Recently having read The Church Building as a Sacred Place: Beauty, Transcendence, and the Eternal by Duncan Stroik I was thinking about how my own views towards architecture that have both changed and stayed the same.
I realize in some ways I strived for an aesthetic that was fueled by my atheism. I use to think all government buildings should be the architectural equivalent of the big box stores. Functional and without a concern for beauty or anything that would add cost for merely appearance sake. Humans really didn’t need all that to do work so why bother. I would also have seen rows and rows of cubicles as an efficient no nonsense design.
Spending many years at sea onboard various aircraft carriers I found my aesthetics pretty much satisfied by the way military ships are designed. Wiring is all visible and the bulkheads and frames of the ship are uniformly haze gray. A design based on ease of maintenance with not other concerns. It also use to annoy me that one area that was not based on practical concerns was the linoleum tiled floors. Although part of this dislike was the time spent mopping and buffing such floors and the idea of making a warship pretty.
Part of my outlook was certainly appreciation of the “Beauty is in the eyes of the beholder” relativism. Since beauty was totally subjective we should not waste time and money on something so subjective. Yet at the same time I didn’t really believe this. I was forcing this view on myself to match my philosophy. I was committed to moral relativism, but not a relativism towards beauty. When it came to art and architecture I was drawn to beauty and totally frustrated with the lack of it in so much art and architecture. So-called modern art should have appealed to my atheism, but instead it repelled me. I could find many forms of art interesting, but I didn’t equate something being distinctive as being the same as it being beautiful.
Still my more utilitarian mindset wanted to appreciate function over form. That in a universe with no ultimate meaning it was ridiculous to try to bring meaning out of art. If I had known Andy Warhol’s quote “Art is anything you can get away with” I would have appreciated it from the mindset I tried to overlay on my thoughts. Yet time and time again I was drawn to what classically was called beautiful.
It was my conversion that led me to finally drop what I didn’t really believe. I did not have pretend to myself anymore that I preferred the utilitarian or that what I found ugly or what had repulsed me was just my own subjective view. That while there are subjective reactions towards beauty this is not to say that all beauty is purely subjective. It is not that you are as likely to find a painting or photo of a mountain scene than one of a garbage dump.
I remember once my late pastor had told me that often reporters assumed that his parish was the diocesan cathedral. Surely this was because it was the most beautiful church in the diocese created along more traditional lines with a beautiful high altar. What had drawn me to this parish church was it’s beauty. I had found it accidentally when driving when I saw the sign for the book store. When I went inside I was stunned by what I saw and recognized the beauty of it. At the time I had rarely been in a Catholic church and certainly not one that couldn’t have doubled as an auditorium. Hollywood also seems to be attracted to the more traditional architecture of Catholic churches in that when you see one in the media it is never of the fan-like auditorium type that unfortunately are so prevalent. They know instinctively what a Catholic church is suppose to look like.
This does make me wonder just how much the loss of the religious sense has contributed to so much utilitarian ugliness that pervades the world? So much art and architecture seems to exist to only glorify the architect or artist. A rebellion against beauty to force a new aesthetic into acceptance. This is understandable to some extent in the secular world, but unfortunately the same is true regarding sacred architecture and art. An attempt seems to be made to divorce themselves from the past instead of building on it. An individualism that creeps into everything yet at the same time an ugly sameness. Aesthetic relativism does not led to people arguing over what is more beautiful, but a destruction of the beautiful.