the ARTistry of ARThistory occasionally done ARTfully

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.

2 Responses to “Seeing Space Socially: Part 1”

  1. AR said

    This reminds me of that famous slogan that was found on the wall of an alley in Paris following the 1968 protests, organized in some part by the Situationists (of which, I believe Lefebvre was a member): “Club Med: a cheap vacation in other people’s misery.” Except, I guess, it’s no longer cheap.

  2. gninja said

    Indeed. And the idea is to aestheticize the “misery” (or whatever one chooses to call it, since the circumstances are equally applicable to subjugated or exploited groups who are not living in conditions of misery, but rather “difference”) so that the dominating group feels its position as natural within the environment. And so… poverty = hip; celtic gods = placed within the framework of a conventional form of Roman monumental art. (That latter part being the subject of the subsequent post).

    And if you’ve not come across this:

    Good online text treasure trove for the Situationists.

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