Hope and Despair in Valencia

Walking through the brash and brilliant City of Arts and Sciences in Valencia, the flashiest in Calatrava’s global herd of white elephants, I could not but feel giddy with its ambition.

The June sun, reflected on the ceramic coating of its improbably shaped buildings dispelled all the doom and gloom of 2022 Europe, and brought me back to the late 90s when I religiously watched Beyond 2000 to see how amazing the future will be.

Below the post-modern, majestic statues by Igor Mitoraj, I got to bask, momentarily, in the over-confidence of the project, so at odds with the general feeling of neuroticism and disfunction that pervades the West at least since the Great financial crisis, and which only intensified after the pandemic.  The glare of the complex, marred by attempts to somehow make it profitable – from an uglyish stage for a Red Bull event to weird vessels to use in its pools – became too much after some time, making me remember Ezra Koenig’s crooning about uncertainty of future and dread of it, on “Unbearably White”. The dread about what is to come next has come to fill much of the post-pandemic times, with major media now regularly writing things that only a few years ago were considered crackpot material: world war, famine, total economic collapse and the civil war in the US.

The next day, on the other side of town, and as part of the Valencia’s current title as the Global Capital of Design, I visited CCCC, a former convent, to be fully brought back to the bleakness of our times.

Inside this beautiful but characteristically empty contemporary arts center a group of artists made a half-assed attempt to create art about climate change and produced something very banal, as the current efforts at socially concious art tend to end up being.

As I was walking around detritus repurposed into garbage art about pollution, inside a place which once housed truly outstanding art – whether intricate Spanish religious baroque piece or Belle époque paintings, I replayed in my head my favourite episodes of “Red Scare” in which Deanna Havas was ridiculing the current art world and its obsession with topical, and especially banal takes on the upcoming climate crisis.

Her point that “climate change is liberal eschatology”, seemed to be even more fitting as I was going around these flimsy passion plays inside what used to be an actual monastery.

The transition between the manic optimism of late 90s, which even penetrated the sanctions and fog of war in Yugoslavia and the current gloom struck me as remarkable especially as the people who flogged the first from the pages of the New York Times and across the summits like the WFE, are now the prophets of doom.

While before people like Bill Gates, promised us almost infinite easy growth, now they acts as scolds, and warn us that we need to pay penance from reducing our standard of living, on top of funding “awareness raising art” such as the one I was subjected to at the CCCC.

Like the monastics who once scrambled around CCCC’s cloisters talking about what our Saviour would like us to do, these artists and curators believe that they do have a conduit to higher knowledge which needs to be shared with laity for their salvation. However unlike the clergy, they do not shroud their pronouncements in mystery and often, what they “firmly” believe at one point or the other gets debunked. More importantly, the effects that they promise for our good behaviour, being tangible, unlike salvation, tend to fall short of expectations or never materalise, requiring new certainties that need to be promoted.

Indeed, in the past several decades, our lives in the West and its direct orbit, seems to be constantly getting worse due to the efforts of our secular clergy engendering despondency.

The problems with creating a secular religion out of Progress, and the despondency almost necessarily leads to,  was cogently explained by Christopher Lasch already in the 1970s in his “True and Only heaven: Progress and its Critics”.

Removal of mystery from future, and its replacement by certainty that will be brought on by meritocratic competence, rather than making our expectations more realistic from our leaders, made us to want them to have powers much above anything humanly possible: from abolishment of social ills such as inequality and violence, to making sure we never fall ill, are unhappy or, indeed, even die.

While before the kings and aristocracy claimed that they were righteously anointed by Gods, our present leaders have nothing above them, and can thus, at whim try and change the Gods we are to revere: from the benevolent god of technology of late 1990s to the vengeful god of climate (or whatever) now.

Most worryingly, these days, when our leaders fail to deliver on these tall orders and appease the gods, the failure needs to be spectacular, world-ending even. Mark Fisher, whose writings dissected the ennui at the beginning of the 21st century, of course also noted that we are now more likely to envision the end of the world than the end of the current system, as we really do believe that no alternative can exist, or is worth existing in.

However, a slight move from the West and one can see a world without such a deep angst. Dubai recently opened an optimistically named Museum of the Future, while China (and much of the rest of Asia) are constantly celebrating their achievements. Saudi Arabia is building NEOM, a whole city of the future on the Red Sea, that would incorporate many of the things I watched on Beyond 2000.

Even if we dismiss their current optimism as naïve or brash (although many of these dour pronouncements from the west do have a strong sour grapes note to them), and count the years until their demographic pyramids and economies crumble like ours did, that does show that alternatives are indeed possible, and that the gloom won’t come for all at once.

Anybody who had any experience with modelling the future, a highly sought after but disappointing skill to have these days, can indeed tell you how biased and sensitive all predictions are, whether they are of growth or ruin.

Standing on the way between the gleaming City of Arts and Sciences and the dull CCCC, is a recently renovated ancient church dedicated to St Nicholas, the patron saint of travelers, which has chapel and strong cult of St Jude, the patron saint of lost causes. The smallish church, now famous for its baroque frescoes, and dubbed the Sistine chapel of Valencia, immediately impresses with its beauty, and also its history. It started off as a Roman temple, was turned into a church by the Visigoths and then into a mosque, until it finally became a church in 13th century. The elaborate and unique baroque decoration arrived in 17th and early 18th centuries, however it lost its brilliance with time, only to be “rediscovered” after the restoration in 2016.

Inside, looking at the frescoes, and maybe praying to St Jude, it is difficult not to be hopeful and happy that at least some beauty in the world gets to be saved and persists though centuries of trash, even if we know that so much has been lost.

In  “The True and Only Heaven”, Lasch distinguishes between optimism (defined as belief in secular progress) and hopefulness, which he sees as a “a deep-seated trust in life that appears absurd to those who lack it”. In one of my favourite non-fiction passages, which I thought about while I was below the jewel toned ceiling of St Nicholas,  he provides a strong case for having the latter, at the expense of the former, and maybe a good way forward for our gloomy times.

“If we distinguish hopefulness from the more conventional attitude known today as optimism—if we think of it as a character trait, a temperamental predisposition rather than an estimate of the direction of historical change—we can see why it serves us better, in steering troubled waters ahead, than a belief in progress. Not that it prevents us from expecting the worst. The worst is always what the hopeful are prepared for. Their trust in life would not be worth much if it had not survived disappointments in the past, while the knowledge that the future holds further disappointments demonstrates the continuing need for hope. Believers in progress, on the other hand, though they like to think of themselves as the party of hope, actually have little need of hope, since they have history on their side. But their lack of it incapacitates them for intelligent action. Improvidence, a blind faith that things will somehow work out for the best, furnishes a poor substitute for the disposition to see things through even when they don’t.”

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