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Armani Gothic and the Roman Forum

Author: John C. Médaille POSTED: Wednesday, Aug. 5, 2010

The Cloisters in NYC,

Where Art Goes to Die

Due to the vagaries of the weather and the incompetence and indifference of Delta Airlines, I found myself homeless in New York City for 24 hours. Although the airline caused the problem, JFK airport has little sympathy for stranded travelers. Not finding a hotel room, I slept in an Airtran car (very comfortable) for awhile until security hustled me off. All the good spots at the McDonald's (one of the few places with padded benches) had been taken, so I pulled up a patch of marble floor at the American Airlines terminal and napped there for a while. The marble floor was preferable to the wire mesh benches, which seemed designed as instruments of torture.

Not wishing to spend another day at JFK, early in the morning I parked my baggage and ventured into the city. I thought I would catch a nice nap at St. Thomas's Episcopal Church.  Not only is it a fine Cathedral, but the Episcopalians have the best padded pews in the religion business, and the detachable kneeler makes a fine pillow. Alas, the caretaker shooed me out of there as well. Well, if they're going to be that way about it, I'll just go back to the Romans.

I caught the early mass at St. Patrick's. At least, it might have been a mass; the “presider” seemed to be making up the Eucharistic prayers as he went along; maybe it was “relevant” in a way I do not understand. But what was certainly relevant were the images which greeted me as I exited the Church, pornographic images supplied by the Armani Exchange store across the street. This was artistic pornography; you could tell that because it was in black and white and nobody seemed to be enjoying themselves. “American Gothic” replaced by “Armani Gothic.” Despite three larger-than-life pictures of violent sex, orgies and homo-eroticism the participants seemed determined to turn it into a grim duty, far more onerous than anything that would be imposed by the genial presider at St. Pat's. Here was the modern predicament in a nutshell: two symbol sets confronting each other across a crowded street, one promising ultimate happiness and the other pleasure as a grim obligation; the former was made bland and makes few demands, the later demanding most of your paycheck but making no promises whatsoever. And yet, Armani seems to be winning the debate. Why is that?

These thoughts occupied my mind because I was returning from another possible response to Armani Gothic, the Roman Forum symposium in Gardone, Italy, a sleepy town on the edge of Lake Garda. To call it a “symposium” rather understates the whole thing, for what John Rao has created is more of an ideal community of learning and leisure, in which dinners (five courses at a minimum) are as much a learning experience as the lectures. Our days began with a late breakfast followed by a lecture at 10, a Latin Mass at 11:30, and then an hour or two for lunch. Such a long lunch requires a siesta, so the next lectures were at 5 and 6:30 pm, followed by a dinner that lasted until 11 or 12, or maybe later if someone got to singing or debating. Which we generally did.

Prior to the Mass at St. Patrick's, a guy in a purple muumuu drifted in from the recesses behind the altar, quickly followed by a guy in a sports coat; purple muumuu turned out the be the cantor, and sports coat the lector. A little later, another guy meandered to the altar, his chasuble identifying him as the priest. Purple muumuu called for a numbered hymn from a perfectly enormous book of them lying in the pews. I tried to sing along, but the hymn was unfamiliar to me. And so the Mass proceeded. (Of course, it is unfair to judge all Novus Ordo Masses by this rather casual example. Indeed, I have seen it done with some care and dignity. But not that often, and at the moment I am not being fair.)

The daily Masses in Gardone were another matter. Tridentine, to be sure, but even though I grew up with that rite, these Masses were unfamiliar to me. These were completely (and beautifully) chanted in Latin, and every movement was solemn. Now, although I took Latin in college, I haven't used it since then, so none of what was sung or spoken was familiar to me, beyond the odd “dominus vobiscum.” I do not claim to be enough of a liturgist to sort all of this out, but I do wonder, “Which forms the better response to Armani—the casual presider at St. Pat's, or the highly ritualized movement and prayers in Gardone?”

I think one could argue that St. Pat's had the more purely “spiritual” response. That is, the movement and words didn't matter as much as the “spirit” behind them. At least, I think that is the rationale. And that is the problem. The purely spiritual is never a sufficient response to the purely material. In fact, given the choice of a pure materialism and a pure spiritualism, I prefer materialism; the material world at least imposes some natural limits, which even the materialist inevitably discovers. The purely spiritual, on the other hand, imposes no limits, especially when conceived of in highly individualistic terms. It matters not so much what you do as what you “feel” about it. A sufficiently “spiritual” feeling justifies anything. The masses at Gardone, on the other hand, with their rather strict physical movements, are firmly embedded in the material order while simultaneously transcending that order. That is what ritual does, properly understood.

