the ARTistry of ARThistory occasionally done ARTfully

Archive for September, 2006

Modernism – The Medieval Brand

Posted by gninja on September 26, 2006

By the twelfth century, Paris was looking like a very different place. Not only had the city grown in population and size, but the buildings that came to dominate the skyline of the city had a new look to them. Since the late nineteenth century, art historians have been preoccupied with this very newness (what, if pressed to use the categories of style, would be termed “Gothic”), and what the drastic changes in architecture during the twelfth century could mean.


Many scholars have had a go in the debate centered on the “modernity” of Gothic, much of which focuses on the Abbey Church of St-Denis. The debate has received much fuel from the sixty-year-old study by Erwin Panofsky, Abbot Suger: On the Abbey Church of St-Denis and Its Art Treasures, a work which has earned enough currency to ensure its place on perhaps every medieval art history course syllabus in the United States. The “fuel” alluded to above is the argument advanced by Panofsky, which–to be quick and dirty about it–pretty much chalks up the “invention” of Gothic to Abbot Suger himself, and his subscription to some rather arcane philosophies.

Sounds like a rather grand claim, doesn’t it?

And, indeed, it is. Peter Kidson virtually placed Panofsky on the rack for making such an argument, contesting that the church we see today is the result of architects following the dictates of geometry. What grandeur is there is merely the decorative product of an Abbot who wanted a dramatic setting for the relics in his choir. In short, the novelty of St-Denis “owed nothing to symbolism.”

On the other hand, there are those such as Marvin Trachtenberg, who temper the largeness of Panofsky’s claims by accepting their general theoretical basis (i.e. that there was a conscious effort, intellectually motivated, to create a new kind of church structure), but by removing the attribution to one figure.

Both these newer takes on Gothic modernism, Erwin Panofsky, and Abbot Suger have strengths and weaknesses, though that is not the immediate concern here. More relevant is the matter of modernism itself (which is more directly and explicitly addressed by Trachtenberg). What do we gain by debating the causes and intentions of twelfth-century “modernism” aside from illuminating and enlivening the structures themselves? And, it should be admitted, this latter pursuit is still an important one.


(Ah…I remember these…)
So. Abbot Suger. Inventor or genius marketer of Gothic?

Alternatively. Steve Jobs. Inventor or genius marketer of Apple?

Without the architects, Suger’s notion of this new design (and Suger does use the term modernitas) would have had no physical representation. Without Wozniac and an army of programmers and research and development, Jobs’ mission in personal computing would never have even begun.

What’s important is that, in both instances, we recognize a conscious effort by an individual (Suger/Jobs) to promote an alternative design and make a statement about modernity through this new design. It is not facetious to say that Apple, like Gothic, is a site of cultic worhsip, and it is design and clever marketing that have inspired such a popular reaction. In short, rhetoric is as much a component of invention as is technology.

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Seeing Space Socially: Part 2

Posted by gninja on September 22, 2006

Returning to the Middle Ages, and to the space of Paris, a couple of monuments reveal the applicability of Lefebvre’s comments (but just one will be discussed here). Remember that, in the passage of his cited below, he points out the error in subscribing to the notion that space is strictly segmented and defined narrowly by the function intended for an insulated area. Rather, space (geo/topographical, intellectual, political, etc.) is more fluid, accepting numerous significations bestowed upon it at different times, by diverse individuals, who are all aware to varying degrees of past and present meanings embedded in that space.


(Pilier des Nautes, ca 14 – 37 CE)

Like Blue, this monument (aka “Pillar of the Boatmen“) depends upon the past for its success as a structure. Specifically, this monolith incorporates elements of the Celtic pagan religion that existed in Lutece prior to the Roman arrival, representation of Roman gods, a dedication to the Roman emperor, and images of the local boatmen who commissioned it. This pillar is a model for how newer cultures can successfully dominate their predecessors. Rather than abolishing the worship of Celtic deities, and rather than limiting or effacing the presence of local populations in public art, this monument incorporates both. As a result, it pre-empts any resistance that might occur as an angered populace sees its cultural heritage being blotted out forcefully. Instead, this method blots out through a process of assimilation. Without the foundation of those older gods upon which to build, the Romans might have been hard pressed to establish any kind of religious allegiance among this northern population. Rather, they crash the pagan party and mingle their own Roman gods with the Celtic ones, and by the end of the toga party, it’s difficult to tell the difference.

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Seeing Space Socially: Part 1

Posted by gninja on September 18, 2006


(Lutece, early Roman Paris)

On this blog, I’ve discussed several different forms of art–from buildings to paintings to sculpted chairs–which are not difficult to see as art. But what about a city? How do we go about looking at something so geographically large and spactially varied as a city as a work of art? Because, as mentioned in the previous post, I’ll be focusing on the monuments of Paris for the next few months, now’s a good opportunity to take a glance at the city itself and see how its space functioned from Late Antiquity through the 8th century as a bearer of meaning.

A passage written by Henri Lefebvre helps us to think about this space in a way that might not immediately occur to us when thinking about medieval art:

“A comparable approach is called for today, an approach which would analyse not things in space but space itself, with a view to uncovering the social relationships embedded in it. The dominant tendency fragments space and cuts it up into pieces. It enumerates the things, the various objects, that space contains. Specializations divide space among them and act upon its truncated parts, setting up mental barriers and practico-social frontiers…. The ideologically dominant tendency divides space up into parts and parcels in accordance with the social division of labour. It bases its image of the forces occupying space on the idea that space is a passive receptacle. Thus, instead of uncovering the social relationships…that are latent in spaces, instead of concentrating our attention on the production of space and the social relationships inherent to it…we shall fall into a trap of treating space as space ‘in itself’, as space as such.”

This passage, most apparently applicable to a contemporary city such as New York or London, can also be applied to medieval Paris. From a bird’s eye view at the top of a skyscraper, we can see in both cities a series of streets and avenues, buildings and monuments, which conduct and manipulate our social interactions. There are neglected areas where we tuck away and seek to hide the poor and disenfranchised–these areas are often underserved by public transportation and sanitation. There are the prominent areas of commerce, where sparkling buildings ferry their charges up and away from the chaos and din of below, in well-maintained elevators. This modeling of a city has no meaning in and of itself, its value is not determined purely by aesthetics. Rather, there is a contract between those who manage the space of the city and the space of the city itself, in which the meaning of a space is determined by those who occupy it, yet those who occupy it must be able to perceive a priori their role as embedded within the space.


(Delancey Street, NYC, 2006)

What I’m talking about here can be seen in the ongoing gentrification of the Lower East Side of Manhattan. In the foreground, we can see a couple of still gritty, lower-priced stores, as well as a McDonald’s on the corner. Across the street are another series of cheap, crumbling shops, and a dive diner, of the greasiest spoon kind. In the background, however, is Blue, a new and very chic condo being built just steps away from the immigrants who pile ten to a tenement apartment, and who shop at discount shops out of necessity. To these immigrants, the Lower East Side isn’t an area with aura. It isn’t the den of cool because of a perceived attitude emanating from its streets. It’s a place where they have to live, because there are still apartments they can (just) afford. On the other hand, however, are the well-heeled who will soon be moving into Blue, and whose cache as New Yorker’s will appreciate not just from the splendor of their new condo, but also from the hipness lent it by its still impoverished surroundings. Though a tenuous relationship which cannot and will not last long (at the expense of the poor inhabitants), for now, the wealth that is flooding into this neighborhood ontologically depends on the poverty currently there.

What this has to do with medieval Paris will be the subject of the next post.

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