Tuesday, 28 August 2012

Perverse Preservationism: Must We Save Everything?

On Cape Cod, they’re trying to save shacks which writers put up as provisional shelters after a hurricane. And in Los Angeles the big issue is saving a carwash. In a word, preservationism seems to be going amok.

The seeds for these rank intellectual growths were planted by Columbia University historian James Harvey Robinson in the 1920s with his concept of “The New History”—which is to say historiography which shifted focus from politicians making laws and generals waging wars to the quality of life as lived in the American democracy.

Daniel Boorstin fine-tuned this concept in his magisterial trilogy on American history. He taught us to study the Sears Roebuck catalog with the same care his predecessors had devoted to legal and political documents. And, of course, the French annaliste school perfected the approach to history as a gradual shifting of habits based on itty bitty changes in weather, trade and social power relationships. I remember my elation at using Fernand Braudel’s volume on life in the Mediterranean in the era of Philip II as a vade mecum while spending three months in 1977 circumnavigating that Mare Nostrum. So my heart is definitely with the Newest Historians as they teach us to conceptualize the past in fresher, deeper and more comprehensive ways. It’s my mind that balks at the stranger manifestations of the new historiography.

Those Cape Cod shacks are allegedly revered as sacred objects because Eugene O’Neill and lesser writers like Norman Mailer worked there. This is a disturbing trend: displacing the arduous task of staging and / or reading the playwright’s works with genuflecting before the false idols of the tourist or real estate industry. Analogously, if I were living in L.A., I’d be concentrating public policy pressure on the reduction of smog in the basin—not the preservation of trivial artifacts.

What we have here is the creation of cadres of curators and museum administrators whose vested interest is not to improve the quality of public life by new analysis and effective policy but to create fiefdoms with tenure built in.

Those canny old Jesuits taught me a motto, “Quis nimis probat, nihil probat” (Who proves too much, proves nothing). Preservationists who want to save everything physically risk saving nothing of historical significance intellectually. One of the saddest paradoxes of contemporary American life is that the preservationist movement and historical consciousness among the general public seem to proceed in inverse proportions. Except for the upper genteels who get off on discreet architectural tours (I consider myself one of them!), the median historical understanding of the general public is on a slippery slope downhill—into the sentimental swamps of Disneylands and Disneyworlds and Disneyuniverses. 

It’s Henry George’s dispiriting old paradox of progress and poverty—only this time it’s not the simultaneous material progress of poverty below; it’s the simultaneous boom in preserving old things for Sotheby’s and the Smithsonian and a baseball card craze among the young. Indeed, the pathetic speculating for Chinese jades, say, and rookie cards is equally loathsome.

It’s not the physical traces we need to save from extinction. That’s relatively easy. It’s protecting the intellectual gene pool of a generation that gets off on lotteries, meretricious entertainers and circus political investigations. Rather than save those writers’ shacks, let’s put our money into a thoughtful “Sound-print” on Eugene O’Neill which is then stockpiled for future use in media-rich English courses. And instead of saving that ridiculous carwash, let’s have a film documentary that analyzes the monstrous over-influence the automobile exerts on civilized values. It’s not the things we need to save. It’s the intellectual discipline and media artistry that can raise historical consciousness among the permanent dropouts in the larger society.

The day National Public Radio ran its story on saving the carwash, the New York Times had a story on how E.G. Marshall and some other Federal Theatre Project grads were putting on a play about Hallie Flanagan’s interrogation by the Dies Committee to raise money to save the FTP’s documents. Now, there’s a valid way to raise historical consciousness.

Alas, perverse preservationism has broken out right here in Philly. Kenneth Finkel, curator of prints at the Library Company, has op-edified in the Inquirer (July 17) about the disintegrating state of the Cannonball House, falling apart gracelessly on the cusp of Fort Mifflin. The house / artifact gets its name from a lucky hit by some British cannoneer in 1777, putting a ball through one side and out the other. In the putatively perfect universe of such perverse preservationists, no such holy house would ever hit the skids into oblivion.

What a crock. Think of all the fine Romanesque churches in Europe that gave way without a whimper.

From Welcomat, November 1, 1989

No comments: