Sarcastic French Artists to the Rescue
By Gary Singh
IN 1955, a radical French art movement called the Lettrist International published a document titled Proposals for Rationally Improving the City of Paris. The political website Counterpunch recently reran it with the title, "Tear Down the Cathedrals and Replace Them With Ruins." As with all the Lettrist essays, it is "anticopyrighted" and everyone is encouraged to steal from it at will. So allow me to do just that. One can easily vamp on this text and apply its deliberately absurd deliriums to San Jose, Calif., the 10th largest city in America.
Here's one particular quote from the text: "Museums should be abolished and their masterpieces distributed to bars (Philippe de Champaigne's works in the Arab cafes of rue Xavier-Privas; David's Sacre in the Tonneau on rue Montagne-Geneviève)." I can see an exact such occurrence in San Jose. Flatten the Museum of Art and move all the works around the corner into the Cinebar or Mission Ale House instead. In fact, if you visit Mission Ale House, they've got an old photo on the wall depicting patrons carrying on inside an unknown San Jose bar in the early 20th century. On the wall of the bar, in the photograph, you can see an Astley Cooper painting. He was the guy who supposedly painted nude women to pay off his bar tabs. Now there was a guy who knew how to live.
The Lettrist text also says this: "Train stations should be left as they are. Their rather poignant ugliness contributes to the feeling of transience that makes these buildings mildly attractive." In San Jose's case, train stations should not be renamed after people that aren't dead yet.
The text also favors "the idea of transforming churches into houses of horror (maintaining their current ambience while accentuating their terrifying effects)." I remember walking to college down 10th Street every day about 15 years ago and passing by a rundown place called Bethlehem Temple. It was absolutely a house of horrors, as was a wedding I once attended at St. Christopher's on Curtner.
Another portion suggests that churches be partially demolished, so that the remaining ruins give no hint of their original function. The First Church of Christ Scientist across from St. James Park might function as an unintentional example of this.
The document further states that, "Buildings whose ugliness cannot be put to any good use should make way for other constructions." I can think of several San Jose-related applications of this. And in the Lettrist manuscript we also have the following suggestion: "Statues that no longer have any meaning, and whose possible aesthetic refurbishings would inevitably be condemned by history, should be removed. Their usefulness could be extended during their final years by changing the inscriptions on their pedestals, either in a political sense or for purposes of disorientation."
When mapping that theory onto San Jose, I immediately thought of a certain pooplike sculpture in Plaza de Cesar Chavez. In a "political sense," what the authors of the document mean is something like inscribing The Ron Gonzales Administration on the giant poop sculpture, and "for the purposes of disorientation," inscribing McEnery-Hillview Airport on the Fallon Statue.
And speaking of that, the document ends with the following passage: "In order to put an end to the cretinizing influence of current street names, names of city councilors, heroes of the Resistance, all the Émiles and Édouards (55 Paris streets), all the Bugeauds and Gallifets, and in general all obscene names (rue de l'Évangile) should be obliterated. In this regard, the appeal for ignoring the word 'saint' in place names is more pertinent than ever."
That ain't as crazy at it sounds. When I first started this column, one of the first letters I received facetiously suggested that cities in California named after saints—i.e., San Jose, San Francisco, Santa Clara and San Diego—are violations of the separation of church and state, so they should all be renamed. For the life of me, I just could not come up with a response to that one. All I can say is that the Lettrists would have loved San Jose in the 21st century.