In your photography and writings I find a conversation partner who lives at the razor’s edge between belief and disbelief, joy and despair, the heights and the abyss of nothingness, and the honest search for hope and truth beyond the illusion of inevitable progress. Gordon Stewart
I received an email from a reader the other day commenting about our post on “Death in the Wood of Ephraim” from August 2012. When I went back to review the post, I saw the quote above from our colleague and friend Gordon Stewart. Now Gordon is one of those people who we never would have found if it had not been for WordPress. We have corresponded for years and he gave a sermon based on one of my other posts, which moves me every time I hear it. Gordon has a gift for words, both in using them and appreciating them. In this comment he concludes with the phrase “the honest search for hope and truth beyond the illusion of inevitable progress”. Something about the use of the word “illusion” struck me as indicative of a deeper meaning.
The first thing that came to mind was our fascination with the fashionable with its induced cycles of obsolescence. We replace things not because they are worn out or because they don’t work any more, but because they are no longer in style. I have known children who absolutely craved a new $300 pair of sunglasses because the ones that they owned weren’t stylish anymore. The blandishments of advertisers are so powerful that we find it hard to resist the songs of these modern-day sirens and recklessly steer into the rocks, transfixed by a song carried on the wind. For a person who spends so much of his time discovering the brilliance of medieval art, this makes me cringe.
The next thing that came to my mind was the effect of commercialism in all forms, but personally, for me, in food. I spend a great deal of effort seeking out old diners and restaurants, both in the United States and in France, places where I can taste real food, something that nourishes the spirit as well as the body. I am so tired of foams and dabs of reconstructed food used in the modernist cuisine. Ferran Adrià, chef at elBulli says “The idea is to provoke, surprise and delight the diner. The ideal customer doesn’t come to elBulli to eat but to have an experience.” Adrià and Heston Blumenthal advocate for the scientific understanding in cooking, but this is an elitist form of cooking. Now I say this, having experienced personally the rise of nouvelle cuisine. Derided at first for what was perceived as a preoccupation with presentation, it soon became apparent that this was cooking that stressed fresh ingredients and preparation focused on preserving the natural flavors of the food. This cuisine sought its inspiration in French regional cooking instead of the classic cuisine of Escoffier.
I remember in the mid-eighties when I lived in Los Angeles, a friend of mine, Torv Carlsen, raved about a restaurant in a shopping mall in Manhattan Beach. He ate there every chance he got, despite its rather high price tag. It did not interest me for some time, partly because there were so many trendy-but- forgettable-restaurants in the Los Angeles area at the time but also because of a certain snobbery; how could something extraordinary be found in a shopping mall? I finally took Torv’s advice and went to Saint Estèphe, the creation of executive chef John Sedlar and co-owner/sommelier Steve Garcia. What I found was astonishing; nouvelle cuisine adapted to American Southwest culinary roots. The presentation was gorgeous, of course, but more importantly, the food was bold, exciting, and delicious. Saint Estèphe closed two decades ago, but I never have forgotten the meals that I had there. The lesson I learned at its tables was that the pursuit of something authentic is more worthwhile than the pursuit of something merely fashionable.
But we should never underestimate the power of the marketplace, where even a good idea can be run into the ground. I have drunk sparkling water since I was a boy living in France. Perriers, Badois, and the other mineral waters were cheap and I loved the tang. When I came back to the United States, it was almost never available, so I drank soda water. And suddenly, in the 80’s there was a proliferation of bottled waters. I remember that Los Angeles had a water bar where young professionals would queue up to order their favorite still or carbonated water from Sweden, Iceland, France and elsewhere, paying exorbitant prices for the privilege. And then this spread to the general population. It is no surprise that most of these waters are sold by companies like Nestle’s and Coca-Cola. Can you imagine the conversation in the boardroom of Coca-Cola when one of the executives said “You mean that we can sell a drink without any flavoring at all for more money than we can sell Coca-Cola?”
So the population was persuaded that these bottled waters were better than the tap water that they got for free in their homes and an industry was created, generating massive profits for the companies and infinite mountains of unrecyclable plastic containers in our landfills. Sometimes I think of what Steve Jobs said to Pepsi executive John Scully to recruit him to Apple.
“Do you want to sell sugar water for the rest of your life, or do you want to come with me and change the world?”
So, maybe I’m just a cranky old guy and out of step with the times, but it does not seem like progress is really what we think it is. There is no modern art that is finer and speaks more deeply to our human condition than that of our medieval forebears. True artists always realize this because true art is not cynical and market driven. There is no modern building that evokes more intense emotions than Notre Dame de Chartres and chances are that in a thousand years, not one of the modern marvels of Zaha Hadid or Frank Gehry will still be standing.
And on a macro scale, what progress can we claim when we may well be destroying the only planet known to be able to support our form of life? We have presided over the extinction of thousands of species in our drive for progress and now we may have presided over our own. I can only hope that some of the wonders of nature that have existed for millennia will survive. Maybe that will be the only progress we can hope for.
The music, by the way, is “Primavera” by Ludovico Einaudi.