I went to Toulouse because the flight was cheap. I had a long weekend in mid-May—thanks to the local fiesta—and nothing planned; so I checked Skyscanner for the cheapest flights available. Toulouse was the clear winner. Off to France I went.
One reason the flight was cheap is because Toulouse is so close to Spain, about two hours by car from the Pyrenees. Perhaps another reason is that the city is the center of Europe’s aerospace industry. Why this should be, I cannot say, but Toulouse hosts the headquarters of several prominent companies and is at the center of the so-called Aerospace Valley in southern France. The fourth-largest city in the country, Toulouse is also an administrative center, being the capital of Occitanie. This region of France has historically been quite linguistically diverse, incorporating French speakers, Catalan speakers, and also Occitan speakers (sometimes called langue d’oc). It is a city with a past and a future.
A metro helpfully connects the airport to the city center, making the journey into town painless and even pleasant. Getting to and from the airport can sometimes be a headache—either expensive, convoluted, or both—so it is a relief when the authorities remove this obstacle. From there I still had quite a walk, however, since in the interest of cheapness—my guiding angel—I booked an Airbnb far outside of the center. Admittedly, I could have taken a bus; but the weather was nice and I felt like seeing the town.
The walk led me up an attractive avenue, under a triumphal arch, and into a little park, where there is a charming fountain featuring the dashing Pèire Godolin, an Occitan poet from the sixteenth century. From here I still had a long ways to go, passing through the city center, over the lovely Garonne River, and then over a little canal. Proceeding on this way, I could see why Toulouse is called “The Pink City” by the French, since so many buildings use distinctive, pinkish bricks.
Upon arrival, I discovered that my host did not speak a word of English. As my French is similarly nonexistent, I expected conversation to be pretty stale. But with the aid of Google translate he invited me to have dinner with him and his sister. I accepted, and spent the meal eating, drinking, and smiling, while the two of them talked. It was surprisingly enjoyable. He even invited me for dinner the next day, which proceeded in a similar fashion. My initial discomfort from being unable to communicate turned into real delight in the food and company, and shame for not being able to properly express my thanks for such generosity.
When I woke up the next day, my host was in the living room watching TV. Emmanuel Macron was taking part in the inauguration ceremonies. To the world’s relief, he had just beaten Marine Le Pen and her National Front party, stemming the tide of right-wing populism. Though ignorant of his politics, I was happy to see the young man stepping up to France’s highest office. My host seemed ambivalent; he did not like Le Pen, but he wasn’t too keen on Macron either.
I first visited the city’s most iconic monument, the Basilica of Saint-Sernin. This is a massive hulk of a building; indeed it is the biggest Romanesque building in the world. For many reasons, Romanesque architectural methods are not as conducive to tall buildings as Gothic techniques. The barrel vault and the rounded arch do not distribute weight as efficiently as their Gothic counterparts; and no flying buttresses help to support the weight of the walls. Nevertheless, the Basilica of Saint-Sernin rivals any gothic cathedral in its dimensions. The bell-tower is especially impressive, standing 64 meters (over 200 feet) above the ground, on five levels of arches. Perhaps the church was built on such a large scale is because of the many pilgrims who stopped here on the Camino de Santiago, of which Toulouse was an important stop; indeed its historic connection with that pilgrimage is why the basilica was designated a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Toulouse’s cathedral is a far less majestic structure. Formed from the unification of two incomplete churches, everything about the structure is irregular. The floorplan does not follow the usual cruciform since the two axes are out of alignment. Styles juxtapose, sometimes discordantly, both inside and outside the cathedral; and the visitor is left a little puzzled. Much more pleasing is the Church of the Jacobites. Its influential design uses brick walls and central columns, which branch out like palm trees into the ribbed vaulting, to support the tall roof. Its gaping stained-glass windows provide the space with an ethereal glow. For a price the visitor can visit the peaceful cloisters next door. Though I did not know it at the time, the relics of St. Thomas Aquinas, the famous theologian, are located here.
One thing I soon noticed—and then cursed—is that food in France is notably more expensive than it is in Spain. This is true in Toulouse, even though it is so close to the border, and even though many of the ingredients in the supermarkets come from Spain. I suppose taxes must be the explanation. Indeed, it was not very far from here, at Le Boulou, where angry French vinters (perhaps inspired after having read A Tale of Two Cities) stopped trucks transporting Spanish wine and spilled it onto the highway. Spain has very low taxes on wine, and fewer restrictions regarding the production of it, which is why it is so much cheaper. The Gallic wine makers considered the competition unfair, and did what all oppressed French people do: make the streets run red. In any case, for those looking for an affordable but elegant French meal, the Restaurant Le May is the best choice that I found in Toulouse.
If you have not eaten too much, you can pass the time by walking through the Jardin des Plantes, the city’s attractive central park. Another pleasant walk is along the city’s Canal de Brienne, attractively shaded with rows of trees.
Perhaps the nicest walking area along the Garonne River, observing the pretty brick buildings and their watery reflections. I spent some time sitting on the park by the water, trying to get through Arnold Toynbee’s A Study of History; and I am happy to report that the pleasant surroundings helped to offset the boredom induced by the book’s dry tone. From the riverside you can also observe the city’s attractive Pont Neuf, or “new bridge”—which is not very new, considering it was built 500 years ago. One thing from the riverside that particularly sticks out in my memory is a public toilet that completely washed itself after every use. Once the door was shut, it would lock, and swishing and spraying sounds could be heard on the other side. After about three minutes it would unlock, and the visitor could step into a sterilized and slightly wet bathroom. The future is here.
The benefits of visiting a city that is not a major tourist destination is that you see more snatches of daily life. Walking along one day, I stumbled upon a kind of public exercises routine, with a woman on stage guiding a crowd of people through calisthenics. Such things remind me of those silly eighties dancercise videos—either that, or the scene in 1984 when Wilson has to do coordinated exercises with the telescreen. Later that day, as I walked in a park along the river, I noticed that someone had set up loudspeakers and couples were engaged in ballroom dance. Without a partner, I did not join in. At dinner with my host, as he was in the kitchen preparing lasagna, one of his friends started on a passionate declaration of her love of electronic music, and promptly turned on her music to full volume. This was fine with me, since I could barely understand what anyone said anyway.
Though I had plenty of time in Toulouse, I did not exhaust everything there is to see. My major regret is not going to the Hôtel d’Assézat, a beautiful Renaissance palace that houses the Bemberg Foundation. This is an art gallery formed from the private collection of Georges Bemberg, a wealthy so-and-so who had a fine eye in addition to a deep purse. Among the works on display are some by Titian, Tintoretto, Picasso, Braque, and Signac. If I am ever in the neighborhood again I will be sure to visit.
But I did visit one museum that far exceeded my expectations: the Musée des Augustins. Its name comes from the building’s history as an Augustine monastery. The secularizing turmoils of the French Revolution put an end to that; and shortly thereafter, in 1801, it became a museum, displaying a collection that mostly came from confiscated monasteries. While this was undoubtedly unfortunate for the monks, it has benefitted the tourist, since now there is a large museum in a historical building in the heart of the city.
The museum itself is attractive for its gothic architecture and its cloisters wrapping around green gardens. Its extensive collection consists of both sculpture and painting. Personally I found the former to be more impressive, especially the Romanesque works on display. Indeed, I would rank the Musée des Augustins along with the Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya, in Barcelona, for the quality and quantity of Romanesque sculpture. The Occitan and Catalan region is particularly rich in this style, it seems.
My favorite room in the museum is the one exhibiting Romanesque capitals. Each one stands on a pillar, at eye level; and over each a glass light hangs down. I spent about twenty minutes in the room, examining each one, savoring the powerful simplicity of the sculptures. Western art most closely approached Mesopotamian during this time, with stylized figures and symbolic poses, each one a blend of decoration, poetry, and architecture. There are intricate patterns made from vegetable and animal motifs; there are religious figures, like the apostles and the Virgin; and there are scenes from life—people eating, playing instruments, rowing a boat. On these capitals an entire way of life and worldview seems to be inscribed.