I was pondering these matters when I decided to visit a museum I had never seen before in my many visits to the city, namely The Cloisters. Now, The Cloisters are in the 190's and despite being a bona fide part of the island of Manhattan, most New Yorkers consider this area as remote as Poughkeepsie. Alas, most New Yorkers deprive themselves of a very fine place. Two fine places, in fact. The first is Fort Tryon park, which I prefer to Central Park and which has beautiful views of the Hudson. As a man-made “wilderness,” it is wild indeed. But the park also houses The Cloisters, and The Cloisters house one of the best collections of Christian art from the middle ages that I have ever seen, largely works rescued from the destruction of the French Revolution. But it is not just the exquisite art, but the setting that sets this collection apart. It is housed in a faux monastery, and as faux monasteries go, this is the best. It is actually a collection of architectural styles, from the Romanesque to the Gothic meant to display the building elements in something like their “native” mode. Thus, where they have acquired an authentic Romanesque apse, they built on a small Romanesque church to display it; a Gothic arch merits a small Gothic church, and so forth.

The collection is absolutely stunning, and the museum displays it in a way that is quite intimate, much better than the displays at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (of which this is a branch). Further, since it is in Poughkeepsie—I mean the 190's—the site has few visitors, and it is like having a whole museum to yourself, or nearly (which may account for the “suggested” entry fee of $20.) And the museum shop actually sells some reproductions that are worth having.

The world view (that is, the Catholic Faith) which inspired the art of The Cloisters did not make a strict separation between the purely physical and the purely material, much less place the two in opposition to each other. Rather, as befits an incarnational religion, the material world was an expression of God's own creativity and order. True, it was a fallen world, but it was also a redeemed order. The world, though not an end in itself, was nevertheless a means to an end, the ultimate end in fact. The nature of God could in some sense be read in the nature of the order he created. This is not the “naturalism” of the Enlightenment, on which all modern science is based, but a hyper-naturalism, in which the entire created order points to something beyond itself.

One cannot help but be moved by the quality, care, and faith that made this art. Or at least, I thought so until I made the mistake of taking the “tour.” The tour guide, although more or less competent in matters of the art itself, kept making statements like, “They really believed in such things,” a statement which never failed to bring guffaws from the assembled yokels. As a person who still “believes in such things,” I was offended, but as there is some Government Regulation or other against striking Metropolitan Museum Tour Guides about the head and shoulders, I refrained from expressing my opinion. Nor would my opinion have made much headway against said yokels, who likely take more seriously the grim symbolism of the Armani Exchange.

Nevertheless, this is still just a museum, the place where art goes to die. Art really only counts not when it is an “artistic” or “intellectual” pursuit, but when it is embedded in the very fabric of life. The art gathered in the faux monastery is there precisely because it is no longer woven into the lives of the people as it once was. That is to say, it is in the art museum because it is no longer art; it is a curiosity offered to gawkers (like myself) of another age who not only look at it, but in a sense look down on it.  But if civilization is to be saved, then it must be in some sense a civilization of artists, because there is no other kind of civilization. Real communities are always based on shared symbols invested with real meaning by people who still “believe in such things.” That is to say, they are based on liturgy, on public worship of something that includes yet transcends everyone's personal feelings, and directs those feelings towards a summum bonum.

So how shall we construct a response to Armani Gothic? Will it be from St. Pat's or from the Roman Forum and all the things each represents? The question now presses us with an urgency that it hasn't had before, since I believe that the moral, social, and economic bases of our society are rapidly disintegrating; soon we will be called to rebuild the social order in the midst of the barbarism that is fast upon us. Questions once considered “theoretical” now enter the practical realm, and enter it with the force of a freight train. And the most practical questions of all have to do with liturgy and art, since all social cooperation depends on our shared understanding of what is truly good, an understanding that is always embodied in liturgy and art.

The new Mass began as a response to the modern social order. It is 40 years old now, and I think there has been enough time to judge whether it was an adequate response. Its defenders will no doubt point to its spirituality, and I would not dispute them. In fact, I would point out that its spirituality is precisely the problem, since it is a highly individualized spirit. Indeed, it is almost like a “product,” a spirituality that one can fashion according to one's individual needs and desires. It is a privatized spiritualism, serviced by the Churches but custom-made to one's exact (if not exacting) specifications. As such, it is just as modern as Armani, and indeed shares all of its shortcomings. But in any case, it does not seem to have made any dent in a world dominated by Armani Gothic. Indeed, it doesn't really stand in opposition to Armani, but in addition to it: just another acquisition in a life dedicated to acquiring things.

Holy Communion, my more progressive friends never tire of reminding me, is a meal. This is certainly true, but the real trick is to turn an ordinary meal into a holy communion. You might say that a good dinner is the art of communion, while the Mass is the root of that art: God gives himself to us in sacrifice and we give ourselves to each other and hence to God. This we did at the Roman Forum, where dinner was worth three or four (or five) hours of one's time, not just for the meal but precisely for that sense of communion.

The art of The Cloisters is the art that Armani and the whole modern world would like to destroy, or at least reduce to museum pieces. And given the help they get from the presider of St. Patrick's, they will likely prevail, or already have prevailed. See it while you can, even if you can only see it in a museum. Surely, this art no longer inspires the builders of modern churches, and gets about as many guffaws from them as from the scattered visitors to The Cloisters. See the heritage that the modern world wants us to exchange for the Armani Exchange.

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