Sans Metaphysics, Sans Beauty

Jude P. Dougherty

Dean Emeritus, School of Philosophy

The Catholic University of America

Washington, D.C.

The following article previously appeared in Modern Age Magazine


An all-too evident sign of cultural decay is the Leggo-set architecture that in the past few decades has sprouted from one end of the country to the other. Taste seems to have disappeared along with traditional standards of achievement. Most architectural components seem ordered from a common stock, cost effectiveness prevailing over beauty and certainly creativeness. It is often said that architecture of any period expresses the Lebensgefühl of its time. Thus, any reflection on art necessarily establishes itself at the level of principle, that is, at the level of philosophical abstraction.

In the early decades of this century, an ideological movement led by Picasso and Braque, one which influenced Mondrian and Kandinski and scores of others, sought to displace natural forms in painting. Perhaps no such movement has paralleled this development in architecture although the Pompidou Center in Paris seems to have been a deliberate effort to turn things inside out in more ways than one.

With the example of classical and Renaissance forms, the reluctance to seek beauty is almost unintelligible. Novelty as a goal seems to have produced the opposite, a deadening sameness. There seems to be a law of nature that when imagination fails, the bizarre replaces it, and often with ascriptions of daringness. Not even the shibboleth of self-expression prevails.The abstract in painting and sculpture and its counterpart in architecture requires the verbal dexterity of a seasoned apologist to convince the reluctant viewer that the work at hand is worthy of attention. The more abstract the work, the more the viewer is verbally cajoled into acquiescence. Given the number of architectural white elephants littering the contemporary architectural landscape, many a naive patron must have succumbed to such verbal browbeating. Just as museums are filled with viewerless rooms of bizarre canvasses, many a dysfunctional building has its primary source in some architectural fantasy. Preoccupation with the creation of new forms has too often led to arbitrary and dysfunctional design. If the bizarre requires its apologists, pleasing architecture by contrast does not have to defend itself. It spontaneously generates its admirers.

Beauty even though intended, like happiness, is in part a consequential thing, a product of solving problems correctly. Of its very nature beauty entails an intellectual dimension, and the absence of an intellectual dimension may be the root cause of the building-block sameness that seems to content builders and their patrons. If beauty is essentially the fruit of intelligence, it finds its fulfillment in intellectual appreciation. In the presence of a beautiful work, the intellect rejoices freely. Admiration is an affective response to the beautiful, a spontaneous reaction of both sense and intellect. The visually pleasing alone is not enough to move the intellect. Conversely, the abstract becomes mere symbol and does not arouse the senses.

The ugly by contrast is illogical. In architecture all unnecessary veneer, for example, is ugly because it is illogical; a case can be made for the purely decorative, but sham and illusion are always irritating.

In a reflective mood we may ask, is there deep in contemporary culture an anti-intellectual strain that taxes creativity and dulls the senses? How does our world differ from those of times past that gave us the art and architecture we still admire? The Middle Ages have been characterized as "the age of faith." That faith affirmed the existence of God, and much of its lasting architecture was constructed for the glory of God.

Although the intellectual world of 1100-1400 is very different from the intellectual world of today, the masters of that day were no less professional. They were not content to repeat or simply refine what they had learned from a previous generation. They tackled new problems, and even in dealing with old ones, felt free to discard traditional solutions and venture new ones of their own. Their aim was not simply novelty. Masters set ever more exacting standards of technical competence for each other and for their students, preparing the way for more dramatic accomplishment in the future. Medieval architecture through the 14th century remains a source of awe for European visitors who marvel not only at the technical skill and craftsmanship which produced the great cathedrals and town halls but are awed by the unsurpassed beauty of those great structures. The planning, intelligence, and imagination which went into their creation are the subject not only of tourist appreciation but of scholarship in every generation.

What is the difference between the age of Louis IX--St. Louis, a contemporary of Albert and Aquinas--and the late 20th century? Are medieval philosophy and medieval architecture strands of a single cloth? Could the Gothic have arisen within the context of a purely materialistic philosophy? Is our contemporary architectural loss somehow connected with the ascendancy of a materialism or pragmatic naturalism in philosophy?

Historians take for granted the backdrop of intellectual and artistic disciplines. Raphael and da Vinci are often presented as great innovators but they were innovators within a context defined by other painters and sculptors and within preexisting methods of solving problems.

The connection between medieval architecture and medieval learning has not gone unnoticed. Art and Scholasticism is the title of an early work by Jacques Maritain, a work that gained for its young author almost instant acclaim. Erwin Panofsky in Gothic Architecture and Scholasticism (1951) and in Abbot Suger on the Abbey Church of St. Denis and Its Art Treasures (2nd ed., 1979) graphical displays a connection. Panofsky believed that Gothic architecture and scholastic philosophy shared a common "mental habit." Yet I know of no contemporary author who has made the connection between the impoverished anti-metaphysical philosophy of our day and its debilitating effect on the arts. The exception may be found in passing comments on the proletariat art of the 20th century, i.e., the banners, bas relief, and statuary commissioned by socialist regimes. But much of that art was created for the sake of conveying a viewpoint, outright propaganda on behalf of a social program and is not thought of as fine art.