There are some fine gothic sculptures on display as well. My favorite is the long row of gargoyle dogs, standing along a hallway, who seem to be howling into infinity. In another room is a collection of surprisingly lifelike figures, who are dressed in typical Medieval European clothes, even though they are supposed to represent Biblical personages. In a wide room, which I believe used to hold a church, there are dozens of works on display—tombs, busts, and bronze casts. Here the Virgin sits with Christ, there St. Michael is smiting Satan, and over here Mercury is delivering a message.
After such an embarrassment of riches, I hardly expected to find such an enormous painting gallery. As in the Louvre, the paintings cover the walls up the ceilings, meaning that many are far above eye-level. This makes for an impressive first-glance, but detracts from the experience of the art. Though the collection is extensive, and includes works from Dutch, Italian, and Spanish painters, what most sticks out in my memory are the many neoclassical French paintings to be found. Typically I find these paintings charming but forgettable; though some rise beyond this, such as Jean-André Rixens’s Death of Cleopatra.
This wraps up my visit to Toulouse. The next day I woke up very early, walked through town—over the canal, through the park, down the lane—back to the metro stop to take me back to the airport. As I watched the French countryside recede from the plane window, feeling happy and satisfied, I decided that Toulouse would still be worth visiting even if the flights weren’t quite so cheap.
On the left back of the Seine, in an old Beaux-Arts train station, is one of Europe’s great museums: the Musée d’Orsay. Its collection mainly focuses on French art from the mid-nineteenth to the early-twentieth century. This was a fertile time for Paris, as the museum amply demonstrates. Rarely can you find so many masterpieces collected in one place.
The museum is arranged with exquisite taste. In the middle runs a corridor, filled with statues—of human forms, mostly. They dash, reach, dance, strain, twist, lounge, smile, laugh, gasp, grimace.
On either side of this central corridor are the painting galleries, arranged by style and period. There were naturalistic paintings—with a vanishing perspective, careful shadowing, precise brushstrokes, scientifically accurate anatomy, symmetrical compositions. There were the impressionists—a blur of color and light, creamy clouds of paint, glances of everyday life. There was Cézanne, whose precise simplifications of shape and shade lend his painting of Mont Sainte-Victoire a calm, detached beauty. Then there were the pointillists, Seurat and Signac, who attempted to break the world into pieces and then to build it back up using only dabs of color, arranged with a mixture of science and art.
Greatest of all was van Gogh, whose violent, wavy lines, his bright, simple colors, his oil paint smeared in thick daubs onto the canvas, make his paintings slither and dance. It is simply amazing to me that something as static as a painting can be made be so energetic. Van Gogh’s paintings don’t stand still under your gaze, but move, vibrate, even breathe. It is uncanny.
His self portrait is the most emotionally affecting painting I have ever seen. Wearing a blue suit, he sits in a neutral blue space. His presence warps the atmosphere: the air seems to be curling around him, as if in a torrent. The only colors that break the blur of blue are his flaming red beard and his piercing green eyes. He looks directly at the viewer, with an expression impossible to define. At first glance he appears anxious, perhaps shy; but the more you look, the more he appears calm and confident. You get absolutely lost in his eyes, falling into them, as you are absorbed into ever more complicated subtleties of emotion concealed therein. Suddenly you realize that curling waves of air around him are not mere background, but represent his inner turmoil. Yet is it a turmoil? Perhaps it is a serenity too complicated for us to understand?
I looked and looked, and soon the experience became overwhelming. I felt as if he were looking right through me, while I pathetically tried to understand the depths of his mind. But the more I probed, the more lost I felt, the more I felt myself being subsumed into his world. The experience was so overpowering that my knees began to shake.
Consider this reaction of mine. Now imagine if a curious extraterrestrial, studying human behavior, visited an art museum. What would he make of it?
On its face, the practice of visiting art museums is absurd. We pay good money to gain entrance to a big building, so we can spend time crowding around brightly colored squares that are not obviously more interesting than any other object in the room. Indeed, I suspect an alien would find almost anything on earth—our plant and animal life, our minerals, our technology—more interesting than a painting.
In this essay I want to try to answer this question: Why do humans make and appreciate art? For this is the question that so irresistibly posed itself to me after I stared into van Gogh’s portrait. The rest of my time walking around the Musée d’Orsay, feeling lost among so many masterpieces, I pondered how a colorful canvas could so radically alter my mental state. By the end of my visit, the beginnings of an answer had occurred to me—an answer hardly original, being deeply indebted to Walter Pater, Marcel Proust, and Robert Hughes, among others—and it is this answer that I attempt to develop here.
My answer, in short, is that the alien would be confused because human art caters to a human need—specifically, an adult human need. This is the need to cure ennui.
Boredom hangs over human life like a specter, so pernicious because it cannot be grasped or seen.
The French anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss knew this very well. As a young man he ejoyed mountain scenes, because “instead of submitting passively to my gaze” the mountains “invited me into a conversation, as it were, in which we both had to give our best.” But as he got older, his pleasure in mountain scenery left him:
And yet I have to admit that, although I do not feel that I myself have changed, my love for the mountains is draining away from me like a wave running backward down the sand. My thoughts are unchanged, but the mountains have taken leave of me. Their unchanging joys mean less and less to me, so long and so intently have I sought them out. Surprise itself has become familiar to me as I follow my oft-trodden routes. When I climb, it is not among bracken and rock-face, but among the phantoms of my memories.
Dostoyevsky put the phenomenon more succintly: “Man grows used to everything, the scoundrel!”
These two literary snippets have stuck with me because they encapsulate the same thing: the ceaseless struggle against the deadening weight of routine. Nothing is new twice. Walk through a park you found charming at first, the second time around it will be simply nice, and the third time just normal.
The problem is human adaptability. Unlike most animals, we humans are generalists, able to adapt our behavior to many different environments. Instead of being guided by rigid instincts, we form habits.
By “habits” I do not only refer to things like biting your nails or eating pancakes for breakfast. Rather, I mean all of the routine actions performed by every person in a society. Culture itself can, at least in part, be thought of as a collection of shared habits. These routines and customs are what allow us to live in harmony with our environments and one another. Our habits form a second nature, a learned instinct, that allows us to focus our attention on more pressing matters. If, for whatever reason, we were incapable of forming habits, we would be in a sorry state indeed, as William James pointed out in his book on psychology:
There is no more miserable human being than one in whom nothing is habitual but indecision, and for whom the lighting of every cigar, the drinking of every cup, the time of rising and going to bed every day, and the beginning of every bit of work, are subjects of express volutional deliberation. Full half the time of such a man goes to the deciding, or regretting, of matters which ought to be so ingrained in him as practically not to exist for his consciousness at all.
Habits are, thus, necessary to human life. And up to a certain point, they are desirable and good. But there is also a danger in habitual response.
Making the same commute, passing the same streets and alleys, spending time with the same friends, watching the same shows, doing the same work, living in the same house, day after day after day, can ingrain a routine in us so deeply that we become dehumanized.
A habit is supposed to free our mind for more interesting matters. But we can also form habits of seeing, feeling, tasting, even of thinking, that are stultifying rather than freeing. The creeping power of routine, pervading our lives, can be difficult to detect, precisely because its essence is familiarity.
One of the most pernicious effects of routine is to dissociate us from our senses. Let me give a concrete example. A walk through New York City will inevitably present you with a chaos of sensory data. You can overhear conversations, many of them fantastically strange; you can see an entire zoo of people, from every corner of the globe, dressed in every fashion; you can look at the ways that the sunlight moves across the skyscrapers, the play of light and shadow; you can hear dog barks, car horns, construction, alarms, sirens, kids crying, adults arguing; you can smell bread baking, chicken frying, hot garbage, stale urine, and other scents too that are more safely left uninvestigated.
