March 16, 2010

A Weird Post


Last week was certainly a weird one in Blogville.

Tillerman blogged about his underwear. Bonnie blogged about looking into other people's windows. JP blogged about hats.

Never one to miss a trend, I've been looking for something weird to blog about, too.

And then I saw a post on Rowing For Pleasure about a guy who rowed a small boat 2000 miles to the New York World's Fair. Mr. Partridge put up an ancient Pathé newsreel clip of the guy and his boat. The newsreel was done in that hokey 'Holy cow!' style that evolved in the '30s and '40s to keep movie theater patrons awake while they waited for the main feature to start. So the whole thing seemed like it happened even longer ago than it did.

Which was weird, because I remember going to the New York Worlds Fair. The one in 1964, not 1939.

Don't worry, I'm not going to bore you with details of the Belgian Village or how cool the Carousel of Progress was, because, franky, I don't remember anything about them at all. Altogether, it was one of the most unmemorable events I've ever been to. I'm sure glad I didn't row 2000 miles to get there.

But I do remember just one thing about it - something I will never, ever, forget seeing. And that was this:

It turns out the Vatican had a pavillion at the fair. There they were alongside General Motors, Kodak, Greyhound Bus Lines, and the Parker Pen Company. But theirs was the only one without a long line in front. Apparently, their marketing and promotion department had dropped the ball. They just didn't understand what drew in the crowds. None of their exhibits moved. And how could you compete with the Carousel of Progress, anyway?

But somehow, this particular exhibit got to me in a very fundamental way. Not for its religious message, but for its sheer artistry. In 1964, I was a 15-year-old man of the world, but this was the first artwork of that stature that I had ever seen. And, since the pavillion was relatively quiet, I could take my time. There was no Magic Moving Carpet Of The Ages whisking you by it. I must have spent an hour there. You could get as close as you liked and walk all around it.

It is one of those works of art that reveals more of itself the longer you study it. It has a spooky power and presence that's hard to explain. In a small way, it has spoiled all sculpture and statuary that I have seen since. It's that remarkable.

The 1960s were a time of unbridled self confidence in America and of a smug assurance that new things must be better than old ones. A huge amount of historic heritage was plowed under in the sweeping 'urban redevelopment' of that time. In fact, the fair's chief promoter, Robert Moses, famed perhaps more for his ego and persuasive powers than for his artistic vision, had been responsible for a lot of that plowing under.

The fair seemed focused on hurtling us into the future as fast as possible. The past was painted as a dark, technological wasteland with nothing to teach us.

It was quite an awakening for me to feel such power in a work of mute marble that had been crafted by one man almost 500 years before. It was humbling to realize that such genius could have existed so far in the past.

I walked out of that pavillion a changed kid.

Any normal, well-adjusted 15-year-old would have gone bonkers over the NASA rocket exhibit or the cool cars of the future at the GM pavillion or all of the other exhibits pretending to know what life would be like in the future. But, after having seen Michelangelo's Pietà, the rest of that stuff seemed kind of shallow and tacky.

By the age of fifteen, I was already pretty weird.

I had a similar feeling many years later at a boat show in Oakland, where the latest megabuck fiberglass sailboats were lined up at the docks next to a very simple 30-foot wooden boat from an earlier time - a work of art that also had been handcrafted by a single man, Larry Pardey.

Sometimes, simple things are best and the traditions of the past have a lesson or two for us.

So, there now, weird as it may seem, I've managed to find some sailing content in Michelangelo and the New York World's Fair.

But this is still a pretty weird post.



  1. its a small world after all
    its a small world after all
    its a small world after all
    its a small, small world

  2. I was hoping no one would mention that.

    Now, that damned song is going to be in my head all day.

  3. Oh, no.

    I knew I should have just blogged about my underwear.

  4. Under where? It is a small world indeed. But I can't believe they had the Pieta at the world's fair! You must have been closer to the statue in 1964 than I was a few years ago, due to the bad decision by a hammer-wielding madman. Awe-inspiring for sure.

    P.S.- Has anyone gone on the "It's a small world" ride at Disney? It's a great subterranean break from the heat and humidity, and you get to ride around in little boats!

  5. Baydog, I think you're right.

    Those were certainly more innocent times. I can't imagine they would even consider moving something that valuable today. Apparently, to test the feasibility of the move, they had a replica created and transported it to New York the same way they planned to move the original.

    Disney may have been the big winner at the fair. He was contracted to create the showmanship for a lot of the major exhibitors and the technology he developed there supposedly was used extensively at Epcot Center and other Disney sites. I think the Lincoln at the Illinois pavillion was his first 'animatronic' figure.

    From time to time, it's rumored he also created our 40th president using the same technology, but this has never been confirmed.

    BTW, I may be the only person in California never to have visited Disneyland.

  6. We paid our respects to Walt and the Mouse back when Gerald was around eight years old. At least we had the sense to visit during the off-season; although a couple of rides were closed we enjoyed a lack of crowds. For boats, Gerald preferred "Pirates of the Caribbean" (before the movies) to "Small World."

    Gerald also appreciate the hokey joke from the Knott's Berry Farm stagecoach bandit about Disneyland.

    but we need to do something to people to put song worms in our heads....

  7. now I feel guilty about pixel pushing!!! I think i shall put the mouse down and make a finger painting.

    I never knew that amazing sculpture was brought to that site. We have a map from that World's Fair! I'll go look up the Vatican Pavillion!

  8. Some of the exhibits from that world's fair subsequently showed up at Disneyland when my family visited it in the late 60s/early 70s. I especially remember the General Electric Kitchen of Tomorrow (or something like that; I don't remember exactly what it was called).

    For me, the great art "aha" moment was at the Louvre -- everybody was paying attention to the Mona Lisa, but there was this sweet little Rembrandt that grabbed me, "Le Philosophe." He's my icon.

  9. Kudos, for a very nice post.