Archive for ‘visual arts’

“I can’t be left to my imagination…”

Sometimes, during the busiest weeks, we need to find time to slow down. I did—and in two blog posts about current approaches to art I noticed, and cheered for, implicit heresies.

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First, via Cynthia Haven, comes video of California poet laureate Dana Gioia at the first annual Sierra Poetry Festival in April 2017. I’ve long been a fan of Gioia, but the first seven or eight minutes of his casual talk sum up every simple, contrarian impulse I enjoy in 21st-century poetry, which is as much of a niche pursuit as any can be. Gioia addresses a fellowship he describes as having “dedicated significant part of our lives, in a broader sense, to something our society doesn’t much value. We are people at odds with the values that are trumpeted around us in the media,” adding that poets aspire to exchange money, power, and social status for beauty, truth, and goodness. If your first impulse is to laugh at that, please think again: Almost nobody makes money with poetry, and doing something you love for its own rewards is actually a lot more normal than hoping your beloved hobby will turn a profit, earn you “likes,” or make you “YouTube Famous.”

The statement that struck me the strongest was this: “We don’t lead global lives.” Heresy! For all we learn from other perspectives and wider views, we can’t escape our own terroir, though many try. At a time when we’re supposed to aspire to be “global citizens,” whatever that is, Gioia preaches diversity of place, of values, of expression. I’m glad he does; those offer something true for all of us.

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And then there’s this from the website Artsy: “Why the Rise of Workout Classes in Museums Should Worry Art Lovers.” Do we really need an “explainer” on this? I understand that some museums have grave financial problems, and I attended several museum conferences a few years ago where older administrators were openly terrified by their inability to attract a younger audience with the attention span of a capsized stinkbug. Turning art spaces into noisy, oniony locker rooms is not the answer. Museums have tried these stunts for a while; symphonies have also tried to cash in with gimmicks like crowd-pleasing concerts of orchestral versions of video-game tunes. In the long run, do these things attract more patrons than they repel? No one has said.

In my 21 years in D.C., I learned to laugh at Capitol Hill workaholics who pretended that a few hours of weekly yoga balanced out their frantic attempts to get noticed after working until dawn on those brilliantly persuasive bar graphs in a sorghum-subsidies report for the assistant to Senator Bedfellow. Learning to be alone to exhume your own thoughts is (to use the language of the stressed) a lifestyle choice—no piped-in soundtrack to every meal, no CNN or Fox News blaring overhead as you try to read a book or reconnect with a friend, no checking your phone every six minutes for nonsense.

I like music. I like video games. Yoga is good for you. I value my smartphone. But I’m zealous about there being one secular place left in our culture that isn’t about bodies rather than minds, or doing rather than thinking, or noise rather than silence, or therapeutic self-improvement rather than grappling with the difficult thinking of older, wiser minds. I suppose that’s my heresy. I support it with my wallet, but for now I’ll continue to live in the woods.

“Now, the mist across the window hides the lines…”

Longtime readers might be surprised by how few medieval-ish doodads we have in our home. My office houses a framed copy of the opening of an Icelandic manuscript and a tiny set of Domesday Book postage stamps, and until recently that was about it. When we began renting a large house in the woods, the owners left us with a great deal to work with: not only sunny flower beds and several acres of bird-besieged trees but also walls with so many nails and hooks for hanging photos, artwork, and curios that we weren’t sure we could fill them all.

We did find art for most of them—but not all. And so a few weeks ago, when I noticed two bare nails over a doorway, I decided to put up some blemmyae.

The myth of the blemmyae goes back to the ancient world, when Herodotus described this race of creatures who resembled headless men but carried their faces in their chests. He placed them alongside other humanoids, such as dog-faced men, who were believed to abide along the coast of North Africa. During the Middle Ages, the blemmyae got dragged into texts about the wonders one might find in Africa and Asia. Alexander the Great captures several of them in one romance, and that wonderful liar Sir John Mandeville claimed to have seen some near India. Some medieval writers drew a comically fine distinction between headless men with faces in their chests and headless men with eyes in their shoulders. These beings went by various names, but their legend carried over to the Americas, where Sir Walter Raleigh chased rumors of their existence near what’s now Venezuela.

