Aix-la-Chapelle

Our cathedral in Aachen (or Aix-la-Chapelle as the French and English would have it) shares its major traits with other gothic cathedrals.

The exterior is all verticality, from the pointed arches of windows, doorways, and other architectural features, to the high thrust of the steeple rising from its smaller fellow points.

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The exterior as a whole, especially from a distance, brings the eye across the social plain and points all the world’s grandeur upwards, from the hierarchies of the medieval social structure to the vanishing point atop the steeple, teasing the eye still further home into the heavens.

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The interior houses, among other things, the richly-colored stained glass walls that fill the apse and frame the altar.

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Arguably, the stained glass in all gothic cathedrals serves at least two symbolic functions in addition to the narrative function of transmitting sacred history to an illiterate congregation: (1) they create an illusion of the world’s most massive structures being held up by pure light, just as the entire material world is held up by the Word of God and the light of Christ’s sacrifice; and (2) they signify the light passing through the walls of Mary’s womb in the Christian mythos’s moment of greatest mystery.octagon

But what keeps me coming back is the detail – the little unique spots and patches of aesthetic beauty in this massive canon of gothic symbolism — from the octagon that remains from Charlemagne’s 8th century original structure

 

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to the exterior features of the facade that seem unique, at least to my amateur eye

 

 

 

to the quirky details of the interior

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I don’t even know what to call these spots and patches. They point back to the gothic canon, the symbolic template that the Dom here in Aachen shares with the larger gothic traditions, but they are also little aesthetic chips in their own right, separable from the mother building and marvelous for their random beauty. In this sense, you can see them through the lens of Jung’s synchronicity. As opposed to the causal aspect of apprehension (in this case, the gothic structure that determines the details), synchronicity focuses on the chance aspect of what is before the eye, the random beauty that emerges best when the object is stripped from the external causal nexus and viewed in its own right. It’s a little bit like moving from traditional art to abstract art, where the idiosyncratic arrangement forces you to find, or create, a new register of intelligibility.

It’s not always worth it – this sort of move from traditional to abstract – this move away from the causal frame of reference into something more like vertigo. But to me, it’s always worth it when it comes to gothic cathedrals. Unlike modern and contemporary artists, who cover the whole range from profound to puerile, gothic cathedrals never disappoint. It doesn’t take a shred of true religious belief to feel, as one approaches and enters these architectural wonders, that no artist or movement of artists of any period has created such powerful, holistic, and all-encompassing moods as those who built these magnificent structures 1000 years ago.

Aachen to Maastricht

The bus to Maastricht crosses the border from Germany into the Netherlands as soon as you leave Aachen. Here are some fields along the way

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and at Dreilanderpunkt where Germany, Belgium, and the Netherlands meet. (OK, I took this picture earlier/greener in the season, but it’s along the way.)

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Then Maastricht, from the images that capture the gist of the town

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to the really weird stuff; e.g., I’ve never seen a urinal like this

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or a bookstore like this

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I have on some occasions seen an underground art scene like the one at Landhuis/Wasteland

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For example, this would fit at The Farm in Tennessee or in the Bywater/Marigny/St. Claude area back in New Orleans, where a kind of free-spirited, low-budget, random exuberance knocks things out of the way and creates its own field of aesthetic play. Perhaps it might fit the industrial art scene of London. But this kind of spectacle is at first glance less visible in Germany, except maybe in Berlin or in some of the other eastern cities I’ve heard about like Leipzig and Dresden. This is a generalization, of course, not a universal truth, but the Germans seem a bit more inclined to color inside the lines and get things done. I’m still poking around though, making the most of my contacts with those Germans who break the boundaries and enjoying the kindness and generosity of Germans in general.

Oh yeah, and then there’s dope boats in Maastricht.

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Sorry, though, the government has cracked down. No smoking weed on the dope boats without a Dutch passport — for now, anyway.

 

 

Bob Dylan’s Nobel Prize

I can’t say I’m very invested in the debate about Bob Dylan’s Nobel Prize in Literature, but I can picture how the deliberations might have played out. The plus side is fairly simple. His songwriting played an enormous role in shaping the sensibilities of a seismic cultural shift in the 1960s and thus (insofar as it was a seismic shift) of cultural trajectories thereafter. I imagine all at the table would also grant that Dylan has proven himself both a great and highly prolific songwriter.

But, respond the naysayers, songwriting is at least as much about instrumentation and melody and musical coordinates as it is about the verbal. Dylan may have had as profound an impact on culture as such previous winners as Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Toni Morrison, but does the verbal element in the songs, on the page without the music, reach the same level of word-built architecture as One Hundred Years of Solitude or Song of Solomon? Or if one defines “literature” more broadly to include the musical elements, then does the next short list include McCartney/Lennon and a host of other songwriting megastars? Such stars deserve their awards but should a literature award be reserved for more purely literary forms? Or should we just give awards for art in general, avoiding all discrimination of genres?

