Back in 1959, the art critic Henry Reed published his book The Golden City. Its most striking feature was a series of pictures that contrasted old and new styles of architectural design. One of these comparisons is shown here.The flagpole base on the left, c.1910, is an immensely intricate and theatrical confection of marble and bronze, containing nude figures, scrolls, masks, and so forth. The newer work, c.1956, is a pole stuck into the ground. And the contrast afforded by this example is no mere accident or anomaly.The identical (and unprecedented) contrast of styles can be observed in thousands upon thousands of instances: as the decades of the 20th century passed ornate skyscrapers with broadly projecting cornices gave way to glass boxes, ornate streetlights gave way to "cobra head" streetlights, ornate banks gave way to ATM's, Fedoras gave way to baseball caps, high collars with silk cravats and jeweled stickpins gave way to tank tops, and postage stamps bearing portraits of Washington were replaced by stamps bearing doctored photos of Elvis.
But the victory of the modern "look" is not complete: the flagpole at the library is still in place. The older style of streetlight is coming back, here and there. Newly built houses often have a "traditional" look. Massmarketed food is often packaged in ways that would not have surprised our grandparents: e.g., the Budweiser can. Today's typefaces look very much as they did in the Renaissance, despite the attempt of modernist designers to replace them with sansserif designs.The new World War II memorial in Washington has incorporated many classical features. Of greater significance than these examples, perhaps, is a fear among the general public that "development" signifies "blight," that the old should be protected and defended from the assault of the new. In brief, I think that the battle between the two styles is not over, but is ongoing. And therefore, it's worth our time to ponder the following questions. How did such different approaches to design originate? How did the new style challenge the old style with such radical force? And what will the future bring?
In my view, the old style originated in religion: in the attempt to honor God.
Our ancestors lived precariously, subject to hardships that we can hardly imagine: in good times and in bad times they offered sacrifices to the deities they worshipped. These sacrifices entailed elaborate rituals, which required architectural display of the greatest magnificence. And everyday life was filled with ritual occasions of this sort: the act of going to war, of making love, of sharing food, of going to sleep at night, of writing a letter, of entering a house, and of merely appearing on a public street,were all occasions for addressing the deities. And throughout the ancient world, in Egypt and Babylon, in Greek cities, and throughout the Hellenistic and Roman world, people turned to artisans to mark these occasions with objects that would be pleasing to God (or the gods). The ornate flagpole base is a direct descendent of these objects: its ornamental details were copied directly from the remains of ancient temples of the Romans.
The precedent set by the ancients was by no means put aside in later stages of history. When the Christian God became the object of worship throughout the West, the old traditions of design and craft were readily at hand. Whenever funds were available, the manmade environment was spontaneously filled with artifacts inspired by ancient works. Art historians have devoted much effort to the cataloging of different styles and periods, but their efforts have obscured the great truth that underlies, say the Greek temple, the medieval cathedral, and the Baroque church. These are like musical compositions played on different instruments: they have the same notes and same meaning.
The vast accumulation of artifacts over time in any given locality (it must be noted) formed something like a mosaic, or interlocking grid around communities. Everyday things like cobble-stoned streets, sheet metal ceilings, feathered hats, and painted signs, as well as great public buildings, constituted the pieces of this mosaic.The commonly held view that "Art" is (and should be) set aside from everyday life and placed in a special setting (such as a museum, an art gallery, or a hidden cave) is utterly wrong. As we can tell from photos taken as recently as a century ago, the streets of our cities and towns had a "charm," or "magic" that "preservationists" try to protect wherever possible. This hard-to-define quality of magic was, in fact, due to the interlocking and interlacing of all the manmade elements in a given setting. The same piety that caused our ancestors to pray to the gods and to expect miracles and wonders was manifested in these elements and these settings.
