Though actually, even a drowsily dull train ride from Brussels to Metz can spawn images quite representative of our age. On this particular train service one first has ample opportunity to observe (live!) the modern breed of valiant business travellers - all impeccably suited, reading financial newspapers, touting Blackberries and laptops – a sure sign that the Belgo-Luxembourg financial industry isn’t dead yet.
After the orderly disembarkation of this financial cohort, one then can direct one’s gaze outside, marvelling at the mightily imposing steel plants of ArcelorMittal – thus being presented with conclusive visual evidence of the fact that, despite the many industrial residues in these regions, the lead in heavy industry has passed on to other continents (to India in this case).
But the gawking train traveller is not granted much time to muse about the financial and industrial decline of Europe because a giant hallucination next fills the entire train window : a gleaming, white roller coaster structure, quickly followed by a vision of yet another, even larger, steel&wood roller coaster skeleton.
Since it is well known that Europe will not perish for lack of amusement, these structures obviously do not startle because of their frivolous function, but rather because of their sheer physical bulkiness: dinosaurs tramping about in an otherwise virtual entertainment age.
So I eagerly switched to (hopefully) more solid reading : an early 20th C book (1) by Wilhelm Worringer (2) about the Gothic "artistic will" as opposed to classical art intentions.
It is strange to read in 2011 a book with a thesis that now is common place but in 1927 was still provocative , challenging as it did the monopoly of classical aesthetic ideals and arguing that “abstract” art was not a matter of lack of representative skills but rather a conscious intention (3).
And though I did savour some of the book’s thoughtful insights about the deep human needs and insufficiencies art caters to (4) , it could not lift my rather sombre, self doubting mood (as an irrelevant unpractical art lover in a materialist world). Ah blessed the times when one would still quarrel about the qualities of representative art versus abstract art - blessed the times when one would still seriously discuss matters of beauty, of meaning, of transcendental longings! Etc Etc Etc
Wishing to further burnish my modern day credentials, I first of all visited the brand new Pompidou centre for modern & contemporary art. And I must admit, the exhibits there do sometimes manage to revive the feverish ‘Zeitgeist’ and some of the excitement of the once deemed revolutionary 20th C art .
But the Metz-Pompidou curators do not seem dogmatic, and so the exhibits are endearingly ambivalent about some of the 20th C art that does not fit into the now dominant modern discourse, the kind of art now spurned for not being “avant garde” enough (6).
Thus they do display works that “offer an alternative to a reading of the 20th Century reduced to a succession of rowdy ruptures” (7), but on the other hand comments on the wall earnestly and retrospectively chide the Parisian Museum of Modern art for “having neglected in the mid 20the C avant garde works to the benefit of certain cubist works that by their decorative qualities had become acceptable”.
But of course, no eagerness to honour ephemeral modernity, would ever have me skip my dose of illusions of permanence, and so, “for love of the eternal character of stone”(8), the next day I wandered for hours in the gallo-roman-medieval museum of Metz - quietly contemplating the remaining emanations in stone of the many varieties of human energies and beliefs throughout the ages.
And yet , and yet – for all my deplorable art-conservative instincts and classical longings, when later visiting also nearby Nancy – it was not the elegant 18th century classicist splendour of the famous Place Stanislas which stirred me most... No, it was the unexpected encounter in a museum with an old “acquaintance” – the endearingly outrageous, crazy Japanese artist Yayoï Kusama , who magically & stubbornly fills the world with mirrors & polka dots.
(1) "L’Art gothique, [Formprobleme der Gotik, 1927]. Traduction de l'allemand par D. Decourdemanche, Paris, Gallimard, 1941."
(2) his sheer name, so ‘stark und stabil’ , so alliterative, & then also that worrying echo. The publication date of this particular French translation is also startling: April 1941 - one cannot but imagine defeated Parisian flâneurs ruefully scanning the many German names on display in the windows of bookshops ....
(3) “in historical periods of anxiety and uncertainty, man seeks to abstract objects from their unpredictable state and transform them into absolute, transcendental forms”
(4) WW(French translation) : “toutes les creations métaphysiques et poétiques de l’humanité ne sont que des reactions puissantes et admirables de l’instinct de conservation contre la sensation déprimante de l’insuffisance humaine [...]"
(5) In fact, what WW writes about the “primitive art drive” may very well apply to my own refuge-seeking in art galleries, cathedrals and other contemplative sanctuaries: “Troubled and tormented by life, [primitive man] seeks the inanimate because there the disquiet of all becoming makes way for enduring stability. [...] Creating an artistic work, means expressively fixing a stable beyond of the phenomena(un au-delà des phénomènes)"
(6) I may have had an overdose of modern art in my twenties, which would explain why I now often get so very tired when visiting yet another museum of modern art , telling yet again with gusto the story of all those brave ruptures with stifling tradition – but well, “Duchamp’s urinal is in the museum for almost 100 years now” (as Thierry de Duve wrote), so perhaps it's no wonder I find it difficult to experience still its revolutionary thrill.
(7) “offre une alternative à une lecture de l’art du XX siècle réduit à une succession de bruyantes ruptures. [...] [où] le scandale confère [...] une célebrité immédiate”
(8) WW (French translation): “Par amour pour le caractère éternel de la pierre”