Wednesday, May 14, 2008

The Curse of the Now

It occurred to me as we wandered the Ramblas in Barcelona that the manifestations of our existence, all of us, of our presence on earth, are becoming uglier and uglier - ugly cars, ugly clothes, ugly buildings and parks and fountains, footbridges and barriers, shopping centers, sidewalks, signs. The old is still beautiful of course, in kind of a suspect way. Old things seem to have long ago skulked beyond the reach of aesthetic reproach. Or earned a free pass by virtue of persistence. The plainest, creaking, hundred-year-old tenement glooming up a narrow city street has this authority for some reason, and I'm loath to question it. But its upstart neighbor, the bank building with the curved-glass facade, is naked to judgment, and the verdict can't be good. Did the world look this way a hundred years ago? Certainly many people were appalled by modernist architecture, and reviled those fume-belching motorcars, and were scandalized by the immodest dress of the youth. But look at a picture, a crowd scene or a streetscape, from the forties, sixties, even the eighties - every detail has a period charm and conspires with the others to tell a poignant, coherent story. Not so today, with all our rounded, plasticky cars in colors of unearthly dreariness; our garish storefronts, billboards and marquees; our bad shirts and belts and hats and sunglasses. Are we reaching a fever pitch of postindustrial hideousness? Or maybe it'll all look different when we see it from the future. Maybe it's just the curse of the now.