PRINT February 1991


Paris and the Middle

Let’s rethink this word Other. Must we always use it to press gilt buttons? I’d rather trade it for guilt buttons, like the ones on those nifty new parkas from Chanel. These days my Other is Paris. I’m not really going there for the food, the fashion, the sentimental beauty of a walk along the Seine. I’m confronting my fear of the Other, a fear I’m determined to conquer, no matter what the obstacles—the sauces I must wade through, the wines that may give me headaches, the injuries to the spinal column from the head-swiveling beauty of buildings, scarves, scent on the air. This isn’t tourism; it’s anthropology, fieldwork of scrupulous rigor.

If you live in New York, this is no joke. Oscar Wilde famously said that good Americans go to Paris when they die. But some New Yorkers I know hope to make the move before they get murdered. Or before the spirit goes into complete arrest, before they forget that it is indeed possible to walk through the streets of a modern city late at night and to enjoy it thoroughly. Contemporaneity without apocalypse: this is heaven, or at least the elysian fields. It is the glory of the middle, celebrated with fountains and spotlights, and it has never looked more glorious. European economic prosperity, the collapse of communist governments, the approaching unification: despite the attendant anxiety, the upbeat of these events is still felt across the continent. But to experience it in Paris is astounding, for this is where a middle-class culture was fought for, and the function of the city—of the center—is to keep alive a sense of the responsibilities that go with the rewards of the middle, the expectations of a good dinner, a clean and fast train.

The lesson is laid out most dramatically on the great East/West axis: old monuments of privilege symbolically realigned with the middle; absent buildings recalled by name—Bastille, Tuileries—symbols of the collective will to tear down institutions that cannot be realigned. But in a city where the tops of buildings are within shouting distance of the sidewalk, every street is a lesson in the middle ground. Every street cleaner, wielding a broom fitted with green plastic twigs, is a tutor in maintenance as a creative act, for the middle must constantly be reinvented, sometimes with a revolution, sometimes with soap and water.

One afternoon on the metro I saw an old madwoman sitting on the platform directing the trains at the top of her voice. When the doors opened, half the people in my car stood up to get a better look; they pointed at the woman and broke into loud laughter. She had a better audience than mimes do in New York. It was a moment straight out of Norbert Elias: an underground lesson in the internalization of restraint. In New York we would pretend not to notice; or if things got out of hand we would call the cops. We want that external authority still, whether it’s television, transit police, social programs, or George Bush shaking his saber. In Paris a chorus of laughter brought order to the scene. The madwoman might have joined in herself had she not been too busy keeping the trains running on time.

It’s not unlike the way Parisians have dealt with tall buildings. We will do one, the Tour Montparnasse, so that everyone can see for themselves what a mistake it is. Then we will make a place for this sort of thing at La Defense, where its extremity will balance the middle at the opposite end from the Louvre. The axis is almost a Taoist ridgepole, with I. M. Pei’s pyramid at one end balanced at the other by the 19th-century allegorical sculpture of La Defense: two spots of the Other dropped into the yin and yang.

This equilibrium infuriated the post-Structuralists when order returned after the ’68 riots. A set of gilt buttons to them all. Last fall I stumbled by accident on what news reports called the largest student demonstration since then. The marchers, lycée students, hadn’t yet been born in 1968; tens of thousands of them converged from all over France to demand budget increases for education. They wanted more books, more teachers, guards to keep order. It was inspiring and humbling to pivot off the Boulevard Saint-Germain into the rue de Rennes, past the historic Left Bank cafés. This march was not nostalgia for the ’60s; or, if it was, what a great way to channel that impulse: toward books.

The Musée d’Orsay is the center within the center, the concentrated focus of the story all Paris tells. Four years after its opening, the focus of this controversial museum looks even sharper, not because the passage of time has brought us closer to an objective assessment, but because the course of European history has enhanced our (subjective) receptivity to what the museum shows. You step from the streets of a city that is itself a voyage into an architecture mode for voyages and find galleries laid out as city streets. You pass down the main “boulevard” of this city under glass toward a simulacrum of the old Opera, looming over a scale model of Paris streets set beneath a glass floor.

This axis walks you through a construction site: the building of a hierarchy of the middle. Yes, we will be a material, secular culture, a culture of railroads, factories, goods, and stuffs. But at the top of all this we will place art’s angels: muses of dance, gods of music, all the deities of the mind. Where there was a cross, we will place a lyre; in place of the crown, a tambourine. You can imagine yourself Charles Gamier, challenged by the Empress Eugénie’s indignant interrogation: “What is this style supposed to be? It is neither Greek nor Roman nor Louix XIV nor Louis XV!” “It is Napoleon III, Your Majesty,” says Garnier, naming his style after her consort, an emperor who will be deposed years before the opera house opens its doors. They will call the house Garnier.

At the d’Orsay you have to assist in the reconstruction, and I suppose it is an unwillingness to do that which accounts for all the complaints that the museum jumbles everything up, pompiers and independents, mediocrities and masters. In fact, a classical hierarchy is clearly delineated in the disposition of art on all floors. But whatever their rank, all participated in the making of this liberal, cosmopolitan moment ruled in theory by minds in science, in art. Even a building designed to glorify a reactionary like Napoleon III put Apollo uppermost in the skyline. And from behind its uplifted lyre we ascend by escalator to Modern heaven and the art—Impressionist, post-Impressionist—that heard the lyre’s call.

I have no problem with Gae Aulenti’s heavy, Egyptoid vocabulary (Modern? Post-Modern? Aulenti, Your Majesty). It proposes that the achievement of this epoch is durable. She has fused the two languages in which the original building itself speaks: the proto-Modern engineering of the shed, the obelisk-capped architecture of the building that encloses it, with its nod at the obelisk across the river. And when people say it looks like Bloomingdale’s, I say, good: the department store is a big part of the late-19th-century story. I’m glad they didn’t leave it out.

But it is not the whole story, and maybe the reason Americans have a problem with things that remind us of Bloomingdale’s is that for us Bloomingdale’s has been the whole story for as long as any of us can remember. It’s a shock at the end of the cold war to discover that we’re the only nonsocialist country in the world. The cost of victory in that war wasn’t just the billions spent on weapons we didn’t use. It was the investment in rhetoric we used freely, and the devastating consequences of domestic social policies designed to conform with that rhetoric. There may be no more important task than to extricate ourselves from the Free World update of the Enlightenment idea that individual self-interest automatically serves the common good.

After forty years of cold war illusions, it’s not surprising that we Americans can’t believe in civilization as something collectively attained. Not in a country that elects presidents who promise to eliminate government, expects Elizabeth Taylor’s diamonds to pay for a cure for AIDS, thinks the homeless should be housed by Catholic charities. Held captive, like prisoners of war, to the rhetoric of private enterprise, we’re right to suspect “the center” as a code word for complacency, mediocrity, intolerance, indifference to others. In urban centers devoid of a middle ground between shopping and violence, who wouldn’t prefer violence? Or, on a more elevated plane, take comfort in violence as itself a form of merchandise, in an intellectual marketplace stocked with apocalypse theories and coffee-table books on deconstructionist architecture? Perhaps apocalypse is preferable to living in false hope. The task for us now may be to prevent apocalypse from eclipsing the real hope held out by a changing world.

Herbert Muschamp directs the Graduate Program in Criticism of the Parsons School of Design, New York. He contributes regularly to Artforum.