Sunday, June 18, 2017

A Rant against Mediocrity

Anyone who has even been slightly paying attention to my blog posts will have noted by now that I like highly ornamental and decorative designs and do not shy away from the intricate or complex. I once designed something for a client, and when I presented the drawing, got the comment of "that is not going to be easy, is it?"to which I replied, "I do not do 'easy', If it was easy, it would be someone else's job." I enjoy the challenges that complex designs provide, and find making simple things extremely boring and uninteresting.

An early 19th century "Pietre Dure" table in the national Gallery, Washington
Made before people wanted everything "easy" to do
(own photo)

Part of my work involves coordinating tasks with other contractors to do work that I do not have time to do, or is outside of the scope of what I am proficient in accomplishing. In that vein, I was trying to work with three contractors this past week for the tasks of upholstery, painting, and marble work. All three had the same basic paraphrased complaint against what I wanted them to do. "That is too complicated, why can't you come up with a design which is easier?" They did not want to do the work I was asking for because it would take some actual thought and time (which they would be getting paid for) to complete. They would much rather do something simple and straight-forward; get done and get paid. Getting done seems to be the main goal of the modern contractor, with no enjoyment of the process of doing.

This reminded me of my college days studying interior design. At that time I realised why most modern architecture was so boring, In those days everything was still drawn on a draughting table with pencil, pen, triangle and parallel ruler. As a result, everyone wanted to do the simplest design they could get away with. once, we all had one project which involved drawing several walls all in brick, all of my classmates griped and complained endlessly about how long it took to do. Many of them tried to come up with methods to avoid drawing the bricks altogether, such as using a plastic brick template which would imprint the pattern onto the parchment, or drawing a grid instead of a running bond, both with horrible results. Draughting itself is an art which takes skill and practice to perfect, and something which one can take pride in achieving; an art which is completely and sadly lost with the age of computers. (The twisted irony is they now have programs to make the computer renderings "look like" daughtsmanship to give it "character"!)

I often got into conflict with my professors over design style; they wanted me to do "modern" things, and I wanted to do things which had style and elegance, which, to them were usually "outdated" or too complex, There was a sense that any style that had been previously used could not be used again, except that did not really hold true, because simple designs void of any decoration or real creativity had been being invented for most of the 20th century, fueled, in my opinion, by two things; a desire to be different, for the sake of difference, at the cost of beauty, and a general laziness resulting in trying to make things "easier".

A former factory building in Seville, Spain. It was built from day one as a factory
and continued as such until the 1950's
(source, Wikipedia)
A modern factory. Both of these factory buildings were built to process the same
raw material. The first was built in an era when people took pride in what they
built. I wonder if anyone would be interested in the second facade 300 years
from now. This is the sort of design my professors expected me to produce
but the first image is the sort of designing that I wanted to do. Sadly,
our world is now filled to overflowing with the sterile hulks of this style.

Wanting to make things "easier" is nothing new in human history, we have been inventing labour saving devices for thousands of years, and for the most part, these inventions have been useful and helpful. The past hundred years though, have marked a new phase in human invention, which is going from improving the way things get done, to creating devices for the lazy, and encouraging a general lack of skill. I have a poster on my wall with a quotation from Ogden Nash, " Progress may have been all right once, but it has been going on far too long." (He died in 1971, I wonder what he would think of 2017?)

Pick up any woodworking companies' catalog, today, and one will find hundreds of gadget which are designed to be so simple and easy to use, that "anyone" can do a task which formerly required someone with an acquired set of skills to accomplish. It used to be that a carver, for example,  would begin as an apprentice when  his muscles and brain were still so young as to be easily taught. He would then spend his youth honing his skills to be able to achieve the exquisite carvings which are seldom ever seen by even the best carvers of our day. (There is a reason that the best guitar players of our times all began playing when they were kids, it is much more difficult to train the adult mind/hand coordination.) Nowadays, no one seems to even be willing to invest the amount of time in a lot of skills to become proficient at them, and instead try to invent machines and computers to substitute for the time they do not want to spend. This comes partly from a lack of interest in keeping skills alive, partly from valuing income over a pride in accomplishment, and in my opinion, a general laziness inherit in our general human race. Personally, my biggest argument for my belief that God is an human invention is found in the very writings which are supposed to "prove" his existence. In this story, God "spoke" and things appeared, this has a very suspiciously human characteristic to it; a true "creator" would relish and enjoy the act of creating, he would want to "get his hands dirty" and actually be actively involved in making the things he thought of. A lazy human wants to "speak the word" (press a button on a computer) and have things come instantly into being.

A sad byproduct of this 'dumbing down' of creativity and design and of trying to make everything as simple as possible, has been to produce generations of consumers who no longer even know what fine quality, design and creativity look like. They go to the stores and shops and see mass produced rubbish and assume that is the way things should look. As a result, almost no one wants to pay for anything to be made well. I once spent eight hours hand rubbing the finish on a small table to give the look of a highly polished antique, but the client did not like the "streaks" that sharp light made visible; I spent five minutes spraying it with an aerosol finish and they were delighted. (I was appalled) All of the other furniture in their house was finished that way and when presented with something much finer, they had no point of reference in which to receive it. Taste is something acquired through exposure and education, as is the lack of it.

