub would be the impetus to get the project moving.

Now, even this beautiful, functional and environmentally innovative project has hit a logjam.

Superstar architect Santiago Calatrava, who has a reputation for being able to exceed an unlimited budget, has created a magnificent structure that actually pays homage to Saarinen and adds 21st century technological innovations that will make it the greenest facility of its kind in the world.

However, cost overruns along with the anti-monument thinking of small-minded bureaucrats have conspired to halt construction.

The excuse du jour is the cost, but modifications to the mechanics of the facility can bring the budget in line without changing the integrity of the design. It's much more likely that the design will be trashed in favor of a transit hub that looks less expensive and costs twice as much. This isn't a unique paradox. I cannot count the times that a client has told me to design an event that "doesn't look expensive."

On his home-building blog Tedd Benson recently invoked Vitruvius, the Roman architect.

A building, said Vitruvius, must be strong, it must be functional and it must be beautiful--firmitas, utilitas, venustas.

Strong is easy. Functional is a bit more challenging. Beautiful? Artistic? Inspiring? These are qualities that are, today, all but impossible.

Today, the anti-monumentalist, anti-artistry movement represented by Ward, Beecroft, Wilson, et. al. worships the puny, the plain, the unimaginative.

In this day and age the Philistines no longer have to tear down the shrines.

They have simply enshrined mediocrity.

As was stated so clearly and so cynically by Ellsworth Monkton Toohey in The Fountainhead:

"A man more able than his brothers insults them by implication."

Heaven forbid that great thinkers, artists and builders insult those with small intellect, small imagination and small ambitions.

Is this the death of artistic expression in everyday life?

Maybe not, but it's definitely on life support.