Rebirth of Reason

The Free Radical

Of Wright and Renaissance
by Cameron Pritchard

Upon entering Frank Lloyd Wright's Guggenheim Museum in New York one is immediately struck with awe. This is a building like no other, an organic entity rising from the ground and taking you on its spiral ascent to the heavens - the heavens that only a man of Wright's brilliance could reach. The spirit of Wright's heroic vision and the material substance of the building are thrust together to create an experience at once intellectual and emotional. The Guggenheim boasts an "extended, expansive, well-proportioned floor space from bottom to top no stops anywhere gloriously lit from above." The building is a temple to life on earth - and yet one feels as if one is truly in the presence of a god. The god is Wright - whose gigantic presence haunts the building and makes one realize what we Objectivists might call "the total passion for the total height."

And yet the irony is that, throughout this experience, one is walking past an ongoing display of modernist art. That one hardly notices the paintings hanging from the wall is testament both to their mediocrity and perhaps to Wright's sense of humour. If you ever wanted to see dwarfs in the shadows of a giant - this is it. It is as if Wright's building is a subtle joke on those who would take the contemporary art that it displays seriously. He is forever drawing our attention away from the mediocrities his building was supposed to exhibit and moving us to a constant reminder of his own genius - as if we could ever forget.

Wright's building is shocking in that for a brief moment we are transported into the world of a cultural atmosphere as it "could be and should be." To see just what humans can achieve but so often choose not to is almost painful. The spiritual nature of the experience inside a Wright building makes one wonder how we ever survive without this kind of nourishment. One turns to see the works displayed on the walls. One feels a sense of burning anger at just what experiences have been stolen from us by a bankrupt culture that considers a giant shuttlecock (which was draped over several levels of the building's ramp) to be art.

A cultural atmosphere is something like a barometer of the dominant philosophical ideas of its time. The dominant ideas of our age are defined by what they are against - the heroic potential of the human being living in a knowable world where happiness is possible. The age of postmodernism is the age of the anti-hero. To call someone or something heroic is, after all, to make a moral judgment and for postmodernism there is no metaphysical basis for such a judgment. There is no metaphysical basis for any value whatsoever - the West is no better than barbaric fundamentalist Islam, the fruits of freedom are nothing special - it is simply a western prejudice to think that good health and standards of living matter. Similarly, in art - why should artists seek to portray meaning when the faculty that seeks meaning and understanding - reason - is at best impotent, and at worst a privileged tool of Western hegemonic oppression? So goes the postmodernist line. One may observe therefore, the way in which the ideas that permeate a culture and the artifacts and products of that culture are interwoven.

In this kind of cultural climate, a climate that now dates back well over a century, one wonders how the likes of Frank Lloyd Wright managed to do what they did. What heroism must have been required to break through the poisoned air of our times and offer the world a chance to breathe again!

The tragedy is that beauty in today's culture, beauty such as a Wright building, a romantic realist painting or an Ayn Rand novel, is more the exception than the rule. To make beauty the rule - to change the culture - is such a daunting battle that at times it seems almost impossible. But just as in politics "people are deceived en masse and enlightened one at a time," so in art. As Alexandra York points out in her superb and inspiring clarion call for cultural change, From the Fountainhead to the Future, "we are lucky. We can say, 'Look at that sculpture.' 'Listen to that concerto.' 'Read that novel.'" We can, in other words, bring into people's lives the fire and romance that a great human achievement can offer, here and now.

We can, on a broader level, only change the culture - the culture encompassing as seemingly diverse fields as art and politics - through changing the ideas that have dominated the twentieth century and continue to dominate our own era. We have to begin by repairing the philosophical view of human nature. Where once humans were heroes they now become anti-heroes, success and happiness being impossible to them, their lives tormented and their minds impotent to grasp a chaotic universe. There are few more vivid examples of how ideas about the universe and man's place in it determine, for good or ill (and in these cases, ill) the way in which man and life are portrayed than Edvard Munch's The Scream or the character of Stephen Dedalus from James Joyce's A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.

But, Joyce and Munch notwithstanding, human nature is a glorious thing. Humans, through the use of reason, have lifted ourselves up from the primordial swamp to industry, medicine, space exploration. Reason is what makes us such amazing animals. Reason makes possible love for the object of its understanding - the universe. A firm, knowable universe rather than an ever-changing flux about which we can know nothing. This worldview made the Greeks possible. It made Renaissance humanism possible. It made Frank Lloyd Wright and Ayn Rand possible. It can make a second renaissance possible.

As York puts it: "Let reason be our torch and let beauty be our guide on that euphoric inner space walk called 'human possibility.'"

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