My blemmyae came from England. Oakapple Designs, a lovely company in South Yorkshire, has acquired the right to make casts of artwork at certain cathedrals and sell them to the public, and the cost is very reasonable. You can browse their assortment of people, animals, and mythical creatures, which runs rampant with angels, bats, dragons, green men, and monks.

According to Oakapple, the two blemmyae over my doorway were made in the 15th century for Ripon Cathedral, where they’re apparently carved onto misericords: folding wooden seats in the choir that can be leaned on in times of need.

I can only guess why people believed in these creatures for so long. Maybe they mistook certain stoop-necked primates as headless; perhaps real tribes of humans wore armor or helmets that gave Europeans peculiar ideas. I find these particular blemmyae rather ambiguous. I’m not even entirely sure what the one on the left is doing with that stick. What I do know is that the carver at Ripon Cathedral thought they were civilized: take note of the clothing and shoes. That’s good enough reason to welcome them into our home—and if they inspire a story or poem, so much the better. I doubt they’ll be the strangest things to emerge from our time in the woods.

“The shipwrecks and the ghosts, from up and down the coast…”

Wyeth has made Halloween a personal Walpurgisnacht, an annual reconnection with the unearthly, with witchcraft and hidden meanings. On that day he is electric with fun. He picks the deformed pumpkins and carves them into jack-o’-lanterns, a long lineage of fantastic death masks summoned up from childhood by the remembered scent of candle-heated pumpkin flesh.

On Halloween night Wyeth sometimes throws open his studio to the Wyeth clan and cohorts. They raid the NC [Wyeth] costume collection and disappear behind Andrew’s store of stage makeup, becoming a pack of ghouls touring the homes of close friends. Sometimes Wyeth in makeup and costume just walks alone in the night through a cornfield. “Marvelous,” exclaims Wyeth. “Getting rid of myself—fifty years after I’m dead, I’ll come walking back in disguise. I’d like nothing better.”

Always he is transported by a sensation of invisibility, of seeing the world through other eyes—revisiting his boyhood orgies of delicious horror. “It’s the eerie feeling of goblins,” he explains, “of witches out riding their broomsticks, dark holes behind windows, the glint of metal, the smell of damp rotting leaves and moisture, the smell of makeup, the feeling of your face under a mask, walking down a road in the moonlight as a child.”

—Richard Meryman, Andrew Wyeth: A Secret Life (1996)

“It seems the music keeps them quiet, there is no other way…”

No matter the ground that’s granted to you,
Whether sand-rotten or silt-riddled,
Whether shoots ripen in rich, sopping earth
To give their full and fattened yield,
Whether high hillsides or handily worked
Lowlands beckon, a level plain,
Or a valley roughened with veering slopes,
It cannot refuse to bring forth for you
Its native plants, provided that you
Don’t louse your labors with laziness…

Walahfrid Strabo (d.849), De Cultura Hortorum (my translation)

Someday I may do what the ninth-century abbot of Reichenau wouldn’t have recommended: cultivate a garden full of medieval European plants. Until then, I’ll revel in my 169 square feet of New World fecundity, a bee-friendly spider-riot of corn, peppers, cucumbers, collards, squash, and beans. I try to be the largest creature on my tenancy; narrow paths and high, uneven fences keep the deer far hence, and I banish chipmunks and mice with a clemency that would put St. Francis to shame.

Even so, my garden cried out for a medieval beastie—and a certain clever loved one of mine decided to oblige.

That’s the tarasque, a marvelous and horrifying creature from the folklore of medieval Provence. With the head of a lion, the tail of a scorpion, six bear’s legs, and a turtle shell, the tarasque ravaged the countryside, until St. Martha—the biblical Martha—lulled it with prayers and hymns and lured it into town. Terrified locals killed it, after which they regretted attacking a tame monster, converted to Christianity, and renamed their town in the monster’s honor.

