Friday, January 07, 2011

The Idea Of The Getty - Homage to Man's Power To Conquer Nature

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.

It was only when humans found the god Science and began to systematically unlock  the secrets of the universe that man moved from living with nature to the idea of conquering nature. Philosophers call this the 'modern' era.

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.)

After wondering at the masses of concrete and lack of natural plants in the new Vancouver waterfront areas this summer and at the massive plazas and monumental architecture of Simon Fraser University, I come back to the Getty with new eyes. (I thought I'd posted about the 'green building' with grass on the roof at the waterfront, but on the ground all the green was replaced by concrete.  And of the massiveness of the SFU architecture, but it seems I only posted glimpses and didn't make the point.)

The Getty too, with its massive flat plazas and monumental buildings, is an example of the modern ethos of conquering nature. All the 'natural' greenery is controlled carefully.

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.

There's no question that there is a certain beauty in all this.  Humans use natural materials to create images of beauty every day.  But not this massively and controllingly.  Underlying this form of beauty is the notion of power.  This is a beauty that glorifies man's fantasy of conquest over nature.  I would say this is like the beauty some men see when they have a beautiful woman chained to a bed.  This is nature chained to a bed. 

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.

And we have countless examples of people covering up a dishonorable past of stealing and looting by applying a facade of public monuments such as the Getty museum.  If one tallies up all the good and bad that Getty Oil did to amass the fortune that built and now sustains this museum, I don't know whether humanity would be shown to be better or worse off.

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!


  1. Oh, nature will always win in the end. But I'm glad you are here to enjoy the wintertime sunsets.

  2. Ah, sounds neo-Romantic!

    I met a traveler from an antique land
    Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,
    Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
    And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
    Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
    Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed;
    And on the pedestal these words appear:
    “My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
    Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”
    Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
    Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
    The lone and level sands stretch far away.

    Percy Bysshe Shelley » Ozymandias

  3. nswfm, they have been nice. I've got a picture from last night I haven't had a chance to put up. Perhaps a post of miscellaneous LA shots. And I hope I made it clear that man's assault is ultimately in vain, but with much collateral damage in the meantime.

    Thomás, yes, this is one of your themes, so glad you think I did it ok.

    Jay, Ah yes, thank you. I read that first at UCLA long ago.

    Thanks to all for your comments.


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