1.22.2010

On architecture and values

Suppose you visit the Great Pyramid of Giza, Khufu, and have the irreplaceable pleasure of standing at its base, staring upward toward its peak, and contemplating the architectural accomplishment before you. The oldest of the Seven Wonders of the World, the great--dare I say, "greatest"--pyramid has survived when all other wonders have crumbled, a testament to its structural integrity and craftsmanship.

Yet something bothers you about the monument, and you rightfully put the building in context. Historically, it's a structure built on the backs of slaves--a tomb for the ruler constructed at the expense of the ruled. You're conflicted and a little distraught. Where once stood a magnificent example of the ingenuity of thinking men you now see an eroding edifice of brutish conquerors. Should you continue to admire the building for the achievement of its architects? Or should you revile it for the process of construction?*

Ayn Rand wrote, "A building has integrity just like a man. And just as seldom." Men, like buildings, live within a context and must be judged as such. Perfect men are rare--though they do exist--so we are required to deal with imperfect men. The degree of their imperfection is the degree to which we judge them. Put in a much more positive light: The degree of their values is the degree to which we judge them. With everyone we meet we must ask, "Do we have similar values? What are they? How strongly do they hold their values? On what points do we differ? Are the differences enough to warrant disassociation?"

If your standard of judgment is value-perfection, then you are far less likely to have close relationships. (Unless what you value is commonplace--e.g., you value simply that your friends have good teeth.) Contrarily, if your standard of value is relative, then you will find it impossible to distinguish between friend and enemy. Most of us have a value system between these two, embracing several inviolable principles while maintaining room for errors of knowledge. (There is much to be said here about association, acceptance, "trial" friendship, casual persuasion, and many other topics, but this is not a post about making friends.)

Buildings--and all accomplishments, really--can be judged using a similar process. The pyramid in question, for instance, in undoubtedly a major achievement in architectural history. Yes, slaves were used as tools for construction, but Western philosophy put an end to such practices--yes, I know it still happens in some parts of the world--and the concept of individual rights would prevent it from happening in any civilized society. In this context, I value the work of man's mind over the historical atrocity of slavery because it was man's mind that eventually ended the practice. Slavery as an institution has been refuted.

In another context, though, my values might be reversed. If Hugo Chavez enslaved his citizens and ordered them to construct the world's tallest building, I would adamantly oppose the project. Even if I studied the blueprints and recognized that the building would be the most masterful ever built, I would still not value it more than the lives of the enslaved populace. In this context, I value the principle of individual rights more than I value the construction--since we live in a time where man's mind has shown us the unalienable importance an individual's ownership of himself.

Take a much less extreme example: Apollo 11. Man's walk on the moon is one of the greatest achievements in scientific history--if you believed it happened. (I do.) About the rocket launch, Ayn Rand wrote:
The meaning of the sight lay in the fact that when those dark red wings of fire flared open, one knew that one was not looking at a normal occurrence, but at a cataclysm which, if unleashed by nature, would have wiped man out of existence—and one knew also that this cataclysm was planned, unleashed, and controlled by man, that this unimaginable power was ruled by his power and, obediently serving his purpose, was making way for a slender, rising craft. One knew that this spectacle was not the product of inanimate nature, like some aurora borealis, or of chance, or of luck, that it was unmistakably human—with “human,” for once, meaning grandeur—that a purpose and a long, sustained, disciplined effort had gone to achieve this series of moments, and that man was succeeding, succeeding, succeeding! For once, if only for seven minutes, the worst among those who saw it had to feel—not "How small is man by the side of the Grand Canyon!"—but “How great is man and how safe is nature when he conquers it!” from "Apollo 11" in The Objectivist, Sept. 1969
(I quoted it at length because it's a stunning passage.) How could Ayn Rand, a staunch supporter of laissez-faire capitalism and minimal government, applaud the government-gun NASA space program? Because Rand, in this instance, valued the achievement more than she despised the process of its construction; because she knew the achievement was possible without government; and because she continued to actively fight against statism. (There were other reasons as well. You should read the whole essay if you have time. Or at least this excerpt.)

All of this "set up" brings me to the genesis of this post: Churches. More specifically, cathedrals. MKJ recently excoriated me for disliking the "majesty" of ecclesial architecture.

My position is this: I do not question the architectural achievements embodied in cathedrals--their construction a testament to the ingenuity of incontestably talented men--but upon entering cathedrals the majesty of their engineering is quickly diminished by the air of their purpose--namely: the degradation of man-on-Earth.**

JML recently wrote a review of Avatar, and I commented in response to a question about metaphysics. I said, in part:
"I would argue that since authors cannot recreate the world in its entirety, they choose to highlight what is metaphysically important to them. This choice tells us a lot about authors. If authors focus on pain and suffering with no regard of happiness, then their personal worldview is one in which misery takes precedence."***
This point abstracts to art in general and also applies to the specialized art of architecture--with modifications and specifications for material and functionality. In other words, architects' choices--specifically, their aesthetic choices that are often (superfluous) additions to their structural choices--necessarily reflect their judgment of what is important in the world in the context of the building being created. Or in the case of cathedrals, what is important outside of the world.

