Canaries in coal mines are an interesting thing. Depending on your perspective, the presence of the canary perched in her cage in the deep bowels of the underground might tell you if there is too much carbon monoxide present for you to continue your labor. It might also suggest the relative lack of value in a canary versus a person. It could inspire fear, for there would be no need for a canary, if there was no danger that air might be cut off.
Most importantly, and often missed, the very presence of a canary shows human ingenuity and societal progression.
Think of the industry necessary for that one little bird to be in that mine. Scientists who understood the lung capacity variants between humans and birds were required to exist. People needed to be involved in animal husbandry to raise the chicks from their eggs in aviaries. Tradesmen had to develop skills and tools to create a cage for the bird to be perched in. All of this, and we haven’t even discussed the engineering required to craft a mine, or the industrial demands that necessitated a mine in the first place.
Even in the simplest things we can recognize the most amazing aspects of human civilization.
Nothing, in my opinion, is more evocative of this than art. Art is literally a microphone of civilization. Its message throughout time, ironically enough, bears some similarities to that canary. Let me explain…
It is no accident that in Europe from the Carolingian Renaissance through the Baroque Period, two main themes manifested in the art world: Mythology and Christianity. Christianity was the dominant thematic guide to public life, both in politics as well as social structure. Classical Greek Mythology held a fascination amongst Christians both for geographic proximity and the monarchical structure of the Olympiad, which mirrored the celestial structure of Christianity.
Judeo-Christian cosmology is decidedly undemocratic. God does not seek counsel, nor are His powers tempered by a divine legislative body. Similarly, the gods of Greek Mythology were not burdened with democratic restraints. Yet, democracy in Greece flourished, and even as the feudalism of the Middle Ages gave way to the mercantilism of the Renaissance, tugging at the coattails was always a question of decentralization of power… with the ultimate decentralization being the individual.
And, as the Greeks devoutly believed in the power of the gods, so did the broad expanse of Europeans after Charlemagne believe in the absolute power of God… all the while scheming at gaining a bit of political power on their own.
Art of this time quite naturally explores this duality. Do you need to be a Christian to appreciate Catholic inspired (or paid for) art? Of course not. Just as you don’t need to be a pagan to appreciate Bernini’s Apollo and Daphne or believe in the divine right of kings to appreciate the artistic layout of Versailles.
But if art is the canary of humanity in our global coal mine… what does that say about our current state of affairs?
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If you ever look at historical photos of the American Old West, you will notice something interesting in the frontier towns. They are ramshackle, small and, oftentimes, seem to spring up from nowhere in a sea of vacant land. Yet, there are two buildings that have a dynamic and stoic quality in each of these hamlets: the church, typically the meeting house of the town, and the bank.
The bank is the one I want to focus in on a bit, but let’s sidebar for a second and talk about churches. As our country developed, it did so with a Protestant push. As such, the Romanesque architecture of Catholic cathedrals in the United States really was relegated to dense Catholic communities… and they were decidedly in the minority. The Calvinistic tradition of Protestantism eschewed overt displays of opulence in architecture… especially as it related to the House of God. So, many of these churches were constructed in a modest style, not so though with the banks.
Banks, and to an extent lawyer’s offices that were often housed in banks, were opulent. Many still stand today in their original form, and while considered historical landmarks, still prosper as banks.
Why was it so important for a bank to have an opulent architectural style? Permanence. The people entrusted their money and their effects to these institutions for safekeeping. There was no FDIC in those days… no recourse if the bank were to simply pack up and leave. Lawyers also had a fiduciary duty to maintain their clients’ papers and effects. A lawyer who was handling a case had to be relied upon to be there when the trial took place. An opulent building was, in a sense, a promise. We will be here longer than you. A palace that was a bank gave comfort to the customer that the bank could hold onto the clients’ money and not abscond.
Now let’s look at our society today. Banks are not built to emulate commercial cathedrals. Banks, oftentimes, rent out space at the local strip mall. Many businesses have turned to micro-lease buildings rather than invest in permanent office space. Lawyers, especially solo practitioners, are famous for renting a temporary office for a few days and then “moving on”.
Some of our most utilized businesses and services don’t have public facing buildings at all. From Amazon, online banking, to Rocket Lawyer and Legal Zoom, the permanence of our society is being challenged. The art we produce seconds this motion.
When we look at the work of Bernini or Caravaggio we see complexity. We see time. For Bernini to carve out the Ecstasy of St. Teresa or for Caravaggio to paint St. Matthew and the Angel, a massive amount of time was needed. These works of art… like them or not… required commitment to create.
Let’s look at some of the works on display in our modern era. Better yet… let’s look at the artistic way we structure our offices. Most offices have become sterile boxes with minimalist furniture. Faux wood with 30 degree angled edges has become the norm. Omnipresent white has become the dominant splotch on the interior decorator’s paint palette. The resulting sterility of the work place (or for that matter, the shopping center, or the dwelling) is instructive to our contemporary moods.
We have become a transient people both physically and philosophically. The time required to craft art with precision has been moved to other endeavors. Perhaps our machinery and our “computerie” is technologically precise and, by extension, time-consuming to create… but at what social cost?
Art does tell us a great deal… it might also tell us when we have lost our sense of permanence, societal structure and, more importantly, our meaning.