Sunday, October 3, 2010

The Empress

On an overcast Sunday morning it's a good thing to sit on my couch while thinking of sunnier days... and listening to Linda Ronstadt's Lush Life album, in which a good singer grew up and became a fine singer- with the help of Nelson Riddle and his orchestra. Lots of great session work for her to play off of. I love these old songs, the sentiments, the melodic richness, the jazzy harmonies, the room for improvisation, the insights into the human heart. Rock and roll and its spawn put an end to such art. How sad for recent generations that they have lost so much. I expect that someday soon the last half of the twentieth century will be recognized as an era when our cultural values lost their moorings. Sometimes it embarrasses me to live in this age.
Somehow the idea that beauty has a truth of its own has been displaced by the idea that beauty is kind of a lie. That is to say the real truth is that there is no truth, according to contemporary conventional thinking. It's a philosophical viewpoint that's been a long time in the making, taken up by artists in the late 19th century but it did not take hold among the general public until the '60's. It seems to me that World War One was the tipping point. As one of the most brutal and senseless wars ever fought it seemed to prove that the belief in an enlightened and civilized western civilization was nothing but a fable. Artists like Picasso depicted a fractured world, torn apart, and implied that this was its true nature. Science likewise undermined two thousand years of faith in a benevolent creator by contending that the world just is, and that's all there is. This, of course, leaves no room for beauty, nobility, love, purpose. Once it is accepted that this one life is all we have then it is just as Paul Johnson says in his Quest for God.
"If on the other hand God does not exist, another momentous set of consequences follows. This life then becomes the only one we have, we have no duties or obligations except to ourselves, and we need weigh no other considerations except our own interests and pleasures. There are no commands to follow except what society imposes on upon us, and even these we may evade if we can get away with it. In a Godless world there is no obvious basis for altruism of any kind, moral anarchy takes over and the rule of self prevails."
Luckily Victoria preserves physical reminders of a time when beauty was a goal of architects and planners. It wasn't enough to be utilitarian, to merely let form follow function. Form and function have always been a necessary prerequisite to successful buildings. After all, they aren't supposed to crumble or fall down, they must shed rain, every element must work as well as possible. But that is engineering. To be an architect of note a sense of beauty and proportion had to be cultivated. In the 19th century that meant a knowledge and familiarity with classical forms.
The Empress Hotel is a fine example of 19th century ideals, and unlike music which is rather ephemeral, stone is quite durable. Along with Parliament it frames the Inner Harbour in a composition of pure harmony and proportion. Why do so many from so far away trek into Victoria to see this vista? It's because despite all the propagandizing against beauty in our lifetimes, we retain a craving for it. Art is not just a repetition of nature, or an arbitrary outburst of an artist's 'feelings,' it is an expression of a man's striving to embrace a truth that cannot really be found on earth. A work of art brings into the material world a vision the artist has of a higher and deeper world, one to which we are all sensitive, but to which the artist has a special relationship. It raises all of us.
To a utilitarian peaked towers and stained glass skylights are nonsensical. Think of the maintenance. And isn't English ivy an invasive species? But then on the other hand if you are trying to sell a piece of art carved from mammoth tusks and BC jade for $76,000 then somehow a flea market on the street won't do- high ceilings and brass fixtures make a far better setting. Oh, well. On a fine autumn day I'm glad that much of Victoria was built before the world went insane. And try as they might the prophets of soulless ugliness have not been able to stamp out that human spirit that aspires to beauty. Even the activist on the corner can't hide her prettiness behind the scruffy look that is today's idea of fashion.

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