This weekend, commerce and revelry engulfed the National Cathedral at Flower Mart, the annual shindig that funds the beautification of my favorite Gothic neighbor’s gardens and grounds. Folks shopped for seedlings and dug into fried food, while I stumbled upon this NPR story about Brendan O’Connell, who paints scenes from Wal-Mart based on something he thinks he discerns there:
Wal-Mart stores, he notes, are “probably one of the most trafficked interior spaces in the world.” In the tall, open, cathedral-like ceilings of Wal-Mart’s big-box stores, he sees parallels to church interiors of old.
“There is something in us that aspires to some kind of transcendence,” he told me back in February. “And as we’ve culturally turned from religious things, we’ve turned our transcendence to acquisition and satisfying desires.”
I don’t buy the comparison. Having warehouse-high ceilings doesn’t make Wal-Mart “cathedral-like.” What does make a big box store akin to a Gothic cathedral is more banal: Look up, and you’ll see that the architectural supports in both buildings aren’t covered or obscured. (As for transcendence, Americans seek that elsewhere: sports, Vegas, the movies, and occasionally—mirabile dictu—at actual houses of worship.)
Still, artists and writers love to cast gigantic stores as misbegotten cathedrals. Five minutes on Google turns up unflattering “cathedrals of consumerism” quips in countless news stories and scholarly articles—as well as the work of artist Michelle Muldrow, who paints the interiors of big box stores for her “Cathedrals of Desire” series. Muldrow outlines her goals in a genre that would have vexed even the most patient of medieval exegetes, the artist’s statement:
“Cathedrals of Desire” investigates the experience of the repulsion and seduction of the American landscape. This new body of work incorporates the landscape painting tradition with awe-inducing elements of cathedrals to evoke a contemporary sublime. My paintings of big box stores are intended to elicit fear and awe at the vast American consumer landscape.
This series is inspired by the theories of Edmund Burke’s treatise on the sublime and its relationship with terror. This, paired with the concept of the divine power of the sublime, heavily influenced my depiction of these consumer spaces as Cathedrals of Desire.
The obtrusive massive structures built with no attempt at aesthetic beauty reveal the most naked of American consumer desires. The language of American desire can be reduced to vignettes of patio furniture and gingham covered tables set like small picnics.
I like Muldrow’s art, and she’s smart to turn her landscape-painter’s eye toward the vast places where Americans shop—but nothing about “Icon,” her painting of two shopping carts against a jumbled background, actually evokes icons, or implies anything about icons through their absence, or says anything about the absence of icons through the presence of shopping carts. While her lovely “Altar in Orange” captures the bright, asymmetrical beauty of an unmanned Target check-out line, the painting doesn’t fit its title: Altars aren’t like box store check-out stations in location, function, design, decoration, number, or sacrality.
Artists and critics have been down this aisle before. Émile Zola called the grand arcades of 19th-century Paris “cathedrals of commerce,” and Walter Benjamin “spent the final 13 years of his life…trying to fashion a theory of modernity based on the arcades.” A century ago, the Woolworth Building, one of countless American skyscrapers inspired by the Gothic, was approvingly dubbed the “Cathedral of Commerce.” By now, the comparison is cliché. It flatters medieval cathedrals by making stores seem all the more crass by contrast—but what a limited view of cathedrals.
Unlike Wal-Marts and Targets, cathedrals were each architecturally unique. They were shrines where people hoped and prayed but rarely sated their earthly desires. They were religious institutions whose spiritual offerings didn’t cater to market demands. They were political centers overseen by men who wielded far more local power than any store manager. As distinctive hubs of pilgrimage and tourism, they attracted seekers from straunge strondes in ways no standardized big-box store could, drawing worshippers from all strata of society.
One point of these art projects is to suggest that shopping is America’s religion, and a degraded one at that—but isn’t it possible that rural shoppers at big-box stores like Wal-Mart are more likely than their countrymen to attend actual religious services and distinguish between shopping and praying? Why focus on modest people who go to unfancy buildings to buy low-priced stuff that meets their earthly needs? What about wealthier people who’d never set foot in Wal-Mart but do make pseudo-religious pilgrimages to ornate boutiques to overpay for luxury goods based on a label or a name?
Two centuries after the Hudson River School painters begged Americans to adore the New World, our artists still seek the cachet of medieval European precedents. Medievalism runs rampant in America, and for six years this blog has chased it, from Gothic synagogues in Savannah to killer queens in New Jersey, from Cajun jousters and the saints of New Orleans to the gargoyles of Perth Amboy, from Oxbridge rivalries on the Potomac to dragons and Vikings at Maryland resorts, from late-blooming scholars on postage stamps to courtly love on General Hospital—but sometimes medievalism just isn’t there, or it thrives only in a critic’s misperception.
Let’s kill this “cathedrals of commerce” cliché. A vast, bustling megastore has little in common with a medieval cathedral either socially or architecturally. The wonders that landscape painters like Michelle Muldrow find at Target—man-made vistas of color and light—are worth seeing for what they are; don’t let Gothic spires warp the view.