And yet, after working in NYC for a few months, making the same commute every day, I was able to block it out completely. I walked through the city without noticing or savoring anything. My lunch went unappreciated; my coffee was drunk unenjoyed; the changing seasons went unremarked; the fashion choices of my fellow commuters went unnoticed.
It isn’t that I stopped seeing, feeling, hearing, tasting, but that my attitude to this information had changed. I was paying attention to my senses only insofar as they provided me with useful information: the location of a pedestrian, an oncoming car, an unsanitary area. In other words, my attitude to my sensations had become purely instrumental: attending to their qualities only insofar as they were relevant to my immediate goals.
This exemplifies what I mean by ennui. It is not boredom of the temporary sort, such as when waiting on a long line. It is boredom as a spiritual malady. When beset by ennui we are not bored by a particular situation, but by any situation. And this condition is caused, I think, by a certain attitude toward our senses. When afflicted by ennui, we stop treating our sensations are things in themselves, worthy of attention and appreciation, but merely as signs and symbols of other things.
To a certain extent, we all do this, often for good reason. When you are reading this, for example, you are probably not paying attention to the details of the font, but are simply glancing at the words to understand their meaning. Theoretically, I could use any font or formatting, and it wouldn’t really affect my message, since you are treating the words as signs and not as things in themselves.
This is our normal, day-to-day attitude towards language, and it is necessary for us to read efficiently. But this can also blind us to what is right in front of us. For example, an English teacher I knew once expressed surprise when I pointed out that ‘deodorant’ consists of the word ‘odor’ with the prefix ‘de-’. She had never paused long enough to consider it, even though she had used the word thousands of times.
I think this attitude of ennui can extend even to our senses. We see the subtle shades of green and red on an apple’s surface, and only think “I’m seeing an apple.” We feel the waxy skin, and only think “I’m touching an apple.” We take a bite, munching on the crunchy fruit, tasting the tart juices, and only think “I’m tasting an apple.” In short, the whole quality of the experience is ignored or at least underappreciated. The apple has become part of our routine and has thus been moved to the background of our consciousness.
Now, imagine treating everything this way. Imagine if all the sights, sounds, tastes, textures, and smells were treated as routine. This is an adequate description of my mentality when I was working in New York, and perhaps of many people all over the world. The final effect is a feeling of emptiness and dissatisfaction. Nothing fulfills or satisfies because nothing is really being experienced.
This is where art comes in. Good art has the power to, quite literally, bring us back to our senses. Art encourages us not only to glance, but to see; not only to hear, but to listen. It reconnects us with what is right in front of us, but is so often ignored. To quote the art critic Robert Hughes, the purpose of art is “to make the world whole and comprehensible, to restore it to us in all its glory and occasional nastiness, not through argument but through feeling, and then to close the gap between you and everything that is not you.”
Last summer, while I was still working at my job in NYC, I experienced the power of art during a visit to the Metropolitan. By then, I had already visited the Met dozens of times in my life. My dad used to take me there as a kid, to see the medieval arms and armor; and ever since I have visited at least once a year. The samurai swords, the Egyptian sarcophagi, the Greek statues—it has tantalized my imagination for decades.
In my most recent visits, however, the museum had lost much of its power. It had become routine for me. I had seen everything so many times that, like Levi-Strauss, I was visiting my memories rather than the museum itself.
But this changed during my last visit. It was the summer right before I came to Spain. I had just completed my visa application and was about to leave my job. This would be my last visit to the Met for at least a year, possibly longer. I was saying goodbye to something intimately familiar in order to embrace the unknown. My visit became no longer routine, but unique and fleeting, and this made me experience the museum in an entirely new way.
Somehow, the patina of familiarity had been peeled away, leaving every artwork fresh and exciting. Whereas on previous visits I viewed the Greco-Roman and Egyptian statues are mere artifacts, revealing information about former civilizations, this time I began to become acutely sensitive to previously invisible subtleties: fine textures, subtle hues, elegant forms. In short, I had stopped treating the artwork as icons—as mere symbols of a lost age—but as genuine works of art.
This experience was so intense that for several days I felt rejuvenated. I stopped feeling so deeply dissociated from my workaday world and began to take pleasure again in little things.
While waiting for the elevator, for example, I looked at a nearby wall; and I realized, to my astonishment, that it wasn’t merely a flat plain surface, as I had thought, but was covered in little bumps and shapes. It was stucco. I grew entranced by the shifting patterns of forms on the surface. I leaned closer, and began to see tiny cracks and little places where the paint had chipped off. The slight variations on the surface, a stain here, a splotch there, the way the shapes seemed to melt into one another, made it seem as though I were looking at a painting by Jackson Pollock or the surface of the moon.
I had glanced at this wall a hundred times before, but it took a visit to an art museum to let me really see it. Routine had severed me from the world, and art had brought me back to it.
Reality is always experienced through a medium—the medium of senses, concepts, language, and thought. Sensory information is detected, broken down, analyzed, and then reconfigured in the brain.
We are not passive sensors. While a microphone might simply detect tones, rhythms, and volume, we hear cars, birds, and speech; and while a camera might detect shapes, colors, and movement, we see houses and street signs. The data we collect is, thus, not experienced directly, but is analyzed into intelligible objects. And this is for the obvious reason that, unlike cameras and microphones, we need to use this information to survive.
In order to deal efficiently with the large amount of information we encounter every day, we develop habits of perceiving and thinking. These habits are partly expectations of the kinds of things we will meet (people, cars, language), as well as the ways we have learned to analyze and respond to these things. These habits thus lay at the crossroads between the external world of our senses and the internal world of our experience, forming another medium through which we experience (or don’t experience) reality.
Good art forces us to break these habits, at least temporarily. It does so by breaking down reality and then reconstructing it with a different principle—or perhaps I should say a different taste—than the one we habitually use.
The material of art—what artists deconstruct and re-imagine—can be taken from either the natural or the cultural world. By ‘natural world’ I mean the world as we experience it through our senses; and by ‘cultural world’ I mean the world of ideas, customs, values, religion, language, tradition. No art is wholly emancipated from tradition, just as no tradition is wholly unmoored from the reality of our senses. But very often one is greatly emphasized at the expense of the other.
A good example of an artform concerned with the natural world is landscape painting. A landscape artist breaks down what she sees into shapes and colors, and puts it together on her canvass, making whatever tasteful alteration she sees fit.
Her view of the landscape, and how she chooses to reconstruct it on her canvass, is of course not merely a matter between her and nature. Inevitably our painter is familiar with a tradition of landscape paintings; and thus while engaged with the natural landscape she is simultaneously engaged in a dialogue with contemporary and former artists. She is, therefore, simultaneously breaking down the landscape and her tradition of landscape painting, deciding what to change, discard, or keep. The final product emerges as the an artifact of an exchange between the artist, the landscape, and the tradition.
The fact remains, however, that the final product can be effectively judged by how it transforms its subject—the landscape itself. Thus I would say that landscape paintings are primarily oriented towards the natural world.
By contrast, many religious paintings are much more oriented towards a tradition. It is clear, even from a glance, that the artists of the Middle Ages were not concerned with the accurate portrayal of individual humans, but with the evoking of religious figures through idealizations. The paintings thus cannot be evaluated by their fidelity to the sensory reality, but by their fidelity to a religious aesthetic.
It is worth noting that artworks oriented towards the natural world tend to be individualistic, while artworks oriented towards the cultural world tend to be communal. The reason is clear: art oriented towards the natural world reconnect us with our senses, and our senses are necessarily personal. By contrast, culture is necessarily impersonal and shared. The rise of perspective, realistic anatomy, individualized portraits, and landscape painting at the time of the Italian Renaissance can, I think, persuasively be interpreted as a break from the communalism of the medieval period and an embrace of individualism.
