Monday, March 2, 2009

Who's Afraid of the Old and New

So on it goes. At this point, the ball is back in the Pasadena Arts & Culture Commission's court, which means it has entered the sub-court of the Public Art Subcommittee, and anyone feeling passionate, or even moderately tepid, about the issue should plan to attend. These subcommittee meetings are open to the public, just like the full Commission meetings, so check back here at Arts Answers for the date and time of the next subcommittee meeting.

While the bureaucrats are rassling and the pundits are pundicizing, over here at the PAC offices we have been considering the "old and new" question in broader terms. We'd like to open the discussion up to the community, and to get the conversation under way, we asked Stephen Nowlin (Director of Art Center's Williamson Gallery and PAC Board President) to give us his take on old and new. Steve has opined in the Comments section of this blog on previous occasions (and at City Council meetings), but we thought his viewpoint would be a great place to start:

"I'm reminded of a visit to the famous postmodern architect Charles Moore's Northern California house at Sea Ranch, in the late 1960's. Modernism had up to then been a series of sequestered moments in history, each one priding itself on having rebelled against, overturned, and made obsolete the hard-fought assumptions that had come before. Thus Impressionism was supplanted by Cubism, Cubism by Constructivism, Constructivism by Surrealism, Surrealism by Abstract Expressionism, Abstract Expressionism by Minimalism. By then, in architecture, Louis Sullivan's "form follows function" and Mies van der Rohe's "less is more" ruled, and the minimal reductive International Style was tantamount to an aesthetic moral imperative. Everyone reveled in the superiority of a sequential time -- and the more present, the more superior.

"So I entered Moore's contemporary, angular, barn-like home expecting to worship in the Religion of Now as a card-carrying young aesthete knew was the godly thing to do. Instead, my religion was shattered. Inside, Moore's house broke all the rules, reinforced no doctrines, confirmed no righteousness -- it was a den of iniquity, a sinful repudiation of everything sleek and au courant. Antique furniture, curious objects of non-western culture, ornate rugs, curios, the old and the new, the high and the low, all melded together in a cacophony of overlapping histories. No precious dogmas reigned, no one history dominated. It was loving embrace of all moments, all pasts, all the good products of human artistic endeavor. In their mingling, each shone with its own dignity and added up to a whole greater than the sum of its parts.

"There is, in honoring the resonance between old and new, a certain liberation from the sense that different generations, styles, and traditions represent insurmountably conflicted values and beliefs. Like differing people in a family or a community or a country, histories exist side-by-side, and their interlocking mosaic is what gives the present its richness and depth.

"In the matter of the Pasadena Center sculptures, some have argued that the contrast between historical architecture and contemporary sculpture is jarring -- that the sculpture and the architecture don't speak the same visual language, and so they can't communicate. Or worse, that the sculpture, by its presence, communicates disparagingly of the historical. There is, some have argued, a preservation issue at stake that cannot withstand the irritation of this new art next to these old buildings. It might be worth pointing out, although it seems somewhat absurd to have to do so, that most of the old buildings at the Pasadena Center are, well, new. They're not historical buildings at all, but rather brand new buildings that try to look historical by echoing some of the superficial characteristics of the actually historic Civic Auditorium. Sort of like Disneyland does on Main Street. The sculptures flank the auditorium far left and right and at the bottom of the steps to its grand entry, much closer to the contemporary faux-historical buildings than to the genuine one. It makes one wonder about the claim of preservation, or rather what is not being preserved -- because if preservation means that everything new, like some Hollywood film set, should confirm to a style frozen in a past moment of time, then there is no opportunity to celebrate a real history layered with multiple times.

"Postmodernism recognized over forty years ago that ending the cold war between the old and new allowed the quarreling realities and stimulating nuances enbedded in true history to inform a deeper and more profound aesthetic. We should not be afraid of the old and the new together, we should welcome it. It will add to all else that is intelligent and extraordinary about our city of Pasadena."

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