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Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Frank Lloyd Wright: Modern Renaissance Man

Perhaps no greater Renaissance man has been cited in American history than Thomas Jefferson. He wrote on the native plants of his country, Virginia, ran a plantation, designed buildings, founded a university, surveyed land,  was the head of state in Virginia, wrote a declaration of independence, and was the third president of the new American Union. More than two centuries after Mr. Jefferson, however, a cleft had become well-ensconced in American society between being an intellectual and a practitioner. The typical lawyer or physician, who holds two undergraduate degrees due in part to the political sense that a well-rounded citizenry makes a good electorate, has scant interest in intellectual endeavor. Indeed, one might even say that the “professions” place scant value on such activity; it is not “real work” or of the “real world.” The disdain is palpable, particularly in among the self-righteous in America. Yet Mr. Jefferson was able to bridge this gulf; so too can we. More contemporary examples can be cited to illustrate the mere possibility. The requisite delimiting "pruning" self-discipline might come as a surprise to people who presume that Renaissance breadth is borne of a wayward inability to "stay put."
When it was announced in 2012 that Frank Lloyd Wright’s archive was to be moved from his foundation to Columbia University and the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, it was reported that the architect had some six hundred manuscripts, as well as more than 23,000 drawings and forty large-scale architectural models and more than 300,000 pieces of correspondence. He also had a formidable art collection, though it would stay with the foundation. The number of manuscripts is what caught my eye. How many manuscripts is a leading lawyer or physician likely to written, even in his or her own field of work? What was behind Wright's foray into writing?

It can be said that Wright was a genius. In a world populated by victorian houses, he saw something very different. Seeing something different (having that genius) might have been enough to stir the jealousy of the city bosses in his native Madison in Wisconsin—they twice ignored the results of the referendums (which they wrote!) to ok the construction of a city building designed by the famous architect. Genius, however, does not account for Wright's foray into writing; rather, he must have valued the endeavor and sensed that he could do it very well. Even though he could have rested on his architectural laurels, he wanted to excel beyond his native fauna, and he was willing to put forth the effort.
                                                                                         Frank Lloyd Wright's "Falling Water" house.           FLW Fdn Archives/NYT
Similarly, the famous  clothing designer in the E.U., Karl Lagerfeld, came to excell at more than one field. Specifically, from having taking pictures of the models wearing his designs, he branched off into photography in its own right late in his career (instead of taking retirement), even though he could have rested on the reputation of his clothing line. He gained a reputation as a photographer from publishing a book of his photos taken at the French palace.

It is not that a genius in a field feels entitled to venture onto other fields as if doing so is of value in itself. Rather, there must be a sense of being able to extend one’s excellence without sliding onto mediocrity. This does not necessarily mean that the two fields are related. Excellence can be found in a disparate discipline. Yet this does not mean trying anything. Even within one's native field, one must limit oneself to what one can do well.
Being willing to let go of what is beyond oneself is part of being able to extend one’s excellence. The director of the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation, for example, was willing to give up most of the valuable archive because he recognized that Columbia and the museum were better-fitted to house it. “It’s what guarantees the deepest impact, the highest level of conservation and access in perpetuity, said Sean Malone. “The potential for new audiences far outweighs the personal desire to have it close by.”  All too often, people feel a clinginess to what they have, or want to have something both ways. We want to retain our cake and eat it too. In being willing to give up something valuable out of a recognition that another institution would be better suited to house it, Malone evinces the sort of mature mentality that modernity could use. Moreover, delimiting what his foundation can do well enabled Malone to ask: “what else can I do excellently?” It is ironic that pruning lays the groundwork for a Renaissance person being able to extend his or her excellence (a virtue) on to other, even disparate, fields. In Malone’s case, in being freed up from the care of an archive for which is organization was ill-suited for anyway, he freed himself up to apply his strengths to other vintures, such as writing on virtue ethics, for example.

Beyond intelligence, a certain mentality that includes character or a virtue ethic involving self-discipline undergirds the bringing together of intellectual endeavor and praxis in the “real world” in a way that exudes excellence. A willingness to strive while others snooze and a value on excellence can catapult a person from the confines of a profession. A deeper, or more enriched sense of what it means to be human can result as one experiences the best in more than one domain of human experience. Just as a Buddhist would say that the “other shore” does not really exist (at least as another shore), one could say that the gulf between academia and the excellent practitioner exists only in the mind. It is a societal illusion perpetuated by a certain culture that values some things and not others. Fortunately, examples that transgress this illusion exist even in modernity. It is up to the rest of us to notice, and then decide whether we have it in ourselves to go the extra mile on a second or third course.

In the end, it is the human spirit that flourishes in the context of excellence achieved in more than one way. No one is inherently trapped in the routine of a lifeless job whose boredom reduces the task to money. Nevertheless, I suspect that sometimes it takes the words of a friend or two to enlighten a person so trapped as to where his or her passion lies. Then it is up to the person to seize the excellence within (carpe diem) and put forth the effort, to be active rather than static before it is too late.

Robin Pogrebin, “A Vast Frank Lloyd Wright Archive Is Moving to New York,” The New York Times, September 4, 2012. http://www.nytimes.com/2012/09/04/arts/design/frank-lloyd-wright-collection-moves-to-moma-and-columbia.html