Beauty and Blandness: A Snob’s Reflection

“Beauty will save the world.” –Fyodor Dostoevsky

Stained-glass window
Stained-glass window (photo: Tama66 / Pixabay/CC0)

Dear Reader: Although I am now an “outsider” to Islam, I’ve never had the experience of looking at Islam from the perspective of someone who has always been an outsider. I am glad to share my experiences as a former Muslim, but often wonder whether there are questions which a life-long outsider may have, questions that I wouldn’t otherwise think to address. I would love to know those questions, to satisfy your curiosity. Please do feel free to ask away in the comments section below, and keep an eye out for future articles. Thank you!

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On an evening in March 2012 I was roaming the halls of a new church building in New York’s Upper West Side. The interior was bright, just a couple of notches short of blinding. The floors were so spotless that I could eat ice cream off them. It even smelled new inside. My eyes scanned details of what much resembled a concert hall, as I shrugged and thought to myself: “Eh.”

I had joined Redeemer Presbyterian Church four years prior, shortly after my conversion from Islam. I’d heard it that Redeemer (founded in 1989) had purchased a garage building, with the intention to renovate the garage into a church to call its very own. The new church had finally opened its doors about a month before my reception into the Catholic Church. The Church of St. Paul the Apostle, where I was taking RCIA classes, was dimly-lit and had a musky old-church smell to it. I’d set foot in the late-gothic structure because, one day, while I was passing by, the beauty of it had caught my eye.

Redeemer’s new church wasn’t ugly. It was plain is all. A passerby probably wouldn’t think to give the building a second glance. My decision to become Catholic had been reaffirmed. Beauty is among the greatest of proselytizers.

“Art is born when the temporary touches the eternal; the shock of beauty is when the irresistible force hits the immovable post” – G.K. Chesterton

I’m a snob. My tastes in art and architecture are discriminating, with strong preference for the classical, and strong conviction that the bulk of popular arts produced in our day are sub-par (“sub-par” being a blanket substitute for words they never let me print). My father plays the viola, so that I was immersed with classical music in youth, destined to be a snob at birth. Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker was the first music I learned to recognize. But Providence is clever enough that the snob’s snobbery can be instrument for the snob’s salvation. Snobbery has played a special role in my own journey, from Islam to Christianity, from Evangelical to Catholic.

Snobbery comes with awkward moments. I’ve gotten odd looks from friends during times which I’ve asked “who plays that song, anyway?” and the answer turned out to be someone very famous, such as Beyoncé. One couple, two of my dearest friends in New York, gathered that if I ever annoyed them while at their apartment, I would cease all annoying behavior once they threatened to play one of Lady Gaga’s nauseating songs on the speaker.

Snobbery, though sometimes awkward, is most redeeming when manifested in the form of loving the timeless and loathing the fashionable; which touches upon the history of the Church herself. How many of today’s Billboard hits, or Pulitzer and Booker Prize winners, will be deemed worthy of consumption a hundred years hence? It’s uncertain. My guess is almost none. “Who plays that song, anyway?” What’s very much certain is that in a hundred years people shall continue listening to Pachelbel’s Canon, and reading (or at least being assigned by schools to read) the plays of Shakespeare. What was beautiful a hundred years ago remains beautiful today and shall remain beautiful a hundred years from now.

I am Catholic today because the Church welcomes jerks of every feather, because the Spirit can pragmatically, and expertly, appeal to a snobs’ curiosity. In 2007 I was baptized as a young adult. As an architecture enthusiast, I began paying much closer attention to church buildings than I had before. I couldn’t help but notice that the ancient churches, Catholic and Orthodox, held a virtual monopoly of the most beautiful church buildings, that even the majority of England’s great Gothic churches were originally Catholic. It wasn’t long before I wondered: why are the interiors of Catholic churches so adorned with statues of saints, stained-glass windows and ornamental altars? Why was the interior of the church I was attending kept so plain? A 2010 trip to Spain, a land of many old churches and the Prado Museum, deepened my interest in the Church which flaunted such beauty. The privilege of gazing such beauty with my eyes encouraged me to lend ears to the Church’s unique assertions. Superficiality, regardless of it being right or wrong, can work wonders in escorting souls to the Church.

I’d several times heard accusations of excess directed toward the Church for her having such beautiful (presumably expensive) church buildings. It’s so easy to look at a building and to draw quick conclusions. It’s not so easy to see the countless artisans (whose human touch outdoes anything made in factories), who are all long passed, and who were employed, saved from destitution that is, because beautifying a church took several generations. It’s not so easy to notice countless men and women gainfully employed in the service industry to this very day, as is the case in cities across Europe, because tourists will flock from all corners of the globe to gaze at something beautiful. And we have no method of measuring the effects that beauty has on the soul of the gazer. Beauty, in the long run, makes tremendous economic sense. Beauty makes tremendous sense in the economy of salvation.

