Timeless Beauty: Conservatism’s Modernist Problem

 
 

Conservatives who reject modern architecture have reasons to do so. Traditional architecture is predicated on the ideal of beauty as an objective reality, while modernism exalts subjective preferences.

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Matthew Milliner’s recent article, “Nameless Beauty: Conservatism’s Architecture Problem,” leaves the impression that conservatism’s architecture problem is the aesthetic equivalent of clinging to one’s guns and religion. The argument proceeds through a personal narrative in which the modernist works of Chicago compel the author to expand his aesthetic vision. It concludes by suggesting that a commitment to beauty as an enduring conservative value should lead conservatism to temper its use of tradition as an existential crutch with which both to defend against and to attack modernism.

I do not begrudge our author his fresh phenomenological eyes in principle, and I know that the article is not a polemic against traditional architecture. It strikes me more as an indictment of a pejorative, if stereotypical, brand of conservatism that closes itself to ever new experiences of beauty, to which new and unfamiliar (modernist) forms can potentially give rise. Traditionalism and modernism are thus played off each other to this effect. However, I believe the arguments presented are so many straw men; furthermore, following them to their logical conclusion would lead one to an equally precarious position of exchanging one’s dogmatic slumber for a certain aesthetic relativism: it is beautiful because I judge it to be so.

A rejection of modernism, or of particular modernist works, is not necessarily due to some prejudice or ignorance, or because one has closed oneself off to its beauty, subjectively apprehended. It may simply be that conservatives have seen modernism for what it is and found it wanting. One could just as easily invoke the case that suddenly to find Frank Gehry’s architecture “beautiful” suggests that one’s previous dogmatism regarding the beauty of traditional architecture was never properly grounded in the first place, and thus both pre- and post-“enlightenment” visions collapse into the same unity of personal preference and subjective experience.

Conservatism may have an architecture problem, but if so, this imaginative defect is not confined by political or spiritual boundaries. Practicing architecture, I am as likely to find a conservative, religious person doing modernist architecture as a liberal, irreligious person doing traditional architecture. The same could be said for other arts, such as music. What is most revealing is how few persons still practice authentic traditional architecture. The architectural landscape is overwhelmingly populated by those with a modernist aesthetic mindset—conservative or not.

At the same time, it is quite correct to point out the empty homage that conservatism often pays to beauty, in terms of both time and resources. One need only look at contemporary instances of sacred architecture to see how they reveal both this reality and their modernist tendencies. It may also be correct to suggest that what conservative aversion to modernism and preference for the traditional there are remain largely unexamined by the general populace.

However real these problems may be, I do not think they predominate. They strike me more as symptoms of the larger problem.  Contemporary conservatism betrays what I would term a “transcendental schizophrenia.” In other words, conservatism operates within a more or less traditional realm with regard to its understanding of truth and goodness, while unwittingly operating within a more or less modernist realm with regard to the order of beauty in aesthetics.

Much of conservatism at the lived, existential level, if not at the intellectual level, has swallowed the lie—or, rather, the half-truth—that beauty is subjective. Of course it is subjective! The other half of the truth, though, is that it is only because there is an objective reality to be subjectively perceived. Beauty is not whatever I want it to be; it is a reality to be discovered and—dare I say it—conformed to.

While beauty is known “immediately” and “surprisingly” in its advent, it seems to me a misreading and misappropriation of Christopher Alexander and David Bentley Hart to use their words to justify the belief that “just anything” can be beautiful so long as one thinks it is. Their comments are with regard to the character of the experience of beauty, not the nature of beauty itself. They would never deny that the sensibility and taste for objective beauty can and should be cultivated and educated, and with it the sensitivity to ugliness and bad taste.

As Roger Scruton puts it in The Classical Vernacular:

The substance of aesthetic judgment lies in feeling, imagination, and taste. But this subjective matter is objectively formed: it is brought to the forum of discussion, and given the status of the structure of a rational preference. Hence, there is both the possibility, and the necessity, of aesthetic education. The disaster of modern architecture stems from a misunderstanding of this education, and a disposition to discard the true disciplines of the eye and the heart in favor of a false discipline of the intellect.

The problem is that the conservative who believes himself to be good and truthful often operates under the illusion that such characteristics validate aesthetic judgments, even when such sensibility has never been truly educated.

Beauty is, indeed, always surprising, but not all surprises are beautiful. At the root of our difficulty in judging the many and varied ways beauty “surprises” us lies the traditional philosophical notion that Truth, Goodness, and Beauty are coextensive with Being and circumincessive with each other. This perichoresis is the transcendental precondition of any particularly existing being, as well as our subjective apprehension of any such beings. Thus, one can find or “perceive” Beauty, Truth, and Goodness in anything that exists, insofar as it exists, and insofar as one has the proverbial eyes to see it.

But, certainly, finding beauty in the midst of anything is not license to create just anything, no matter how deformed, deconstructed, decomposed—in a word, “ugly.” One can find the beauty in the midst of any number of ugly and horrible facts of existence, but what sane person would think that this ugliness should be inflicted as an aesthetic experience on others in order to find the beauty therein?

