Sunday, June 5, 2011

Modern Man and the Ugliness of Modern Art

I recently made an album of some pictures I took on my recent research trip to several Italian cities. While I would work during the week, I spent the weekends playing the tourist at various historic sites, especially many of the old Churches. When I returned, I made an album of a selection of the photographs that I had taken and was showing them to some relatives at a recent family gathering. They were suitably impressed by the photos, especially many of the Churches, and some remarked that one did not see artwork and architecture like that today. I was forced to agree.

This exchange reminded me of a couple remarks made by the Archbishop Fulton Sheen. In the first, he speculated on why modern art and architecture was so ugly. He suggested that in religious ages, art and architecture was more beautiful because men believed in a spiritual world that they could represent materially. The material was used to represent the spiritual, and the former was dignified by the comparison. In the modern age (or rather, the second pagan age), artwork and architecture is often so ugly because there is nothing to represent materially. All that is left is the weird, and so much modern art has given up on the search for beauty and simply tries for the strange and unfamiliar.

Many of the Churches that I saw and photographs I took inclined me to agree with the late archbishop. The first image here is of the Florence Duomo. The second is of the world trade center in New York City.
If a picture is typically worth a thousand words, then these are worth far more. The former twin towers were little more than large concrete rectangles, The Florence Duomo far more.

It may be protested that this consists of a remarkably small sample size. Very well, the reader is invited to consider on his own whether there might be something to this, and whether myself and my relatives, untrained artists all of us, are right in agreeing that modern art and architecture is far worse than medieval. One wonders then why "medieval" has become almost a synonym for "backward" in the modern world.

If so, then surely this represents an indictment of the modern world. A material world that cannot believe in the spiritual is a far poorer world. And human sense rightly revolts against it.

Some do not. While traveling Italy, I met a young Scandinavian woman on a bus trying to find her way to a hostel. We began talking about our travels and I mentioned my fascination with all of the old Churches. She responded dismissively, "oh, when you've seen one Church, you've seen them all."

First of all, this is hardly true. It is the ugly buildings of the modern city that all look alike. The sheer variety all the all old Churches makes me think of the remark by C.S Lewis, "how monotonously alike all the tyrants of the world, how gloriously different all the saints." Second, it reminded me of a story told by Fulton Sheen. He told of a tourist at the Louvre who, on exiting commented contemptuously to a security guard who was standing by that he (the tourist) saw nothing to admire in those paintings. The security guard responded, "Listen! These pictures are not on trial; you are!"

It was not only that art has become ugly; it is that the modern materialist, like my Scandinavian acquaintance, also gradually loses his ability to appreciate beauty where it may be found. Chesterton wrote in Orthodoxy, that right or wrong, materialism gradually destroyed the modern man's humanity.

What was true of that tourist is true of the modern world-- and of us. The modern world is on trial and the case for the prosecution, the ugly artistic consequences of our materialism alone, is a strong one indeed. The judge is just, the verdict coming. If the modern world does not reject its materialism, it will find, not only will it have lost the ability to produce beauty, but, it will also have lost the ability to appreciate it, with devastating consequences for its ability to enjoy heaven and the new creation that began with Easter.