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Phidias Meets Foster

In the year 2013, on an evening more than typical for the English May, grey cut with a chill just too mean to be called mild, the ghost of Phidias, 5th Century BC Athenian sculptor and architect, visited Norman Foster, one of the most celebrated architects of the late 20th and early 21st Century AD. An auspicious occasion if ever there was. Assume, if you care to, the usual drama and incredulity of the apparitional visitation, although it isn’t necessary. Here is a meeting of minds.

Phidias – “Dear Norman, how are you? For nearly two and a half thousand years I’ve watched as the face of the world has changed in more ways than any person of my time could ever have imagined. There are so many things I would like to discuss with you.”

Norman – “Why Phidias, I am well, although this is unexpected, and not the least that a ghost is before me! What things could the master architect of classical antiquity want to discuss with me?

Phidias – “What else Norman, but our trade? We are both architects, no? I have spoken to many of our fellows throughout the ages, and you are certainly notable. You see, my passing came before my life’s greatest work was fully complete. How cruel that Phidias could not see the Parthenon, crown jewel of the Acropolis, white temple on the mount of the shining city of Athens, finished with living eyes. But Ictinus and Callicrates were fine architects too, and my disciples were taught well, I taught them! Alcamenes and Agoracritus, such fine artisans of stone, my tradition lived on in them. When I asked Apollodorus of Damascus as he rebuilt the Pantheon of Rome for Trajan, he told me. More than five hundred years after I was gone, I remained.”

Norman – “And longer still I should think! You must have seen that well beyond the time of the Romans the style of your age has endured? Neo-classical architecture has resurfaced in a new and distinct way for almost every century that has been since yours. You must be proud, and happy?

Phidias – “Oh, proud, yes. He who built the Temple of Zeus at Olympia should be proud. He who raised the Athena Parthenos to greater heights than the tallest of men deserves to be proud! But I cannot say if I am happy, Norman. I do not know yet.”

Norman – “I can understand this. As you introduced yourself you said the world has changed, and I would add never more so than in the last fifty years. There must be many sights that have displeased you. The slow ruin of time on your own creations must be especially hard to see?”

Phidias – “Ha! Displeased. If I told you that I was no more than displeased when fire brought great ruin to my Parthenon in the 3rd Century AD, what would you think? Does it surprise you that ravages of time and the changing of powers and faiths that slowly degraded this wonder are of little consequence to me? Why even when that Venetian oaf Francesco Morosini landed an explosive shell on it in 1687, I didn’t cry. I wish perhaps that the Ottomans hadn’t placed their gunpowder stores there but it is inconsequential. Conflict is as inevitable as time and all things that men build are destroyed by both. I am at peace with this.”

Norman – “Of course this surprises me! While I should probably admit I don’t expect 30 St Mary Axe to stand for a literal eternity, I intend for it to remain for the conceivable future and designed it to do so. It would be a horror for myself, and the society it is nestled in, to see it fall, especially violently. If your life’s work hasn’t made you content, and their destruction is not the cause of your discontent, why then aren’t you happy?”

Phidias – “I could say because of you, Norman, although that might be unfair. I believe that you, and those who share your architectural values, including those who came before and informed you, are in fact responsible for the death of craft. Craft as I knew it anyway. My atelier used to sing with a chorus of hammers and chisels as men created works of art to adorn our grand façades. Today I see little more than steel and glass, wrought into appealing shapes by machines. Why have these crafts died?”

Norman – “That is perhaps difficult to answer Phidias. There are many reasons. As we have both now said, time has changed the world. In this nation it is certainly no longer possible to gather great numbers of men to take the stone from the earth and carve it. Stone is heavy and expensive and those skills that existed in your day do not so readily exist today. More still, at this time the classical style is not important, we are exploring new possibilities. I don’t blame myself for these things!”

Phidias – “No, indeed neither do I place all the blame upon you. There were many others before you and it wasn’t simply those who rejected true craft in architecture that helped it to its death. Many who embraced it were equally responsible for their misjudgements, the excesses, the repetition that caused your forebears to look elsewhere for inspiration… I stood with Postnik Yakovlev in 1560 as he lamented over Saint Basil’s Cathedral in Moscow, realising the gaudy confusion of his work. I listened to John Nash in 1830 as he defended his bloated expansion of Buckingham Palace! Frankly, entire cities like Rome became over-saturated show pieces for the likes of Bellini and Michelangelo throughout the Renaissance.”

