AT THE RISK of seeming a bit precious, even silly, I returned to the famous new East Building of the National Gallery to confirm my uneasiness about that extraordinary place. Like the massed millions who have herded through that marble hall, that awesome marble space with its stone blade corners and complicated angles, I was awed at first and delighted.Afterward, I felt mildly insulted, a vague irritation that grew until I was genuinely mad at this new building. To be certain I wasn't mamufacturing something in my head, I returned recently and the discontent was stronger, clearer, confirmed.
How can anyone be angry with a beautiful new building in our midst? It does sound precious. Even I can see, knowing nothing at all about architecture, that this gallery is a triumph of design, a new temple in our midst where we may worship modernism. I will freely stipulate that I. M. Pei is a genius-class architect and that his patron, Paul Mellon, is a man of exquisite sensibilities.
What bothers me is the idea of the building, the social message it expresses, the feudal feeling of the place. In the world history of great art, I suppose it will rank with the trimphal arches that conquering emperors built in ancient Europe.
We know this is a new monument in our city, like the Capitol, like the Lincoln Memorial, but a monument to what? I think a monument to social intimidation, the very opposite of our democratic ideals. The building reeks of the arrogance of Ozymandias. Look on, ye mighty, and despair. Only, in this case, the imperial monuments says: Look on, ye lowly citizen tourists in your Bermuda shorts, and feel humiliated.
Let me explain. From the outside, the East Building seems merely strange, a geometric puzzle which sits defiantly in front of our democratic temple, the Capitol. When one enters, the effect is overwhelming, as one critic noted. The puzzle doesn't solve itself for the human eye; it becomes more complex, bewildering.
The triangular logic which we were promised by the exterior is abruptly replaced by this great hall and a latticework of exposed sky and incredible movement -- people moving across the marble, people ascending along the stone walls, people appearing and disappearing on balconies and turrets and high bridges. It makes one giddy, for a moment, then strained, trying to understand the great emptiness of the main hall, empty but alive with interesting movement.
To put it bluntly, the joke is on the massed viewers. A sensory joke in which the eye and mind are invited to behold perfection -- but informed arrogantly that the geometric trick will not be revealed to the simple folk of the audience. One accepts, humbly, what this intimidating building boasts -- that it all works, that its intricate parts and shocking angles form a perfection which one can sense but not see.
I felt giddy. Also intimidated. A very modern feeling -- giddy and intimidated -- as we encounter the strange new wonders of our technocratic age. We are permitted to enjoy them so long as we do not presume to understand them. That is exactly the feeling of the East Building. Only dumb slobs, gazing on that vast emptiness beneath the skylight, would ask the obvious: Where the hell are the pictures?
On my second visit, I grasped more clearly that the visitors who are come to the East Building in search of reverent pleasure are themselves used by the building as part of its effect, as though I. M. Pei has constructed a moving picture in Tennessee marble. The great distances, from balcony to concourse, from the marble floor to the sky, make all the moving people seem smaller. They are miniaturized; only the building is great.
It is pure fun to watch. If one stands on one of the crossing bridges and looks down, the tableau of sharp stone and the motion of people is both crazy and regular, a delight to watch.
Enjoying this tableau, I recognized this precedent: the great castles of Europe. As a tourist, I had precisely the same sensation, standing on a medieval balcony and watching the movement in the courtyard below, people moving along ancient balustrades built by great kings, in and out of the towers and tunnels and gloomy recesses of Gruyere and Heidelberg and Provence.
Everyone loves castles, any normal human being, and so do I. But it bothers me that this cold modern castle, which both delights us and mocks us, was built and celebrated in our time, located like a highminded rebuke to the classical idealism expressed by the Capitol. Are they trying to tell us something? If so, I think all small-d democrats should be disturbed by the message.
The East Building was constructed by the generous philanthropy of Paul Mellon, who gave $94 million to the National Gallery, a great collection which was virtually built by the Mellon family. I assume the idea and design passed through all the appropriate official committee, though I doubt that any congressmen had the bad taste to ask Mellon where he got his $94 million.
The Mellons have what is sometimes called one of the "mature fortunes" of America. This means one can no longer reasonably associate the present heirs with the rapacious deeds of the past, the grit and storm of the 19th centuty when Andrew Mellon built steel and coal and oil and banking into a mighty empire with the modern family. No one can exactly blame Paul Mellon for air pollution in Pittsburgh or hold him accountable for the sooty little mill towns and coal camps which are aesthetically imperfect, to say the least. It is unreasonable, likewise, to note that while Paul Mellon was building us a marvelous castle on the Mall his family's Gulf Oil Corporation was systematically buying our elected public officials with its secret slush fund. We are embarrassed for him, if anything, because we know of his exquisite good taste, and we also know that, basically, he is no longer personally responsible for what his fortune does. This is what they call "mature."
Anyway, the question is about art, not politics. If I ask myself what might have happened if that $94 million had been placed in other hands -- in the public treasury or in the bank accounts of a million steel workers and coal miners -- I am compelled to concede that they would not have gotten together and built the East Buiding. I cannot imagine any group of politicians, spending public money, with the nerve to do something as daring and successful. The recent "public" buildings of Washington -- with the dazzling exception of the Air and Space Museum -- are testaments to the virtue of private taste like Paul Mellon's. I concede this cheerfully.
What really bothers me, though, is the triumph of high art implicit in the East Building, a statement of victory in the long curtural argument, really as old as the republic, about the unique American experiment. If America is a unique human experience, it will invent its own culture blooming upward from the mass of Americans, songs and stories and later movies which are powerful unto themselves, without the necessity of great wealth or critical approval. I still believe in that, and I could argue endlessly from living examples, from jazz music to Mark Twain.
The American culture, raucous and gross as it often is, delights and intrigues the rest of the world, which is proof enough for me. But on the other side of the cultural argument are the American champions of high art who worry about the lowbrow tastes of the rest of us. They tell us that the bottom percolation is dross and, in any case, has lost its spontaneity, that true art begins at the opera house, that creativity requires refined taste. Thus, only the select few can set the standard for us, particularly if they have the wealth to be patrons, in the manner of European royalty. These are the people who instruct us in English class rituals via so-called public television, who control the federal money of the National Endowment for the Arts, who wish we would "mature" as a people and, therefore, emulate the high culture ot Europe. Did our democracy come all this way in order to build modernist castles?
This exquisite building on the Mall, with its mocking quality, says to me: Yes, high art has won. Forget all that romantic rubbish you read in Walt Whitman; abandon those halfbaked notions of popular culture as the true wellspring of American. High art is in charge of things now, that building says, and you unwashed citizenry are entitled only to look on in awe and to serve as performers in its pageantry.
Naturally, I don't accept that, though I will cheerfully admit that the facts are against me.