Last week, I visited the Palais Garnier opera house in Paris. The interior is a display of staggering opulence. The ceiling in the performance hall was painted by Chagall. And that's the most modest and understated installation in the whole building.
While ambling around the opera house, the thought occurred to me that our human legacy is really marked, measured, judged, recalled, segmented, enjoyed, relived, remembered, and memorialized by only three things: art, science and war.
Art, science and war are also inextricably linked. Art is eternal, and war remains eternal through art. And the impact of science is rather self-evident. The world's art collection would be considerably thinned out if monuments to war or war-as-subject-matter were removed. The impact of war on general populations decays to nothing over long stretches of time. The only way to unlock the door of humanity to past wars is through art. A history book about the American Civil War won't make you cry like a well-written novel, a moving painting or scuplture, a primitive photograph or a masterful film.
So anyway, here's the thing.
War is enormously expensive. The winner, if there is one, takes the spoils immediately after the war is over. If the war is justified (WWII or the French Revolution), the world either becomes a better place, or is spared from the alternative of becoming a worse one.
In the art world, financial crisis is a constant (predominantly in the fine arts world, of course). But Paris will forever and ever profit from its fine art. There is a controversy right now over whether or not Detroit's art museum should sell its masterworks to stave off the city's looming bankruptcy. It's an emotional debate. The impact and value of great art never decays.
The construction of the Opera Garnier began in 1861, (the same year the American Civil War began). The performance hall is drowning ecstatically in crystal, marble, gold, velvet, and polished wood. At the end of one particular hall, I admired the cloth wallpaper and noticed the minute attention someone had given to make sure the trim overlaid on top of the wall paper where it abutted a wooden vertical beam had been measured and cut so precisely to fit perfectly into its insignificant little corner.
The French Revolution dismantled the monarchal line from which the Academy of Opera was founded. Regimes are handed over. Wars are fought, lost, and won. But the institution that is the Opera, and the building that houses it, still stands, as does that little tiny corner of perfectly cut paper. Maybe I was the only one who noticed it, or ever will. But I did, because it is still there.
It made me think about my own insignificant corner. What legacy do I want to leave? Am I an artist, scientist or warrior? I thought about this for an entire summer and the more I thought about it, the more the question gave me to think about, and to think about how many different definitions could be applied. I am a combination of the three, and most people would probably say the same about themselves, in any variety of combinations.
My first notion was to think I am predominantly of an artistic nature. But the more I thought about it, I realized I'm a warrior; in my earlier, opportunistic years, I definitely thrived on winning battles--intellectual, verbal, etc. But as I have (hopefully) matured, I have grown into someone who identifies things worth fighting for, then fights for them. I can do so through beauty and truth; there's a touch of artist. I have the capacity to analyze and measure my efforts; there's a bit of scientist in there too.
How about you?