That’s the story in the 13th-century Legenda Aurea, anyway, and it sure did last: I had a vague memory of encountering this critter in another context long ago, so I went back to the Dungeons and Dragons Monster Manual II from 1983 (don’t judge me) and found this fearsome fellow:

My tarasque is likewise domesticated—or at least domestic. Back in February, when the aforementioned loved one and I were in Memphis, an ice storm shut down the city. We were lucky to be stuck indoors with an assortment of local beer, including the Tarasque Saison from Wiseacre Brewing Company. I liked the can design, she’s got an inventive mind, and three months later, when we saw a garden store shamefully asking 20 bucks for whirligigs made out of nothing more than two beer cans, a wire hanger, and plastic straws, I heard a claim I’ve come not to doubt: “I could totally make that.”

And so a couple weeks ago, having mostly forgotten the matter, I opened a box to find a terrific surprise: a trace of modern medievalism, a souvenir from a recent adventure, and a thoughtful, handmade present all rigged up into one.

After we calibrate the spinning blades a little, the wind vane at the tail should inspire optimal whirling. My garden is now a bit more medieval, if not more dignified. So be it. Such is a blog post befitting July, when the weather is languid, the wind is lazy, and writerly ambition is as tame as a tarasque.


“We’ll wait in stone circles, ’til the force comes through…”

For most of us, inspiration is a whisper, slight and private—so I love when eccentrics with outsized visions find huge ways to share their obsessions with us. A few weeks ago, I discovered one such site in Pennsylvania; it’s literally monumental.

Along an uphill webwork of winding roads, you’ll find a stone circle and dozens of other menhirs, dolmens, and megaliths strewn across 17 acres of groves and paths. The park is a refuge for pilgrims to rest, roam, ponder, and (in my case) take snapshots with antique Polaroids, most of them as murky as whatever moved the soul in a nearby house to haul these huge stones into place.

Celtic nostalgia is cousin to medievalism; a kindred impulse shaped them both. As far back as the English constitutional debates of the 17th and 18th centuries—was the Norman Conquest legit?—the druids were in play. Supporters of Parliament wanted to show continuity from the Germanic Saxons, who were seen as practicing a sort of primitive democracy temporarily kiboshed in 1066; monarchists wanted to override their claims with a more ancient political inheritance from pre-Germanic Celtic Britons. With the druids in mind, boosters of the British Empire also saw proof that savage people could be conquered, colonized, and redeemed—although the Welsh and the Cornish soon showed the power of druids as defiant patriotic symbols instead.

In the 1760s, the discovery of an epic cycle by the ancient bard Ossian famously beguiled readers on both sides of the Atlantic; it was a fake by a Scottish poet, but the Celts of romance conquered and thrived. Students of medieval lit still read Arthurian legend in the wake of 20th-century scholars like Roger Loomis, who never failed to discern minute echoes of Celtic ritual on every interminable page. Since the 1980s, the comically prolific John and Caitlin Matthews have cranked out piles of books that nourished a neo-druid British counterculture with growing political heft.

In the United States, popular Celticism has been domesticated; as with medievalism, less is at stake, so we make it our own. You’ll find it in neopagan spirituality and in the nostalgia of Scottish and Irish ancestral pride—and, it seems, in the shady groves of eastern Pennsylvania.

As I rested under a wooden awning, a golf cart came zipping down from the large modern house overlooking the stones. Behind the wheel was Bill, who founded the park in the 1970s. We talked about the inevitable breakdown of human institutions, the fleeting nature of the physical world, and the holy mischief of making places for future myth.