Norman – “I would add Antoni Gaudi to your Bonfire of the Architects in that sense, his works were so full of craft that many would call them an eyesore.”

Phidias – “Yes, yes, and many more we could list. I did not say however that I hold these men more accountable than others. And to the latest day there were those who wanted to honour the old traditions of stone-masonry, carpentry, joinery, sculpting and painting, the old crafts that were employed, and still could be. Thus did Charles Barry bring the Palace of Westminster to back to life throughout the 1840’s and over fifty years later Henry Bacon was adding shining classical monuments to America’s cities. The Lincoln Memorial is a thing of such elegance, he could have been my protégé!”

Norman – “And yet did not Charles Dickens ridicule the expense of Barry’s magnum opus? The great social satirist and commentator of the age, appalled by the lavish costs of beauty, authority and unequal prosperity turned edifice!”

Phidias – “Absolutely these things cost! They must cost! What labour of mankind was great that didn’t cause us to bleed and suffer and regret? What stories will be told of the building of your Axe? And what remains of it once built that causes one to ask of its construction? There is no intrigue, no detail for the eye, just a shape, a monolith to calculated efficiency in all its dearth of soul.”

Norman – “That is a matter for opinion, as many see great beauty in my designs but calculated efficiency is my badge of honour. I can appreciate your criticism of my aesthetic values if you can appreciate mine of yours also. Your friezes, metopes and triglyphs, pedestals and columns, nothing but fanciful indulgences. They served no function beyond their beauty and so were art, not architecture! Can we distinguish between these things? Yours was the day of art and architecture combined, today we look to the latter first.”

Phidias – “Not the case at all I say! The things we built were of such uncompromising architectural quality that we needed no cements or anything of the sort. We lay perfect stones, honed by hand, in such a manner as the builders of today couldn’t hope to replicate. That we added embellishment to our structures does not at all support your claim. In fact, I counter that today there is great guilt in seeking to amalgamate these opposing values. In much of what you and your predecessors have achieved is the evidence of trying to inject arts primary non-functionality into the very fabric of your architecture! I say you want to create art first.”

Norman – “I disagree, but could we agree that this is a dichotomy present in all architects? None of us want to create visually unpleasant things and so are we unavoidably tied to art in some sense?”

Phidias – “Maybe. And yet no. I think to Frank Gehry and his Guggenheim, to Oscar Niemeyer and his preposterously amorphous nothings, to Zaha Hadid and her bewilderingly overcomplexity. More? What has Rem Koolhass achieved with angular asymmetry, what is pleasant about the Seattle Central Library? Impressive, arguably, brutish, certainly, but enduring? I think not. None of it. Art before architecture, and bad art too. Let’s not even talk about Renzo Piano. Pompidou Centre? Pompous Centre!”

Norman – “Are you not being selective and anachronistic? Our lack of the use of classical craft has clearly not hindered our success and if we are vain in creating these things then so were you in your day. We operate on the limits of what is possible now, and I’m not even sure your age is therefore even relevant to us. I am curious though. How to judge those who arguably sit between us? Those who bridged the classical styles with the new and were highly regarded, Rennie Mackintosh, or Frank Lloyd Wright if you’d allow?”

Phidias – “Both well and good, but I feel we might be diverted into listing every prominent individual we have encountered in our experiences. It doesn’t please me to see the labours that I was surrounded with cast off as outdated, and I struggle with that definition. It is a fine craft indeed to be able to turn the raw matters into sculpted works of art and finer still to put these in places of honour. Atop the palaces, the temples, buildings of government and great private enterprise, all built by hands working in unison.”

Norman – “Why have a gargoyle 2,700ft in the air? Would you like the Burj Khalifa to be adorned with wasteful items that no one could appreciate?”

Phidias – “Why have one at even 225ft?! Do you think the people on the steps of Notre Dame de Paris can see those twisted faces above them? They were put their despite this and at least a superstitious person could say they serve more purpose than the twirls and loops and bulges of some of the monstrosities produced by the aforementioned! I ask this, why build something so tall?!”

Norman – “Because we can, and I apply that law to most endeavours in our field in this day, and yours too I’d wager. We don’t build white marble and granite shrines with pretty toys carved out for them anymore because for a long time we have been able to do more. And if we can, we do, this is one of the most simple principles of our craft. This expressed itself in your time as sculpture because that was what you were limited to. If you could have done the more ambitious things with steel and glass that we can today you would have, and classical architecture would mean something else entirely.”

Phidias – “So you say that craft has simply changed and my attachment to the definition and understanding that was contemporary to my day, is hindering me from seeing how in a sense my principles are still alive?”

