In the wake of the burning of Notre Dame Cathedral, yet another old anti-Christian canard has been dusted off. The objection is that it’s hypocritical of Christians to spend money and resources on beautiful cathedrals, fine art, and glorious decorations when there are still poor people in need.

Others have already pointed out both the logical failures with that accusation and the scriptural opposition to it (John 12:3-8, Matthew 26: 7-13, etc.). Today I’d like to tackle a somewhat broader question.

Notre Dame is, of course, a unique building due to her age, position, and history. However, up until not so long ago, almost every church building was unique and beautiful, constructed more or less after a similar pattern to Notre Dame, or Hagia Sophia, or other venerable churches. That is to say, they were built to a harmonious plan directing to the glory of Christ, centered around the altar, decorated with glorious fine art and statues. In a word, they were beautiful and intended to glorify God.

There was a similar standard even in secular works, which of course mostly grew out of religious art (modern painting was born in iconography, modern music from polyphonic chant, drama and poetry were born in pagan religious ceremonies, etc.). The goal was beauty and truth: to present a harmonious and edifying work that elevated the spirit and appealed to the senses.

Modernism Takes Over

Over the past century or so, this has changed with the various strands of modernism. Painting became first more abstract, then deliberately ugly, then purely meaningless. Literature trended more towards what is called ‘realism,’ focusing more and more on the baseness and crudity of life. Music lost its harmony, poems their meter. And Churches were stripped of their beautiful ornamentation in the name of ‘simplicity,’ instead outfitted with twisted, ill-formed statuary and crudely done artwork.

Obviously, this was not the case with all works of art, but the crucial point is that it was the case with the most celebrated. One only needs to ask whether Pablo Picasso or William Adolphe Bouguereau is considered the more ‘important’ artist by either critics or the general public, or whether James Joyce or Rudyard Kipling is considered the more important author. It isn’t simply that some people celebrate Picasso and Joyce over the Bouguereau and Kipling, it’s that they are considered key influences and held up for imitation, as being objectively superior in skill, inspiration, and genius. The narrative is that people like them broke free of hide-bound tradition, opening art to new pathways, new opportunities and means of expression.

It is a similar narrative to the one arguing for the new styles of churches; that it is simpler, less ostentatious, closer to the people. Again, by breaking away from the old, stale patterns, the idea goes, we invite freedom to create something new.

There is a question that never seems to be asked in such discussions; namely, who actually benefits from this? Who is this new style, this new freedom for?

Put it this way: if the average person, having never heard of either author, were to pick up Ulysses and try to read it, and if the same person were to pick up The Jungle Book and try to read it, which do you think he would prefer? Which would he understand better, enjoy more, or find more wisdom in? Likewise, if the average person were to see both The Old Guitarist and Alone in the World without knowing anything of the artists, which painting do you think he would say was better? Which would show greater craft, have more detail to ponder over, and just be more pleasant to have around?

Now, the point isn’t whether the works by Kipling and Bouguereau are objectively better; the point is merely which one the average person, going purely on his own tastes, would be most likely to find more appealing. You can talk about the intricacies, prose, and genius of Joyce, just as you can decry the prettiness, easy appeal, and sentimentality of Bouguereau however much you like. But note what you are doing. You are saying that the more sophisticated, the more educated, the more sensitive taste prefers the modernist. Whether that is true or not, the obvious fact is that, by definition, this is not a common or easy taste.

Another way to put it is that modernist art, by its own admission, is for the rich, or at least what might be termed the rich in spirit. It is for those who, for whatever reason, are willing to dig out meaning and appeal in objects that don’t immediately appease the senses.

The same with modernist churches, with their bare expanses of brick and concrete, their twisted metal sculptures, their amphitheater-like naves indistinguishable from the sanctuary. They’re not designed to appeal to the poor; they’re designed to appeal to the architects, or to the bishops or donors who are funding them. The policeman, the machinist, or the officer worker in the pew is not the one demanding architectural minimalism and so-called simplicity of design: it’s the rich, college-educated person who decries the ‘waste’ of a beautiful church and glorious artwork and solemnly declares that he is inspired by the flat, inhuman bronze plaque depicting our Lord’s Passion.

The Poor Deserve Better

The beatitude runs “Blessed are the Poor in Spirit, for the Kingdom of Heaven is theirs.” But one of the marks of the poor and meek is that they love wealth and glamor. The very celebrity gossip magazines and reality TV shows understand this. The quality of beauty, glamor, and majesty is that they inspire admiration and can only be enjoyed from a position of comparative inferiority, or at least self-forgetfulness, which is why the poor in spirit (those who don’t put on airs or try to see through the world to prove how clever they are) love these things. There is no merit in enjoying a beautiful painting or a beautiful church, which is precisely the point—there shouldn’t be. It’s a pleasure not designed for those who think overmuch of their own merits.

And this, at bottom, is the practical principle of what modernism actually does; take from the poor to feed the rich. When art becomes more about the glory of the artist than the enjoyment of the audience, then it loses all appeal to the humble. ‘Avant-garde’ means, in the end, ‘for the rich and rich at heart.’ When a large part of the population can say, “I don’t get art,” or poetry or literature, that means that these things have been stolen from them.

The objection is often made that the glorious art of past ages was only made for the rich and at their behest. In the first place, no it wasn’t; much of it decorated churches, where rich and poor alike gather. In the second, whether it was originally made for the rich it was not made to appeal only to the rich. Quite the contrary: a nobleman who outfitted his mansion with Jackson Pollack paintings would have been a laughing stock. The fact that the art was beautiful, that it appealed universally to rich and poor alike, was necessary even taking the basest possible interpretation of the arrangement. The pride of the rich patron was in creating the art: not in appreciating it.

A beautiful church does not take from the poor; it gives to them. It gives them the chance to experience beauty, glory, and majesty every day of their lives; things they generally can’t get anywhere else. I sometimes go to St. Mary Star of the Sea in Jackson, Michigan. After Mass, you see people walking around the church, taking photographs, admiring the stain glass and the glorious stonework. The priest once told a story of a Protestant woman who took her son there every week, not to hear Mass, but just to show him a building constructed to the glory of God. That would never happen in a modernist church.

On the other hand, the spare, minimalist churches built today rob the poor of their best chance to have their souls elevated in the name of appeasing the tastes and conscience of the wealthy and sophisticated. Especially since such churches generally cost at least as much as it would have cost to make something beautiful: the hideous Los Angeles Cathedral cost two-hundred-and-fifty million dollars to build, and not one tear would be shed outside the insurance company if it burned to the ground.

Man does not live on bread alone; he needs beauty and spiritual uplift as well. The past century has largely been the story of slowly starving most of the population of these things. That it is advocated in the name of serving the poor only compounds the hypocrisy. You do not show solidarity with the poor by taking what they want and then saying they show bad taste by wanting it. If you want to serve the poor, give them beauty: build churches that serve the glory of God rather than the pride of men.

Photo: Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels