Sunday, June 08, 2008


"Recently a new bank building went up in the urban wasteland of downtown Lexington. It is very tall: some thirty storeys. It is a steel skeleton with a glass skin. The top three storeys are beveled with a raking forty-five degree angle (I suppose this must not be called the roof), so that the building seems to be modeled on a plastic kitchen trashcan. That's fine. What I want to ask about is the nature of this building's being. First, I have never looked at this building, which I must see daily, when there weren't workers on a plank suspended by ropes from the top washing it. To wash the second storey they must lower themselves twenty-eight storeys by rope and pulley. I presume this building is to be washed forever, much as the Golden Gate Bridge must be painted forever.

"To comment on this astoundingly primitive idiocy (I mean the word), I must come at it from another angle. Whether from the inevitable disillusionment of middle age or from an accurate perception of reality, I began to notice a decade ago that the spirit of our times indulges in an inordinate amount of gratuitous meanness. Meanness: a withholding of generosity, a willingness to hurt, a perverse choice of the bad when the good is equally available. Journalism proceeds thus: the worst possible light is the one that sells newspapers and magazines. The blinding type we must read nowadays in books is another example: before computer generated-type the various sizes were designed individually, the proportions of smaller type being different from those of larger. Modern type designers draw one font and reduce and enlarge it photographically, not caring that the smaller reductions are anemic and an awful strain on the eyes.

"It is difficult to distinguish gratuitous meanness from greed. The thin wall that is not a boundary for noise, the rotten concrete that collapses on New Year's Eve, the plumbing inside walls that requires the destruction of a house to be repaired, the window that could so easily have been designed to swing around for inside washing rather than requiring a ladder. You can think of a hundred more examples, but whether they are the result of indifference or stupidity is a nice question."

—Guy Davenport, "A Letter to the Masterbuilder," in The Hunter Gracchus, pp. 150-151.

* * *

Davenport wrote that so many of the great American poets and writers and artists lived in the sticks—Olson, Welty, Meatyard, and so on. As is the case throughout the history of civilization, the major cities tend to draw in & product, support, the cultural capital. Benjamin warned that there is no document of civilization that is not at the same time a document of barbarism. This sentiment can be used as a snappy aphorism but I believe it is one of the richest sentences on the summation of human culture. If major metropolitan centers—the ancient capitals, the new "global cities" (cf. Sassen)—are nodal points, of course a thriving accumulative society provides a material basis in which the identities of 'artist,' 'intellectual,' 'amateur,' 'dilettante,' etc., put down roots. The thriving society may have these bustling nodes but, if indeed it thrives, the sticks themselves will produce and retain noteworthy producers of this cultural product as well. In the time period when Dickens first started writing in London, schooling for children was a massive concern—mediocre educators could make a decent enough living by overseeing a few dozen pupils in a cramped, dirty room. (Allowing for differences in pedagogical philosophy, these schools provided students with lessons in Scripture, history, geography, Romance etymologies--but J.L. & Barbara Hammond's book on the time period quotes amusing records which indicate how much this education was rote, and how easily you could spot its flaws simply by tweaking the schoolmaster's questions to the scrubbed, obedient schoolboy. "Who was David?" "Son of Jesus.") A few decades after Dickens died, Ezra Pound could actually make a living in London by contributing to avant-garde poetry magazines!

Sculptor Forrest Myers discusses his migration to New York, his settlement in SoHo:

"I consider myself a SoHo Pioneer. I came [downtown] in 1962 and they were building the world trade center where I and other artists were living and I actually got run out of there too, they were going to demolish buildings… And so I moved to SoHo and people said why are you going to SoHo there’s nothing there but a bunch of trucks. Well at that time there were a lot of spaces for rent, not only in SoHo, but other places. Artists lived downtown… there were so few artists when I came to New York it was just odd. There were about 400 artists."