By extension, what parent hears the pounding of his or her child on the piano and says, “Yes, this noise is the aim of the art of music,” and purposely chooses not to introduce the child to melody, rhythm, harmony, and structure through the masters of the classical tradition?  What if such “banging” is by an adult who either rejected or never grappled with and discovered the nature and ends for which such things aspire? Without the context of something real, intelligible, meaningful, and transcendent to be seen or hoped for, it is almost impossible to find the beauty therein.

This same indictment is generally true of one’s discovery of beauty in most modernist architecture: it is simply the product of bad taste, whether uneducated or miseducated. True, I cannot dismiss the “discovery” of beauty in anything at an ontological level, even what I would hold to be “ugly” works of architecture. But this is simply to say that Beauty is present no matter how much it has been obscured, because it is the very ground of any ability to be attracted to anything whatsoever.

And so, what I do dismiss is the ability to describe such privations of beauty as “beautiful,” taken literally as meaning “full of beauty,” an exemplary cause. There is beauty by participating in the act of existence, and the sheer surprisingness of its existence can strike us with the force of a Frank Gehry sculpture-- full of tortured, uninformed, and unintelligible metal contours, shapes, and volumes. But it is neither “beautiful” nor exemplary because it is, whether intentionally or not, an insult to the ends of our human nature and the needs of our human condition.

Beauty designates a teleological standard, and to suggest that something is beautiful is to suggest that it both is and possesses a standard to be desired and emulated. But the beautiful is a standard that is discovered, tested, known, and adhered to, not arbitrated by a single individual’s preference. Thus, it is bequeathed as a stable but never exhaustive body of accumulated knowledge, paradigmatic forms, and transmitted wisdom through generations—what we would call tradition, always open to invention.

There is a humility and freedom in acknowledging this. It is in the nature of a tradition, if it is living and flourishing, not simply to copy, repeat, and regurgitate, but to test everything and hold fast to what is good, true, and beautiful. That is how things become part of the tradition in the first place. It is not an exact standard, but it is an exacting standard. It owes itself to an aesthetic education through the discipline and training of the hands, eyes, ears, mind, and heart, in accordance with human nature, and conducted under the traditional tutelage of masters and acknowledged masterpieces. One learns to speak the received language before one learns to speak in one’s own voice.  This is why the “best” modernists were those classically trained.

There is a profound Aristotelian point to be made here: just as it is the image of the virtuous man that we emulate in order to become virtuous, and not some set of abstracted principles, the masterpieces within a tradition are what we seek to emulate, and in so doing learn to become masters ourselves and thereby add to the tradition. To dispense with all of this is to accept the inescapable subjectivity and the ineluctable relativism that comprise the modernist condition. Its existential cry of dereliction echoes like Munch’s “Scream” into the abyss. Modernists are not condemned to freedom, but to the void of sheer arbitrariness.

Milliner asks us to maintain an openness to beauty in potentially odd and unaccustomed instantiations, à la modernism. Fair enough. But Milliner himself should remain open to the possibility that his own judgments are potentially the result of bad aesthetic taste, a false discipline of the intellect over the accompanying disciplines of the eye and heart.  Putting the degree of “beauty” to be found in modernist architecture on the same plane as that to be found in classical architecture is analogous to making a value equivalency between, at best, pop music and classical music, and, at worst, sheer noise and music. The raw materials are the same, but they are separated by a yawning chasm in kind, degree, and intentionality.

Hence, in a world where the modernism endemic to the academies and self-proclaimed intelligentsia either resolutely cannot or will not recognize a difference between the works of Mozart and Cage, Raphael and Rothko, Michelangelo and Gehry, conservatism might be forgiven its rejection of what modernism has to offer—moments of finding beauty within the detritus of it all notwithstanding.

At the very least, traditionalism pointedly differs from contemporary modernism in that it still believes in beauty as a teleologically real and transcendent measure of things. Arguments about the nature of beauty aside, that fact should tell us more than enough.

In the end, we seem to be left with two images: the first is that of conservatism exhausting itself trying to swim against the current when it is believed there are any number of flotation devices to be found right at hand. The other, which I prefer, is the image of conservatism rejecting the Faustian bargain rather than being left to cling to Helen’s garments, the unfulfilled and unfulfillable promise of modernism. If we are to take modernism on its own terms, as it is proposed that we do, we find as a matter of historical record that its own words reveal its intentions to subvert, transgress, and deconstruct the world we live in, and to dispense with the possibility of a world that is intelligible and meaningful, let alone incarnational. Before we would contract to borrow and baptize the forms manufactured by such a worldview, we would do well to consider the hands we are asked to shake.

Beauty does indeed have her own name, and it is only through knowing her that we are able fully to perceive her sisters, Truth and Goodness.  Thus, conservatism’s capacity for growth and surprise is consonant with its ability to drink deeply from the wellsprings of Beauty, and to realize with St. Augustine that it is always too late in knowing her and loving her. Tradition is simply a guardian of that spring, and it only sustains itself to the extent that it, too, draws from her waters. And we find them both in that old familiar place that we are always coming to know for the first time.

Joel Pidel is a graduate of the University of Notre Dame and practices architecture in New York City.

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