Friday, July 27, 2007

And though I once preferred a human being's company ...

... They pale before the monolith that towers over me.
I was having one of those irritating conversations with one of those people the other day.

You know the type? He's your friend, but every time he offers you a considered opinion you can't help but wonder what, exactly, made you friends in the first place? Was it that he spotted you the cost of drinking one night when you really needed it? Helped you out of the gutter that time when you stumbled face forwards in, and none of your proper friends would help you out because they were too busy laughing? You must have been drunk, anyway. Tricked.

Anyway, so: I was having breakfast with this chappy recently, somewhere in the vicinity of Bloor and University, when the topic of the new addition to the Royal Ontario Museum was broached. He wondered what my opinion of it was. I said I thought it was ugly and stupid, but that I was resigned to the inevitability of ugly and stupid things; that so long as I didn't have to look at it too much, it could go on standing there like a big, stupid, ugly idiot for all I cared.

My friend agreed with me to the extent that he too thought the "Crystal" unattractive, but--and here's the bit that made me take serious stock of our near ten year chumship--he then made a point of qualifying his verdict by saying that 1) his opinion was only his own, and 2) surely the new building was a great success to the extent that it was "generating interest."

I goggled at the man, to borrow a line from Wodehouse, my eyes protruding in the manner popularized by snails.

I mean! Yes, okay, your opinion is only your own--but so is Daniel Libeskind's! And being that his tastes are informed by his opinions, and being that he was able to erect a ginormous monument to those tastes squarely in the middle of downtown Toronto, why this inane deference to his subjectivity over your own? Doesn't this rather miss the point?

"Libeskind," I said, "just a man like you and me, turned his opinions into thousands of tons worth of concrete and steel. In the face, I hasten to add, of a not insignificant amount of popular opposition. A person could break their neck falling down the staircase of his opinions! But you! You shrink from even giving yours the form of words!"

"Don't you see the irony?" I cried, overturning my coffee cup as I did. "This is a man who makes a great self-righteous show of shunning the very designations form and function! But you somehow take from this the proof of an authority to which you are obliged to defer!"

"What's the matter with you?!" I added loudly, knocking my cup over again now that I'd just righted it.

But my friend didn't answer me. And, of course, I didn't press it. The question was taken to be a rhetorical one and, given how awkward things were becoming, I was willing to leave it that way. But there is an answer, you know. To this business of what's wrong with my friend, I mean.

Because Canadians are under the impression that if they pay enough lip-service to that nebulous concept "equality" they will then bring about the End of History, they have somewhere along the line gone and confused what is quintessentially average--or, if you like, mean--with with what is excellent. That is, with what is transcendent. And because that old human instinct remains (however contradictory it may be in this context) of elevating to positions of authority those who are deemed great by the standards of the day, we now see come to eminence only those persons who have met, most conspicuously, this criteria of having no advantage whatsoever over their fellow men.

It's a sad state of affairs. And it is thus, it seems to me, that Libeskind's Crystal represents, quite literally, the triumph of the ordinary over the extraordinary. That is: it is a triumph of the unabashedly tasteless and mundane, even the fleetingly barbaric, over what is (dare I say it?) objectively subtle, civilized, and beautiful.

Witness the sheer size of the thing! Were the addition proportional to the original building its inferiority would, I think, be evident to even the crudest sensibility. But it's been made to dominate the other (to humiliate it, as was pointed out to me recently)*; you half expect to see "Who's your daddy?!" or even "Squeal like a pig, boy!" in a gargantuan speech bubble over the Crystal's southernmost peak.

Bereft of any actual aesthetic value (though there might be a certain esoteric geometric value to it--but that's hardly the same thing), the Crystal has won its spot in the public square by virtue, purely, of force; by the power invested in it by a mediocratic intelligentsia who resent, to the point of violence, the practical and hard-won truth that while life can be nasty, brutish, short, there exist among us a privileged few (those whose talents are God's rather than Mob's) who can make it serve something decent, refined, lasting. The Crystal's ideological defenders seek to present us with an accessible alternative to the apparent tyranny of objective beauty, but give us only confusion and the degradation of the fragmentary, of the atomized. I am ugly, shattered, hollow, says the edifice, but so are you. See how I flatter you through my quasi-archetypal mimicry.