According to his book (for sale on the honor system in a nearby shed), Bill was a Presbyterian minister, but a series of dreams and mystical experiences on the Scottish island of Iona apparently turned him into a universalist. Since then, he’s busily created what is, at the very least, an ecumenical work of visionary landscape art. In addition to the main stone circle, his site includes a dolmen devoted to Thor, a path through a “faerie ring,” sacred male and female groves, a quirky bell tower inspired by an Ionian saint who was buried alive, stones for St. David and St. Brigid, and a lovely chapel to St. Columba, the Irishman who spread Christianity in Scotland.

[scanned, reversed Land Camera negative – the only good photo I got that day]

Although Bill welcomes the public from dawn to dusk and religious revelers on certain evenings, I’ve deliberately not used the name of the park to help preserve it just a little from search-engine omnipresence. “We had 600 people on the land over Memorial Day,” Bill told me—not ruefully, but with a glimmer of concern. With a huge, happy laugh, he said he sometimes tells his board that they ought to take down the entire website. He didn’t quite mean it, but I liked his reason. “People will still come,” he said, as if he’d known so since the dawn of time. “They’ll find it when they need it.”

“It’s all a patchwork from above…”


The year is low; the yesterdays you spent
Fall numbly, like the numbers on your list.
The least is hope, the promise you invent
In fear.
            Not here. Let everything exist:
In shoes and lanterns, crosses, grout, and brass,
A coin-encrusted sink, a biding throne
Of sundered mirrors, bling, and spackled glass,
Your beaming brings a whirl of scrap and stone
To life in light: the weary walls rejoice.
A greater gift can scarcely be conceived
But one that mends our shards and gives them voice:
Be merry, yes, but better, be relieved,
And rise, and laugh, and listen, lest you miss
Tomorrows no unlikelier than this.


“A week without you, thought I’d forget…”

Colorado! Spectacular vistas by day, darkness and quiet at night—all draws for the vacationing medievalist.

I was determined to take a mental vacation, to look past the state’s old, medieval-minded Missions and Gothic Revival buildings and dwell instead on the American West. Mountains! Sand dunes! Cowboys!

The Denver airport had other ideas.

There he was, on a pedestal overlooking the baggage carousels: a familiar face.

This guy is the most famous gargoyle from Notre-Dame in Paris—only he’s not a gargoyle, since he doesn’t spit water, and he’s not medieval, but a modern beastie grafted onto the building during a 19th-century restoration. Architect Eugène-Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc, who oversaw the work at Notre-Dame, called these 54 replacement monsters chimères—chimeras.

In his 2009 book The Gargoyles of Notre-Dame: Medievalism and the Monsters of Modernity, the late Michael Camille explains how these modern “chimeras” entered European and North American popular culture through engravings, etchings, photographs, postcards, paintings, and books—and how quickly the world forgot that they weren’t medieval creatures at all.

Ever since this monster—dubbed le stryge, or “the vampire,” by the engraver who made him famous—first glared down at Paris in the middle of the 19th century, no one has been sure what he is. The embodiment of evil? An icon of Romantic melancholy? An ambassador from an era that predated him by centuries? An antisemitic caricature? Is he bitter and apathetic, or contemplative and morose—or is he being cheeky? And what is he doing in Denver?

According to a nearby wall plaque, Notre Denver by artist Terry Allen has been installed here since 1994: “Historically, gargoyles were placed on buildings to protect the site. These are placed slightly above the travelers’ heads to oversee and ensure that baggage will arrive safely at DIA.” Popping out of a suitcase to protect travelers is a new role for le stryge, who’s now part of the Denver airport’s art program—although few people noticed him until they saw me snapping his picture. (The humungous Gamma World laser space mustang outside the airport is literally far more grotesque.)

Far across the baggage-claim area, le stryge has an unexpected counterpart.

When I spotted this critter, I was certain I’d seen him before. I mentioned to my traveling companion that several of Notre-Dame’s 19th-century chimeras didn’t look “medieval” at all but reflected 19th-century France’s fascination with Egypt. Although that’s true, when I later flipped through The Gargoyles of Notre-Dame, past demonic birds, a goat, an elephant, a pelican, a wild boar, a two-headed dog, a (now destroyed) unicorn, and (lamentably) a Wandering Jew, I was surprised to find that the chimère I remembered didn’t look much like the statue in Denver at all.

