From James V. Schall The Culture of Modernity
in Homiletic & Pastoral Review.
The liturgy has always been a way to elevate even the lowliest of believers, sometimes the only way available to them, so that a de-emphasis of beauty in music, buildings, and language, in the name of ease to understand or comprehend faith, has the unfortunate result of eliminating the main channel by which people can escape from a deadening common culture whose principles are the opposite of this elevation to beauty.
He footnotes Josef Cardinal Ratzinger for having made the same point in The Spirit of the Liturgy.
This has puzzled me also as to why our churches and the liturgy have to be equalized with the culture. That churches can look like conference rooms or when you enter a gym you consider genuflecting until you realize that it isn’t a church. That the music has ot be poppy enough to have purple dinosaurs singing it. That there is a fear that if there is any element that departs too much from the culture around us that we will be disturbed. That actual exposure to beauty and transcendence will be like a diver coming up to fast. That we will get the liturgical bends if we depart from the ugly and the banal of societal pressurization that we have come to live with.
That’s a wonderful point, now that I think of it–especially regarding our children…When I was too young to understand all of what was going on at Mass, still the Church was my refuge. In an otherwise ugly and terrifying childhood, I found in the Mass beauty, goodness, love, and truth, but first wondrous beauty.
Personally, my discovery has caused me to thank God for all the horror and ugliness that brought me to him, but in my outward adult life I’ve often submitted apologies to smarter people who “knew” that my faith was so rooted in need that it may have begun as an “illness”.
I mention this because it may be that too much bending to the child’s level may erase the wonder he could otherwise discover n church, particularly in the liturgy. And then his openness to the transcendent may carry him toward magic, etc, rather than to God.
And maybe, just maybe, adult interest in New Age is also somewhat connected to our liturgies and our churches becoming more like our earthly existence and less like heaven…
Maybe the degree of “heavenliness” we reflect in our worship styles is also a narrow road. Because, yes, dreariness can occur in a traditional style, as well.
It is, in short, the elevation of Man to a place akin to that of God. It’s the Modern Project.
Been done before: see Genesis, Eve, Apple, etc.
Here is a little art history, which I’ve gleaned from both my art history studies and just observation of history:
I think the physical evidence of the ‘uglification’ of our Church (equalizing liturgy with the culture) began after the turn of the last century as a reflection of what was happening within the wider culture, although it begins intellectually even earlier than that in Catholic academia and the clergy with modernism.
The Faith began to be replaced with Freudian & then Kinseyan sexualized psychology, Darwinism, Marxism, the influences of the eugenics movement and contraceptive mentality of Sanger, and the many heresies floating about (modernism, utilitarianism etc) and with war. As each piece falls into place, decoration becomes less ornate (the blunt plainness is also in reaction to the overly ornate Victorian stuff), and then increasingly ugly.
The artists began making – and selling – incredibly ugly and ‘vulgar’ art after WWI and the many civil wars that plagued the world (like the Spanish civil war) You can also see it in secular art movements like DaDaism & Cubism. Some of the religious statuary from that time shows evidence of it – twisted heads, buggy or childish eyes, elongated or oddly exaggerated limbs, an ‘unfinished’ appearance (that sort of thumb-printed rough scupture look) The art community is revealing the rapid loss of faith in the world and show the ugliness they are absorbing from the culture around them. Painters like Picasso go from making beautiful works to dead ugly ones.
Eventually, Television begins to rot people’s creative brains. You can tell in decorative objects if they were made before or after TV by the attention to details and how decorative they are. Everything becomes plainer and clearly designed to only be functional after TV begins to infiltrate homes.
First the smaller art forms become plain, then become ugly, then the windows & buildings are built to be plain and then buildings get their uglification (some church buildings built in the late 30’s, the 40’s & 50’s are showing big signs of it. Modernism, Bauhaus, Expressionism in architecture responsible for that distorted or utilitarian ugliness of buildings). All of this loss of a sense of beauty and in the loss of piety and faith results in the whole of Holy Mass goes into ‘hideous’ mode.
There is a great loss of faith among clergy who are making the decisions about the statues and buildings – they are also experiencing all of this in spades & are not being taught true piety in the seminaries at this time (psychology begins taking the place of piety, Darwinism & the idea that science is the hope of mankind replaces the teaching of the uniqueness of each individual made in the image of God, Marxism, Sanger’s ideas and utilitarianism over Christian teachings & virtues and personal responsibility for the poor & suffering). All of this little-by-little begins to replace the teachings of Christ and the gifts of hope, peace, joy etc.
