the cloisters at gloucester cathedral: the intersection of two long stone hallways lined with windows, stained glass, and elaborate archways

Recovering Beauty in Modern Life

Why have we lost beauty, and how can we recover it?

Beauty is a vital part of who we are as humans. Our appreciation for beauty is one of the things that sets us apart from other animals. It is, after all, one of the three great transcendentals: truth, goodness, and beauty. If you follow philosophy, you might know that the capitalized versions of these ultimately all refer to the same thing—God—and that what we encounter in the world are various reflections of His perfection of being: "I am who am" (Ex 3:14). I'll save the theological philosophy for a future post, but the implications are that these three transcendentals are tightly interrelated and completely objective—beauty is not, in fact, in the "eye of the beholder".

There's a major breakdown of all three transcendentals in modern society. I focus on beauty here, in a couple different domains.

The breakdown of beauty in architecture

Picture the classical style of ancient Greek and Roman temples and the neoclassical government buildings we have in Washington D.C., with their weight, structure, and simplicity of form.

classical style front view of US Capitol Building
U.S. Capitol Building

Picture the romanesque style of abbeys and castles across Europe, with sturdy arches and towers.

romanesque stone style abbey
Lessay Abbey in Normandy, France
By Ji-Elle - Own work, Public Domain, Link

Picture the great gothic cathedrals with their flying buttresses and pointed arches. They use breathtaking stained glass windows and verticality to lift your eyes (and soul) up to the heavens.

gothic cathedral with flying buttresses and pointy arches
St. Vitus Cathedral in Prague, Czech Republic

Or the grand renaissance style, bringing back classical elements like pillars and semicircular arches and focusing on symmetry, regularity, and simple geometry.

renaissance classical castle
Château de Chambord in Chambord, France

Or the awe-inspiring baroque with its incredible detail and ornamentation, and general grandeur.

fancy baroque detailed hall with lots of ornamentation and gold filagree
Hall of Mirrors in the Palace of Versailles in Versailles, France.

These buildings are all beautiful. They call us out beyond ourselves and elevate us to something higher. They connect us to the transcendent. They evoke wonder and awe. Let's contrast this with modern architecture.

ugly blocky cement building
J. Edgar Hoover Building, headquarters of the FBI in Washington, D.C.
Hubert H. Humphrey Building, headquarters of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services in Washington, D.C.
a bunch of cement blocks stacked up to make a building
Wotruba Church in Vienna, Austria.
Boston City Hall, Boston, Massachusetts.
blocky cement houses stacked up above greenery
Habitat 67 in Montreal, Canada.

It's a jarring difference. What words would you use to describe these modern buildings in the Bauhaus and brutalist styles? Imposing, blocky, unwelcoming, and quirky? Maybe soulless, depressing, and dehumanising? But not beautiful. Never beautiful.

These buildings look so intentionally ugly that it's hard to imagine a human being designed them thinking "this is good." Uniform concrete is not interesting. The tiny windows betray the lack of natural light in the blocky and segmented interior spaces. If you've spent any time in a public school, university, or modern government building, you've probably experienced what it's like to slog through your day without beauty. It's frequently difficult to tell the difference between schools and prisons!

The breakdown of beauty in art

Consider the following artwork.

The north rose window in Notre-Dame Cathedral, Paris.
Michelangelo's Pietà in St. Peter's Basilica in the Vatican.
Michelangelo's David in the Galleria dell'Accademia, Florence, Italy.
Sistine Chapel, in the Vatican.
Leonardo da Vinci's Mona Lisa in the Louvre, Paris.
Bouguereau's Virgin of the Lilies, now privately owned.

You've probably seen these before—they're all famous. Each one of these pieces of art captures something beautiful, from a collage of colors to a precise copy of the human body to portraits that come alive like a real person. You could stare at each of these for an hour, noticing all the subtle details and drinking it in.

Now consider famous modern art.

Picasso's Les Demoiselles d'Avignon in the Museum of Modern Art, NYC.
By Pablo Picasso, Public domain - Museum of Modern Art, New York, PD-US, Link
Andy Warhol's Marilyn Diptych in Tate, the UK.
Marcel Duchamp's Fountain, the 291, NYC.
Marc Chagall's I and the Village in the Museum of Modern Art, NYC.
Frank Stella's Amabel in Seoul, South Korea.

Most of these are famous. They're fawned over today. Perhaps they still count as "art" in a sense, but this art is clearly not at all the same thing as what art used to be. You can literally duct tape a banana to a wall and sell it for $120k. You could describe modern art as interesting, provoking, expressive, or subversive. But not beautiful.

