in Istanbul, we have the privilege of coexisting with history. Each
morning on the ferryboat, I can look out over the darkened waters of
the Bosphorus and see the Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque. As we
approach the European shore, the orange-lit facade of Dolmabahçe
Palace shines on the surface of the waves, themselves burnished and
shining almost like liquid armor.
Often I remind myself what gifts these morning visions are. After all, the tourists come in great flocks from all around the world each year to behold these places, to snap photos, to commune with some inner longings, perhaps even to learn about something that is greater than themselves, before returning home to their regular routines. And for me, I get to see them every day; they are my regular routine.
And so what do they mean to me?
Not much, to be honest, except scenery. When I lived in Prague, it was very much the same thing. Each day, I used to pass Prague Castle, high on the hill over the city, and the Charles Bridge, always crowded with tourists, the spires of Tyn Church and the other places. After the initial thrill wears off, they dissolve somewhat into the background, the peripheral, and become merely places you see on your way to work. I suppose the same could be said of California, only in California it was the Pacific, the ethereal redwoods, that were the monuments, natural wonders. Seeing them every day, you begin to take them for granted.
Still, all of these places hold certain meanings – why else do people long to see these places so much? Is it merely their beauty? No, it is because these places hold some personal meaning, confirm some sentiment, or else validate the aims of something broader, like the state or nation.
When in Rome, I visited the Colosseum, what remains of the Forum, as well as the Vatican, and viewed the many masterpieces to be found in the Villa Borghese, and other places as well. It occurred to me later that I was beholding the vestiges of ancient visions, dreamed of by people who are long gone. And I recall in Florence climbing those narrow, winding steps up to see Brunelleschi’s Duomo, which I’d always dreamed of doing, alongside so many others. In fact, I confess I got a bit claustrophobic and acrophobic at the same time as we reached the top of the steps, so many people crammed high up in this narrow place, that I got vertigo and had to go back down. No doubt the old architect would have been disappointed in me, but then he might have chuckled at the irony: for don’t we always fall short of reaching the ideal?
All these centuries after they were envisioned, crafted and built, these structures stand as – what? Impersonally beautiful works of art? Cash cows for the municipalities and local merchants? Or imprints of past ideals? Check marks on bucket lists? All of the above, I suppose.
And what of the artists? What were they looking for? Did they not have many, often conflicting reasons?
When Michelangelo was commissioned by the Pope or the Medici family or whoever to sculpt David or paint the Sistine Chapel ceiling, was he not fulfilling and expressing some internal vision along with those of his patrons? Had he insisted on pursuing his own agenda, it is doubtful the great man would have been employed for very long. On the other hand, Warhol, with his soup cans, Marilyns and Coke bottles, was able to please both the gods of Art and commerce, as well as his own personal fancies.
Nowadays, artists are free to express whatever they like—indeed, we usually insist that their works be personal, honest, real. From the films of someone like Bergman or Scorsese, to the works of a Duchamp or an album by Wilco, we demand that artists let their hair down, to tell us how we really feel. Shows like “Mad Men” and, more recently, “Succession,” thrillingly remind us of our many frailties, our betrayals, our failure. No doubt these works do reflect the spirit of our culture, and they are entertaining, relevant.
But do (should) they point to something more? Those great cathedrals in Europe, or the mosques here in Istanbul, for example, were intended to reflect the importance and permanence of God, of the immortal soul, of Heaven, and that we poor souls were meant to value and strive for these things as we regarded those vast structures. One could say that the towering skyscrapers of our world, from New York to Shanghai, are meant to remind us of the importance and permanence of Money, or the everlasting forces of commerce and ambition, of aspiration. These things are value judgements of course, and as mutable as the individual reading this.
I suppose there are some of you now saying that I’ve missed the mark: that it is the ideas that matter, not the works themselves. Because it is what they represent that lives on. Yes, but are you telling me that all these tourists standing on the ferry beside me, snapping silhouetted selfies with the Hagia Sophia prominently in the background, are really that interested in ideas?
After of these long-winded observations, I guess what it comes down to is, what are people looking for? What am I looking for?
Often you hear people say, when they visit these old cities, things like, “Why can’t we build things like this anymore?” And you don’t have to guess that they are thinking about our present day landscapes of endless shopping malls, fast food restaurants, billboards and faceless apartment blocks. Even here in a great old city like Istanbul, the further away from the Bosphorus, the more the city looks just like any other big city, just a lot more of it, a ceaseless jumble of random buildings, streets and shops, a jigsaw puzzle where no pieces fit, except in relation to your ordinary life. There is the bakery where you by your bread, the bakkal where you pick up a few groceries on the way home, your local pub, etc. The rest is just a vast, impersonal maze where “other people” live.
Sometimes I like to imagine I were a great visual artist, and that the city would commission me to produce some immense work – a statue, a painting, some tower or mechanical symbol – and that this work would become a defining visual icon of that city, like the Eiffel Tower or Statue of Liberty.
That will never happen, but I like to ponder it. Do we still have such artists? Are they really necessary, especially since the Internet has created this inner visual landscape that has so much more relevance to our everyday lives. A meme nowadays can have as much impact as a great statue, maybe even more.
Have we lost the artists who could show us the goals and aims of the state, or have we simply lost the leaders who are able to tell us what these goals and aims are? If our goals and aims have changed, what are they? Funnily enough, I am not even sure which “we” I am speaking of, perhaps it is the global community, or maybe just the online community that happens to revolve in and around this particular website. Nowadays, “we the people” is an elusive, floating mass, the number of “likes” on your thread, the migrants drowning at sea. Perhaps hash tags and emoji are the icons of our age, and some artist will be commissioned to erect an enormous @ in a park some day.
Anyway, just some random thoughts on the way home from work. As I say, I am not sure what motivated me to write this missive. Perhaps in all of these places, I am ever in search of myself, and that for better or worse, the sight of those great mosques on the hills above the Bosphorus, whatever they may mean to you or anyone, are a reason to get out of bed in the morning, of nothing else.
To get up, and keep searching. For what? That’s up to you.
James Tressler, a former Lost Coast resident, is a writer and teacher living in Istanbul.