My mother & father in law are ‘good’ Catholics, born and formed in the Faith in this time frame and they also completely lack the ability to see the miraculous. Being Catholic to them is a thing you ‘do’ not a thing you ‘are’ (and remember – this is in the era with the Latin Mass, with the Baltimore Catechism, with sisters in habits teaching in Catholic schools. FIL was born in the 1930’s and my MIL in the early 1940’s). For them, any miracle must absolutely have an explanation rooted in science & nature even if it is evident to me that it was God alone intervening. They think people ought not have ‘more children than they can afford’ meaning that a couple needs to have a lot of money before starting a family (only the ‘rich’ should have more than 2). They like the plainness of churches and approve of the bad English translations & ugly showtune music. It reflects their sad state of disbelief in the beauty of Heaven and the personal love of God for the individual and their need to be personally responsible for their neighbor’s wellbeing. It reflects the way they were taught to believe – or not to believe – by their own parents and the teaching sisters & clergy of the time.
Yes, this is a rapid simplifciation because there is a long century of history & heresy, but its the overall picture of how we got the liturgy we got and why our Catholic ‘culture’ is so plain & downright ugly. (I was an art major, and I love to study history and theology. It all makes more sense when you see it all together)
How much of art deals with absolutes? It seems to me that beyond the coloration of trends, there has always been room for subjective beauty in art (“Beauty is in the eye of the beholder”) yet there does seem to be a point where beauty is objectively absent.
People do disagree on what is beautiful or tasteful and what is not. But when we have reached the point where people insist on anti-beauty as a good, for instance when the greatest recognizable beauties are perverted or abused (via graffiti, lack of symmetry, etc) or when ugly things (dog doo on a sidewalk…) are called lovely “in their own way”, it does signify societal disorder, i think.
Does a preference for open spaces, bold colors, and clean lines necessarily mean that the beholder has started on the path of ugliness? I don’t think so—Geometry and color are from God, too. And some ornate styles in furniture and architecture were so gloppy as to be ugly, as well…
I do think we’ve reached an extreme of ugliness that many did not expect.
Of course there are variables – one simply cannot address the whole kit-n-kaboodle on a blog comment box. Consider what I wrote a ‘Reader’s Digest Extremely Condensed’ version of what happened in theology, art, architecture and history. Its an attempt to write in a few hundred words what took over place well over a hundred years.
Truthfully, there isn’t anything wrong with open spaces and clean lines. However, if you look at the architecture of various movements (Bauhaus, etc) you can see the *deliberate* deterioration of beauty – where something must be merely functional rather than attractive or beautiful. This is a serious loss!
Often there isn’t even some sort of clean geometry to modern churches (Expressonism & Neo-expressionism influences) and other buildings. I’ve worked in many plain, modern buildings with ‘clean lines’ and none have elevated my spirit or helped my creativity (which would be most helpful sometimes at work). Sometimes, plain, clean and functional in grey or beige makes me feel apathetic rather than inpsired and I have the feeling that is not unique to me.
One movement begins where another leaves off, though. It was never the intention of the 1930’s Art Deco inspired builders to make something plainer than the gobby Victorian and ornate Art Nouveau stuff become something ugly, but the next generations kept at it until we got where we are now (and fortunately, there is a movement back to beauty). It all works together, though; the theology, the psychology, the heresies, the lack of faith, etc that are in play simultaneously over the generations reducing it all down to function and form over faith and beauty.
Interestingly, I came upon this today:
This is a summary of just one of the artists whose influences are still strong in Catholic architecture and art. (I warn you – the artist, Eric Gill, is an absolute flipping criminal pervert. Don’t go to the link and read more about him unles you have a very strong stomach. Picasso is also mentioned in this piece in reference to his own open blaphemies, which pale in comparison to Gill.) Gill is just one small link in the puzzle in the world of art and the liturgy, explaining how things got as bad as they have in our time by showing how he influenced in his.
The link to current ‘reformers’ like Vosko are made back to Gill’s writings and influences. Scary stuff.
Thanks for all the input Shana. I know nothing about art. When I said “clean lines” and vibrant color I was wondering if I should feel guilty that my preference for, say, Shaker furniture and Chanel clothing designs somehow cooperated in today’s ugliness. And Matisse. I like Matisse. I like Picasso, but not because of beauty. And then there’s that peacefulness about Japanese minimalist rooms…
Maybe some of the ugliness has to do with the “rebellion” of design not conforming to place and circumstance…Like high heels and jeans (ugh), a Lego crucifix in church, screaming pink houses, and the like…
“Art” is not always beautiful, but it always says something if it’s art, doesn’t it? Even if what it says is that we are in a big mess.
You can find a post that is cousin to this and “Hand Motions in Heaven” over at the Paragraph Farm. I think you’ll like it. I wrote about the difference between hymns and power ballads.