Music is an excellent demonstration of this tendency. To begin with, the medium of sound is naturally more social than that of sight or language, since sound pervades its environment. What is more, music is a wholly abstract art, and thus totally disconnected from the natural world.
This is because sound is just too difficult to record. With only a pencil and some paper, most people could make a rough sketch of an everyday object. But without some kind of notational system—and even then, maybe not—most people could not transcribe an everyday sound, like a bird’s chirping.
Thus, musicians (at least western musicians) take their material from culture rather than nature, from the world of tradition rather than the world of our senses.
(In an oral tradition, where music does not need to be transcribed, it is possible that music can strive to reproduce natural sounds; but this has not historically been the case in the west.)
To deal with the problem of transcribing sound, rigorous and formal ways of classifying sounds were developed. An organizational system developed, with its own laws and rules; and it is these laws and rules that the composer or songwriter manipulates.
And just as your knowledge of the natural world helps to make sense of visual art, so our cultural training helps us to make sense of music. Just as you’ve seen many trees and human faces, and thus can appreciate how painters re-imagine their appearances, so have you heard hours and hours of music in your life, most of it following the same or similar conventions.
Thus you can tell (most often unconsciously) when a tune does something unusual. Relatively few people, for example, can define a plagal cadence (an unusual final cadence from the IV to the I chord), but almost everyone responds to it in Paul McCartney’s “Yesterday.”
As a result of its cultural grounding, music an inherently communal art form. This is true, not only aesthetically, but anthropologically. Music is an integral part of many social rituals—political, religious, or otherwise. Whether we are graduating from high school, winning an Oscar, or getting married, music will certainly be heard. As much as alcohol, music can lower inhibitions by creating a sense of shared community, which is why we play it at every party. Music thus plays a different social role than visual art, connecting us to our social environment rather than to the often neglected sights and sounds of everyday life.
The above descriptions are offered only as illustrations of my more general point: Art occupies the same space as our habits, the gap between the external and the internal world. Painters, composers, and writers begin by breaking down something familiar from our daily reality. This material can be shapes, colors, ceramic vases, window panes, the play of shadow across a crumpled robe in the case of painting. It can be melodies, harmonies, timbre, volume, chord progressions, stylistic tropes in the case of music. And it can be adjectives, verbs, nouns, situations, gestures, personality traits in the case of literature
Whatever the starting material, it is the artist’s job to recombine it into something different, something that thwarts our habits. Van Gogh’s thick daubs of paint thwart our expectation of neat brushstrokes; McCartney’s plagal cadence thwarts our expectation of a perfect cadence; and Proust’s long, gnarly sentences and philosophic ideas thwart our expectations of how a novelist will write. And once we stop seeing, listening, feeling, sensing, thinking, expecting, reacting, behaving out of habit, and once more turn our fill attention to the world, naked of any preconceptions, we are in the right mood to appreciate art.
Yet it is not enough for art to be simply challenging. If this were true, art would be anything that was simply strange, confusing, or difficult. Good art can, of course, be all of those things; but it need not be.
Many artists nowadays, however, seem to disagree on this point. I have listened to works by contemporary composers which simply made no sense for my ears, and have seen many works of modern art which had no visual interest. We are living in the age of “challenging” art; and beauty is too often reduced to confusion.
But good art must not only challenge our everyday ways of seeing, listening, and being. It must reconstitute those habits along new lines. Art interrogates the space between the world and our habits of seeing the world. It breaks down the familiar—sights, harmonies, language—and then builds it back up again into the unfamiliar, using new principles and new taste. Yet for the product to be a work of art, and not mere strangeness, the unfamiliar must be rendered beautiful. That is the task of art.
Thus, Picasso does not only break down the perspectives and shapes of daily life, but builds them back up into new forms—fantastically strange, but sublime nonetheless. Debussy disintegrates the normal harmonic conventions—keys, cadences, chords—and then puts them all back together into a new form, uniquely his, and also unquestionably lovely. Great art not only shows you a different way of seeing and understanding the world, but makes this new vista attractive.
Pretentious art, art that merely wants to challenge, confuse, or frustrate you, is quite a different story. It can be most accurately compared to the relationship between an arrogant schoolmaster and a pupil. The artist is talking down to you from a position of heightened knowledge. The implication is that your perspective, your assumptions, your way of looking at the world are flawed and wrong, and the artist must help you to get out of your lowly state. Multiple perspectives are discouraged; only the artist’s is valid.
And then we come to simple entertainment.
Entertainment is something that superficially resembles art, but it’s function is entirely different. For entertainment does not reconnect us with the world, but lures us into a fantasy.
Perhaps the most emblematic form of pure entertainment is advertizing. However well made an advertisement is, it can never be art; for its goal is not to reconnect with the world, but to seduce us. Advertisements tell us we are incomplete. Instead of showing us how we can be happy now, they tell what we still need.
When you see an ad in a magazine, for example, you are not meant to scan it carefully, paying attention to the purely visual qualities. Rather, you are forced to view it as an image. By ‘image’ I mean a picture that serves to represent something else. Images are not meant to be looked at, but glanced at; images are not meant to be analyzed, but instantly understood. Ads use images because they are not trying to bring you back to your senses, but lure you into a fantasy.
Don’t misunderstand me: There is nothing inherently wrong with fantasy. Indeed, I think fantasy is almost indispensable to a healthy life. The fantasies of advertisements are, however, somewhat nefarious, since ads are never pure escapism. Rather, the ad forces you to negatively compare your actual life with the fantasy, conclude that you are lacking something, and then of course seek to remedy the situation by buying their product.
Most entertainment is, however, quite innocent, or at least it seems to me. For example, I treat almost all blockbusters as pure entertainment. I will gladly go see the new Marvel movie, not in order to have an artistic experience, but because it’s fun. The movie provides two hours of relief from the normal laws of physics, of probability, from the dreary regularities of reality as I know it. Superhero movies are escapism at its most innocent. The movies make no pretenses of being realistic, and thus you can hardly feel the envy caused by advertisements. You are free to participate vicariously and then to come back to reality, refreshed from the diversion, but otherwise unchanged.
The prime indication of entertainment is that it is meant to be effortless. The viewer is not there to be challenged, but to be diverted. Thus most bestselling novels are written with short words, simple sentences, stereotypical plotlines stuffed full of clichés—because this is easy to understand. Likewise, popular music uses common chord progressions and trite lyrics to make hits—music to dance to, to play in the background, to sing along to, but not to think about. This is entertainment: it does not reconnect us with our senses, our language, our ideas, but draw us into fantasy worlds, worlds with spies, pirates, vampires, worlds where everyone is attractive and cool, where you can be anything you want, for at least a few hours.
Some thinkers, most notably Theodor Adorno, have considered this quality of popular culture to be destructive. They abhor the way that people lull their intellects the sleep, tranquilized with popular garbage that deactivates their minds rather than challenges them. And this point cannot be wholly dismissed. But I tend to see escapism in a more positive light; people are tired, people are stressed, people are bored—they need some release. As long as fantasy does not get out of hand, becoming an goal in itself instead of only a diversion, I see no problem with it.
This, in my opinion, is the essential different between art and entertainment. There is also an essential different, I think, between art and craft.
Craft is a dedication to the techniques of art, rather than its goals. Of course, there is hardly such a thing as a pure craft or a pure art; no artist completely lacks a technique, and no craftsman totally lacks aesthetic originality. But there are certainly cases of artists whose technique stands at a bare minimum, as well as craftsmen who are almost exclusively concerned with the perfection of technique.
Here I must clarify that, by technique, I do not mean simply manual things like brush strokes or breath control. This includes more generally the mastery of a convention.