The great discontinuity in this pattern of design burst forth around the year 1910: modernism exploded.An immense and unprecedented rejection of traditional authority began (or surfaced) at that time. History became bunk. Political revolutions shook the world. Evolution, Rationality, and Science triumphed. Classical art was demolished with a speed and a thoroughness that matched the fall of the Romanovs. A brave new world was about to be born, and many artists applied for the position of midwife. Objects like airplane propellers and shiny metal machines took the place of human and animal forms in the minds of designers. God, nature, and virtue were out; Science and machines were in. By 1940, modernism was firmly established in the various professional academies of design. Daily life (to judge from the record of artifacts) ceased to be a series of religious celebrations. Giant buildings where countless people lived and worked were constructed without any ornament or celebration of the blessings bestowed by the (deceased) Creator. Hand-painted signs that once modestly deferred to the decorum of the public street were replaced by huge billboards with pornographic images. Parking lots, shopping malls, gas stations, housing projects, office parks, trailer parks, fast food restaurants, and millions of shiny vehicles followed. Cost/benefit ratios, narrowly understood, dictated the form of urban spaces, transportation, and clothing. Visually, the harmonious mosaic of earlier times was replaced by discord in some places, by strangely menacing impersonality elsewhere.
For those (like Richard Posner; see page 309 of his book Public Intellectuals) who discern the secular aspect of the ancient style-its celebration of power and social status-these modern developments represent the triumph of democracy, progress, and rationality; the defeat of nostalgia, hauteur, superstition and melodrama. But for those who comprehend (however faintly) the symbolic meaning of the ancient style, the situation is not so rosy. For them, the newly minted objects that dominate our landscape and urban settings are loathsome symbols of nihilism and oppression. And it's not only Islamic terrorists and radical environmentalists who harbor such feelings. The vague distrust of modernism as a way of life and as a replacement for ancient piety is manifested in many ways. Let's suppose, for example, that Wal-Mart decided to build a store opposite the White House. From an economic point of view, this might make sense. But such a proposal would be greeted with outrage from the general public. And why? Economists have no answer to this question. But ordinary men, in their hearts (if not their heads), understand the situation better than the experts. They buy things at Wal-Mart, but they are also repelled by it. The blank facade with the huge logo makes an irresistible appeal to the pocket book, but it also represents a sense of futility, a sense of "what's it all for?" And to escape this moral vacuum, patrons of Wal-Mart load up their cars with their purchases, get out of the parking lot as fast as they can, and retreat to enclosed and protected spaces: to gated "communities," wildlife preserves, historic preservation areas, "New Urbanist" developments, National Parks, tropical islands; any place that allows them to forget the disturbing face of the modern world. (Economists are eager to point out the savings provided by Wal-Mart; they never talk about the cost of creating the protected spaces, nor about the costs of moving to and from them).
It is very easy to misunderstand the nature of the problem represented by the modern landscape, to which Wal-Mart makes a stylistically typical contribution. Most people would say that the problem is one of aesthetics: what we need are good designers to make our Wal-Marts beautiful. Wrong! An aesthetically attractive Wal- Mart would be just as depressing as an ugly Wal- Mart. It is the godless nature of modern philosophy-symbolized in the Wal-Mart façade-that is the root of the problem. Until the public can perceive the Wal-Mart store as a gift of God, it has no reason to regard it as anything but a boring intrusion. Once it is seen as a gift of God, on the other hand, the public will not rest until it pleases them artistically, and makes them proud.
Not long ago, a very able scientist, Steven Pinker, an expert in evolution and neuroscience, published a book The Blank Slate that contains a chapter titled "The Fear of Nihilism." The object of this chapter is to convince readers that Evolution is not only true, but that it offers more assurance to morality (and to morale) than faith in God. Pinker's arguments may be brilliant; they may be correct. But conviction in such matters doesn't come from the head. It comes from the heart. And, judging from the ongoing conflict over the design of our modern world, it would seem that the heart and the head are locked in unresolved combat.
Elliott Banfield is the Art Director of the Claremont Review of Books. Samples of his artwork can be viewed at elliottbanfield.com