Now there are tons of artists, tons of galleries. Plenty of money. Is this saturation? If so, is the saturation of metropolitan centers a sign of cultural decline? (I dislike that word but there's an inherited vocabulary when discussing civilization; I don't consider "decline" a bad thing a priori.) Are still Olsons and Weltys and Meatyards, and Davenports for that matter, making a living in Gloucester, Jackson, and Lexington? How much longer will New York remain the playground of the rich, a place where urban gardens are reclaimed by real estate owners after communities make them attractive, where almost any beautiful and humane block is too expensive for most people to inhabit? In America, places like New York, Chicago, San Francisco present people with great cultural riches. Perhaps though we should be wary when the riches become too great, too concentrated. My city may have thriving "scenes" but almost every suburban place I have visited in recent years looks exactly the same. Speaking as a bit of a nationalist here (which is against my general inclination): what Americans could fail to be outraged at this theft of our people's rights and liberties, this drab enforced homogeneity underwritten by the even greater theft of resources & labor of people elsewhere?


Alex said...

I built a high-rise condo building (well, I worked as a peon to the developer who built it)- 22 stories. As far as I know, the standard for window washing a high-end high-rise residential building is twice a year. Maybe an office tower gets washed all the time, but high-rise window washing is not cheap (twice a year cost more than $10,000) so I can't imagine it's just simply continuous.

What's saturation? Athens, Corinth and Sparta were all just a few miles apart. Bruges, Ghent, Leuven, Brussels, Cambrai, Liege, Mons, Lille, Antwerp, Ypres, Douai and Tournai are merely a few days walk (not speaking of even the medieval transports of riding or sailing) from each other. Florence, Pisa, Siena, Lucca, Bologna, Parma, Ravenna, Perugia and Ferrara are no more distant.

ZC said...

This is a different case then ancient Greek, Renaissance N. Italian, or early modern Flemish instances. As I said, the urban centers have always drawn to them. But in capitalism, in its necessarily global scale of the last couple hundred years, the issue is that for a while it seemed like the sticks could very well hold major figures, sustainably--Diogenes or Euripides in the Ozarks, Rubens in the Rockies. I could be wrong; perhaps the pre-capitalist world had a lot of who weren't gravitating towards the capitals, courts, abbeys & monasteries, and other centralized places. But my suspicion is that under the global system of the last 500 years especially, we had a development which for a time allowed artists and belletrists to live outside of centers of learning/culture. Now I wonder if that trend is reversing.

(At the same time, there are 'college towns' ... which are much more geographically prevalent than they were in, say, the medieval scholastic period.)

About window-washing, who knows? Not me, anyway. I think the general thrust is valid ...

ZC said...

Sorry, forgot to finish a sentence there: As I said, the urban centers have always drawn to them ... the cultural figures (artisans, scholars, writers, etc.)

Alex said...

The medieval or Renaissance universities of Cambridge, St.Andrews, Uppsala, Marburg, Tubingen, Freiburg, Heidelberg, Gottingen, Wittenberg, Leuven, and Macerata, among many others, were located in comparatively smaller towns. (Oxford isn't a city, but was always a well-sized town even before the university arrived). It was a fairly common image during the Middle Ages for the student or scholar to be depicted traveling through a rural environment - which he had to do to reach his varsity in the sticks. Many extremely large cities, such as London or Milan or Antwerp, did not get universities until the nineteenth century.

Andy Rector said...

"We know that in Renoir's opinion the ugliness of buildings towards the end of the nineteenth century and the vulgarity of design in articles in common use were a far greater danger than wars. 'We get too accustomed to these things, and to such a point that we don't realize how ugly they are. And if they day ever comes when we become entirely accustomed to them, it will be the end of a civilization which gave us the Parthenon and the cathedral of Rouen. Then men will all commit suicide from boredom; or else kill each other off, just for the pleasure of it!"'
--Jean Renoir on Auguste Renoir.

So we're well settled into the "accustomed" stage, well past that certain civilization that would've felt absolutely obliged to refuse accustoming itself to the monotonous way suburbs AND CITIES, and objects are now built and function upon people. After my travels around the US last year, I wouldn't exempt San Francisco, Chicago, and New York from the homogenization that is really blatant in the suburbs (which is 'old' anyway: "I want to be king in my own ranch style track home" says Jerry Lewis while working in a superstore that's a dead-ringer for a Target Greatland in WHO'S MINDING THE STORE?, 1963). These metropolitain centers are all beginning to look alike too. Perhaps because the money looks alike, the culture looks alike. The contemporary art in these cities, no doubt, looks and behaves alike as do the people who make it. I'm afraid differences are becoming purely textural while social relationships are radically staying the same.