Walking into a cathedral, I am immediately made to feel small, the most minute of specs in the presence of the Almighty. There are pillars that stretch to a curved ceiling that seems infinite and is often decorated with heavenly scenes reachable only through divine ascent. Every element is a vertical line accentuating the unobtainable, telling man he is insignificant as part of the lowly Earth. The pews are below the alter which is below the cross. The King of kings looks down upon his servants as they, in return, gaze heavenward from their rightful place: Their knees. Nothing about the visual symbolism of the cathedral exalts man. Contrarily, the building is a house of God, not of men, and you are meant to forget that men had anything to do with its construction. And, if dogma is taken literally, they didn't. They were merely a tool of the Divine, carrying out His will.

These descriptors are contextual, remember, and I do not make such pronouncements lightly. Certainly my vehement disdain for organized religion compels me to use strong, perhaps offensive language, but my analysis, I think, is an objective account of religion's attitude toward the placement of men over God. You might recall the story of the Tower of Babel wherein a unified humanity dared build a massive, beautiful tower the likes of which the world had never seen. Since the tower's main purpose was not the worship of the Lord, but the unification of men and peace on Earth, he punished men for their great achievement--which was a great insult to God--by dividing them into different nations and tongues.

Within this context, I value man's achievement in building cathedrals less than my passion for fighting organized religion--which is fundamentally anti-achievement, anti-reason, and, ultimately, anti-man--especially since these doctrines exist today. They are not conceptually like slavery which has been debunked and is widely considered an abomination. When the concept of organized religion becomes as openly and universally degraded as slavery, then I may value cathedrals' construction more--perhaps as much as the pyramids. What is more likely, though, is that someone like Howard Roark builds a "cathedral" meant to honor men--or at least a skyscraper, taller than the one in Dubai, that explicitly represents the achievement of man's rational mind.

(I should note that I make the tiniest of exceptions for the National Cathedral in Washington, DC. I still do not place the value of its construction over my fight against religion, but I do appreciate the placement of men and women alongside saints in the sculptures. And the Darth Vader grotesque is especially amusing.)

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*According to Wikipedia, modern Egyptologists believe the pyramids were actually built by salaried labor. I wrote the example before fact-checking. So what? Big whoop. Wanna fight about it? Insert your favorite structure built by slave labor. History has given us quite a few. If you're uncomfortable abstracting the example, email me and I'll create a personal example just for you--though there will be at least mild mocking.

**I should clarify that I'm more anti-religion than I am anti-spirituality. That is, I see choosing-to-believe-in-God as a deeply personal choice that often reaches the depths of people's psycho-epistemology and, ultimately, their sense of life. While I reject the notion of "epistemic faith" as a contradiction in terms, I won't outright denounce people who practice "personal faith." It is only when faith is used in the realm of politics--especially in any coercive manner--that you will see me adamantly oppose it. I can get along and even befriend spiritual people who do not support faith-based-politics, do not militantly try to convert me (though healthy debate is welcome and encouraged under appropriate circumstances), and do not expect me to participate in religious rituals in their presence (e.g., church, praying before meals, no meat on Fridays, etc.)--though they should not feel they have to refrain from them in my presence either. Undoubtedly, some of my Objectivist colleagues will think I'm too lenient on people who believe in God. As this long footnote contends, I draw a clear distinction between my spiritual friends and my religious enemies. For now, that clarification works quite well.

***I can't take credit for the idea, though, as I first encountered a version of it through Kress and van Leeuwen's "Reading Images" and read a philosophical treatment in Leonard Peikoff's "Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand." Rand's aesthetic statement, taken in small chunks, is, "Art is a selective re-creation of reality according to an artist’s metaphysical value-judgments. Man’s profound need of art lies in the fact that his cognitive faculty is conceptual, i.e., that he acquires knowledge by means of abstractions, and needs the power to bring his widest metaphysical abstractions into his immediate, perceptual awareness. Art fulfills this need: by means of a selective re-creation, it concretizes man’s fundamental view of himself and of existence. It tells man, in effect, which aspects of his experience are to be regarded as essential, significant, important. In this sense, art teaches man how to use his consciousness. It conditions or stylizes man’s consciousness by conveying to him a certain way of looking at existence." Read more at the Ayn Rand Lexicon.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I wonder whether the Pantheon of Rome was built by slave labor.