Early man lived at the mercy of nature. At best, societies found a way to live with nature by learning its cycles and secrets - which plants nourished, which plants healed, how to keep warm, when the fish came and how to catch them without drowning. They appealed to spirits to help them survive. Occasionally, societies would break some barrier - learn to grow crops, tend beasts - and rise up a notch in their level of survival, making a noticeable impact on their local environment.
In the 20th Century change was most rapid as humans strove to 'conquer' disease, hunger, and nature itself by unlocking sources of energy which enabled giant machinery that could cut down forests in days rather than centuries, that could conquer time with airplanes and trains and cars, and could power weapons to conquer the most dangerous creature on earth - other humans. The collective environmental impact is now global.
Many humans, beginning a post-modern era, are now aware that the systems that support life are far more complicated than we first believed and that we are destroying the earth that nurtures us. Yet our habits - driving for example - are hard to break so we strive to find ways to keep our habits, but in ways that do less damage.
All this intro is to give background to my reaction to the Getty Museum in Los Angeles.
My first impressions, years ago when it was being built, were of dismay that they'd taken a natural outpost in the city - a sometimes green sometimes grey-brown piece of relatively natural mountain top - chopped it off and put up a stone monument to man's ability to destroy nature. (In the picture you can see to the other side of the canyon what this hilltop used to look like.)
only posted glimpses and didn't make the point.)
Each tree has a cage around the base and the earth it grows in is hidden from view as though it were a growing statue and not a natural tree.
The grass is caged as well with metal walls and then carefully manicured demonstrating man's control of nature.
They even created metal trees that more graphically cage in the bougainvillea inside.
The water at the Getty flows down man-made channels into man-made pools, with 'nature' twisted into unnatural patterns. (OK, these patterns do appear in nature, but no plants grow naturally into neat mazes like this.)
This conquering of nature concept is also matched by the Getty's original goal to become a great international museum out of virtually nothing. And their methods of getting there were less than honorable. From the LA Times:
"Under growing international scrutiny for buying potentially looted antiquities, the J. Paul Getty Museum has dramatically tightened its acquisition standards.
The move, announced Thursday, is designed to screen out any item whose history since 1970 is murky. In doing so, two experts said, the Getty is essentially taking responsibility for making sure an item's recent history is clean, instead of challenging critics to prove it's dirty.
The move is not retroactive -- if it were, the museum would have to relinquish scores of ancient items from its galleries and storerooms -- but some authorities see it as a potential turning point in a global confrontation between curators and archeologists over the way museums do business. . ." [emphasis added]
The history of the world is made up of people striving for control. Some people are content with merely gaining enough control of themselves and their immediate environment to live a decent life.
Others have a need to be dominant over nature and over other human beings.
Since it is here - and admission is free (though parking is $15, but you can also take a bus) - people should go to the Getty and take in its offerings - its beauty, its research facilities, its lessons about humanity, its views of Los Angeles.
But not being so caught up that one forgets the Getty's assault on this hill top perch, from where it shouts to LA and the world - Look at Me! I Am The Greatest!