Due to the vagaries of the weather and the incompetence and indifference of Delta Airlines, I found myself homeless in New York City for 24 hours. Although the airline caused the problem, JFK airport has little sympathy for stranded travelers. Not finding a room, I slept in an Airtran car (very comfortable) for awhile until security hustled me off. All the good benches at the MacDonald’s (one of the few places—at least I found no others—with padded seats) had been taken, so I pulled up a patch of marble floor at the American Airlines terminal and napped there for a while.

Not wishing to spend another day at JFK, I parked my baggage and ventured into the city. I thought I would catch a nice nap at St. Thomas’s Episcopal Church, since besides being a fine Cathedral, the Episcopalians have the best padded pews in the religion business, and the detachable kneelers make a fine pillow. But alas, the caretaker shooed me out of there as well. Well, if they’re going to be that way about it, I’ll just go back to the Romans, so I caught the early mass at St. Patrick’s. At least, it might have been a mass; the “presider” seemed to be making up the prayers of consecration as he went along; maybe it was “relevant” in a way I do not understand. But what was certainly relevant were the images which greeted me as I exited the Church, pornographic images supplied by the Armani Exchange store across the street. This was artistic pornography; you could tell that because it was in black and white and nobody seemed to be enjoying themselves. Despite three pictures of violent sex, homo-eroticism, and group sex, the participants seemed determined to turn it into a grim duty, far more onerous than anything that would be imposed by the genial presider at St. Pat’s. Here was the modern predicament in a nutshell: two symbol sets confronting each other across a crowded street, one promising ultimate happiness and the other pleasure as a grim obligation; the former was made bland and makes few demands, the later demanding most of your paycheck but making no promises whatsoever. And yet, Armani seems to be winning the debate. “American Gothic” replaced by “Armani Gothic.” Go figure.

Needing to feed my brains with better things, I determined to visit a museum I had never seen before, in my many visits to the city, namely The Cloisters. Now, the Cloisters are in the 190’s and despite being a bona fide part of the island of Manhattan, most New Yorkers consider this area as remote as Poughkeepsie. Alas, most New Yorkers deprive themselves of a very fine place. Two fine places, in fact. The first is Fort Tryon park, which I prefer to Central Park and which has beautiful views of the Hudson. As a man-made “wilderness,” it is wild indeed. But the park also houses The Cloisters, and The Cloisters houses one of the best collections of Christian art from the middle ages that I have ever seen. But it is not just the exquisite art, but the setting that sets this collection apart. It is housed in a faux monastery, and as faux monasteries go, this is the best. It is actually a collection of architectural styles, from the Romanesque to the Gothic meant to display the building elements in something like their “native” mode. Thus, where they have an authentic Romanesque apse, they built a small Romanesque church to display it; a gothic arch merits a small gothic church, and so forth.

The collection is absolutely stunning, and the museum displays it in a way that is quite intimate, much better than the displays at the main branch of the Metropolitan Museum of Art (of which this is a branch). Further, since it is in Poughkeepsie—I mean the 190’s—the site has few visitors, and it is like having a whole museum to yourself, or nearly (which may account for the “suggested” entry fee of $20.) And the museum shop actually sells some reproductions that are worth having.

One cannot help but be moved by the quality, care, and faith that made this art. Or at least, I thought so until I made the mistake of taking the “tour.” The tour guide, although more or less competent in matters of the art itself, kept making statements like, “They really believed in such things,” a statement which never failed to bring guffaws from the assembled yokels. As a person who still “believes in such things,” I was offended, but as there is some Government Regulation or other against striking Metropolitan Museum Tour Guides about the head and shoulders, I refrained from expressing my opinion. Nor would my opinion have made much headway against said yokels, who likely take more seriously the grim symbolism of the Armani Exchange.

This is the art that Armani and the whole modern world would like to destroy, or at least reduce to museum pieces. And given the help they get from the presider of St. Patrick’s, they will likely prevail, or already have prevailed. See it while you can, even if you can only see it in a museum. Surely, this art no longer inspires the builders of modern churches, and gets about as many guffaws from them as from the scattered visitors to The Cloisters. See the heritage that the modern world wants us to exchange for the Armani Exchange.

8 COMMENTS

  1. There is a spirit of clarity that pours out of you John. Clarity, wisdom and goodness. And I am grateful for it.

  2. Thank you for this essay. I wonder if those who’d like to see the entire Church reduced to
    the glittering residue that one sees at the Cloisters have ever asked themselves if there
    could ever be a museum for the symbol set of the Armani Exchange. If not, why not?

  3. Professor Medaille! I am an alumna of the University of Dallas (I took your course perhaps a year ago). I read the blog post several weeks ago and enjoyed it thoroughly without noting who the author was at the time. Now that I have, what a pleasant surprise! I am looking forward to the publication of your next book.

  4. My daughter, a UD graduate, sent me this link. I look forward to visiting The Cloisters. The dismantling of the Barnes Foundation, the greatest collection of French Impressionist art and one of the wonders of the world, has left me depressed and I yearn for a substitute. I imagine, also, that this conversation about the spiraling downward of Western culture and consciousness is taking place in many groups beyond my own family and circle of acquaintances. My hope is that we can unite and reverse this trend. Thank you very much for your contribution to this effort.

  5. Rachel, very good to hear from you. The new book is out; I hope you enjoy it. Write me offline and tell me how things are going in the outside world.

    C Costis, we form little centers of resistance where we can. It is my belief that in a very short time, these little centers will become important indeed.

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