Artistic conventions consists of fossilized aesthetics. All living aesthetics represent the individual visions of artists—original, fresh, and personal. All artistic conventions are the visions of successful artists, usually dead, which have ceased to be refreshing and now have become charmingly familiar. Put another way, conventional aesthetics are the exceptions that have been made the rule. Not only that, but conventions often fossilize only the most obvious and graspable elements of brilliant artists of the past, leaving behind much of its living fibre.
This can be exemplified if we go and examine the paintings of William-Adolfe Bourgeureau in the Musée d’Orsay. Even from a glance, we can tell that he was a masterful painter. Every detail is perfect. The arrangement of the figures, the depiction of light and shadow, the musculature, the perspective—everything has been performed with exquisite mastery. My favorite painting of his is Dante and Virgil in Hell, a dramatic rendering of a scene from Dante’s Inferno. Dante and his guide stand to one side, looking on in horror as one naked man attacks another one, biting him in his throat. In the distance, a flying demon smiles, while a mound of tormented bodies writhes behind. The sky is a fiery red and the landscape is bleak.
I think it is a wonderful painting. Even so, Dante and Virgil seems to exist more as a demonstration than as art. For the main thing that makes painting art, and the main thing this painting lacks, is an original vision. The content has been adopted straightforwardly from Dante. The technique, although perfectly executed, shows no innovations of Bourgeureau’s own. All the tools he used had been used before; he merely learned them. Thus the painting, however impressive, ultimately seems like a technical exercise. And this is the essence of craft.
I fear I have said more about what art isn’t than what it is. That’s because it is admittedly much easier to define art negatively than positively. Just as mystics convey the incomprehensibility of God by listing all the things He is not, maybe we can do the same with art?
Here is my list so far. Art is not entertainment, meant to distract with fantasy. Art is not craft, meant to display technique and obey rules. Art is not simply an intellectual challenge, meant to shock and frustrate your habitual ways of being. I should say art is not necessarily any of these things, though it can and often is all of them. Indeed, I would contend that the greatest art entertains, challenges, and displays technical mastery, and yet cannot be reduced to any or all of these things.
Here I wish to take an idea from the literary critic Harold Bloom, and divide up artworks into periodpieces and great works. Period pieces are works that are highly effective in their day, but quickly become dated. These works are too specifically targeted at one specific cultural atmosphere to last. In other words, they may be totally preoccupied with the habits prevalent at one place and time, and become irrelevant when time passes.
To pick just one example, Sinclair Lewis’s Babbitt, which I sincerely loved, may be too engrossed in the foibles of 20th century American culture to be still relevant in 500 years. Its power comes from its total evisceration of American ways; and, luckily for Lewis, those ways have changed surprisingly little in its essentials since his day. The book’s continuing appeal therefore depends largely on how much the culture does or does not change. (That being said, that novel has a strong existentialist theme that may allow it to persist.)
Thus period pieces largely concern themselves with getting us to question particular habits or assumptions—in Lewis’s case, the vanities and superficialities of American life.
The greatest works of art, by contrast, are great precisely because they reconnect us with the mystery of the world. They don’t just get us to question certain assumptions, but all assumptions. They bring us face to face with the incomprehensibility of life, the great and frightening chasm that we try to bridge over with habit and convention.
No matter how many times we watch Hamlet, we can never totally understand Hamlet’s motives, the mysterious inner workings of his mind. No matter how long we stare into van Gogh’s eyes, we can never penetrate the machinations of that elusive mind. No matter how many times we listen to Bach’s Art of Fugue, we can entirely never wrap our minds around the dancing, weaving melodies, the baffling mixture of mathematical elegance and artistic sensitivity.
Why are these works so continually fresh? Why do they never seem to grow old? I cannot say. It is as if they are infinitely subtle, allowing you to discover new shades of meaning every time they are experienced anew. You can fall into them, just as I felt myself falling into van Gogh’s eyes as he stared at me across space and time.
When I listen to the greatest works of art, I feel like I do when I stare into the starry sky: absolutely small in the presence of something immense and immensely beautiful. Listening to Bach is like listening to the universe itself, and reading Shakespeare is like reading the script of the human soul. These works do not merely reconnect me to my senses, helping me to rid myself of boredom. They do not merely remind me that the world is an interesting place. Rather, these works remind me that I myself am a small part of an enormous whole, and should be thankful for every second of life, for it is a privilege to be alive somewhere so lovely and mysterious.
A Spanish woman was saying this to her friend as we passed by.
GF and I both laughed.
“I guess Paris has the same reputation everywhere,” GF said.
Indeed it does. It is amazing to me how many Spaniards have recited the same line to me: “The only problem with Paris is the Parisians.”
I would expect this kind of stereotype to be prevalent among tourists; but two Spaniards who lived in Paris for a long time, and who spoke French fluently, told me the same thing. Why is this image so persistent? Even now we see this stereotype reenacted in movies, television shows, and books. Bill Bryson, in his jejune travelogue of Europe, dwells on this image of the Parisians at length: the snobby, miserable, rude, pretentious Parisian.
Perhaps the person who explained it most memorably was a Blablacar driver from Barcelona who spent three years living there. He said:
“People from Madrid are cocky. But they’re at least happy. People from Paris think they’re better than everyone else, and they’re still miserable.”
In short, the Parisians have an image problem.
Paris, however, does not. Every person I’ve spoken to has praised Paris to the skies. What a strange reputation for a city to have: beautiful and full of assholes. Needless to say I was curious to see for myself.
Not that I needed any additional encouragement to visit Paris. The city’s history speaks for itself. Voltaire, the French Revolution, World War II; the Eiffel Tower, the Louvre, Versailles; the impressionists, the modernists, the existentialists; Ernest Hemingway, Ezra Pound, Gertrude Stein; the art of French cooking, the art of French life—the city has been the center of so much activity that, whatever interest you may have, whether it be painting, cooking, writing, history, philosophy, or just eating, odds are you will be led to Paris.
And I was finally going.
Unfortunately I wouldn’t be there for long. I had to squeeze my trip into a weekend. We would arrive early Friday morning, have all of Saturday to explore, and leave early Sunday.
When I say early, I mean early in the most brutal and cruel sense. In order to book the cheapest flights, GF and I fly when other people don’t. When you’re booking a flight several months in advance, it may sound reasonable to fly at 7 in the morning. But when the date of departure nears, and you realize to make it to the airport, get through security, and be on time for boarding, you have to wake up at 4, this decision may feel somewhat less sensible than it appeared at first. This decision may be especially regretted if, like me, you spend most of the week without sleeping enough, because you teach classes both in the early morning and late at night. And if you’re built like me—tall, leggy, and delicate—you will not be able to catch a wink of sleep when sitting in a cramped seat several thousand feet in the air.
Thus I arrived in Paris with red eyes, a sore neck, and that mixture of panic and mental inactivity that comes with sleep-deprivation. It was in this state that I shuffled down the line to get through customs. (I thought that people coming from Madrid didn’t have to go through customs, since it’s in the Schengen zone, but with the terrorist activity I understand border control has been tightened.)
In my best accent, I said Bonjour to the woman behind the class, as I handed her my passport. She flipped through the passport to the page with my photo and personal information. Then, she flipped to the page before that.
Immediately I felt nervous. Several years ago, on a flight to Kenya, I managed to get toothpaste on my passport (the tube exploded). Unfortunately, the stains are still visible; but fortunately, only the irrelevant first page was affected. Sure, it doesn’t look great, but it’s hardly worth the hassle and expense to get a new one.
These considerations were apparently lost on the customs official who, after turning to the afflicted page, looked up to give me the most unforgettable look. She jerked her neck back, pursed her lips into a duck-billed sneer, and raised her eyebrows with alarm. Then she stamped my passport and rolled her eyes and she handed it back to me. This hasn’t happened to me anywhere else.
