Cathedral of St. John the Divine, Engelbert Humperdinck, Cheap Beer and Che Guevara

Less than a year ago (September, I think), I was walking around Manhattan when I turned a corner after getting a sandwich in a deli and there was The Cathedral of St. John the Divine. I didn’t know anything about it at all. Didn’t know it existed, let alone that it was right around the corner from where I bought that sandwich.


But stumbling into something like that’s a shock. I mean, you don’t really have time to prepared for any sort of reaction, which leads ya to believe whatever sort of reaction ya have is genuine. I was sorta awestruck. Like, “what the fuck???” So I went on in and all the stained glass and ornamentation and the choir…..Holy shit. It does humble a person, even a secular.

The grandeur of that cathedral got in my head today and I got to thinking, how do you top that? Well, seems that’d be pretty darned hard, to recreate something that elicits that much of a visceral response. So then ya think, so if you’re an architect following in those footsteps, what do you do?

There must be at least two ways for the architect to approach it: go in a radically different direction or retain some of the elements of the past (what worked) while forging ahead and trying to meld those elements with the modern. Make sense, right?


I was sitting in Junker’s Tavern a few weeks or months ago, sipping on a Hamm’s (they used to have 16 or 20 ouncers of Old Style, which was delightful, but not for a while now. A silly shame, really, cause at Junker’s I feel you oughta ditch the pretension of drinking Truth for some of the unpretentious, cheap stuff. But Hamm’s is a product of MillerCoors and I don’t like supporting those giant corporations. How’s that for petty, anti-corporate rebellion? A real barstool Che Guevara, right? Still, in truth, Hamm’s tastes better than Pabst.)


Anyway, these fellas were sitting in a booth, talking about how back in the day they were attending our city university (UC) around the same time I musta been there and at least one of them was in the College of  College of Design, Architecture, Art, and Planning (DAAP) round the same time I was studying Fine Art there too. I know this cause they were talking about taking their art classes on the other side of campus while they were building or restructuring the DAAP building and I remember the tedium of drawing the same still life objects over and over in that building on the southeast corner of campus too.

So I eavesdropped on these guys and they got to shitting on the design of the DAAP building. And, to be fair, that’s probably reasonable criticism. So today as I got to thinking back on St. David’s Cathedral, I considered what the perception of DAAP is compared to that of the Cathedral of St. David and concluded, well, there probably ain’t no comparison.

Google tells me the DAAP building was designed by Peter Eisenman, who, like any other architect, I don’t know shit about him or his discipline. I know a little about fine art and philosophy, that’s about it. And it’s a shame, I used to know a bit about the architectural elements within St. David’s Cathedral, way back when I was studying Art History on the other side of campus. But most of that’s been lost.

But you gotta think, what was Eisenman supposed to do when he made a proposal for designing that building? Try recreating something from the past or move forward? From the plebeians’ perspective, it appeared he tried moving forward radically (radically compared to something like St. David’s but not contemporarily). And to the extent that his creation, if not outwardly mocked, will at least likely not go down in the architectural annals alongside the Cathedral of St. David, well… least he tried. And maybe that’s what artists do. And maybe there’s respect to be given for the attempt. For, once something’s been perfected, where do you go from there? You gotta explore new territory, right? You gotta decide between color or the underground drabness of grunge. Sometimes ya win. Sometimes……it reeks of the times.


I’ve gone through the contemporary wing of the Art Institute of Chicago a few times. And sat and stood there with connections, visceral and intellectual, as flaccid as a flapjack. Ya can’t help but think, “so this is what we’ve come to?” I see the abstract expressionism and though it’s supposed to elicit an emotion (I think that was the intent. And I can’t discount that it does in some viewers.), can’t escape the suspicion that why it doesn’t work for me is cause it’s about measured concept. I image the artist weighing “what he feels” against what’s novel. Is it novel or ironic enough? Is the concept new or daring or wacky enough? Does the statement make sense? But that’s not pure expression. That’s measuring it. And maybe that’s why it leaves some of us so flat. Then again, maybe it’s about the sublime while I ain’t much to get caught up in the sublime.


But, to be fair, I’m not moved much by jazz or classical (concert) music either. And that could easily be a matter of my lowbrow taste and understanding than a reflection on the quality of the music.

And you gotta figure that if I get a feeling from or engagement with Led Zeppelin that somebody else gets from Schumann, there ain’t no measure or standard, really, of who’s reaction is “better”. And I could say the reason I don’t feel what they claim to feel is because it’s all pretension and affectation on their part. Affectation like the person who pretends to be moved by or to understand the Rothko knockoff artistes. But my grandmother (bless her deceased soul), probably wouldn’t have felt what I feel from Whole Lotta Love or Unchained. And I’d believe that she feels, at best, nothing – like how I feel nothing but cringe from the sappiness of her Engelbert Humperdinck or Andy Williams.


So I guess that’s what the artist does. Tries to move things forward. Explore new territory cause you don’t know if the world’s ready to move on from Elvis till the Beatles or the Stones come along and do their thing. Explore new territory with spandex and power cords. And sometimes it works. Other times, not. And the better artists figure it out, I guess.

There’s this idea going around that in “times of plenty” there’s more free and open expression. Freedom of thought, let’s say, in allowing reason to roam. Or a freedom or acceptance of the “avant garde” in the arts. A tolerance for political radicalism. Times when the underground becomes mainstream? But when times get tough and shit gets real, we start reverting back to what we know. To what’s worked. To what seems safe. And the underground remains underground.

And there’s probably elements of truth in what once worked. That’s why we keep going back. The truth and maybe the comfort from what we know worked once; so why not again – now? But there’s gotta be elements of progress in a culture too. Otherwise it gets stale. So it makes sense that the artist responds according to the mood of the culture. In times of trouble they may take a glance backward. In times of prosperity, it’s more a free-for-all of pastels or flared collars and pants.  Maybe.

Image result for 70's flared collar

Though it’s up for debate, AC/DC and Led Zeppelin and vintage Van Halen hit it outta the park. But they all had their influences from the past, while Gauntlet and Slave Raider and Herican Alice, all with similar influences, stepped up to the plate and whiffed. Thoroughly. But they tried. And today, in consideration of the Cathedral of St. David the Divine, I feel like giving them a break along with Rothko and Mondrian and Hockney, those fine gents of the modernist wing.


addendum 5.7.18 Prof. William D. Kolbrener, Lecture on John Milton’s Paradise Lost, “Harold Bloom writes of the anxiety of influence…..that some poets are so strong that they make it very difficult for poets to go on. And Homer is a poet like that. So what do you do? You become Sophocles. You become Aeschylus. You find some way of incorporating what Homer does so you can go into the future.”


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