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My Catholic Quest for Beauty

We’ve all heard the Dostoevsky quote: “Beauty will save the world.” Many of us have seen the Roger Scruton documentary Why Beauty Matters. We may even know intellectually that modern art — be it visual art, architecture, or music — is not only ugly, but dangerous to our souls and destructive in the social order.

So why do so many of us cling to our junk-food music and lives nearly devoid of real art? More importantly, how do we reverse this trend going forward?

As a child, I remember being absolutely incensed when I saw a painting called “Voice of Fire” selling for some exorbitant sum. My mother thought it was brilliant — not because it was good, but because it made me angry. “See? Get it? It’s called ‘Voice of Fire’ because it provokes an angry response!” I remember second-guessing myself as to my tastes, and to my intelligence. Of course I “got it.” I just didn’t think art was meant to be a self-indulgent punch line.

With the exception of a brief edgy phase or two in my teen years, I never gained any real appreciation of the art du jour. My childhood architectural tastes were similarly sane, and my early fascination with cavernous churches (and tiny pioneer cabins) never left me. Despite the fact that modern art requires only the skill level of a two-year-old to produce, I firmly believe that children themselves by and large disdain it at an innate level — at least, until their parents and educators sufficiently convince them otherwise.

This doesn’t necessarily require parents to force their impressionable children to enjoy modern art museums, or to demean their attraction to normal art as unrefined and immature. Instead, simply living in our age of unreality is often enough to destroy good taste at the root. Everywhere our children look, they are taught not only that beauty is subjective, but that everything is subjective. Different religions with opposing beliefs can all be true at the same time. Women can become men. Killing babies is wrong only when the mother (I’m sorry, “person capable of becoming pregnant”) says it is. The very words they hear are used as tools of political abuse, constantly changing in meaning in service of ideological expedience.

I grew up in this world, too — and it was only by the grace of God that I had the eyes to see the beauty and truth that lie beneath the veneer of chaos. However, it’s one thing to realize you lack real culture and another thing to know how to acquire it. My early efforts after my conversion to develop an appreciation for true beauty were impeded by my own laziness. I never had a passionate interest in art or music, so it was easy to continue more or less as I had been in my old life — ignoring art altogether and gradually refraining from listening to music that was blatantly immoral.

The genesis of my conversion to Catholicism was realizing that though I fought all the evil I could, I had nothing positive to fight for. If evil is the privation of the good, it is not sufficient simply to ignore it, as there is no middle ground we can stand upon between light and darkness. So, to the light I ran. I realized that my sense of “taste” was poorly formed and that I couldn’t rely solely on my own subjective opinions if beauty is indeed objective. I knew that even if I hated it at first, I had to seek true culture as an act of the will.

Although I had some idea where I had to go, getting there still felt like wandering in the desert. I looked for landmarks I recognized. I began listening to more instrumental music and less popular music with lyrics — movie soundtracks were particularly helpful. I made an effort to look at and take the time to enjoy the architectural and artistic patrimony of Christendom, with an emphasis on popular artists I was familiar with prior to my conversion — Michelangelo, Raphael, Titian, and other Renaissance giants.

And then, in an unexplainable way, I felt my tastes in art and music changing. I was no longer making a conscious effort to avoid bad music or impoverished art (my main exposure was through architecture, fashion, and other works in the wild). I instinctively turned from it because I genuinely didn’t like it as much anymore. I’m reminded of how it felt to enter the state of sanctifying grace — I took a few stumbling steps in shifting sand, and God was determined to lead me not only from oasis to oasis, but to living water. It was only then that I was able to truly fall in love. The raw emotion, the lifting of the soul, the intellect, the will — all of it came together. No longer was I seeking to check off a list of requirements. I knew what was good for me. So I watched, and listened, and waited to meet the one.

First was my now favorite painter, early Renaissance Dominican brother Bl. Fra Angelico. I read about his life before I ever laid eyes on his work. It is said that he never retouched or altered his paintings, believing that to do so would go against the will of God for his art. He cried whenever he painted a scene depicting the Crucifixion of Our Lord, and he never painted without recourse to prayer. I was captivated. I remember breathlessly typing his name into Google Images that first time, waiting to see if this artist I already loved was as good as they say. I was not disappointed.

For music, it was an opposite experience: a chance encounter with a YouTube video of Kyung Wha Chung performing a piece by Paganini. I had no idea who she was, and no idea who he was, but it didn’t matter. Everything about it was perfect. Her expression, her mannerisms, the old black and white film…and then I closed my eyes. The music — Paganini’s Violin Sonata No.6 — was one of the most beautiful things I’d ever heard in this life. Later, I found out that Niccolò Paganini is commonly seen as a terrible Catholic, a womanizer, a gambler, and an alcoholic, who had perhaps sold his soul to the Devil in exchange for his genius. He remains my favorite composer.

My son is three years old, and I don’t know how to teach him about great art and great music. I remain painfully ignorant about both. I have so much learning to do that I feel hopelessly unequipped for the task of raising a child who will seek the beautiful and true on his own one day. I have to have faith that if I do my best to surround us with beauty — the Mass, the architectural patrimony of the Catholic Church, sacred art, and enduring music — God will continue to lead the way for him as He did for me.

I don’t think we as parents have much of a choice. Either we seek more of what we know to be objectively good, in whatever measure we know it and can find it, or we allow the cacophony of modernity to make our decisions for us. The anti-culture of the world is a veneer atop a void, and we partake of it at no small risk. We must be wise as serpents, without losing the gentleness and peace of doves.

I still enjoy some “lesser” music and frivolous television on occasion, and I am not enough of a supermom to entirely disdain the siren call of Paw Patrol when I desperately need to get something done. However, for the first time in my life, I am no longer blinded and following the blind. I am making a choice. I chose the good and the true when I accepted Jesus Christ — and I am determined to the choose the beautiful, too.

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