Martin Heidegger argues rather convincingly in the Origin of the Work of Art that great art is no longer possible. Because, at its most sublime, it opens up, creates and circumscribes a world — a lightning rod through which a society finds definition and articulation. The machine, capital and self-obsession have robbed art of that potential to earn the all too over-used sobriquet — Great. The cathedral in the fourth arrondissement of Paris would have passed Heidegger’s exacting standards. The Notre-Dame de Paris is not merely a religious site, an architectural marvel or a tourist attraction. It is a place that has been part of so much of French history, so intrinsic to one of the great world cities that the fire that coursed through it on Monday, has left its mark across the world.
No one was killed in the blaze, fortunately, and arson investigators have assured the public that prima facie, there appears to be no sign of foul play. President Emmanuel Macron has promised the people of France and the world that the Notre Dame will be rebuilt better than before. The sceptics, and those living with the grief and disappointment of the destruction, will argue that something will be lost in the reconstruction; that from when the foundation stone was laid in 1163, the many additions through popes and kings and damage from war, every rose-tinted window, every gargoyle, the deep, dark echoes in the hallway, the scenes and statues of biblical proportions, will never quite be the same.
But, despite the accidental destruction of the work the of art and the world it opened up, Macron’s promise and the hope it holds out is very much a part of the spirit of Our Lady of Paris. From the very founding of the city (the cathedral is still kilometre 0 in Paris, the point from which all other distances are measured), the Notre Dame has been the physical and historical epicentre of France. Its symbols were attacked during the French Revolution and it is also where Napoleon was crowned and Charles de Gaulle mourned. It has long since become a symbol of modernity, part of our collective heritage. The mourning for Notre Dame is heartening in a world divided by resurgent nationalisms and “strong” leaders trying to maximise the gains of provincial and petty bigotries. The new Cathedral may not have the historical authenticity of the old. But its reconstruction could be testament to the values it has accrued, of great art that imagines a better collective future in the face of a collective loss.