Le stryge is the only Notre-Dame chimera who makes that Home Alone gesture, and the birdlike face of this second monster only somewhat resembles one actual creature on the cathedral. This baggage-sentinel seems to be Terry Allen’s own invention, a horror that might exist if late one night, weary from another day of menacing glares, le stryge and his fellow chimera threw back too much Beaujolais nouveau, discovered a shared adoration of Edith Piaf, and one thing led to another…

So what are le stryge and his grotesque partner doing here? I could point out that 19th-century architect-designer Viollet-le-Duc and sculptor Victor Pyanet accomplished something akin to what Grant Wood did with American Gothic by creating something so recognizable and yet so enigmatic that people have never tired of seeing their own beliefs reflected by it.

Or perhaps artist Terry Allen, who appears to have a sharp sense of humor, got one over on the Denver airport authority by casting the miseries of air travel as downright “medieval.” One screeching infant or some surly cretin kicking the back of our seat, and we all might make such a face.

(Related post: Spotting the grand-nephew of the Notre-Dame chimeras on a pharmacy in Newark, Delaware.)

“You really ought to give Iowa a try…”

Fireworks! Barbecues! The Fourth of July approacheth, and as Americans dwell on traditions, origins, and independence from the Old World, it’s a fine time to reconsider American Gothic. Everyone knows the painting, but few people really look at it—but when you do, you’ll find that Grant Wood uses serious medievalism to find humor in a 200-year identity crisis.

Wood based his painting around a modest house in Eldon, Iowa, whose only flourish was a Gothic window he found both delightful and pretentious. Wood’s sister and a local dentist posed as the sorts of people he imagined would live in such a house; most of the time, Wood insisted that his characters were father and daughter, not husband and wife. The painting was a smash at both a 1930 Art Institute of Chicago exhibition and the 1933 World’s Fair, and in 1934 the entire country saw American Gothic in full color in Time magazine.

Art historian Thomas Hoving has pointed out the painting’s clever composition: how the top of the middle pitchfork tine marks the center of the painting; how the three tines are echoed in the stitching of the man’s overalls and in the window tracery; how the bulb at the top of the lightning rod echoes the button on the man’s collar; and how the lines of the peaked roof point directly to the man and the woman. “The house and the couple are utterly unified, like the statues on thirteenth-century cathedrals,” Hoving writes—which is appropriate, because it’s remarkable how European American Gothic actually is.

Grant Wood’s name normally evokes the Midwest, not the Middle Ages. After a stint in France and a fling with Impressionism, Wood hurried back to his Iowa home and happily let the press turn him into the champion of a new regionalism in American art. He donned overalls, sought out local subjects, and created an icon of Americana that either enshrines or mocks its subjects, depending on your point of view. “The farther a critic lived from the Midwest, the more predisposed he or she was to read the painting as satire or social criticism,” one art historian quipped about American Gothic—but what if most viewers for 80-odd years have focused way too much on the “American” and not nearly enough on the “Gothic”?

Quoth Wood biographer R. Tripp Evans: “Wood’s attraction to the Arts and Crafts movement—which advocated hand craftsmanship, rural simplicity, and even the revival of the guild system—had led him from an early age to associate his work with that of medieval artisans.” Yes, but Wood didn’t just imitate the medieval past; he found humor in comparing the Middle Ages and modern America. Last year at the Cedar Rapids Art Museum, I got a kick out of Wood’s “Mourner’s Bench,” a medieval church pew that stood outside the principal’s office at the local junior high. (The tops of the posts are faces: two disciplinarians and a wailing student.)