Norman – “Absolutely. Craft has moved away from the common and artisanal trades and towards the industrial and technological but it still exists. The fundamentals of design and realisation in architecture is its craft, and the mediation of machine and computer between man and what is constructed does not devalue this. But I don’t think anyone would necessarily call your crafts inferior. It’s likely that no living individual could recreate Leochares’ Apollo Belvedere but I reckon a machine of surpassing precision could. Yet it would still require the direction of man and the initial creativity of vision followed by action to achieve anything. We might be more captivated by the notion of one man’s exceptional labour, or indeed the labour of thousands in cooperation, but romanticising these to the point where we devalue what is enabled by progress is ludicrous.”

Phidias – “Bah! Contentious. But if I were to accept this point then all I would have remaining were my aesthetic preferences and less to lament. We shall conclude this for now. There is more to discuss but I’m late for what is becoming a regular inquisition. Anish Kapoor and Cecil Balmond have yet to sufficiently defend that ArcelorMittal Orbit travesty.”

Norman – “Agreed. Later Phidias.”


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Mission Adjustment

This half of the blogging enterprise was established primarily as a refuge for observational things that don’t relate in any strict way to politics or current affairs. It was also a handy place for depositing my efforts in The Daily Post’s Weekly Writing Challenge. If you weren’t sure, The Daily Post is in essence the WordPress bloggers blog. Tips and encouragement on how to make the most of your blog etc… I fear my brief regular involvement in these challenges is drawing to a close.

Mainly because the content of the challenges is so variable, and convolutes the theme and purpose of this blog, which it would perhaps be fair to say was only recently (not) clarified. I like the idea of a loose second blog that can broadly deal in film, art and philosophical theory with the odd dash of humorous or scathing random commentary. But in labouring over this philosophical piece, still forthcoming, I determined it was best to at least be far more selective.

I certainly won’t be touching any of what some might call the “twee” blogger’s art. Emotive creative writing, all forms of emotional introspection, most other forms of creative writing (except a few that might amuse me) and assuredly anything that tries to get me to practice generic conventions in writing – style or habit – that don’t appeal to the things that I’ve grown more than confident in. I’m not looking for inspiration, which I guess is what The Daily Post is peddling.

Plus those sunsabitches never Freshly Pressed me.

So, henceforth you might begin to a glean a more consistent vibe from the articles found here, starting with this piece on objective realities, rational actors and subjective ideologies. I can tell you already that it has evolved slightly from the originally stated concept. I have been convinced of certain things by friend and effective collaborator Jack Reilly, and the whole thing is going to be much longer and much, much more dense. Doesn’t that sound fun? Read here soon.

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Simon Jenkins on Art

Mr. Jenkins has been making a bit more of an effort than myself recently, exporting works on Cameron’s European overtures, British involvement in Mali, concepts of urban and rural beauty, gay marriage and even suggestions of how the London Met could rehabilitate themselves in the public eye. He deals with all with a characteristic surety, one that often prompts my retorts, and never more so than his most current piece discussing art.

This is a similar theatre to his discussion on film theory, one that I also got stuck into, but in this case I probably feel a bit more vehement in my objections. It goes back to his assertion in that article that film, and by extension art, is essential to the human condition whereas I argue they are both more akin to simply important but often wonderful gratuities. I hasten to re-establish this position while also pointing out a glaring contradiction in his article.

In my repost I put forward a broadly held view that art must be lacking in function. This idea applies more to physical utility, as art of course technically functions in a variety of capacities ranging from an emotional catalyst to, most importantly, a creative exploration of our environment. But art is not remotely the only known entity responsible for these notions and in my opinion not even the most effective. Respectively, human interaction and science supersede them.

Were you ever reduced to sadness quite so much by any artistic creation, as you were when saying goodbye to a friend for the last time? Were you ever made happier by the same than when saying hello? And was anything artistic ever more valuable an exploration than the sometimes imperceptible scientific creativity that has led to our continually improved mastery of everything in the world and beyond? Art is superfluous next to these.

I should be very careful to delineate my understanding of art, the arts and artistic mediums. While artistic in a sense, I do not see literature, music, film or television as art in its true form, and in an academic sense the “arts” are anything really outside of pure and social sciences. “Art”, with so much repetition the meaning is fast becoming lost, is to me very specifically the rendering of the physical or conceptual into a new physical medium, such as painting or sculpture.