In the end, the undertaking is a testament to the drooling Darwinism underlying all such efforts at innovation in the 21st century West: rape the exceptional as a sop to the unexceptional, then grovelingly defer to the thug you gave the power so to do.

... One weeps, what?

But what really boiled my bananas about my idiot friend's little bit of equivocation was that second part there: that driveling business about the Crystal's being a "success" because it has generated so much "interest". It's hard to imagine a more confused piece of reasoning, don't you think? If, indeed, it can be called reasoning. I mean, even setting aside all those old-fashioned ideas about what makes a piece of architecture a success (i.e. something in the nature of a perfect balance of form and purpose, accessible as much to the untutored as to the refined taste), the idea that success can be measured simply as a function of the amount of interest a thing generates, particularly when that interest is so overwhelmingly negative and, likely, short-lived, just doesn't quite add up. Presumably, this way, grizzly school bus accidents become a manner of success given the amount of gaping and double-takes they elicit from passersby. Indeed, it seems to me that Libeskind should have been very much more successful by this standard if he had just stacked a bunch of cubed units to spell out LAUGHING ALL THE WAY TO THE BANK down the Bloor streetscape. Or, simply, FUCK YOU.

And yet this thinly-veiled justification of merit based purely on shock-value persists.

To give another example:

To the resoundingly appalled reception given the logo produced by the London Organizing Committee for the 2012 Olympics, the concerned parties were quick to counter that the negative reaction was itself all part of the plan; that they had succeeded because they had 'engaged' the public with their Futurist shitsplat; that now! people would be "talking about London and the Games." ( ... Because, you know, the big problem with Olympics is that nobody ever notices them. Particularly when they're in sleepy little towns like London.)

Thus legitimized, Sebastian Coe, chairman of the LOC, felt at liberty to take the argument one giant step further and said:
We don't do bland. This is not a bland city and we are not going to come out with a bland corporate logo that would just appear on a polo shirt you do your gardening in in a few weeks.
(Jesus, Mary, and Joseph! You don't do bland do you, Lord Coe? Then why is your logo so incredibly bland? ... But that's not my point.)

Behold the depths to which this art-as-spectacle-audience-as- rubbernecker casuistry has brought us: things that aren't ugly are, apparently, bland! Craft, talent, vision? The inspired and naturally privileged individual channeling what Oscar Wilde called the 'divine facts' (or even the average talent aspiring to same)? Pah! What laughably outmoded dreck! Repeated, you should know, mostly by fat, semi-educated suburbanites. And old people. Yes, indeed, what absurdity that anyone should be caught dead wearing a golf shirt with a 2012 London Olympics logo on it; best that that should be saved for the loose-necked t-shirt and ironic wifebeater wearers who could only ever be found in an English garden if they were pissing off their night's drinking in it.

... But I'm getting carried away.

It's not as bad as all that, I suppose, given that all this stuff is, in the long view, a particularly fine grind of dust. Purest transience. What disturbs me is the degree to which my friend, and so many others of the apparently educated classes, are taken in by it. How willing they are to abandon (rather than what seems more obvious: to pursue) their own better instincts; and how willing they are to supply the inevitable want with mere drag--the gunge and fraud of populism. No doubt my friend, next year, will bemoan something his set's calling 'Crystal kitsch' or whatever, and this'll be but a distant (if frustrating for the contrast) memory. But will I be able to keep myself, then, from saying to him, "Twenty damns to your great pig face!", and belting him in the nuts?

Does any man, however far gone he might be on the dope of ephemera, really deserve this?


*Mrs. EMG offers this interpretation of the addition which I think is very notable: that it presents a still-life explosion of the original building; a commemoration of the very act of deconstruction.