When the spiritual or transcendent are denied, does art necessarily become utilitarian? Rephrasing the question, is the bareness of the prefabricated, shoddy, and ill-proportioned architecture that confronts the viewer merely the result of reliance on materials such as concrete and glass? Or does it have deeper roots?

There is a certain materialistic crassness which need not detain us. Unfortunately, the commercial system encourages neglect of an artistic concern with beauty. Investment in real estate is made for monetary return. The investor may have no interest other than financial gain in the structures he underwrites. Aesthetic satisfaction from an investment point of view is often costly and prohibitive. Medieval abhorrence of usury is a thing of the past. Return on investment as the ruling factor may produce block after block of indistinguishable apartment buildings or shopping malls. This is materialism of the grossest sort, but it may reflect the materialism of a deeper kind that repudiates the spiritual dimension of human existence. Its grosses form is found in the philosophical materialism that has spawned Marxism and socialist philosophy in its many faces. It is evident in the soulless and functional art of the Stalinist regimes the world over and to a lesser extent in the art and architecture of the New Deal.

Both forms of materialism and the architecture they foster separate man from his transcendent end, placing all value on material accomplishment. They ignore and thus severs any connection to a divine order. Nature itself is twisted to serve a utopian vision. God and nature are superseded by a man-made image of how things ought to be, by an artificial and surreal world view.

It has been said that the engineer inspired by the law of economy and led by mathematical calculation puts us in accord with the laws of nature. The architect, by his arrangement of forms achieves an order not given by nature but one which flows from his creative initiative. Thus it is impossible to talk about architecture without discussing the ideals of the architect himself. Architecture is more than civil engineering plus ornamentation.

The engineer cannot ignore the laws of nature, whether he attributes them to a divine intellect or not. Unable to change them, he must work within their parameters. The architect, although he too works within limits, is not so strictly bound. Intellectually he may be at war with a God-given order, with man's innate sense of proportion, harmony, and beauty. He may be more interested in defying convention, in the novel or in the shocking. How else to explain the Pompidou Center or some of the work of Le Corbusier? The painter or sculptor is even freer to implement his fancies. The Cubism of Picasso, Georges Braque, and Juan Gris, presented as adventurous, required a peculiar intellectual defense. By their own account they were grappling with the age-old problem of how to reduce the three-dimensional natural world to a two-dimensional canvas as if the Dutch masters had never existed. Picasso and Braque elected to show forms essentially as simple geometric solids though nature knows no such building blocks. Color was limited almost exclusively to browns, greys, and greens on the premise that the essence of painting is form. This was equally true of landscape, still life, and portraiture. In sculpture, faces were reduced to sharp-edged planes, unflattering "images" of their subject.

If the architecture of the middle ages reflected the beliefs of the so-called "Age of Faith," this was no less true of classical antiquity. We know that Greek art was closely related to Greek philosophy. For the Greeks the order of both nature and reason is beautiful and simple. Greek philosophy provided a clear perception of the rules which underlie all events and change in nature and in human life. Werner Jaeger tells us that "The theoria of Greek philosophy was deeply and inherently connected with Greek art and Greek poetry; for it embodied not only rational thought, the element which we think of first, but also vision which apprehends every object as a whole, which sees the idea in everything." The introspective self, Jaeger reminds us, is foreign to the Greek mind, which focused not on the subjective but on universal laws governing human nature. The intellectual principle of the Greek is not "individualism" but "humanism."

The contrast between the Greek approach and that represented by Picasso and Braque is dramatic. Quite apart from the justification of their artistic novelty, they argued against the traditional ideas and beliefs on which Western art had been based since classical antiquity. Rejecting time-honored aesthetic notions, they jettisoned conventional beauty, resisted the imitation of nature and the illusion of space through perspective. "Break with the past," "destroy the old order" were slogans employed to advance their intellectual project. Duchamps went even further, questioning the laws of science, characterizing them as conventional and mere linguistic artifacts. The artist should be free of all law, he argued. Picasso agreed and explained that he deliberately broke up the form of things so that he might be free to paint his own version of "inner reality." This cynicism found its ultimate expression in the foolish recommendation of the Futurists. "Burn the museums," "destroy the libraries," they wrote. Their violent language is but evidence of the hollowness of their arguments.

Some of the bizarre may be the result of the artist's personal cynicism and cupidity, having recognized the market value of flouting tradition. That possibility aside, it doesn't take much reflection to discern a connection between the ideological disdain of Western culture and the rejection of all convention, aesthetic and moral. The legacy of Enlightenment philosophy haunts the whole modernist movement, a skepticism in the order of knowledge, an agnosticism with respect to the existence of God and a deliberate disregard of a natural order, including the beauty of and self-perfecting tendencies of human nature.

Without a metaphysical recognition of the transcendent, without the recognition of a divine intellect at once the source of nature's order and the fulfillment of human aspiration, reality is construed in purely materialistic terms. Man himself becomes the measure, unaccountable to an objective order. Life itself is empty and without purpose. That aridity finds its expression in the perverseness and sterility of modern art, from Bahaus to Cubism to post-modernism.