Being no expert in this field I can only suspect that makes me quite the traditionalist, and admittedly I’ve immediately limited the scope for what art can achieve. However, this scope is the roughly the same that Jenkins is applying to his discussion of the fascinating Ice Age relics that are currently being housed in the British Museum. He suggests they are windows into “a world of painters and sculptors who must have produced many such objects…”.

Undeniably so. Not to get carried away with the idea that every Ice Age hominid was an artisanal toiler, whittling or carving the day away, but around 50,000 years ago behavioural modernity had developed. More likely than a society of artists though, there were fewer specialists responsible for a great deal of these surviving works, a theory proposed by archaeologists in Werner Herzog’s “Cave of Forgotten Dreams”. These marvels often possess idiosyncratic details.

It is much the same as today. Most of us possess a creative streak to some extent and a few even have the clarity of vision and skill to transfer their thoughts into the world with great efficacy. The point is that from the earliest age of the modern human to this day, artistic creation has been a feature and is almost irrefutably a natural instinct of ours. So why then, as Jenkins ultimately alludes to, does art need to be part of the national curriculum?

Exposure was about the only valid defence for its inclusion in my opinion, but now I would give the average child more credit in terms of their curiosity and self-propelled development than others might. The sum total of our formative educations is not limited only to that which school imparts. Even if I were to concede that this added exposure through the schools doesn’t technically do any harm, it’s still a useless institution for the subject.

This proposal probably comes down to what we see as the core purpose of under-16 schooling. Is it to nurture and grow talent where it is seen, or is it simply to churn out the basic template of a young member of society who is ready to invest in their skills from that point? To all levels of education I would apply the former case, and this makes art a particularly wasted subject in our current educational structures. Incidentally I believe these structures make most subjects less effective.

It’s a criticism based on the “jack of all trades, master of none” principle. There is a vaguely defensible argument for a rounded education, but I think most of us would agree that the vast majority of informations taught to us at school became very quickly redundant or forgotten depending on which professional path you took. Pythagoras theorem and every chemical formula, physics equation and grammatical conjugation was almost wilfully ejected post-GSCE in my case.

My personal belief is that after literacy and numeracy are achieved, specialism should be sought out. More attention should be given to children at a younger age to determine what their strengths are and these should be pursued more vigorously. The outcome would hopefully be exceptionalism in their fields rather than broader competence. The idea behind this is that exceptionalism is most determined by the simple factor of input hours.

Some are born gifted in a certain fashion, but the only way to truly unlock those innate qualities is practice. Practice, practice, practice. And a bit more practice. Malcolm Gladwell suggests around 10,000 hours is the benchmark to truly distinguish oneself, and I apply this to all subjects, especially art. Even the most astonishing visionary could never be a great artist without the requisite technical talents, drawing etc., and that takes time to achieve.

Time that could never be adequately given over to nurture any genuine talent in our current school system. Leonardo da Vinci went to apprentice at the age of fourteen and was committed to this for ten years, which took him from a purportedly burgeoning talent to one of the finest artistic and intellectual beings of all time. Damien Hurst was a school reprobate until he finally landed at Goldsmiths and became a producer of art’s worst conceptual abominations.

Perhaps an unfair comparison but the underlying point is there. Hurst might have just beaten the national curriculum, which wasn’t imposed until 1988, but his limited artistic environment as compared to a true master is perhaps one of the reasons why he seems to publicly lack any technical artistic skills. The same actually applies to so many cases in the modern world of art, not just the world of modern art. There is less skill.

Blame I feel is to be placed on the modern form of education. As it is, it is barely suitable for the teaching of the core sciences, English and maths, with barely enough time dedicated to those to achieve impressive levels. But for anything else that also requires really significant investments of time, such as art, music and drama, it is hopeless. Besides, what could paltry art classes really add to a human instinct that stretches back tens of millennia?

Just to reiterate, I do believe that art is a fantastic and unique aspect of humanity that stretches back through our history, and is a part of us. And that is precisely the reason why teaching it in our schools, as they are, is a complete waste of time and the idea that dropping it from the curriculum would be detrimental to children and our wider culture, holds no truck with me whatsoever. Don’t bring that new age nonsense to my door if you’d be so kind.

Despite this, I will end on the same startling tangent as Jenkins did in his article. Gove is indeed yet another flip-flopping embarrassment to the name of competent and assertive governance. His Ebac plans were shredded for being an overly radical and narrow re-imagining of an already flawed system, and I generally agree with the criticism. Not, however, because he was trying to scrap the arts. It was a distillation of an already bad idea.

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