Postliberal Age of Art
It is common for conservatives to decry modern architecture, however, few can explain why art must be beautiful.
“Make America Beautiful Again” was the title of a February 2020 draft of a leaked executive order from the Trump Administration. This order was subsequently signed in December of that year, albeit with much less of a provocative name. The order, however, was necessary. The ills of modern architecture are endless. It begs a question we often avoid: Why can we not build beautiful architecture anymore…and why did it take Donald Trump to ask this question? Liberalism has done away with our curiosity and admiration of beautiful things; we have traded beauty for utility.
It is common for conservatives to decry modern architecture. This is so much so that there are whole Twitter accounts dedicated to it. However, few conservatives can explain why art must be beautiful. Modernity’s architecture begins with the false premises of liberalism. Liberalism promises an order in which one is able to attain only material desires – the imaginative, or metaphysical, is cast aside as abstract. Liberalism seeks to replace metaphysical beauty, expressed through art, with an art of materialism. Classical art conveyed meaning, depicting a historical moment, a beautiful landscape, or ordinary activities in and of themselves (such as reading, conversing with loved ones, or going to church). Rich with symbolism, this art conveyed the conditions of the human soul and our search for meaning – things far beyond just the physical. Ultimately, it was about maintaining social responsibility and cohesion through our shared human condition. In his autobiography, Roger Scruton expressed similar sentiments,
Aesthetics lays claim upon the world, that it issues from a deep social imperative, and that it matters to us in just the way other people matter to us, when we strive to live with them in a community. And so, it seemed to me the aesthetics of modernism, with its denial of the past, its vandalization of the landscape and townscape and its attempt to purge the world of history, was also a denial of community, home and settlement.
The art of today concerns only the individual and there is no proper way to relate to these works because it is all about the perspective of the artist. The modern artist views art through his or her own lens and anything that they make will be the only art that has ever existed. This is liberalism, the ultimate authority of the self. There once was a recognition of a higher authority, God, by the classical artists, but this authority is no longer recognized.
As we look for change to modern art, we must accept that art is irreversible. There is no going back. Art transcends time because of its ability to inspire wonder and communicate timeless messages of the human soul. The key here is our ability to wonder about art and place ourselves in the world that a painting or a beautiful building is in, letting it inspire and illuminate our understanding of the present. Liberalism has created a wonderless society, and a cult of ugliness; look at any works of modern art, they are all unimaginative and mere scribbles on a page. In the east building of the National Gallery of Art, in Washington, D.C., hangs a red kite-like mobile in the atrium called Untitled by Alexander Calder. It is one of the most patronizing works ever seen. This cult of ugliness seeks to simplify and treat the viewer as infants, as is clear from the hanging baby crib toy by Calder. These works serve only material desires and consider only a modicum of understanding of what art it meant to communicate. This is “pass and go art,” neglecting the need to communicate higher claims.
What we build matters because it communicates how we view our political order. The cult of ugliness is perfectly visible in our politics today, not just in the way people interact with each other, but in the way we feel about considerations of the utmost importance, the prime example being, the law. Our courthouses are now mirror reflections of concrete jungles. At one point, society valued social cohesion, justice, and had a seriousness about it. Federal courthouses in Los Angeles show this unseriousness now. The outside of the building is constructed of glass mirror like panels, reflecting the very ugliness that permeates the city. So too have our churches become victims to this unseriousness; they now have become big box-auditoriums. By contrast, the classical cathedrals and basilicas in Europe are most serious about their message and mission. By building beautiful things, we communicate our messages of truth, justice, and the beauty of God and His Church.
Ultimately, art is an expression of the common good. The way man expressed this good, and other fundamental human claims, resulted in magnificent and grand pieces of art, illuminating the beauty of truth and salvation. In order to build the postliberal age of art and achieve a measure of beauty today, we must utilize public institutions for this end. This is done through local ordinances, executive orders, and legislation at state levels. We must cultivate a sense of beauty through the state to inspire the next generation of artists. This is similar to Roger Scruton, who in his book Soul of the World, prescribed a need to control industrial architecture for the public interest. In the end, the beauty of art matters because we and future generations live with the consequences of ugliness.
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