“The lovely apparel and accessories of the Gothic period appealed to me so vitally,” Wood wrote, “that I longed to see pictorial and decorative possibilities in our contemporary clothes and articles.” One art historian points out that Wood was fascinated by late Northern Gothic painters, especially 15th-century German-born Flemish artist Hans Memling. When you put some Memling portraits alongside Woman with Plants, Wood’s painting of his mother, it’s clear what he was imitating—the landscape, the poses, the stark black clothing and cloudless blue skies—with humor implicit in the comparison.

Other art historians have listed Wood’s many medieval and early Renaissance influences. Biographer R. Tripp Evans finds that the tiny bathing figures in Arnold Comes of Age (below left) look like miniature depictions of Adam and Eve being expelled from Paradise in the backgrounds of Nativity and Crucifixion scenes on medieval altarpieces, and he points out that Wood’s huge Dinner for Threshers evokes the Last Supper and mimics a medieval triptych. In Adoration of the Home (below right), Wood expert Wanda Corn sees a medieval altarpiece with a Madonna and Child surrounded by saints.

After Wood died in 1942 at the age of 50, trendier critics condemned him as nationalistic and reactionary, and some ludicrously likened his work to Nazi art. The joke’s on them: They missed the centuries-old motifs that linked Wood’s “regionalism” to traditions more venerable than most of the century’s fads.

Then again, they were only doing what most of us do: obsessing over the American while ignoring the Gothic. Photographer Gordon Parks was the first to parody the painting in 1942, and since then it’s become a boon for lazy political cartoonists, ad agencies, movie-poster designers, and anyone who wants to suggest that a stuffy, old-fashioned sensibility is being tweaked, surpassed, desecrated, defied, or redefined. Nothing is more establishmentarian than parodying American Gothic.

…and while everyone looks at the people in the painting, no one considers that silly little window behind them.

According to his recent biographer, Wood focused on arched windows and doors in his early French paintings, and he specifically said that American Gothic was meant to feature “American Gothic people” whose features complemented architecture that emphasized vertical lines. “These particulars, of course, don’t really matter,” Wood wrote in a 1941 letter. “What does matter is whether or not these faces are true to American life and reveal something about it. It seemed to me that there was a significant relationship between the people and the false Gothic house with its ecclesiastical window.”

Wood toyed with the idea of a companion painting that would have put squat Americans in front of the horizontal lines of Mission architecture, but of course he never created it—because he was beguiled by the Gothic, as two generations before him had been.

By 1930, America was coming off a multi-decade Gothic Revival bender. Since the second half of the 19th century, architects across the country had been dreaming up American Gothic buildings: churches, cathedrals, college campuses, prep schools, factories, skyscrapers, courthouses, apartments, at least one synagogue, and even crummy “Carpenter Gothic” houses like the one in Eldon. Their neo-medieval look was sometimes democratic, sometimes aristocratic, sometimes religious, sometimes secular, old and European but American and new. It’s a fine, precarious ambivalence: Are we making a New World here, or not?

Wood’s painting is satiric, but it pokes fun at pretensions that weren’t (and still aren’t) confined to the Midwest. Sometimes, Americans aspire to be medieval; other times, we’re medieval by accident. What’s great about American Gothic is that Grant Wood, however fond he is of his subjects, exposes them to democratic judgment. Each of us gets to look over the heads of two imaginary Iowans and decide for ourselves whether our collective pretensions are noble or foolish, or if we really are late Gothic people just posing in latter-day garb.

“Brand-new dandy, first-class scene-stealer…”

Civitas amoena, Wynlicburh—whatever faux-archaic nickname Baltimore deserves, the city has much of the medieval about it. The Walters Art Museum has a wide-ranging medieval collection, medieval Poles appear on an anti-Stalinist monument, countless neo-Gothic churches linger in varying states of neglect, and in Druid Hill Park, there’s a statue of a Scottish superstar.

That’s why it’s easy to miss the obvious example of Charm City’s ersatz medievalia: the Bromo-Seltzer Tower, a major downtown landmark. When he leads tours, the current manager of the place calls it “the world’s only novelty clock tower built to advertise a tranquilizer-laden hangover cure.” I don’t doubt him—but the Bromo-Seltzer Tower is also Bawlmer’s monument to America’s love for medieval-ish architectural follies.

