Wednesday, February 08, 2006

The Cloisters

If you’ll allow me a piece of shameless cultural stereotyping, British people are generally not comfortable being conspicuous. The problem of being in America, therefore, is that it’s possible to be conspicuous by virtue simply of being British. As a representative Brit myself, I’ve frequently been embarrassed by the prominence of my nationality, to the extent that I have complied in whatever prejudices and inaccuracies have been inflicted upon my country. One of the many presumptions about Britain that I have had to swallow without making a scene, is that ours is a nation with a lot of history, and hence that British people in general are obsessed with their past.

These kind of cultural claims are actually pretty difficult to refute. But it seems to be almost impossible for any country, however recent its origins, not to be obsessed with history in some form or another. And America’s particular historical obsession, which in contrast to numerous claims certainly does exist, is noticeable in countless ways. Only this week, I visited an offshoot of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, right on the edges of New York City proper, at 191st Street. The exhibit in question was entitled “The Cloisters”, and comprises of a number of sacred objects, tapestries and architectural features broken off from their European mediaeval origin, and carried wholesale across the Atlantic, to be reassembled on a hill overlooking New York City. Ah, what some people will do for authenticity.

The project was executed in 1938, and, like so many projects of the time, was the brainchild of John D. Rockefeller Jr. Upon your arrival, the most immediately striking thing about The Cloisters, is the strange sense of unity imposed upon a whole heap of disparate objects. The light cast in through fourteenth-century French stained-glass windows illuminates thirteenth-century Italian paintings; elsewhere, sculpture and altarpieces from Segovia, Burgundy, the Auvergne and the Rhineland compete for attention. Weirder yet, these sacred relics compete for space with a number of features that are irreducibly American: the medieval arches and supporting columns are plainly not sufficient to support the building itself, and so around these worthy objects an appropriately neo-Gothic design has been constructed. Throughout the cloisters, it is possible to see the joins, where thirteenth-century stone meets twentieth century concrete. The cloister garden may contain wild flowers appropriate to a medieval sanctuary, but visitors can only view them through thick, double glazed windows. For anyone that has viewed a monastery in its original, organic form, there is something distinctly odd about witnessing these crumbling, petrified relics, while the air conditioning pipes into the room constantly.

Sitting on a bench, deep in apparently intense conversation, were a sad-looking man and a Japanese woman.

All of this demonstrates that Americans most certainly do care about history: the question as to precisely what form that interest takes is harder to answer. Is the desire to raid and reassemble ancient European sites the product of simple historical curiosity? Is it the desire to understand something of an age unknown to this young nation? Or is it, like the British colonialists that raided Greece for its ancient monuments, a demonstration of power, of the defeat of historical grandeur through possession? Do the thousands of Americans that pack into these reconstructed cloisters each year fool themselves into thinking that the exhibit somehow represents an organic whole, a faithful reproduction of European models. Or are they aware of the forcible way in which the elements are brought together, but still marvel at the ingenuity of it all? Might they even think, perish the thought, that the American variant of the cloisters represents a functional improvement, a necessary modernization, of the outdated European model?

But leave all these questions. When I went to leave, before I turned into the sacred gift store, I passed the same couple. The man was crying, and the Japanese woman looked aloof. History. Who needs it?

On a lighter note, here is my radio show for this week. I talk about Canada and the State of the Union. Yes, how innovative. But come on you pussies, where are the music suggestions?


At 5:03 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

oh shat ya effin borin gob n play le tigre's deceptacon or coco rosie's noah's ark.

i look forward to violently dancing with you again one day my love.

yours forever,


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