Recently at the Thinking Housewife there was a discussion about the ugliness — the hatefulness — of modern churches. In a follow up, I sent Mrs. Laura Wood a picture and commentary about the Rothko Chapel in Houston.
Mrs. Wood started the discussion by linking to a good article, called “The Cult of Ugliness in America,” by Fr. Anthony J. Brankin at the American Society for the Defense of Tradition, Family and Property (quite a mouthful, that name, but I like how they don’t pull any punches.)
Let me quote Father Brankin: “Beauty and ugliness flow naturally into the world from the content or emptiness of the soul.” I copied this one out and put it near my work space. It seemed important.
Here are some ugly “religious buildings.” The Los Angeles Cathedral:
The Rothko Chapel interior:
… and exterior:
(Note how the only thing breaking up the brutality of this picture is the lone, scraggly tree in winter casting its shadow on the structure. Nature cries a feeble protest here.) I could, of course multiply these kinds of photos indefinitely. I chose these two structures because (a) they’re the ones that prompted the original discussion over at Mrs. Wood’s site, (b) these are famous and “important” structures, expensive and widely promoted. I’m not picking on the unfortunate taste of some little backwater. (Though it is also important what happens in backwaters, and it is revealing to see how ugliness has spread even there… simply for sake of discussion I’m limiting it here to the self-proclaimed big boys.)
But then, the old religions are not really the religion of today. They hang around in dessicated form, but the religion that most people actually feel strongly about is, of course, political correctness. (I almost wrote “feel passionate about,” but that would have been overstating the case. Very few are truly passionate about being PC — that would imply hearts afire with love and righteousness. PC adherents have righteous convictions — from their own point of view — but almost no one is happy to be PC. PC is a dread religion, a grey slave religion under which all must bow their heads, like the government in 1984, or the rule of Morgoth in the Silmarillion.)
So our truly representative temples wouldn’t be Christian or Jewish, anyway. They would be temples to political correctness. And indeed the Rothko Chapel itself, built in 1971, loudly proclaims its PC-ness in its promotional literature (don’t click unless you truly feel the need; it’s a depressing website). So first drain away tradition and specificity, then drain away any and all theistic content and what are we left with?
The National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis:
The National Museum of the American Indian (is this the ugliest building in the world, perhaps?):
“Religious art is the measure of human depth and sincerity; any triviality, any weakness, cries aloud.” — Henry Adams; Mt. Saint Michel and Chartres (a book that is itself a beautiful cathedral to wander in; free here and here).
With far fewer material resources, but with time, dedication, soul, devotion, and passion, our ancestors built exteriors like this:
… and interiors like this:
I can’t build cathedrals on my own. I can’t even be a part of an organization that builds cathedrals — though perhaps I’m not trying hard enough on that count. But, as Fr. Brankin says, “beauty and ugliness flow naturally into the world from the content or emptiness of the soul.” So instead I can, we all can, focus on small-scale beauty: harmony in the home, dignity of dress, and indulgence/participation in beautiful art (hearing and playing beautiful music, reading beautiful books, etc).
It’s funny, the world is so brutalist nowadays. Where it’s not overtly Stalinist as with the buildings above, it’s merely crass, commercialized and ugly. And yet there’s beauty everywhere. Trees — even weeds in the cracks in the cement — genuine laughter, the possibility of loyalty, and the poetry that lingers and rings still loudly from an earlier age. They all seem to proclaim that the ugliness, no matter how ever-present and intolerable it can seem, is just a passing stage. Beauty, ever trampled under foot, dies not.