Another sad thing is that, for the most part, we are really no longer even able to produce the quality of work which was achieved in ages past. As a collective society, we have lost the skills and there is almost no one left to teach them to others. It is like we have artistically entered another "dark ages" if we compare the work created now, to that of the 16th through 18th century (and even before). In my work, I try to do the best I can, and strive always to improve and hone my skills, but I will readily admit that compared to the fine work produced in past centuries (and even by a few modern artists) my work is scarcely more than amateur cobbling. I have not had the fortune of receiving an apprenticeship to a true master of anything and have had to try the best I can to teach myself the "skills" that I do have.

My ceiling which I recently finished. Though I am a bit proud of what I
created, it is a far cry from a master of the 18th century as pictured below

The irony of the whole evolutionary process is also very stark. Before the 20th century a well established artist or a fine cabinet maker had a much more prestigious place in society and a better comparative economic position than his modern counterpart (does he even have a modern counterpart?) has for all of the time and labour-saving devices which have been invented since the time of such illustrious artists and craftsmen as Giotto, Michelangelo, Charles Boulle, Gringling Gibbons, or David Roentgen.

A random robot carved design as found on the web by a company advertising'
their "carving" machine
A carving by Gringling Gibbons illustrates the quality of carving to be had
in the late 17th century
(Many people will look at these and not even see a difference)

In this modern world in which we find ourselves living, we are caught in a vicious cycle of a lack of clientele willing to pay for truly well made products and a lack of artisans skillful enough or willing to take the time to produce them. Laziness and mediocrity have become the norm of our world and no one seems to be concerned. This really leaves me to wonder what this new century will bring?

Sunday, June 4, 2017

Assumptions and Closed Minded Prejudices

This past week I was reading something related to a stone monument which is supposed to mark the grave of a certain Boethius, who was bishop of Carpentras, a town in southern France, from 583 to 604. According to what I read, "the sculptor was ignorant of Greek, and no doubt all language, because he has placed the cross in reverse, with the 'Omega' before the 'Alpha'".

The plaque reads, "stone tomb of  Boethius, bishop of
Carpentras and Vasque from 583-604"
Picture from Wikipedia

The French Wikipedia says that this stone was originally ornamented with semi-precious stones and glass, (presumably in the little squares within the cross, for example). It does not say so, but from what I know of artwork at this time, and bishop's tombs, it would have been covered in gold foil or gilded as well. This is also only part of the original tomb.

The thing I take issue with, here, is the idea that people automatically assume that the artist was "illiterate". For the past couple of weeks I have been reading The History of the Franks, written by Gregory of Tours in the late 6th century. He speaks a lot of the goings on in France at the end of the 6th century, and even mentions this Boethius by name. He obviously did not mention his death or tomb, because Boethius died about 13 years after Gregory did, but one does not get the impression from reading his work that artists of his day were ignorant or uneducated. In fact, the remarkable thing one gleans from reading this work is how much life seems to go on, in his mind, as it always had. He sees himself, and the people of France as the natural extension of the "Gauls" of the Roman period, and mentions nothing about a "fall" of the Empire. In fact, he refers many times, in his work, to the "emperor" (Justinian, who's portrait can still be found in two basilicas in Ravena). The only thing out of the ordinary which he mentions are many unnatural phenomena such as a couple meteor strikes, and other wild natural disasters, and the Franks seemingly incessant penchant for violence against one another. 

Because we are so programmed to think that this period was the deepest of the "Dark Ages" whenever we see an anomaly like this, the automatic assumption is that the person involved was ignorant. We do not even stop for a second to contemplate whether or not there could be another explanation. This is proof positive of our viewpoint, and therefore there is not need to give another second's worth of consideration. I could not disagree more strongly!

While it might be possible that the artist was in fact illiterate, this is "proof" of nothing. Artists worked from models, other works, or pictures in books. Might it be possible that this was not originally the tomb stone, but a stone mould for casting a bronze plaque for the tomb? (if it was a mould, the cast piece would not be reversed) It might also be possible that what this artist had as an example was a mould for a cross and he forgot to reverse it. How many times have modern people done the same thing? I know I have several times, such as when I wanted to carve a stamp for my monogram. I guess I must be illiterate as well.

Matrices for embossing metal. These are for embossing so the image
would look the same in the stamped metal. I have an image of a fragment
of a carved stone from Cluny which was used as a mould but cannot
seem to find where I filed the picture. A casting makes a reverse
image of what is carved.

If anyone getting something backwards is an automatic indication of illiteracy, then what does that say about the curators of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York? I noticed this fragment on the wall when I visited last summer. You see, we cannot assume just because someone did something other that the way it is "supposed to be" that they are automatically illiterate or ignorant.

Which is a sign of worse illiteracy, backwards or upside down?
A stone slab displayed in the met with the "Alpha and Omega" upside-down 
 Perhaps there is another excuse, and in the case of the MET, we would naturally give that assumption. In this case, if the Alpha and Omega are right side up, then "Chi Ro" symbol for Christ (the X with another vertical line and and half loop which is an R) would be upside down. So perhaps here is another example of another "illiterate". If we can give a modern person the benefit of doubt and possible human error, why not for the anonymous 7th century mason as well? 

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