By Evan Mantyk

michael

Michael Curtis

A classical architect, sculptor, painter, and poet, Michael Curtis is, in no uncertain terms, a Renaissance man. He has taught and lectured at universities, colleges, and museums, including the Institute of Classical Architecture and the National Gallery of Art. His pictures and statues are housed in over 400 private and public collections, including the Library of Congress and the Supreme Court. Perhaps his most interesting recent endeavor has been as Lead Designer for the 58 square mile mega-resort, known as AEGEA.

What does this fount of classical aesthetic wisdom have to say for himself? I just had to find out.

Question: In addition to being a classical poet, you have a deep background in classical arts, such as architecture, sculpture, and engraving. In a world seemingly awash in modern arts, what is the value of traditional poetry and art? Do you feel people could benefit from more exposure to such poetry and art?

Answer: Well, Evan, as you know, the word “modern” was in English coined to distinguish the contemporary from the classical; here I remember Swift in his “Battle of the Books” (1704) employing the word “modern” to critique the vanity of supposing one’s time superior to some previous time, a vanity much enlarged in the popular imagination by the mistaken, yet common reading of Darwin’s, On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life.  Yes, Evan, we seem to be awash in the vanity of supposing the modern arts of 2016 to be superior to the old arts of 2015, to the older arts of 2014, ad nauseum  by some absurdity of “cultural evolution”; and yet, “Modern Art” might refer to the styles of two old centuries, Impressionism, Expressionism, Cubism, Abstract Expressionism (styles of my grandfather, great-grandfather, great-great-grandfather’s day), Op Art, Pop Art, Post-Modern Modern or some other historical style.  So, here we must acknowledge that there are very many modern arts, each a peculiar style, styles alike the style of shoes which change season-to-season as fashion, desire, or advantage inclines.

Continuing on modernism and the Darwin hobbyhorse, in this instance it is serviceable to remember that other book which manipulates popular imagination, The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex, a book which contains the notion of “descent”, a species of decline, of downward progression into the necessary end of pawns upon an ambiguous board in a meaningless game without point or player.  As you know, Evan, the classical view is not downward into the molding dirt and spew of earth, the classical looks up, the classical ascends to the ideal, to meaning, to goodness, to virtue, to beauty, to, I should say, to the light of understanding: The “Classical” looks to wisdom; the “Modern” looks to fact, and moderns hop on facts when wearing pointy caps, squealing, “See!  See!  Look at me, a-bouncing on my pogo-stick.”  The classical abides for many reasons, some cultural, some biological; culturally and biologically our eyes sometimes look down into the morass of facts, sometimes our eyes look up toward the essential wisdom of the past, a past which is present when ascending toward goodness, toward beauty to the light.

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Design by Michael Curtis

Then, further, in preface to an answer to your question, a comment upon two suppositions: value and exposure.  First, exposure.   By exposure we most often assume some blank screen or film which captures a single view of a single scene in a single moment, as in film being exposed, which through chemistry becomes an image, a photograph that might be common, unique or peculiar, depending upon the picture-taker and the picture-viewer.  The common picture of the typical picture-taker is likely unremarkable, yet, if seen by an uncommon picture-viewer, the photograph might tell a meaning more than was in the picture intended, et cetera.  So, I ask: What did the classical William Blake see in a grain of sand, the world; in a wild flower, heaven; and these visions in the palm of his hand, in the eternity of an hour (see Blake’s “Auguries of Innocence”.)  What did the modernist Andres Serrano see when viewing Guido Reni’s classically inspired Crucifixion?  The opportunity to piss.

Of value, well, there it is, isn’t it.  The question of value is this three century’s debate.  Progressing, or abiding?  As for myself, I suppose a universal theory of value expressed in the axiom, “The universe knows itself by the mind of man.”  A quick recital of universal value supposes that humans are composed of that stuff which composes stars; this stuff contains ineffable memory which, through human composition, recalls the particular beings (egg, sperm, et alia) necessary to the event of each human creation, a creation which gives eyes, ears, touch and tongue to that thing through which it ascends, the universe, the God, if you please, a God to which we give praise in beauty, et cetera.

In direct answer: The value of traditional art and poetry to any person depends upon the quality of the art and of the person.  I rather agree with Pico [della Mirandola] that we might move up or down the ladder of being, we might ascend beyond angels, or descend beneath worms.  But, yes, if we contemplate the best of what has been made, said, and done (the classical) we are more likely to ascend; if we consider modernist art, (the passions of the moment) then, well, in truth, when considering modernist art most people descend to boredom or to pretense, as each is disposed.  Your question included the phrase, “awash in modern art” which intends, I suppose, “soiled in modern art”, to which I answer: In fact the modern stinks and we need the benefit of a cleansing bath, a fresh, healthy bath of exquisite beauty and abiding truth.

Question: From which classical poets and artists do you draw the greatest inspiration?

Answer: Honestly, I am inspired by nature, moved by events, tutored by masters.  The classical poets and artists under whom I study include Simonides, Martial, Shakespeare, Pope, Yates; Polykleitos, Manship, Milles; then too, I have learned from Leonardo, Michelangelo, Raphael, St. Gaudens, J. E. Fraser, Girard and Holland.  My personal style is most in debt to Greek lyric and to red-figure, with particular obligation to the Attic, especially the archaic (here too of architecture).  I might have said Dickinson, yet her influence inclined to quaintness; I might have said Shelley, yet his influence seduced

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General Eisenhower by Michael Curtis

into breathlessness; Whitman I rejected.  Of contemporary classical poets, I am most challenged by Joseph Salemi, Leo Yakevich, and Joseph (Jody) Bottum; in this too I am Greek, unable to deny agon (competition).

