Columbia Museum of Art Curator Will South Reflects on the Loss and Future of Art

We made them, and it is we who must preserve them. Or, in extreme cases, remake them.

-Will South

The young artist Will South on the bank of the Seine

The young artist Will South on the bank of the Seine

Art is not forever. Paper fades to yellow then brown and turns to dust. Rust never sleeps, and corrodes sculpture. Canvas and panels swell and shrink, paint cracks and falls away. Objects are stolen, bombed, and buried beneath the ocean.

And then there is fire, the universally feared and ever-present threat to the survival of objects. Buildings can and do burn to the ground, and all that is inside may be destroyed completely. The number of paintings, drawings, books, furnishings, inventions and—most importantly—people that have perished in flames is incalculable.

The burning of Notre Dame in Paris is the latest, and one of the greatest, reminders of the fragility of all things. Even the largest, most impressive monuments need protection. We made them, and it is we who must preserve them. Or, in extreme cases, remake them.

The burning of Notre Dame raises other issues injurious to our global cultural life. In the wake of the fire, some have mourned “the loss of a thousand years of history.” Not so. We know as much today about the history of Notre Dame as we did before the fire. History is judgement, and is made by people—it answers the question: how did we get from A to B? Those judgments are with us (and subject to ongoing revision). Many have already declared that Notre Dame “witnessed so many seminal events” and observed such historical luminaries as Napoleon and Joan of Arc. Actually, the stone and glass that made Notre Dame witnessed nothing. Our tendency to anthropomorphize everything on earth only serves to keep us thinking that everything is about us. Notre Dame is an object, not a living thing.

Why is it so special then? Because not all objects are equal. Size varies, weight varies, colors, texture and so on. When something is made, it functions (most often) to serve a purpose: we use forks to eat, shoes to protect our feet, bowling balls to entertain. A massive Gothic cathedral such as Notre Dame was made to express in a grand holistic manner the faith and world-view of a civilization. Arguably, this was a more ambitious purpose, if less perfunctory.

Study a fork, and you quickly get the point: it’s necessary to eat and a fork helps. Shoes, however fetishized in the modern world, help us navigate the environment by preventing cuts and blisters. Bowling balls are part of a very broad narrative of how important it is to have leisure time—play is not frivolous. It is part of forming a balanced personality.

Now, study Notre Dame, and the entirety of a complex belief system unfolds, as does the economic and social fabric of Europe in the Middle Ages. For Notre Dame to have been built eight hundred years ago remains an astonishing feat—what social force could have been so powerful as to propel its construction?

One answer that must be considered is status. Whichever city had the largest cathedral could claim preeminence. This status would attract kings and pilgrims alike, driving the local economy and serving to consolidate the power of that city. To build the tallest cathedral (one sign of its superiority) was no small task, it required all available resources and over one hundred years to build. Cities competed for this status, as they do today.

And, study of Notre Dame inevitably leads to the centrality of faith in human history. Status exists across the animal kingdom, thus the top dog and the queen bee. But it is the human species that has experienced a profound and relentless belief in a non-material world beyond the one we directly encounter each day. Faith, perhaps more so than status or economics, has driven creativity to its most glorious heights, whether in the Sistine Chapel, the Taj Mahal, or in Milton’s Paradise Lost. To understand ourselves as a species, we need to access the most complete expressions of our desires. Which are not forks, shoes or, however useful, bowling balls.

We need Notre Dame. Though it is an object, it is one that arose from magnificent forces, and one that can be a factor in transformative experiences. Meaning, an individual standing inside that incredible architecture may experience the most exalted of human ambitions, as opposed to the most ordinary. It is in us to feel that magnificence, that exaltation. Notre Dame, a work of art as well as a house of worship, enables those precious experiences, whatever one’s beliefs.

Notre Dame can be rebuilt, and must be. Not to preserve history, that is not its function. Nor to be an ongoing witness, that’s a physical impossibility. We need to experience it. That experience—to see and smell and hear an object designed and built to touch the miraculous—can become part of us.

In a world of endless needs, where children starve and veterans go homeless, perhaps this year we can stretch just a little bit more and contribute to the rebuilding of one of our priceless treasures, the Cathedral of Notre Dame, a testament to our search for the transcendent. — Will South

How to Help —

 Please visit the Friends of the Notre Dame de Paris to make a financial donation.

Visit Jasper’s specially created Facebook “event” to share your own thoughts about the Notre Dame fire and preserving/protecting/rebuilding the places that create our cultural landscape — at