Beauty and Tradition Unmask Nihilistic Modernity

Mark Signorelli recently reviewed Gregory Wolfe’s book Beauty Will Save the World and characterized it as self-contradictory. I could not finish the book after having started enthusiastically, since it did not address my own interests in architecture and urbanism.

Wolfe treats many writers whom I have not read, and the visual artists he embraces strike me neither as particularly redemptive, nor as key players in the great project to re-establish art fit for human beings. Nevertheless, I sympathize wholeheartedly with the book’s thesis: that present-day culture has lost its connection with beauty and with nourishing artistic expression. Wolfe promised to support this truth by digging further and linking it with religious thought. I agree with Signorelli, since I did not find a strong argument here to re-invigorate our current literary and philosophical malaise. Such an argument, I have to say, is present in Signorelli’s own essays.

I’m not going to discuss Wolfe’s book, but rather use this occasion to outline what I believe to be the conflict between true art and elements of nihilism (focusing on architecture). Here, I can broaden the scope and suggest that many attempts to generate nourishing human creations failed because they tried, at the same time, to embrace “modernity.” In my estimation, the widely accepted images of modernity contain the seeds of destruction. Most of us have been brainwashed to accept someone else’s definition of “modernity”: someone with a nihilistic agenda. Thus, anyone attempting to be inclusive by welcoming what has destroyed beauty in our culture in the first place undermines their laudable call for a renewal of true artistic production. One cannot adopt one set of values (generative and creative) and their opposite (destructive and sterile) at the same time. Well, one can indeed, but that only leads to confusion and cognitive dissonance.

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Approaching this explosive topic as a scientist hopefully brings in another dimension for debate, outside the usual one of culture as a purely artistic expression. Signorelli is right on target with his characterization of the advent of Modernism as a cultural discontinuity. It was most definitely not the smooth evolution that most thinkers believe it to be (ironically, since some of them are not always comfortable with Darwin!). Every culture is mistakenly thought to transition into another, exemplifying a Darwinian selection and evolution of artistic production and taste according to changing environmental conditions (social, economic, political, technological). This is false. Some cultural movements, and Modernism in particular, are simply cults that organize themselves on a military model. Their aim is, and remains, the extinction of competing repositories of culture. They achieve this aim by sterilizing humanity’s creative capacity.

In my own books and essays, I point out that modernist architecture simply reversed the rules of traditional architectures in a major discontinuity that occurred after the First World War, but which had its beginnings before that. Modernism dismantled our cultural DNA to remake it into its own teratogenic code. When you reverse rules for living structural order, you generate an entirely opposite nonliving kind of structure, which is of course this game’s objective. There is no smooth transition here from one worldview into another, because one denies the other’s value and tries to exterminate it. Using a biological analysis, traditional architectures (in thousands of different varieties) evolved according to nature and human needs: but modernist architecture erased all those accumulated rules to impose its top-down, authoritarian style, which is intolerant of nature, human beings, and God. There was no evolution, just a revolution. For various reasons, it won and took over the world.

Continuing to employ the biological analogy, what about the relativist argument very popular in academia, that all worldviews are equivalent, and therefore both living and non-living forms are equally valid? Not if we are supporting life on earth. Either we generate life, or we displace it by generating non-living forms. There is a clear distinction between the two. In nature, without the intervention of humans, different types of organisms try to live by competing with each other for space and resources. The same process occurs among human creations. In recent times, human constructions and artifacts in the “dead” category have almost entirely replaced those in the “living” category. Could this not be a healthy sort of Darwinian competition, in which the “fittest” wins? No. Because here the aggressor is the one that generates dead forms. The competition is decidedly unhealthy since it is sterilizing human creativity, and is destroying both our inherited culture and our environment.

You cannot appease a movement whose aim is to destroy what you value most highly: in this case, the human-centeredness and natural basis of traditional expressions of art and architecture; and their extension into transcendental realms where the highest form of inspiration resides. Conservatives and religious institutions made that tragic mistake. It’s no accident that Modernism denies God and anything spiritual: that’s not compatible with the cult’s desire for total power over human minds. Again, in its military-style victory, Modernism and its successors have eliminated anything that poses the slightest threat to their complete cultural hegemony.

Can we welcome such an anti-natural movement in an inclusive embrace? I think not. It’s like assimilating a virus whose purpose is to destroy your DNA, then commandeer your organism to produce copies of the virus. Your cultural information (here I include art and God) becomes extinct. Hopefully, readers will see this biological analysis not as another reactionary rant against the modern world, but as a call for clear scientific thinking about our threatened culture.

After decades of indoctrination, people are waking up to the architectural imposture of alien-looking buildings being awarded prizes that come with enormous publicity, and which are praised by political leaders, institutional sponsors, and the global media. Something is dreadfully wrong! A system has been set up to validate what are in fact nihilistic products. Many citizens are crying out for punishment for those architects who have committed crimes against our cities. The architects of course deny any wrongdoing, claiming that the public is simply ignorant and foolish; the architects have been “misunderstood.” Not at all. We possess scientific criteria, whose existence architects vehemently deny, that allow anyone to judge whether a building is “human” or not. The easiest criterion is one’s own visceral response: most prize-winning contemporary monstrosities evoke anxiety, fright, and nausea in the user. Otherwise, the reaction is puzzlement at the absurd shape of some non-building. Every conceivable effort is made in harnessing the highest form of human ingenuity and technology to create buildings that are sterile and anti-human.

And so to conclude, I come back to Signorelli, who proudly refuses any political deal; he rejects any compromise with those who have and would continue to destroy human, natural, and spiritual order. He also sees through the deception of “innovators” who pretend to break from the cult even as they are its most fanatical champions. Whether unreflective conformists, unscrupulous mercenaries, or hate-filled zealots, people who go along all have the same effect: to continue the sterility worshipped by the status quo in place of the fecund geometry of life. I welcome those who can help in the courageous recent movement to encourage and re-discover human creative production in the arts. In order for those efforts to be effective, however, I believe that we must recognize the sources of the damage and not appease them.

Editor’s note: This essay originally appeared in Solidarity Hall, March 23, 2013 and is reprinted with permission of the author. The image above is of Our Lady of the Angels Cathedral in Los Angeles.


  • Nikos Salingaros

    Nikos Salingaros is an architectural theorist, a long-time associate of Christopher Alexander, and a mathematical physicist at the University of Texas at San Antonio. In addition to publishing hundreds of articles on architectural theory in academic journals, he has authored many books on the subject, including A Theory of Architecture (2006), Principles of Urban Structure (2005), Twelve Lectures on Architecture (2010), and Anti-Architecture and Deconstruction (2008), all of which have been translated into many languages.

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