Built in 1911, the Bromo-Seltzer Tower originally had a factory at its base. Now there’s a parking deck and a fire house, while the tower provides studio space for artists who invite the public to peek inside on Saturdays. Bromo-Seltzer founder “Captain” Isaac Emerson, a flamboyant and famously insufferable businessman, built the tower to advertise his wares: Until 1936, the tower supported a ludicrously huge and glowing blue bottle with a crown on top.

Emerson’s aesthetic was passing strange. A few years earlier in Florence, he’d seen the Palazzo Vecchio and apparently thought to himself, “I want one.” Architect Joseph Sperry, known for light eclecticism, did what he could to bring 13th-century Tuscany to the corner of Lombard and Eutaw Streets.

(Left: the Palazzo Vecchio, from Wikimedia Commons. Right: a photo I took this weekend.)

The Bromo-Seltzer Tower is clearly more of an omaggio to the Palazzo Vecchio than an exact replica, but it is closer to its source than the squat “Palace of Florence” Apartments built 13 years later in Tampa, Florida.

However, stepping inside on a summer day leads you not to medieval Italy, but back to the sweltering days of early 20th-century office life, while the timeworn interior of the clock tower looks like a cross between a Coen Brothers movie set and a vintage superhero lair. (I’ve always remembered the tower for its role as a sniper’s nest on a 1996 episode of “Homicide: Life on the Street.”)

When the Bromo-Seltzer Tower went up in 1911, H.L. Mencken was the first to hate it. “All Baltimoreans may be divided into two classes,” he wrote. “[T]hose who think that the Emerson Tower is beautiful, and those who know better.” Like Mark Twain, Mencken couldn’t see that something deeper was going on with America’s love of pseudo-medieval stuff—that we used this kind of architecture in our churches, colleges, prep schools, factories, and office buildings to brag, to be trendy, or to claim some link to the past.

Nostalgia later makes some aesthetics irresistible. Almost every brick or mechanism inside the clock tower is black, white, or gray, which makes the room seem art-directed and hyper-real. Like the tower itself, the huge, clattering, circa-1964 computer that still runs two tiny, nerve-wracking elevators is now a fascinating relic rather than an eyesore.

Facilities manager Joe Wall, a Baltimore native who’s full of great stories, told me that at some point, repair work on the tower’s rooftop cupola-thingie meant that someone added two levels of castellated ramparts that clearly weren’t there in 1911. As a result, the Bromo-Seltzer Tower is now less Italianate, more generically medieval, and a bit more like the palace-fortress that inspired it. No longer a monument to crass commercialism, it defends the notion that indulgent medievalism ages well—after the inevitable hangover.

“Here comes another winter, waiting for Utopia…”

Medievalism. Eff yeah!This weekend, commerce and revelry engulfed the National Cathedral at Flower Mart, the annual shindig that funds the beautification of my favorite Gothic neighbor’s gardens and grounds. Folks shopped for seedlings and dug into fried food, while I stumbled upon this NPR story about Brendan O’Connell, who paints scenes from Wal-Mart based on something he thinks he discerns there:

Wal-Mart stores, he notes, are “probably one of the most trafficked interior spaces in the world.” In the tall, open, cathedral-like ceilings of Wal-Mart’s big-box stores, he sees parallels to church interiors of old.

“There is something in us that aspires to some kind of transcendence,” he told me back in February. “And as we’ve culturally turned from religious things, we’ve turned our transcendence to acquisition and satisfying desires.”

I don’t buy the comparison. Having warehouse-high ceilings doesn’t make Wal-Mart “cathedral-like.” What does make a big box store akin to a Gothic cathedral is more banal: Look up, and you’ll see that the architectural supports in both buildings aren’t covered or obscured. (As for transcendence, Americans seek that elsewhere: sports, Vegas, the movies, and occasionally—mirabile dictu—at actual houses of worship.)

