Dirt, the anthropologist Mary Douglas wrote, is simply “matter out of place.”
That’s a wide definition which would apply, for example, to virtually everything currently located on my desk. Yet its very messiness and slipperiness as a concept make it a fertile subject for an exhibition: “Dirt: The Filthy Reality of Everyday Life” at the Wellcome Collection in London.
Dirt, of course, can be fertile, as is stressed by the old northern British dictum, “where there’s muck there’s brass,” or, for those readers who don’t speak Yorkshire, dirt and money go together. Recently, P.J. O’Rourke made a similar point: The modern city is the mess people make when they get rich.
As it turns out, London is partly made of the stuff. In the early-19th-century large mounds, “dust heaps,” rose above the urban landscape (they loom in a sinister fashion over Dickens’s novel, “Our Mutual Friend”). There’s a view of one on show, a small white mountain rising above the houses of King’s Cross. This detritus was mixed with mud, ash and other refuse and turned into bricks -- or, as we say these days, recycled.
The exhibition, however, begins with an opposite cliche: Cleanliness is next to godliness. That, it seems, was decidedly the view of the 17th-century Dutch, who may well have been modern Europe’s first hygiene obsessives. As is stressed in the paintings of Pieter de Hooch (1629-1684), they were big on sweeping, polishing and scrubbing. De Hooch’s contemporaries gave a high moral value to being spick and span.
Previously, the medieval and renaissance periods had been, one guesses, pretty filthy, a state of affairs encouraged by the widespread belief that washing was hazardous (Michelangelo’s father, in a letter of earnest advice to the young artist, recommended him to do so as little as possible). Granted, we are told these days that exposure to a bit of dirt is healthy, building up the immune system and preventing allergies. Still, too much of it can be very bad for you indeed.
Appropriately, since his countrymen were so preoccupied with eradicating dirt, it was a Dutchman, Antonie van Leeuwenhoek (1632-1723) who first discovered that the stuff was full of living micro-organisms or “animalculae” as he called them. A replica of one of Van Leeuwenhoek’s microscopes, amazingly small itself, is on display.
By the early Victorian era, London -- a heavily polluted city of more than a million inhabitants -- was an extremely dirty place. The Thames, into which the sewers flowed, and the drinking water were both chock full of those little creatures.
There was a series of cholera epidemics, caused by the bacterium Vibrio cholerae, until a new network of sewers was built by the engineer Joseph Bazalgette (1819-91). His Crossness Pumping Station at Bexley is a shrine to public health, and a better monument to what the Victorians believed in -- cleanliness, godliness, progress -- than most of their churches.
The Deutsches Hygiene-Museum in Dresden -- a huge, gleaming white institution devoted to science and health -- had similar origins in the belief, you might say, that cleanliness is next to modernism. That idea became polluted by an evil doctrine: the Nazi creed of “racial hygiene.”
It’s a concept that hasn’t gone away: Compare the term “ethnic cleansing,” used to describe what happened in former Yugoslavia in the 1990s. Dirt is a rich subject, as this intriguing exhibition demonstrates. It’s also a metaphor that can get dangerously out of hand.
(Martin Gayford is chief art critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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