Beauty may, by-and-large, be underappreciated. Yet still, there is tremendous indignity, universally-felt, when something beautiful gets damaged or destroyed; which touches upon the story of the Fall. This can easily be highlighted by last year’s fire at the Notre Dame Cathedral, when civic leaders across France, whether pious or not, so swiftly made calls to repair the damage as quickly as possible, whatever the cost. Had similar damage been done to one of French architect Le Corbusier’s signature modern (i.e., intentionally plain) buildings, who would have cared so much? And in New York (where “prewar building” is a major selling point in real estate), the movement to preserve historic buildings gained tremendous traction in the late 1960s, when the old (Beaux-Arts) Penn Station was razed to make way for the concrete drum that is Madison Square Garden (I might get an earful from Knicks fans for that one).

Beauty contains power, even if it be dormant power, to stir the soul.

“Everything that is done in a hurry is certain to be antiquated; that is why modern industrial civilization bears so curious a resemblance to barbarism.” – G.K. Chesterton

Why is it that we, the modern heirs of so much beauty, largely fail to produce such beauty ourselves? Why do we make so much sub-par?

Art, like all thought and matter, is an expression of the spiritual. Art is a measure of a culture’s soul. Every age has produced plenty of mediocre art. But why do we fail to produce great art? How much of our contemporary art and architecture will be catalysts for wonder in a hundred years?

The Modern movement of architecture, with the utilitarian motto “function over form,” ensured that for several decades practically every high-rise building erected would be a giant glass box. Technology had progressed so that the scale and number of such boxes, erected in so little time, was unprecedented: and so today we are left with a whole lot of “eh.”

Is quantity an apt replacement for quality? Is it that beautiful art and architecture are matters of (up-front) cost? Are we so disposed to short-term thinking? 

The true art of so much modern art is in the excuses made to justify calling mere paint on a canvas “art,” excuses along the lines of “it’s about what you interpret in those squiggles splattered on that canvas hanging in the MoMA.” Whereas Michelangelo needed to exercise tremendous patience and skill to chisel details from a slab of marble, an artist today can get away with dropping that slab of marble onto the floor and calling it his “art.” And if that artist makes a name for himself by doing so, he’ll even sucker the rich into purchasing unchiseled slabs for hefty fees. Having lived in New York, having accompanied artistic friends to galleries over those years, I’ve seen something like this plenty of times; but complimentary beer and wine makes all things bearable.

Why is it that so many of the hit songs of our day, particularly in the hip-hop genre, are deliberately trashy? Doesn’t overt trashiness kill off cleverness?

In our age of instant-everything, do we lack the patience necessary to make beautiful things? The greatest gothic churches took decades, even centuries, to complete. It’s said that when Antoni Gaudi’s Sagrada Familia began construction, in the 1880s, he was assured that such a building wouldn’t be completed during his lifetime, to which he responded: “My client is not in a hurry.” How much tolerance do we hold for such attitudes today?

Is there something, or something lacking, in the modern mind that has dulled the imagination? Do we live in an era of bountiful information and scarce insight? Have we become so boring that we no longer deem the world worthy of beautification?

Must future snobs, wishing to gaze upon beauty, resort to acting like our day never even happened? If so, there will be all so many glass-box buildings, squiggles on canvas, trashy songs, rhythmless poems and politically-driven formulaic stories, crying out for those snobs to look down their noses on us.

“Beauty will save the world.” – Fyodor Dostoevsky

If great art is the product of a bygone era, our children will still inherit those great structures, and great works of art, which our ancestors have passed to us. We ourselves may fail to contribute to tradition, fail to produce much art worth keeping. But the flying buttresses of the great Gothic cathedrals will still invite future snobs like arms waving them in, that posterity is always going to have reason to wonder: what drove the creation of such beautiful works?

If the lauding of blandness is much prolonged, that the dearth of new beauty is prolonged with it, the modern world will soon enough drown in its own sub-par, and great works will seem, to an ever-greater degree, a thing of the distant past. The future tourists and snobs, guardians of the truth that beauty is better than blandness, may lament and complain of their times, but they will also have reason to wonder, all the more: what was lost? Can it be recovered? The most forward-looking will be those who embrace the past.

The beautiful works of art which our ancestors have handed over to us may have already preserved the Faith for future generations. Christ must have surely known that he was speaking of the great artists to come when he said to his disciples: “you are the salt of the earth.”