A reader asked me last week why I have a photo of Newgrange in the header of the blog. Newgrange is a group of Neolithic mounds and structures about 40 miles north of Dublin. The World Heritage Site is also called Brú na Bóinne, which translates from the Irish roughly as “Palace on the Boyne,” and the River Boyne circumambulates three sides of the grounds. The main mound is the one pictured in the header. It’s over 5,000 years old, and pre-dates the Great Pyramids of Egypt and Stonehenge by 500 and 1,000 years respectively.
Entrance to Newgrange mound. Photo courtesy Locutus Borg, via Wikipedia.
The site is awesome. The mound, now extensively restored, is around 250 feet across and faced with cubes of brilliant white quartz. Massive slabs inscribed with whorls and spirals encircle the base of the mound. It sits at the crest of a gently rising greensward, and grass carpets the top of the mound as well. To enter you duck under a stone lintel and walk or sidestep down a claustrophobic passage to the tiny chamber in the center, which has small transepts on three sides, if I remember right. The mound is remarkable for its size and persistence, for the aura and magnitude of its symbolic significance, and for the mindboggling meditation it provokes on the amount of industry it must have taken to construct it with the technology available. It also has a special light show every winter solstice, as rays from the sun streak through the precisely situated entrance and illuminate the chamber at the center of the interior. A small group of interested members of the public are chosen by lot each year to witness this moment.
Inside the Newgrange passageway during the solstice. Photo by Cyril Byrne, Courtesy of the Irish Times.
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My familial connection to Ireland is strong (despite little direct contact with the place), as my background is wholly Irish. I also have a thriving “green gene,” as my brother calls it, which helps me anticipate the worst possible outcome of any situation, prepares me for failure in the unlikely event success is imminent, and initiates damage control after a favorable occurrence, in advance of the demise that will follow as surely as earthworms emerge after a spring rain.
In 2006, I went there for the first time, with Amy and her family. Our outing on the day of arrival, a groggy, post-transatlantic afternoon, was to Newgrange. After the tour we headed back to the hotel, stopping at an arts and crafts store we’d spotted on the drive to the site. It was run by a genial couple, with the assistance of their energetic and charming children, who had a practical competence beyond their years.
Craft store and workshop near Newgrange. Photo courtesy of Kathleen Madden.
From this lovely outpost, you can see Newgrange on the hill. I was standing in the parking lot, staring in what must have been too-obvious reverie at the looming ancient structure, when the husband came out of his workshop and quipped, “Not bad, eh?”
Visiting the workshop with currach under construction. Photo courtesy of Kathleen Madden.
He took a break from his work and graciously showed us around. Inside the workshop, he was building a currach (pronounced KUR-ak). The traditional currach is a dinghy-like craft made of bowed spars. Animal hides, usually cow, stitched together and stretched over the spars, form shell of the boat. He told us that currachs were used during the mound’s construction to transport massive quantities of stone for the foundation from quarries upriver. Some estimates hold that there are around 200,000 tons of stone (or 400 million pounds, to render the figure in human terms, if not scale) that undergird the mound. This gentleman was building currachs in the ancient manner, creating boats identical to what one might have seen hauling rock down the River Boyne thousands of years ago. It’s a laborious method of boat construction. He joked that some of his friends had given up ever seeing him again, and few stopped in to visit for fear of being put to work.
Currach at the Visitor Center, Newgrange. Photo courtesy of Kathleen Madden.
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At present, for better or worse, and unlike most other historical periods I am familiar with, there are few clear cultural demands from society on what is expected of artists. If there were a strong connection to an enduring artistic and cultural heredity, it could simplify matters by giving artists a framework for their production—the what, why and for whom.
Present conditions largely mandate that artists generate their own aesthetic and philosophical ground rules. The result is that the impact of a contemporary work is likely to be more diluted or insular than work created within a cultural system where there is wider consensus on art’s purpose and meaning. The upside is that the potential range of subject matter now available is infinitely broader and multi-faceted. It’s a trade-off. One remedy is to explicitly address current events or issues. This provides a readymade connection to viewers familiar with the topic. Still, it’s hard to tether contemporary work to larger life narratives found in religious works like icons or epics of past periods, for example, as there is little present agreement on what such themes might be and how they should be treated.
For an analogy, look at ceremonies. In a Catholic mass, everyone knows what will happen; they know what to do and when. Whatever your thoughts on liturgies or the Church, the ceremony, developed over centuries and learned by parishioners from childhood, gives structure to worship and has the authority of something that has endured and been repeated by millions before you. Compare that to any ceremony you’ve developed on your own for a special event. If your results were as unconvincing as mine, you’ll see right away the profound difference between the two. It’s not easy to cook up out of air something that will have gravity and meaning, something that connects organically and convincingly to vital aspects of life in the way a ceremony is expected to, though the wedding of two friends some years ago, which was personalized in moving ways, was a memorable exception that proves the rule.
I attend Zen services periodically. They are almost exactly like the Zen services performed in Japan for hundreds of years, and in superficial terms the liturgy has the heft and presence of something that’s been around for a long time and polished by many hands. It’s not my ceremony though, at least not yet, and no matter how genuine my intent, I sometimes feel artificial.
In art, conservative critics rail that the current challenges here described are actually evidence of the artistic bankruptcy—or even turpitude—of the moment. They cite as further evidence a decline in craft, a conclusion based on selective sampling, and the trivial nature of some responses to the challenges, as if trivialities have not abounded in every era. In fact, these conditions are just symptoms of the natural consequences of history and demographics. They’re aspects of being an artist now that have to be dealt with, the same way artists had to successfully work with all kinds of patrons in times past to succeed. Atavism won’t help. (Though I know artists who sometimes look longingly at the patronage system given the current condition of the art market.) Addressing broad themes in compelling and universal terms is not feasible in the way it’s been in other historical moments given the numerical realities and lack of consensus. Meaning rides the local.
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When I stood in that parking lot gazing up at the mound, I was overwhelmed by the presence and physicality of the thing, by a sense of connection to the past, to a cultural foundation I was distantly related to, and to the lives of ancient others, lives spent laboring to create this gargantuan relic in response to what must have been powerful needs, needs that we can only speculate about, needs so intense that they demanded the stupefying expenditure of time, energy and resources it took to build the site, needs that place contemporary debates in their proper proportion, needs that give a legacy a living pulse. At that moment, I felt that I was standing on a platform built 5,000 years ago, and that somehow the support it provided would help me move forward and work with greater clarity, directness and purpose. In an oblique way, it has, and I still think of it in moments of creative despondency. Not bad.