Sunday, June 15, 2008

Competing Arcs

I just learned about this monstrosity in Paris, La Grande Arche de La Defense. It is a giant, almost featureless cube. The wikipedia entry says that it was supposed "to be a 20th Century version of the Arc de Triomphe: a monument to humanity and and humanitarian ideals rather than military victories." If that is what it's supposed to be, then please explain to me why the Arc de Triiomphe is a far more magnificent, beautiful work than is this dehumanizing block.

Seriously, look at the Arc de Triomph. This is a work which has meaning. You don't have to know a thing about the French Revolution to gain meaning from it. Meaning is built into the work itself, and can be gained by anyone looking at it. The Grande Arche is a stark, bare, meaningless cube -- unless you are told what the meaning behind it is by an elite cadre of intellectuals who designed it and get to write on it endlessly, of course. And that, of course, is the problem with it. There is a tyranny of meaning in the Grande Arche -- we have to be told what it means to get any meaning from it. We are reliant on others to tell us what it means, and we have to rely on their expertise. With the Arc de Triomph, however, the meaning is inherent to the work itself. There is no tyranny of meaning. Further, it and the Grande Arche are equally impressive, but the latter has the oppressive architecture found in many fascist works of architecture -- designed to make the person feel small and insignificant next to the great power of the state. Is this not, after all, what Mitterand was after in commissioning this piece? If you look at the second picture I posted, you can see what people look like in relation to it. What other purpose could there have been, but to create this dehumanizing effect? This is no monument to humanity and humanitarian ideals -- it's a monument to socialism and other dehumanizing, anti-humanitarian ideals.


Todd Camplin said...

True the old arc is better, but I hope this blog doesn't become one of those sites that lament about how the past masters where so great and how we don't have any masters now, that is crap. I HATE those types of sites. Help me find some contemporary art that are good and post about it.
Besides, are you asking France to go mad again and destroy Europe again to come out the other end with a nice arc?
At the same time I do agree that this piece makes people feel small like a fascist structure. Just goes to show that Europe is still dealing with that very issue. If the EU ever gets organized, the State’s importance may drop away. And their monuments hopefully will reflect this advancement.

Troy Camplin said...

Remember that the fascists built this kind of garbage and then went mad. My point is that the arc that came out of a military struggle is ironically far more humanizing than is the new arche. I also chose the old arc so that I would be comparing arcs (especially since the arche was meant as an answer to the arc) and not unsimilar works. What I would have loved to have seen was an arche that actually did what it was commissioned to do, rather than to celebrate the crushing power of the state, as it clearly does.

I think Calatrava makes some pretty good stuff. Also, there was the work of Charles Jencks, which I directed to toward once.

We need to know not just what is good, but what is crap (and why).