I saw a stunning, absolutely stunning, play at Everyman Theatre called Heroes. It was by a French playwright I’ve never heard of, and translated by Tom Stoppard. Lest anybody be intimidated by the S-word, the play is not nearly so highbrow as the credential suggests – and for someone who tackles such highbrow subjects as Stoppard, I’m invariably surprised by how much entertainment mileage he gets out of subjects so dry. Like all work that bears repeated viewings (I’m definitely going again before it closes next Sunday…anybody up for Thursday night?), this is a tragicomedy about life – two hours of three old French men bickering while they watch themselves grow old and hope against hope that they can reverse the ageing process by ever so slight increments. No description of the play can do justice to how funny it is, or how disturbing.
But as I left the theater last night, I found that it wasn’t the play about which I thought. It was the first stirring of nostalgia for France since my return to the States three months ago. I think it was the trees in the background scenery – those hazy impressionist trees right out of a late Monet at Giverny (or a Bob Ross 'Happy Tree'). It was that French countryside, with that amazingly comfortable dry heat, and that shade of green on the trees which you can never find in any other place in the world, and the Nicois cuisine, and all those legs….
I didn’t much care for Paris. Looking at contemporary Paris is like looking at a failed Washington (moreso). From Western capital to capital – Athens to Rome to Venice to London to Vienna to Paris to Berlin to DC – the neoclassical architecture just gets bigger along with the ambitions of the leader who commissions it. And yet the only people impressed by those boulevards of government are the faceless functionaries who work inside and fancy themselves powerful because they have an office in a big building. For a city so renowned for its beauty, there are large swaths of the center city that are unbelievably faceless. It’s sometimes been said that the French are ‘Germans with better food’, nowhere is that more true than in the boulevards of Paris.
(Paris, it’s like a city designed by Saint-Saens)
I much, much prefer England to France, but nowhere is that more true than in how much I prefer London to Paris. Contemporary Paris is like a city trapped in a fake vision from a Toulouse-Latrec painting showed in a Simon Schama documentary then disseminated on PBS and uploaded from a VCR taping onto youtube. The city seems so far removed from everything which used to make it a vital city and so weighed down by its past glories that there is no present Paris of which I can speak. I spent ten full days in Paris and there was not a single day in which I felt I was experiencing anything about the city except for what Nicolas Sarkozy wanted tourists to see. And believe me, I tried. How many French novelists, composers, songwriters, filmmakers, showrunners, contemporary artists, playwrights, worthy of the name can you come up with? I can name worthwhile past figures by the dozens and hundreds, but today almost all I can think of is a bunch of intellectual quacks who write the kind of pseudo-philosophical junk that gets American professors tenure if they pretend to like that sort of thing. In ten days, the most contemporary, ‘vital’ thing I saw was a jazz show in Marais with a saxophonist which sounded like he belonged with Miles Davis circa Filles de Kilimanjaro. And the saxophonist was Israeli!
I suspect the real Paris, the ‘interesting’ Paris, is all at least three or four-hundred years old, and Baron Haussmann ploughed over it to make the anonymous capital we now call the World’s Great City. I know…I know… Paris anonymous? Sacre Saint Sebastian! But over and over again, I found that the most interesting things in Paris, perhaps in France generally, hailed from the Middle Ages. Nothing I saw in France was more impressive than the Cathedral on a Cathedral on a Cathedral on a Cathedral on a Cathedral at Chartres, or the oooollld streets of Avignon – which my travelling mate described as the perfect city to have a fairy-tale wedding during the day then murder your in-laws at night. You look at all those medieval paintings and you see a very different country from the effete aesthetics of later centuries – all those religious and classical figures rendered in disturbingly violent and obscene poses beyond your imagination. This is not the medieval art wing you pass over in American museums – when it comes to the Middle Ages, Europe kept pretty much all the good stuff for itself. This was an animally violent, sexual, religious, deeply divided culture – fascinated by barbarism and enacting that fascination in every way it could imagine. Those paintings are the sex and violence action flicks of their time, and clearly those Middle Ages were a lot closer to the spirit of our time than they were to the eras that followed. Not since the Middle Ages have we encountered a century that dreamed up so many inventive ways to kill and maim as the one which just finished, and not since the Middle Ages has the gap of knowledge between the educated and the ignorant been so vast.
But it was to the French countryside, to those trees and ponds near Avignon and Chartres to which those painters escaped so that they might capture a new vision – a vision not enamored of perfect pictures and ideal forms. It was the century of Napoleon, and the power and glory that was France’s allowed for new explorations. What is the purpose of greater power and influence if you only want to capture that which has already been captured?
And there began a school of painting that depicted warm climates coldly, and took infinitely painstaking technique to express a distorted result. In was art whose only reason for existing is to express the confidence that it is absolutely unnecessary – no longer are there expressions of the religious ecstasy you find in Michelangelo, or the humanist pride you find in Rembrandt, or the bearing witness to despair and evil you find in Goya. These are the first paintings that feel so confident in themselves that the only thing they express is a middle finger in your direction. ‘Wait. You think this peach is orange? Fuck you you’ll never figure out which colors it is!’ ‘What, you think those lily pads look like brush strokes? Fuck you your eyes don’t even notice a lily pad unless we make it look weird!’
At this epochal moment in art history, just as painting surrendered its dominance over all the world’s visual art to photography and just before the emergence of moving photos, came the most important expression of irony the world had ever (and still has ever) seen (except Seinfeld?). There is nothing sincere about impressionism, and nobody cared enough to jail the painters for being insincere. The only thing remaining is the paintings itself, and the weird notion that nobody needs painting anymore, so it doesn't have to express anything but what the painter wills the canvas to express. If you like what he expresses, so much the better. If you don’t like it, fuck you. It is a world with no reason for existing, and we all live in it. And because we have no reason for living, we all sit around and pass our time as best we can with unnecessary work, unnecessary hobbies, unnecessary love, unnecessary sex, and unnecessary blog posts. If we can get some pleasure out of our lives, so much the better for it, but what does it matter even if we can’t?
And that’s why I found something deeply, deeply depressing about the Musee d’Orsay – it was like looking into yet another vision of the past and seeing yourself reflected back. If the Petit Palais in Avignon was like looking straight into the heart of American barbarism (Red America?), then the Musee d’Orsay was like looking straight into the heart of American over-privilege (Blue America?). If Medieval Art is like an Iowa evangelical church where unmarried teenagers have violent sex after being worked into a frenzy by worship sessions, then Impressionist Art is like a CBGB punk show in New York where everybody’s either moshing the shit out of each other or silently nodding their heads.
So there you have it – the three basic camps of France, which also happen to be the three basic camps of America – superstition, imperialism, and decadence. If you belong to the mores of any one of the three, you will never feel anything but at home. But if you’re not a natural fit in any of the three, you’re kinda screwed.