 

Question: You are involved in the planning of the classical-themed mega-resort AEGEA slated for North Palm Beach, Florida. What is it? How is it progressing?

Answer: AEGEA is a palindrome; AEGEA is an acronym, Attractions and Entertainment in a Global Exhibition of Architecture; AEGEA is a neologism for the namesake of the Aegean Sea, the Athenian king Aegeus, father to the hero Theseus; and AEGEA is the extension of the proto-Ionian culture that formed Western Civilization.  AEGEA will contain within its core ten miles, eleven village colonies representing civilization, Grecia, Italia, Dacia, Germania, Arabia, et alibi.  You might imagine each village a world’s exhibition, alike the World’s Columbian or the Panama-Pacific expositions, yet permanent.  These exhibitions will extend each civil and each aesthetic tradition—you might consider AEGEA to be a community of nations growing into the future without the corruption of degrading modernist influence.  Contiguous with AEGEA’s core ten miles are the 48 square miles of a new city located at the mid-point between Palm Beach and Orlando.  This larger city too will be classical, an integrated work-of-art containing buildings, statues, picture, song, and verse.

How is it progressing? Millions have been expended in planning; in this I have been fortunate to work with gifted civic artists; now the fellows are raising billions; they suppose we shall soon begin; in the meantime I compose verse plays and develop statuary; this afternoon, a model “Striding Liberty” which I imagine to be twenty-four feet tall.  I should send you a picture when finished.

Question: What verse of yours would you like to share with readers.

Answer: In this context, a verse composed some twenty-five years ago as apologue to a collection of philosophical, prose-poetry speculations.  You might consider the verse (below) an observation of the solitary classicist adrift in a modernistic world.

Apologue

Following one hundred years of war
The contending parties fatigued by dubious exertions,
Crippled by many wounds, many deprivations,
Came to the cold stone hall of the great king
Laying their many miseries before his bedizened feet.
He gazing with a god’s eye over the ragged multitude
Stroked the thick locks of his long beard before speaking
Thus: Many were the days I from this tower of long sight
Searched for some champion who might grow among you,
And none came: None these hundred years has shown himself
Beautiful among the creatures of earth.
Now before me you come, even unto my very thrown
And cast your baseness at my bedizened feet.
Why wail, why weep, why roll on your bellies beast like creatures.
See, your awful stains the pearl of my floors.
Dirty, unclean, confused in your beggary,
Open-palmed you before this majesty offer need for strength.
Be gone!  Clean your backsides, cleanse your minds,
Love into greatness, or in baseness die.
And the multitude, like low worms after a cleansing storm,
In slickness and slime slithered out the hall.
Behind them, on eight tiny legs, a little spider of a man
Tinkled across the floor, careful to avoid the spreading slime
Until he too quit the kings tower and the long, dark shadow.
Emerging upon the world, he with movements light traced his silk web
Like those patterns of majesty emblazoned in the great hall.
Silver it shown in the dawn’s early light:
Mysterious are the ways of line and sight.

Application:
From this, hence, we may conclude
That pity will not man’s baseness end;
Peace may come in fact, though not from god,    
When all creatures are likewise rude; and
That the foe of baseness is man’s best friend.

 

Question: Does it make sense for someone interested in classical poetry and arts to be engaged online using modern technology?

Answer: Being Greek-like, I am less than fond of mere techne (technology), yet, grudgingly, I admit computers and internet have assisted we classicists in finding one-another.

 

Michael Curtis Poetry Published by the Society

The Sculptor to His Apprentice: A Five-Sonnet Cycle by Michael Curtis

‘Novice’ by Michael Curtis

‘Ice’ and Other Poetry by Michael Curtis

‘Valentine’ and Other Poetry by Michael Curtis

‘To Falun Gong’ by Michael Curtis

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6 Responses

  1. Joseph Charles MacKenzie

    EXTREMELY IMPORTANT interview as Mr. Curtis fully understands something without which the arts, individually practiced, are impossible, namely their integration with each other and, indeed, with power. Mr. Curtis also believes in the apprenticeship to the past. this is the best interview I have read on the web in a very long time. I encourage everyone to please enjoy this piece and share it with all and sundry.

    Reply
  2. Carol Smallwood

    Thank you for the inspiring interview and hope more will follow! I also enjoyed the photographs and poems.

    Reply
  3. James Sale

    An important interview and great to see Michael Curtis express his views so trenchantly, and so directly. There has been since the C20th a tendency to apologise for beauty and form, as if it were something to be ashamed of. Michael’s give us all more confidence to a. create more classical forms and b. argue yet more strongly for an art and aesthetic that elevates the human soul. To add one point to his litany of critiques of modernism: the ancients, of course started with the premise of the golden age and subsequent deterioration of human beings since then. This idea is reflected generally in ancient literature, but specifically in the Bible and in Indian Vedas. We need to grasp just how at odds this is with the fatuous notions of ‘progress’ that the modern world – and its ‘art’ – try to foist on us. A great book to read on this is John Gran’s “Heresies”, which is subtitled ‘Against Progress and other Illusions’ – wonderful.

    Reply

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