The cathedral of Notre-Dame de Paris is a wonder to behold. Paris is a city with arguably the most famous landmark in the world, but Notre-Dame offers some strong competition to the global icon of Frenches. Situated on Île de la Cité in the Seine, the 12th-century Gothic cathedral shows Medieval architecture at its finest. The building is covered in sculptures, arches, spires and buttresses; everything you could want for a building to mentally transport you back to a time when people marveled at stain glass and colonnades. To stand inside Notre-Dame is to be joined to an artistic continuum that stretches back from today to medieval Europe.
The fact that such a beautiful building, that has been an integral part of what must have been thousands of peoples’ lives over the centuries, has been damaged is a tragedy. Notre-Dame is a beautiful work of art and as it’s a building, it’s a work of art that we can all enjoy unlike a painting locked away in a vault somewhere to appreciate in value. When a historic building burns we not only lose the building, but we lose our connection to the people who lived and died in its shadow. The countless dead who lives have been shaped by Notre-Dame, never really die while it endures as a permanent connection to their collective memory. When something old is lost, many people are lost with it.
This is a tragedy, but it is a tragedy that has to be put into a political context. No art exists in a political vacuum. In art and architecture, as in all other things in life, systems of power and privilege come into play around Notre-Dame.
When Grenfell Tower burned in 2017 more people died, but so far more money has been raised to restore Notre-Dame then to help the victims of the fire. The French government has pledged to rebuild Notre-Dame (as they should; to preserve our connection to history) but many former Grenfell Tower residents remain living in temporary accommodation and it is within the power of the British government to find them a home. Is this because these people were poor, generally not white and many of them born overseas? The Grenfell Fire is the greater tragedy, but it has not produced the same reaction.
In America, three historically black churches in Louisiana were burned by arson attacks recently. These churches are much poorer than the Catholic Church and don’t receive the same level of funding from the state, but there has been no pledge to rebuild these. Is this because their congregations were black and poor?
Already the wealthy are volunteering their money to save a great work of art and a national symbol of France. The support of the uber-wealthy is appreciated, so that the burden of restoring this monument doesn't completely fall on the French taxpayer, but surely it would be better if they paid their taxes in the first place so that the state can be well funded and there is enough for welfare and to protect important pieces of history.
In Britain, the NHS is on its knees and an injection of money (or properly paid taxes) would be very helpful in saving this national symbol of Britishness. If it’s a building the super-rich want to save, then the neo-Gothic British icon of the Palace of Westminster is in danger of falling down, and will need a huge quantity of public money that it will have to compete for against the NHS. Why can’t the uber wealthy pay for that?
Injustice and inequalities are also tragedies, but they are frequently unacknowledged. They happen every day, big and small, while no one notices. Social forces such as race, immigration status and wealth prevent millions of people from reaching their potential or from living fulfilling lives but there is no major energy to tackle these problems. There has been an explosion of energy to restore a historic building and this cannot be separated from these big social forces.
There is some good news to come out of all these tragedies. Enough people online pointed out the double standard of people being willing to donate to rebuild Notre-Dame, despite the wealth of the Catholic Chruch, but not to poor historically black churches in Louisiana that the GoFundMe page for the three Louisiana went viral. This led to $1.9 million in donations to these churches. Internet whataboutery finally did some good, and many people did acknowledge the inequality of wealth and power in this situation and then decided to do something about it.
We should be angry over what happened with Grenfell. We should be angry about the injustice, the inequality and loss of life. Something should be done to make Grenfell never happens again and also something needs to be done for the millions of people living in dangerous and substandard accommodation.
The fire that burned Notre-Dame is still a tragedy as something that was beautiful and meant a lot to a lot of people over a lot of years was damaged. But we should still care about the Grenfell survivors. We should look after both our history and the poor. The two are not mutually exclusive for a caring society.