The arguments that weighed against the choice of Dylan must have been no light load. Perhaps we could say that a purely formalist assessment of the words Dylan has written weigh against the choice. This is not to slight the formal beauty of Dylan’s output (I share the enthusiasm for the early Dylan songs of dubious love, social justice, and the crash of human nature into the historical moment, but for the full artful textures of songs and lyrics, give me Blood on the Tracks), but when measured specifically against other winners of the Nobel Prize in Literature, one might argue that the verbal element on the page in Dylan has not the same stature. But then the historical assessment — the gigantic, multidisciplinary cultural impact – swings back in his favor.

I will leave the pendulum swinging, or if you prefer, suspended in mid-air, to make a curious observation about Dylan’s songs and historical impact. For being such a powerful catalyst for the counter-cultural tide of late 1960s hippiedom and all that came after it, Dylan’s own temperament is not at all “hippie.” If he is a poet, he is a Beat Generation poet, with a little extra 1930s social protest thrown in. Sure, there are threads of idealism, or at least an awareness of the seismic cultural shift (“the times they are a-changing”) in Dylan, but for the most part, any idealism in Dylan remains simmering under the rubble of gritty realism, and tales of hard times in boxcars and back alleys, and a chip on his shoulder that won’t go away (think of “The Idiot Wind’s” chilling response to the woman who misunderstands him, or the all-time masterpiece of schadenfreude, “Like A Rolling Stone,” or even the cynical humor in the love songs). One more easily pictures him among the black-clad poets of North Beach than among the colorful bell-bottomed waifs of Golden Gate Park. It’s easy to imagine Dylan fidgeting in impatience at the naïve idealism of the flower child generation, although the movers and shakers of that generation, from Jimi Hendrix to the Byrds, were drawing vital energy from Dylan’s repertoire.

The irony of that disconnect between Dylan’s innate cynicism, his street realism, and let’s say it – his crankiness – and the beautiful, flowery idealism he helped spawn, may in fact be one way of explaining his smirk at his own fame, the distemper that always seems to dog the space between him and any award he receives. It’s almost as if he sees his counter-cultural minions – and the award committees honoring him – and he looks skyward and says, “Forgive them, Father, for they know not what they do.” Or to focus back on the irony of the Nobel Prize itself, he wants that recognition for his art – for the sheer formal beauty and power of the songs – but shakes his head at the fact that the real recognition is coming not for that formal beauty but for the historical impact of his songs, an impact curiously out of sync with the Beat-shaded sensibility in which they were written. I imagine that Dylan gets the irony. Perhaps much more than the award committees do. Can we blame him then, if commingled with genuine gratitude, he brings that quiet Dylan smirk to the ceremony?

See also Led Zeppelin and Dr. Freud 

Kaepernick/Patriotism

In light of Colin Kaepernick’s NFL protests, I thought this 1969 version of the American national anthem timely once again, full of complex emotions for a complex patriotism – you can hear the social chaos, the agony and machinery of war, but also genuine affection and all manner of poignant emotion. Hendrix brings the anthem into the moment in a way that might rattle rote memory patriots as well as easy-gesture protesters, bringing both groups one step past their comfort zone, one step closer to the hippie ideal where we break through conventional ways of doing things and recognize that we’re all in this together.

 

Sorolla in Munich

I didn’t know about Joaquin Sorolla before the Spring 2016 exhibit in Munich, but he sure was at the right place at the right time – Spain, early 20th century – Picasso, Miró, Gaudí, Dali.

Sorolla’s signature traits would seem to be regional subjects (Valencia beach), moments of everyday social life, and the way he captures the light on canvas.

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What’s interesting to me is how the three signature traits integrate. Although regional beach scenes and the social life transacted thereon seem a natural fit, this isn’t entirely intuitive. Most beach landscapes track toward the eternal beauty, or the gigantic power, of nature, whereas the art of social realism is something entirely different, something historically specific. Sorolla’s beach scenes combine the sublime aesthetic with the aesthetics of realism, giving an eternal sheen to the turn-of-the-century Spanish fishmonger or the crippled kid on the beach.

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The human interest is undeniable, but the real aesthetic value comes from the light. The way Sorolla catches the light is both realistic and transcendental, giving a luminosity, or in some paintings a sparkle, to the bodies and waves alike, grounding the mundane to some larger, more universal form of beauty.

Luckily for us, Sorolla allows us to isolate the third element (light) from the other two elements (social realism, regionalism) in his female nudes and domestic scenes.

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Here we can see how the light plays around the body, without the thematic interference of the sea or social realism. Here we see the light providing a kind of satiny halo for the figure at rest. Here we see the figure herself captivated by the light, reaching toward it in a posture of reflection, or perhaps comparing the shine of her ring to the shine emanating all around her in her pillowy retreat. But here too there is realism (by today’s standards you might say the body – the thighs, the lifted hip – has a decidedly unphotoshopped quality). And yet the light gives the overall composition a beauty – or if not a beauty, a value – that transcends that of the photoshopped models slicked on to today’s magazine covers.

So with the female bodies and interior sets, as with the beach scenes and everyday activities of turn-of-the-century Valencia, Sorolla’s compound signature is the way he uses light to infuse something eternal and sublime into the aesthetic of realism. That’s my conclusion, and I’m sticking to it. Or changing it, if I feel so inclined in the future.

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