I was in France.
More specifically, I was in the Beauvais-Tillé Airport. This is a small and shabby airport, handling only about 4,000,000 people annually. (For comparison, the Charles de Gaulle Airport handles about 66 million people annually.) It is marketed by Ryanair as the Beauvais-Paris airport, but this is simply a lie. The airport is 85 km away from Paris. The only way to get to Paris is by bus; the bus costs 17€ per trip, and the ride takes over an hour. Bear this in mind the next time you want to fly Ryanair to Paris.
A long line had already formed in front of the ticket machines for the bus. Apparently, the only way to get a ticket was to use one of these machines; and since everybody needed a ticket, everyone was waiting. The line moved slowly. We waited, shuffled a feet steps forward, and waited.
“I’m gonna go look at what’s going on,” GF said.
She left her bag and went to the front.
“There’s only one working machine,” she said as she returned.
There must have been at least fifty people in line. So here’s another tip: if you plan on saving money by taking an early flight on Ryanair to Paris, and justify this decision with the thought that it gives you extra time in Paris, consider that you will have to wait in line to buy tickets for a bus, and then take a bus ride that lasts 70 minutes and costs 17€. But I was too tired to be feeling regrets.
Finally an employee came out and began working on the broken machines. He pulled them apart, tinkering with the inside, and then rebooted them. As one of them started up, I noticed the operating system: Windows 97. No wonder they weren’t working.
But when the machines sprung back to life, we were able to buy our tickets and go out to the buses. And what do you know? Outside was a ticket booth with real people selling tickets, and a pretty reasonable line. Keep all this in mind for your next trip to Paris.
GF slept the whole busride. I listened to an audiobook and looked out the window. The ride from the Beauvais-Tillé Airport to Paris is at least quite nice. It was a lovely, sunny day, and the French countryside rolled past—fields of green farmland with hardly a house in sight. The ride was so different from any I’d seen in Spain. For one, the landscape was flat, while Spain is persistently mountainous. What is more, the lush, glowing green of everything contrasted sharply with the dry, sandy soil near Madrid. And I didn’t even see one castle!
I was just about to drift off when we entered the city. Suddenly, I was filled with excitement. Out the window I could see several skyscrapers. And then, in the distance, I saw that famous form, so iconic and unmistakable—the silhouette of the Eiffel Tower in the distance.
Now only was I in France, but in Paris.
The first thing you will notice about Paris is that it looks like Paris.
Nothing is out of place. You can stroll along the Seine, its dirty, dark green waters flowing merrily while ferry after ferry go by. Along the river, people are selling used books, Japanese prints, and pornographic posters from shabby wooden shacks. Cafés are inescapable and immaculate. There are no gaudy plastic signs, there is no tasteless decoration. The menus are displayed in glass cases; the color scheme is a subdued mix of blacks, greys, and dark reds. The waiters are well dressed; the tables and chairs are of finished wood; the silverware, the plates, the glasses are polished and stylish. Tree-shaded boulevards lead to roundabouts with monuments in the middle. Everything looks antique and lovingly preserved. The city is elegance itself.
Our first stop was the Sainte-Chapelle. I wanted to go there, because I still have a vivid memory of seeing pictures of the Sainte-Chapelle in my art history course. We were covering the gothic, and the professor was explaining how the gothic architects managed to make buildings with ever-large windows—a very difficult feat in a stone building. The apotheosis of this tendency was the Sainte-Chapelle, a building made completely of stained glass—or at least it seems.
The Sainte-Chapelle (Holy Chapel) was completed in 1248, under the auspices of Louis IX. He had acquired some important relics from the Venetians (including the Crown of Thorns) and wanted a place to put them. Damaged during the Revolution and restored afterwards, nowadays the building is primarily a tourist attraction.
Except for the tall, gothic spire, you cannot see the building from the street. It is now entirely surrounded by another edifice, that wraps around the outside. This building serves as a security checkpoint, through which you must pass in order to reach the inside. This means standing on a line as person by person shuffles through a metal detector. The French are not taking any risks nowadays. Once you get through security, you’ll see burly men with assault riffles strolling around the complex, looking tough and serious. They walk by, looking both reassuring or menacing, depending on your mood, as you wait in the next line to actually purchase your ticket. You can enjoy the exterior of the building as you wait; but unfortunately you cannot see the facade very well, since the restricted area prevents you from getting far enough away.
When we finally bought our tickets, went inside, and then ascended the stairs to the upper chapel, we gasped in unison. The place is stunning. The room seems to be suspended through sorcery; how can such delicate mullions support a stone roof? This illusion is created, as in many gothic structures, by moving the main support outside and out of view, in the form of flying buttresses. But the illusion is perfect.
Light pours in from every direction, turned into a rainbow of colors by the stained glass. The more you examine the glass, the more entranced you become, for the glass is covered with scenes from the Bible. On one side is the Old Testament, and on the other side the New. The ceiling has been painted to look like the night sky; wooden sculptures of saints adorn the interior; and on the wall above the doorway, below the magnificent rose window, is a fresco of Christ enthroned, surrounded by angels. For me, the only thing that the Sainte-Chapelle lacked was the sense of spiritual power and religious awe that I often get from gothic buildings. The final effect is rather purely aesthetic—a sweet, delicious prettiness.
Our next stop was the Louvre. By now we were tired and hungry. We had been awake for a long time, hadn’t slept or ate much, and had been on our feet for much of the day. But I was determined to go. Even before I had any interest in history, art, or Paris, I had heard of the Louvre. Everyone has. It is one of the few art museums with a world-wide reputation, a name respected by connoisseurs and philistines. I knew I had to go.
Originally, the Louvre was a fortress, built under Philip II in the 12th century, right in the center of Paris on the right bank of the Seine. (You can still see the castle foundations in the Louvre basement.) Many years later, in the 16th century, the building was transformed into a Renaissance palace by Francis I; the Louvre thus bears no trace of the French Gothic style, and is instead a classical construction of straight lines and clean forms. Monarchs stayed in the palace for a while, until Louis XIV decided that he preferred to live in Versailles. Then the building was given to various academies. Finally, during the French Revolution, people had the truly revolutionary idea of transforming it into a public museum to display the Royal Collection. It opened in 1793.
The Louvre is large. It contains multitudes. Its collection spans from the beginnings of Egypt to the present day. You would need several days of persistent, diligent walking to see everything, and perhaps a lifetime to properly appreciate and understand the many thousands of paintings and artifacts. We didn’t have a lifetime or several days; we had a few hours before the museum closed. Thus I only experienced a taste of the collection, and I can only offer you an echo of a taste.
Of course, there’s the Mona Lisa. The painting hangs in the center of the Louvre’s vast collection of Renaissance art. A museum employee stands on either side; a barrier prevents anyone from getting too close; and a thick plate of glass ensures that the painting would survive even if the museum went up in flames. Probably at any time of the day, there is a big crowd around the painting. When GF and I went, it was around dinner time (the Louvre is open late on Fridays), so the crowd was not terrible.
We slowly elbowed our way through the crowd, as the elusive image came into view. It is a very strange experience, seeing a famous painting with your own eyes. The Mono Lisa is perhaps the most iconic image in the world (maybe second to McDonald’s golden arches) so you’d think seeing the original would be akin to a religious experience. But many have told me that they found the painting disappointing.
The most common complaint I hear is that the painting is small. At first glance, this is an odd thing to complain about; the Mona Lisa is a portrait, and has the usual dimensions of that genre. But upon further reflection, this complaint is revealing of the way we experience art in the modern world.
