The human spark
It is not wrong to care more about a building than about people
“What is civilisation?” asked Kenneth Clark 50 years ago in the seminal BBC series on the subject. “I don’t know, and I can’t define it in abstract terms, yet. But I think I can recognise it when I see it, and I’m looking at it now.” And he turned to gesture behind him, at the soaring Gothic towers and flying buttresses of Notre Dame.
It seems inhuman to care more about a building than about people. That the sight of Notre Dame going up in flames has attracted so much more attention than floods in southern Africa which killed over 1,000 arouses understandable feelings of guilt. Yet the widespread, intense grief at the sight of the cathedral’s collapsing steeple is in fact profoundly human—and in a particularly 21st-century way.
It is not just the economy that is global today, it is culture too. People wander the world in search not just of jobs and security but also of beauty and history. Familiarity breeds affection. A building on whose sunny steps you have rested, in front of which you have taken a selfie with your loved one, becomes a warm part of your memories and thus of yourself.
This visual age has endowed beauty with new power, and social media have turned great works of art into superstars. Only a few, though, have achieved this status. Just as there is only ever a handful of world-famous actors, so the pantheon of globally recognisable cultural symbols is tiny: the Mona Lisa, Michelangelo’s David, the Taj Mahal, the Great Pyramid— and Notre Dame. Disaster, too, is visual. In the 24 hours after the fire started videos on social media of the burning cathedral were viewed nearly a quarter of a billion times.