The breakdown of beauty in music

For the sake of publishing this post on time, I'm going to mostly skip over the subject of music and leave only the unsubstantiated claim that it has similarly degraded. What used to be filled with harmony, consonance, structure, and clever lyrics is now dominated by discord, yelling, and aggressive beats. Listening is like an assault upon the ears. Modern music can be exciting and exhilarating because of the way it gets your heart going, but it's not a healthy place to spend a lot of time. It seems to result in angry, moody people. It's not beautiful.

Why the loss of beauty matters

Across these artistic domains, the common trend is the loss of the sense of beauty. It's not just that people aren't pursuing beauty like they used to, it's like they don't even know what beauty is anymore, or why they should care. This is a shame for two reasons.

First, because our art guides us forward like a cultural North Star. It dictates our direction in a self-reinforcing cycle, simultaneously reflecting who we are and drawing us to become more like it. If we don't have beautiful art to inspire us, we won't become more beautiful ourselves. We need signs and symbols to rally ourselves to grow in virtue and goodness. And so, without beautiful architecture, art, music, and more, we are stuck spiraling further into the pit of misery and wretchedness. This is a dreary perspective indeed!

Second, art reflects who we are as a people. It's self-expression on the level of entire cultures. Imagine you were introduced to a completely novel civilization. The first thing you might do is to examine their art in order to understand how they view the world and themselves in it. I imagine this would be much more informative than examining their technology or political structures. And so if our art is not beautiful, it indicates that we ourselves are not beautiful (or at least we don't think we are).

There are many possible explanations for this. Perhaps it reflects a nihilistic downtrodden people who came out of two world wars and global struggles against communism with a deep spiritual wound. Perhaps it reflects a materialistic technophilic people who have forsaken religion for modern comforts and radical self-invention. Perhaps you can trace it back to the Enlightenment's focus on rationality to the detriment of all else needed for human flourishing.

The most proximate cause, it seems to me, is that we have turned our back on God, usurping His place and fashioning ourselves to be our own gods. In so doing, we've relegated God to a distant creator who doesn't require anything of us except to be generally "good people," whatever we decide that means. Why then the lack of beauty? Because we've looked inward and found ourselves to be poor gods. We can't save ourselves or raise ourselves out of the spiritual muck. Our standards of living are at heights never previously imagined, and yet we know that something is missing, even if we can't put our collective finger on it. So we push forward, distracting ourselves with screens and noise at every moment—for what other option is there? Staring into the abyss of our own empty selves is not something we can face. All these frightful feelings and fears seep out into our art and we find it captivating because its ugliness speaks to something deep inside us. Like a scared child who can't bear to look but also can't look away.

How can we recover beauty?

How can we recover this lost sense of beauty? Primarily, by demanding it. Shun ugliness and require beauty whenever possible. Don't buy an ugly snout-nosed garage door house or McMansion if you have the option to do otherwise. Find or build a custom house with good beautiful architecture. It doesn't have to be expensive; it merely requires an architect who prioritizes beauty over eeking out another 200 square feet in an oddly-shaped "bonus room." Sacrifice the fancy master bedroom with tray ceiling and a jacuzzi tub for a well-designed front door and entryway. Design a home you'll enjoy spending time in.

Don't buy ugly art and don't tolerate it in public spaces. Even if you're not the "art type," buy beautiful art and put it where guests can see it. Get on your city's public art commission and object to everything ugly. Don't fall for the "beauty is subjective" trap; when something is beautiful (as opposed to interesting) you'll feel it. Maybe you can get something beautiful put in your workplace, even if you have to buy it yourself.

Listen to beautiful music. Music that makes you lean back, close your eyes, and connect with something. Avoid the cacophony of modern angry music that tightens your chest. Try simple music that expresses extreme emotion, for example, where the human voice is the central (or only) instrument.

Even in behavior, require beauty. Think about how 'beautiful' and 'ugly' apply to human behavior and hold yourself, your kids, and your friends to a high standard.

Perhaps most of all, rediscover religion and embrace symbol and ritual. These things speak to us on a deeply human level and it is here where we have most successfully found beauty and inspiration. Christianity is responsible for most of the great art in the western world, from the Notre Dame cathedral to the Pieta to the Sistine Chapel to Schubert's Ave Maria.

It is in contemplating the divine, the transcendent, that we are lifted up and feel the call to something greater than ourselves. It is when we surround ourselves through art and architecture with reminders of this divine beauty that we become beautiful ourselves.

Credit for this post's header image: Christopher JT Cherrington, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

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