Still, artists and writers love to cast gigantic stores as misbegotten cathedrals. Five minutes on Google turns up unflattering “cathedrals of consumerism” quips in countless news stories and scholarly articles—as well as the work of artist Michelle Muldrow, who paints the interiors of big box stores for her “Cathedrals of Desire” series. Muldrow outlines her goals in a genre that would have vexed even the most patient of medieval exegetes, the artist’s statement:

“Cathedrals of Desire” investigates the experience of the repulsion and seduction of the American landscape. This new body of work incorporates the landscape painting tradition with awe-inducing elements of cathedrals to evoke a contemporary sublime. My paintings of big box stores are intended to elicit fear and awe at the vast American consumer landscape.


This series is inspired by the theories of Edmund Burke’s treatise on the sublime and its relationship with terror. This, paired with the concept of the divine power of the sublime, heavily influenced my depiction of these consumer spaces as Cathedrals of Desire.


The obtrusive massive structures built with no attempt at aesthetic beauty reveal the most naked of American consumer desires. The language of American desire can be reduced to vignettes of patio furniture and gingham covered tables set like small picnics.

I like Muldrow’s art, and she’s smart to turn her landscape-painter’s eye toward the vast places where Americans shop—but nothing about “Icon,” her painting of two shopping carts against a jumbled background, actually evokes icons, or implies anything about icons through their absence, or says anything about the absence of icons through the presence of shopping carts. While her lovely “Altar in Orange” captures the bright, asymmetrical beauty of an unmanned Target check-out line, the painting doesn’t fit its title: Altars aren’t like box store check-out stations in location, function, design, decoration, number, or sacrality.

Artists and critics have been down this aisle before. Émile Zola called the grand arcades of 19th-century Paris “cathedrals of commerce,” and Walter Benjamin “spent the final 13 years of his life…trying to fashion a theory of modernity based on the arcades.” A century ago, the Woolworth Building, one of countless American skyscrapers inspired by the Gothic, was approvingly dubbed the “Cathedral of Commerce.” By now, the comparison is cliché. It flatters medieval cathedrals by making stores seem all the more crass by contrast—but what a limited view of cathedrals.

Unlike Wal-Marts and Targets, cathedrals were each architecturally unique. They were shrines where people hoped and prayed but rarely sated their earthly desires. They were religious institutions whose spiritual offerings didn’t cater to market demands. They were political centers overseen by men who wielded far more local power than any store manager. As distinctive hubs of pilgrimage and tourism, they attracted seekers from straunge strondes in ways no standardized big-box store could, drawing worshippers from all strata of society.

One point of these art projects is to suggest that shopping is America’s religion, and a degraded one at that—but isn’t it possible that rural shoppers at big-box stores like Wal-Mart are more likely than their countrymen to attend actual religious services and distinguish between shopping and praying? Why focus on modest people who go to unfancy buildings to buy low-priced stuff that meets their earthly needs? What about wealthier people who’d never set foot in Wal-Mart but do make pseudo-religious pilgrimages to ornate boutiques to overpay for luxury goods based on a label or a name?

Two centuries after the Hudson River School painters begged Americans to adore the New World, our artists still seek the cachet of medieval European precedents. Medievalism runs rampant in America, and for six years this blog has chased it, from Gothic synagogues in Savannah to killer queens in New Jersey, from Cajun jousters and the saints of New Orleans to the gargoyles of Perth Amboy, from Oxbridge rivalries on the Potomac to dragons and Vikings at Maryland resorts, from late-blooming scholars on postage stamps to courtly love on General Hospital—but sometimes medievalism just isn’t there, or it thrives only in a critic’s misperception.

Let’s kill this “cathedrals of commerce” cliché. A vast, bustling megastore has little in common with a medieval cathedral either socially or architecturally. The wonders that landscape painters like Michelle Muldrow find at Target—man-made vistas of color and light—are worth seeing for what they are; don’t let Gothic spires warp the view.