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Openly, in the streets, both Parisians and visiting yellow-vests of a certain age were brought to tears over the fire damage at Cathedral Notre Dame. For most of my lifetime, French acquaintances - organic with their citizenship and education - have held a national cultural awareness and identification that may be one of the most profound and sacredly held among the nations of the world. This had little to do with religion, and everything to do with the heritage of the Enlightenment, with the making of Paris as the cultural capital of the Europe, with the value of French history, literature, philosophy, art.
All of these have been wounded by the loss.
Like Americans of a certain age, those who feel this loss most immensely identify as citizens, and had the prime of their life in a time when France had an active, strident push-pull between wealth and labor, between the heritage of royalty and the egalitarianism of the revolution. It was in this somewhat balanced struggle, throughout the industrial era, that culture was created; that working people fought for, and won, tangible benefits for public institutions - including programs of social welfare, one of the great subway systems in the world, and legions of cultural institutions with open doors that included the doors of Notre Dame.
That was the scenario before the wealth of western nations congealed at the top, eliminated the middle class, and left new generations - including vast territories of un-assimilated immigrants - permanently at the bottom. (Assimilation takes investment, which is repaid in citizenship, but the bountiful public wealth that once made that investment has been 'de-regulated' upward and out of circulation.)
While many younger Parisians undoubtedly hold on to the canon of national heritage, there seems to be an equally wide-spread skepticism over the re-building spectacle that was quickly formulated for Notre Dame. Random comments from street interviews included:
"We’re watching the beginning of a new modernity; religion and the Church don’t have the same influence they did before, and it’s always a good thing when white men lose their power."
"If you ask me, it’s crazy that in just a few hours, people have given more than 450 million euros for a little fucking church! We have plenty of other problems affecting actual human lives."
"One could question the legitimacy of the 200 million euros from LVMH."
"Just look at Paris all around us! 400 million all of a sudden — where’s it coming from?! Are they printing new money? There are people starving — fuck, give them the money!"
Donations have passed $1 billion, and are climbing. President Macron improbably claimed that the cathedral will be built within 5 years. (When he added: "more beautiful than ever," it had, for Americans, a ring both dubious and familiar.)
The design competition has already been launched. Details and drawings of the original cathedral are available to the competitors. Last weekend, jumping the gun, an independent proposal submitted to Arch Daily, complete with renderings, mounted a greenhouse as the new roof, a glass spire, urban horticulture, honey bee hives. (Because honey bees are near extinction, this seems almost imperative!)
The Norman Foster late-modernist proposition - echoed in Prime Minister Edouard Phillipe's competition announcement - is that every historical disaster and subsequent repair employed new technologies to assert the new ambitions of a contemporary culture's time. One could, rightly, point to Brunelleschi's dome over the Florence Cathedral; to Foster's own glass dome over the Nazi-torched Reichstag; to the nearby Pei glass pyramid at the Louvre; or to Notre Dame itself, where Violett-le-Duc added the spire, (now toppled in the fire), as late as the mid-19th Century.
But the deferential contemporary interventions, (with a de rigueur transparency), were made on original works that had nowhere near the charged iconic loading of Notre Dame.
And all of these examples - even the more or less contemporary ones - precede the eclipsing alienation of wealth in the western world from public share to an oligarchy, whose capital investments are pushing life on the planet to an acclerating extinction. To compare these other eras, culturally, with our own is, quite simply, a category error.
In a culture where citizens have been reduced to consumers of spectacle - where there is, increasingly, no shared public stage of struggle, no push-pull where meaningful creative power and creative labor resides in working people - what precisely could the cultural ambitions of our time mean other than the whimsies of personal and corporate wealth?
Companies specialising in the restoration of historic buildings and monuments also warned they would have trouble finding enough skilled workers and apprentices.
“We’ll have to recruit 100 masons, 150 woodworkers and 200 roofers,” said Jean-Claude Bellanger of the artisans’ organisation the Compagnons du Devoir. “The problem is that these manual crafts are undervalued and don’t attract many people. We have the firms and the expertise, but there’s a serious lack of young people for this work.” (The Guardian, April 18, 2019)
The billions of dollars that will be spent here will certainly buy the magnanimous reputation of international corporate donors and a renewed destination for tour buses. It will also likely buy the highest level of computer-simulated craft.
What it will not buy back is the outcome of centuries of collective human love, labor, sacrifice, art, and artisanship.
Much of the character of the Notre Dame has been lost. What seems to be missing here is a period of mourning and reflection. Before we post up competition renderings, mightn't we put this seemingly singular tragedy in the context of the tragic complexity of where our social and cultural project stands today? And, possibly, while we're at it: Could we project what might happen if all that enthusiastic state and private philanthropy went to re-training and re-employing citizens in the physical arts? The cathedral might stand in ruins for the remainder of the century. But perhaps a first step is to rebuild, value, and reward meaningful human labor in all its glorious variations. Then we might start to find the tools to begin.
As Oswald Spengler argued in the Decline of the West, the Gothic cathedrals, and Notre Dame in particular, rose up from a different cultural flowering than ours altogether. It was a flowering of artisanship that required the complete immersion of the human animal body in physical making. The echoes of that culture reverberated, in lessening ways, through the labor culture of the industrial era. Now it's gone.
An overlay to Notre Dame that speaks the corrupted cultural language of this time, our time, will be an act of vandalism, costly in countless ways.