Increasingly, I have found myself wondering why the world is so ugly. I do not mean the natural world, which always retains its created splendor, but the art and architecture of the modern world. It seems that almost nothing in modern art can achieve the beauty possessed by numerous cultures before our time. From the skyscrapers and apartment boxes of modern cities, to the space-age aesthetic of the smart phone, to the disgusting trends in fashion—there is no place in modern life that seems to retain any wealth of beauty. Instead, the modern epoch, with an obsessive mantra of “humanism,” seems to reject one of the most universal qualities of human culture in producing and preserving beauty.
The prevailing aesthetic of recent history is very much defined by a violent rebellion against the beauty previously guarded by our forefathers, from the iconoclasm of the French Revolution to the iconoclasm of Black Lives Matter. What is far worse, however, is that the bishops of the modern Catholic Church have thrown in their lot with the modern conception of art and architecture, resulting the disturbing disorder of the modern Catholic buildings.
Frequently featured in Vatican news is the Paul VI Audience Hall, built in 1971. It features a grotesque sculpture of Christ (completed in 1977) as the centerpiece of a concrete trapezoidal structure strangely resembling a serpent’s head. This is truly tragic. Instead of showing the world the great beauty of Christendom (something even Hollywood admires), the modern Church shows the world a bizarre rendering of late 1970s anxiety. This building however, is not a church but a meeting hall meant for symphonies, speeches and performances.
Lesser known to young Catholics is the church that John Paul II built at the same time before his ascension to the papacy. This was an opportunity for the triumph of the Gospel against the pride of Stalin. The Marxists had begun their utopian city of Nowa Huta on the outskirts of Kraków in 1949 and intended it as Soviet propaganda against the pious resistance of the Poles. Obviously excluded from their brave new urban renewal was a church building for the dreaded Sacrifice of the Mass.
In a bold act of defiance against the Communists, Bishop Karol Wojtyła went to Nowa Huta in 1959 and celebrated Christmas Midnight Mass in the freezing cold for Poles stuck there without the Sacrament (certainly an example to be emulated in our current crisis). This annual tradition against the Soviets culminated in Wojtyła building the Ark of the Lord Church in 1977.
Lamentably however, the church built against the Marxists was an abstract Modernist construction with a disorienting figure for a crucifix. In the face of Marxist fury, the temple raised to glorify God was a monument paying homage to a brief aesthetic fad in the 1970s.
This tragedy of ugliness has been replicated across the globe. What will our descendants think of us when they view the ruins of these buildings, deserted after generations, perhaps in the not too distant future? I think many Catholics can relate when they see these buildings. It’s the same feeling they feel when they are unfortunate enough to hear the music that usually fills these churches. But what is the meaning of this instinct?
I think most readers of OnePeterFive will agree that it is more than simply an emotional reaction, but something reflecting a deeper truth. Somehow we know there’s something deeper going on, and need only the words to articulate what we know: the loss of beauty is some reflection of a spiritual loss.
It is no coincidence that the iconoclastic movements of the past were perpetrated by heretics and bloodthirsty mobs who had lost their souls to destructive ideologies. The soft iconoclasm of previous generations reveals a spiritual sickness deep in the souls of men.
The most obvious effect of ugliness in liturgical art and architecture is the loss of piety, of which I have written of here before. Without reverence for our fathers, the iconoclasts cast aside their doctrine and their monuments. This is why heretical doctrine and felt banners always go together. But there is something more to this at the very root of modern life. Why did our fathers produce beauty in the first place?
In my study I have come to this preliminary conclusion: the creation of beauty itself is the result of man reflecting upon Logos, the rational order of the universe. “All things, among themselves, possess an order,” says Beatrice, “and this order is the form that makes the universe resemble God” (Paradiso, Canto I, 103-105). This order is the Logos through Whom God made all things (Jn. 1:3). Beauty is beautiful only because it possesses something of the Logos. Therefore just as the God-made beauty of the natural world possesses Logos and reflects Him, so also the man-made beauty of art possesses Logos and reflects Him.
This seems to be the reason why we react to beauty in a certain way. It touches us deeply because it reflects our rational nature. Vatican I dogmatized the fact that man can know that God exists based solely on his natural reason (Dei Filius, Canon 1 on Revelation). If man can know God, he can certainly know the nature of beauty and thus all cultures have preserved it through generations. On the other hand, a mind which is darkened by sin may be prevented from producing beauty. Such a mind may instead produce ugliness as a reflection not of God’s order, but of the chaos present within the soul.
It is this disorder which has increasingly been manifested in the works of modern art. Beauty in art is the measure by which we can detect the prevailing rationality in any society. Beauty in past cultures shows that there was a degree of stability and rationality reflected in their insistence on religion and piety to forefathers. These are essential marks of culture. Instead, our present epoch shows the marks of a force of anti-culture, unique to the history of mankind. Every new generation is defined as distinct from the past generation, from “boomers” to “millennials,” evincing the disintegrating bond between parents and children. The new generation, not formed in the rational acquisition of truth, produces works of art which the past generation finds appalling and weird. In their hubris to surpass the beauty of Christendom by building the Tower of Babel, the Marxists and other revolutionaries begin to glory in what Milan Kundera called “the uglification of the world” (Scruton, Aesthetics of Architecture, p. ix). The ugliness of our world is a visual representation of modernity’s depravity of truth.
The influx of ugliness in the Catholic Church came about when bishops were not trained in this rational acquisition of truth, but in the “lore of humanistic progress” (Sire, Phoenix from the Ashes, p. 158). It was not the beauty of Christendom but the heretical ravings of Teilhard de Chardin that created a “fascination…for an entire generation” as Schönborn says (Chance or Purpose?, p. 142). It is easy to blame priests and bishops, but where were the parents of these men? Why did they not pass down to them the riches of the spirit?
This points to the fundamental piece of Catholic restoration incumbent upon all parents and seminary professors: the formation of a rational mind to know and love what is beautiful. This completes the integral whole with the faith (“the true”) and morals (“the good”) that makes the difference for what is “Catholic.” Christendom manifests the truth of the faith with the greatness of her beauty. Younger generations of Catholics continue to discover this in the Latin Mass. It is our task to engender this love of beauty in the next generation. It starts with the beauty of the home altar as the throne of His Majesty, the anchor of the domestic church, and continues when the children grow up to love and pass down the treasures of our forefathers. This vital principle of generational unity is the mustard seed that will conquer when it feels like all is lost.
Image: the Church of the Holy Trinity in Vienna, Austria, by Fritz Wotruba
Timothy S. Flanders is the author of Introduction to the Holy Bible for Traditional Catholics. In 2019 he founded The Meaning of Catholic, a lay apostolate. He holds a degree in classical languages from Grand Valley State University and has done graduate work with the Catholic University of Ukraine. He lives in the Midwest with his wife and four children.