Unlike people living as recently as the 19th century, you have already seen high quality images of the Mona Lisa a thousand times—on television, in movies, on billboards, advertisements, and commercials. This reproduction of the image has turned it into an icon. What makes something iconic is that it stands for more than itself. Originally, the word icon meant a devotional image, of a saint, Jesus, or the Virgin, used in prayer and religious ritual. In theory, the icon is not meant to be the object of religious worship, but merely an aid; the image allows the worshipper to focus his feelings and thoughts on the next world. Thus an icon is not meant to draw attention to itself, but help you think of something else.
The Mona Lisa performs a similar function in our own world, serving as a visual cue for all sorts of diverse associations—Leonardo, the Renaissance, Italy, the Louvre, culture, sophistication, mystery, even painting itself. This use of the image has gradually ruined our ability to really see it; we stop paying attention to the details, just as we stop paying attention to a font when we begin to read a story. Like a word in a book, we glance at the image instead of carefully scanning it. The Mona Lisa has ceased to be a thing in itself, and has become a symbol for other things. And when this is the case, the only difference between seeing a copy and seeing the original can be superficial things, like size.
It would take much patient work to be able to see the painting as it would appear to you for the first time, as a fresh work of art. And when you are standing in a crowd of people, crushed on all sides, surrounded by cameras and iPhones, separating by at least ten feet from the painting itself, it is all but impossible to give the painting justice. I stood there and did my very best; but it wasn’t long before somebody nearby asked me to take a photo of him standing in front of the painting.
“Alright,” I said, as he handed me his camera.
He smiled and then unfurled a sign that read:
“YOU SHOULD BE HERE!”
It would take a library of books to do justice to the Louvre’s collection, so I will only mention a few more famous works. A floor below the Mona Lisa is a sculpture by Michelangelo, the Dying Slave. Originally sculpted for the uncompleted tomb of Pope Julius II, the work depicts the moment of death of a supine and nearly naked man. This seems potentially spiritual and tragic, but to me the sculpture looks inescapably sexual; the figure’s pose and even his face strike me as strangely feminine. Am I alone in this?
The Louvre boasts two Greek sculptures of high repute, the Winged Victory of Samothrace and the Venus de Milo. Both of these works, made before the common era, were discovered in the 19th century. The first is an image of the goddess of victory, Nike, perhaps built to commemorate a naval victory. She seems to be standing on the brow of a ship, her silky garments flowing in the breeze. Unfortunately, the statue’s head and arms have been lost to time; she is now a winged torso on two strong legs. Despite this, the work manages to be supremely expressive, perhaps the most convincing image of triumph I know. The Venus de Milo is a sculpture of Venus, her arms missing, her chest bare, her legs wrapped in a loose robe, leaning on one leg with an arched torso.
The last work I’ll mention is the Seated Scribe. This is a small sculpture of painted limestone, depicting a man sitting cross legged, writing on a piece of papyrus that rests on his lap. Compared to a Greek sculpture, there is nothing remarkable about this work. But when you consider that it was made around 2,500 BCE in Ancient Egypt, you will be able to appreciate just how special it is. The Seated Scribe is unlike any other piece of Egyptian art I’ve seen. First, the very fact that the work depicts a scribe is significant, for Egyptian art typically portrays gods, pharaohs, or perhaps servants and soldiers. What is more, while most art from this period is highly idealized, this sculpture is quite realistic; the scribe has an individualized face and even a paunch. Instead of seeing an image of power, we are seeing a single man, imperfect, frail, and hard at work.
By the time we left, we were both utterly exhausted. We hadn’t slept more than four hours, we hadn’t eaten in about eight hours, and we had been on our feet for about ten hours. My body was a patchwork of pains: my legs were aching, my feet were blistered, my clothes were soaked with sweat, my stomach was grumbling, my eyes were bloodshot, and my head was pounding. GF wasn’t doing much better. And in that state, we dragged ourselves to eat some cheap Chinese food and go to bed. We had another long day ahead.
We awoke early, threw on our clothes, and skipped breakfast. We wanted to get to Notre-Dame right as it was opening, to avoid the extremely long line we had seen the previous day.
This was only partly successful. A line had already formed, though it was only about half as long as the line from yesterday. We dutifully got on and waited. This at least gave me a chance to observe the cathedral’s wonderful façade.
The demeanor of the great building is immediately recognizable and familiar, even to people who do not consider themselves interested in this sort of thing. To me, the cathedral, although undeniably gothic, has a certain classical elegance not found in, say, Toledo. Everything is perfectly symmetrical and harmonious. There is no jumbling of styles or mixture of motifs you so often find in other cathedrals. Although the building took almost 200 years to build, it seems to bear a unified design. (I suspect, however, that a more knowledgeable eye would detect significant differences in style that escaped me.)
Perhaps because the cathedral was recently given a cleaning, nowadays it looks fresh and even youthful. This freshness was accentuated by the beautiful sunny day, to the extent that the spiritual power I normally feel in the presence of gothic cathedrals was somehow lacking. Notre-Dame looked rather cheerful and even inviting. This might be because the building is not so angular as other cathedrals; instead of spires, such as are found in Burgos and Chartres, the towers of Notre-Dame have flat tops.
The line was moving quickly. As I approached, I was able to better see the friezes that adorned the front portals. These are perhaps the most impressive part of the cathedral; for gothic sculptures, they are remarkably naturalistic, while remaining powerfully religious. My favorite was of a man calmly holding his own decapitated head in his hands. This is St. Denis of Paris. Back in Roman times, in the third century, he was the Bishop Paris, and had the good fortune to be decapitated during a persecution of the Christians. Unperturbed by this, the good bishop calmly picked up his head and walked ten kilometers, preaching all the way. People had more pluck back then.
Finally we got inside; and to our surprise, it was free. The place was absolutely swarming with tourists. This is why I don’t enjoy visiting the cathedrals in Madrid and in Lisbon. I enjoy cathedrals not only for the art, but because they are big, quiet places that put me in a meditative mood. But in a dense crowd, watching out for pickpockets, I didn’t feel that I could properly enjoy the ambience. This is a shame, because it’s really a lovely cathedral; the stained glass is almost as marvelous as that in the Sainte-Chapelle.
We were outside in about half an hour, both of us starving by now. We sat down to an overpriced, but quite good, breakfast in a café nearby and then began walking towards our next destination: the Musée d’Orsay.
The Musée d’Orsay is one of the world’s finest art museums. Opened as recently as 1986, the museum is housed in an erstwhile railroad station, Gare d’Orsay, completed right in time for the 1900 World’s Fair in Paris. The place still looks like a train station, with a cavernous, rounded glass ceiling. Wisely, the architects of the museum decided to leave much of the upper space open; and this, combined with the plentiful natural light, makes you feel almost as if you are outside. The layout of the museum is equally tasteful. The galleries for paintings are situated symmetrically on each side, along a central corridor; and this corridor, as well as two walkways up above, has been filled with sculptures, big and tiny.
Unlike the Louvre, the Musée d’Orsay concentrates on a very specific place and time—namely, art produced in France (Paris, mostly) in the mid 19th and early 20th centuries. This may sound a bit narrow, but this was actually one of the most fertile periods in the history of art; and if you want to properly know this epoch, you’ve got to come here. The museum has paintings by Delecroix, Manet, Monet, Cézanne, van Gogh, Signac, Seurat, as well as sculptures by Gaugin and Rodin, among innumerable others. The collection has been chosen with exquisite taste. Every other painting is a masterpiece. Nothing is disappointing or out of place. And best of all, unlike the Louvre, you can see everything in three to four hours.
Walking through the Musée d’Orsay was nearly overwhelming. I have never been more entranced by a museum, nor more affected by visual art. In fact, the experience made such a deep impression on me that I will have to devote an entire post to it. Here I offer only a brief sketch.
