There are things we never really see for the first time and therefore, in some ways, we never truly see them at all. Examples would be the Statue of Liberty, or the Mona Lisa. Their iconic status registers with the observer in such a way that they become a category of one. They become familiar, so much so in fact, that they are never carefully scrutinized.
On the other hand if a thing is not in the pantheon of the iconic, in many cases, it is either ignored or subjected to extreme levels of scrutiny. This is especially true if it seems as though someone is presenting it as worthy of the status of icon. I experience this when I teach my students about Diego Velázquez and his masterpiece Las Meninas. Velázquez is not one of the Ninja Turtles. The image of the Habsburg princess Margarita surrounded by ladies in waiting does not register at all with the young people in my class. The Last Supper, the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, Starry Night, the Scream…these are familiar, at least to some, but when I say that for many people, amateur and expert alike this
is arguably the greatest work of art ever produced the response is not just incredulity, it is skepticism!
What I do then is show them a slideshow of the aforementioned recognized masterpieces and I ask them questions about what they see. Why are these considered among the great works? Some of my queries are very specific and, once the door is open to the smashing of these sainted relics these teens rush in and pound away. Soon they understand that the truth is that, whether or not these works deserve iconic status, they have accepted them as such on faith having never ever scrutinized that claim themselves. From there I play clips of experts in the field, many non-Hispanic, paying homage to Velázquez and Las Meninas, and I explain that what I will try to do is to explain why other people rate this piece so highly, but that they should do with that claim what they should do with all similar claims: study for themselves and arrive at their own conclusion.
Places can have a similar status, or non-status. Some iconic places are never really seen, which is a shame as they are deserving of and reward close study. As a matter of fact a deconstructive analysis might reveal imperfections! I revel in this idea because it not only brings down the mighty, but it also gives other imperfect, non-iconic places a chance to be appreciated for what they are, instead of being criticized for what they lack.
Some new friends asked me which city in Spain was my favorite. I answered Jaén. They, having travelled throughout the Iberian Peninsula, were not familiar with the city. My essay on Jaén is here, but for purposes of this essay it should suffice to say that it is an ancient city with medieval walls and a looming fortress, it has the greatest of Spain’s renaissance cathedrals, its oldest streets weave an intricate pattern against the mountainside, and on the one part of the horizon not hidden from view by mountains, olive groves undulate along the valley floor for as far as the eyes can see.
It reminds me of my city; unknown, ignored, looked down upon, and under-appreciated by native and visitor alike. Many places, many older and declining places, have spaces worthy of admiration and scrutiny. There is much to be learned from them and much to be lost if we forget them.