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The Carletonian

Old art is…well…dead

I’m in Italy. In Rome, to be specific. I’m on Carleton’s Art and Architectural studies in Europe program that covers, well, just that. And I’m here to give you a taste, see what I see, sip what I sip, if you will.

Having been recommended to me by a member of the Class of ‘23, this program is certainly a once in a lifetime opportunity; if nothing else, this is me telling you to apply two winters from now. 

The program will be bouncing all over the place (several locations in Spain, as well as London), and we’ve already day-tripped to Ravenna, the city of Byzantine-era mosaics, and Florence, where we drank some deliciously foamy cappuccinos. While I could dwell on food and wine, what’s piqued me so far is more of a feelings thing. I’m talking about art culture, or what I’m dubbing the “wow” effect. 

On day one, we went to the Colosseum. There’s a stop on one of the metro lines named as such, which is very handy, but it was probably the most jarring subway exit I’ve ever experienced. Backpack thumping in front of me, I traipsed up the steps to a view that made me forget I was supposed to be watching out for pickpockets. I pulled out my phone and took about three  identical pictures of the thing, just to be sure, still swimming in the current of the humid post-subway crowd. I must’ve said “wow” about half a dozen times. 

As the crowd thinned out a little and I inched closer, jarring moment no. 2 apparated at 12 o’clock: a poof of smoke. Floating up up and away towards the Arch of Constantine (he was the first Roman Emperor to convert to Christianity in the 300s AD), drags from an Italian vape reminded me I am alive right here right now, and the man vaping could most certainly not be a gladiator or a senator, even if I squinted my eyes and tried to believe. “Constantine is super dead,” I thought as I waited in the ticket line. And that’s what I’ll remember when I tell my kids in 20 years, probably.

This has been sitting with me since (not the kids part) as we’ve hit the big ones: the Roman Forum, the Vatican, the Pantheon — they’re, like, super dead. 

We’re in the Purple Explosion flavored vape era (the Italians like what they like): an era where we look at really cool things and say “wow,” think about being a Gladiator/ Emperor/ Council Member only after schlepping our phones from the depths of our inner pockets for a picture, and call it “finito.” The unfathomable lump of time sitting between the “then” — the past — and now stops us from really feeling much else. No highbrow art snobs are taking a dump on the Arch of Titus. It’s a masterpiece. They all are. And it makes me wonder…

If the fate of an art historical piece is merely wonder, does it lose its value as a critical, artistic object? Is its value as a piece of history trumping its value as art? (Psst, these were rhetorical). 

I vote yes. 

If the Colosseum is relegated to “wowville,” to selfieland and a halfhearted attempt to read to the bottom of a description plaque, it’s not only dead, it’s like, double dead. And that bums me out.

So, how do we vivify (re-rennaisance-ify, anyone?) super cool old art? 

Access. The purpose of the site needs to be re-engaged. Isn’t the Colosseum a building, after all? We ought to start treating it like one. The art of architecture is quintessentially intertwined with its function. It is, by definition, a beautiful use. (Uh oh to the theoretical architects out there). 

This is not a new idea. The Italian government is making plans to open up the Colosseum’s Arena Floor for concerts and other public events, and just a few blocks away the Circus Maximus — which yes, used to be a circus — regularly hosts music events, having seen the likes of Travis Scott and even Bruce Springsteen, to name a few. We need more of this.

Sure, you could brush me under the postmodern rug for wanting to poke at the mastery of the Classical age from its roped off distance, but I think if we could spend a little more time engaging with a relic as art beyond voyeurism, we’d have a bit more to say than “wow.” And that would be pretty darn cool.

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