I saw everything, drinking up each painting with desperate relish. I watched as the styles changed and evolved. First I admired the academic style of William Bourguereau, who painted mythological subjects—Greek Gods, ancient heroes, scenes from Dante—with technical mastery: carefully arranged compositions, scientific anatomy, photographic shadowing; every shape is molded, every line is deliberate, every brushstroke is concealed. The paintings are masterpieces of technique, and yet stale, because they seem to bear no relationship between the artist and the world; rather, they are monuments to a dying tradition.
In reaction to this academic style, which held sway for so long, came the impressionists. Instead of mythological scenes, the impressionists turned their eye to everyday subjects—picnics, soirées, views of the street from apartment windows. Their compositions are typically off-center and messy. Their brushstrokes are not concealed; colors and lines blur into one another. In terms of technique, it seems a step backwards from Bourguereau, but in reality the achievement is more stunning, for they had to develop their technique from scratch. The final effect is a perfect representation of that moment when, after turning your head, a new scene comes into view, all the colors still buzzing, the light playing tricks with your eyes, the forms indistinct as you try to focus. The rise of the impressionists represents a step away from the Platonic conception of knowledge—namely, a View from Nowhere, a perfect perspective that can grasp the world in its entirety—to the our more Nietzschean view of knowledge—namely, inherently subjective, bound up within a specific point of view.
But the impressionists were only the first step. After investigating the way our eyes detect light, later artists started to probe into the ways that our brains put together the data from our eyes into the world as we know it. With this came the following question: What if the way we tend reconstructed the world is completely arbitrary? Could we make sense of our sense data using a different principle, with equal legitimacy? Thus artists began tearing the world apart, sewing it back together in new or interesting ways. Some artists, like Cezánne, tried to simplify the world into more elemental shapes and colors; others, like Signac, tried using atoms of pure color; and van Gogh used curling waves, as if the world we see were only reflection in an swirling ocean of paint.
By the time I walked through the museum, I was absolutely exhausted. But we still had one more museum to see: the Musée de Rodin. This museum, opened in 1919, devoted almost solely to the French sculptor, Auguste Rodin, who was considered by none other than Kenneth Clark as the greatest sculptor since Michelangelo. The museum is situated in the former Hôtel Biron, where Rodin liked to work. When he died, he donated his sculptures and his collection of art to the French government, on the condition that they make the hotel into a museum. It was done, and is now one of the many charming places to visit in Paris.
The museum consists of an extensive garden and the old building, with Rodin’s sculptures scattered generously throughout. The garden might be the nicest part. There, you can find The Thinker thinking away, surrounded by hedges, as well as copies of almost every one of his major works.
Now, I must admit that my ability to appreciate sculpture lags far behind my ability to appreciate paintings. Even so, it is clear that Rodin was a brilliant artist. While still depicting human figures, largely with realistic anatomy, he manages to break completely from the Greco-Roman tradition. Far from representing idealized forms, Rodin’s figures are human, imperfect, and often ugly. Far from achieving a classical, timeless grace, Rodin’s figures are twisted, contorted, tortured. The Thinker is a case in point: far from a wise philosopher, calm and contemplative, the man is troubled, anguished, and brooding.
One of my favorite works was Rodin’s Gates of Hell. Originally intended to be the doorway for a Museum of Decorative Arts, until the museum was abandoned, the sculpture is now considered one of Rodin’s masterworks, perhaps his magnus opus. It is meant to be an elaborate representation of Dante’s Inferno. Many of his most famous sculptures originated as pieces of this composition, with The Thinker presiding over the entrance. Everything around the pensive man is a stew of sin and suffering, with figures emerging, half-formed, from the background, tortured, broken, their faces wracked with pain. It is a powerful and terrifying work.
But the sculpture I like best is Rodin’s Monument to Balzac. It is really an absurd statue. The writer stands, his body entirely enveloped in a robe, with his mustachioed face held high, as if snubbing the viewer. At first glance, the figure’s pose might seem totally unnatural; but the longer you look, the more you can see how the body of a paunchy man might easily look like this under a thick robe. I love the sculpture because it manages to make something so apparently unheroic into the symbol of human genius. Balzac is totally uncouth. He is ugly, fat, unshaven; his hair is messy, his robe is shabby. And yet, his inner brilliance allows him to stand completely above the world, unconcerned with conventional success, totally devoted to his personal vision. The sculpture is a monument to the outcast, eccentric, and ultimately triumphant artist.
After walking through the garden and the old hotel, enjoying not only samples of Rodin’s finished work but preparatory studies he left behind, I was done with museums. I couldn’t possibly absorb any more art. By now the day was waning; in a couple hours, the sun would set. Luckily, there was only one more thing I absolutely needed to see: the Eiffel Tower.
Luckily, it wasn’t hard to find. Standing at 1,063 ft (324 m) tall, the Eiffel Tower remains the tallest structure in Paris. Built for the World’s Fair 1889, it was criticized quite severely in its time, especially by the intelligentsia. This is amazing to me, for it is difficult to imagine how the tower could be more perfect.
For me, and perhaps many others, the Eiffel Tower represents Paris’s Golden Age. It was a time when the future could be embraced without scorning the past, when aesthetic values could be questioned without beauty being abandoned. Made of wrought iron, the structure was so daring that people thought it would be blown over by the wind. I can understand why. Even now, there seems to be so little metal per square inch that it looks like it’s made of matchsticks glued together, ready to come apart at the merest breeze.
There is something human about its shape. Looking at the tower dead on, with only two of its legs visible, the tower seems like a Colossus standing over the world. The tower is also, like Paris, elegance itself. The way that the legs gently curve together until they meet at the top has all the classic grace of the Parthenon. Or perhaps the Eiffel Tower can be better compared with the pyramids, as its creator did. This is the modern pyramid, equally useless, equally monolithic, equally iconic. For whatever reason, I find it tremendously inspiring that people built something so big and so ambitious for no practical benefit whatsoever. To me, this is the essence of being human.
We sat in the grass nearby for a few minutes, just taking in the sight. Men were walking around, trying to sell bottles of wine. I was really in the mood for some wine, but I didn’t feel confident about buying wine from these guys and drinking it in the park. Isn’t it illegal? After shooing away five of them, I decided to go. You can’t really enjoy a view when you’re constantly refusing a drink.
We had only one final stop, and not much time to see it: Montmartre. Montmartre is a famous neighborhood in Paris, with a similar reputation to the West Village in New York. Situated on a hill, in the past Montmartre was a haven for artists, where eccentric bohemians could live with cheap rents. Nowadays, it is mainly a tourist attraction, most notable for the gigantic Sacré-Cœur Basilica. Near Montmartre is the famous Moulin-Rouge, nestled amid countless sex shops. By the way, I wonder how so many sex shops manage to stay in business; you’d think they would all sell basically similar products, and so having so many would be unsustainable. But they manage to stay in business, apparently. I suppose enough horny tourists come to Paris to keep an entire town of sex shops above water.
We took our obligatory photo of the Moulin-Rouge, and then began to walk up the hill. On the way, we passed Les Deux Moulins, the café where the film Amélie was shot. (Great movie, by the way.) Soon we arrived at the top. The white cupola of Sacré-Cœur, lit up by spotlights, shone like a beacon amid the darkness. Gathered round where hundreds of people, tourists speaking dozens of languages, and immigrants speaking dozens more trying to sell stuff to the tourists. Inside the basilica, a mass was being held. Outside, people smoke and drank and laughed with one another. It was a wonderful night.
We walked down the stairs in front to the street below. Then suddenly I saw a flash of light.
“What was that?” I asked GF.
“Dunno,” she said. “Go look.”
I walked over to where some other people where standing.
In the distance, I could see the Eiffel Tower, its form lit up with yellow lights. On the top, a searchlight was slowly spinning, sending a powerful beam in all directions. Seconds later, the light turned towards us again, flashing like the sun itself as it passed. I looked on in wonder. And as I looked, I couldn’t help thinking that this image could represent all of Paris: elegant, mysterious, brilliant, illuminating all the world around.