The Anti-Language of Modernist Art

The winners of the recent Pontifical Academies Sacred Architecture Award speak in a thing I shall call The Language of No.

By now, our readers have probably seen pictures of the winners of the gold medal and the silver medal for new church architecture, awarded by the Pontifical Academies. Pope Francis has urged a recovery of symbolic language, but the winners are notable for their speaking in no language: there are, if I may judge by the pictures I have seen, no symbols at all except for the crucifix; and in the gold medal winner, a small chapel in the Tuscan town of Pontedera, the crucifix presents the body of Christ as tiny by comparison with the tree, as if a boy with a taste for cruelty had nailed a salamander to the trunk of an oak.

But perhaps I should revise what I have said. The winners speak in a thing I shall call The Language of No: the essential anti-language of modernist art. I am not condemning that art tout court. No one better portrayed the wreckage of the modern West, and with an aching sense of loss and a hope against hope for restoration and recovery, than did T.S. Eliot in The Waste Land.

I admire, with unease, the half-agnostic and half-eternally seeking poetry of Wallace Stevens. Some modernist architecture is eloquent in its simplicity, such as the Gateway Arch, in St. Louis. The crisp piano progressions in Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, mingled with strains of jazz and the bustling energy of American folk song, are like nothing written before—it is a work of genius and might.

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And yet, modernism, as a project, to judge it as a whole and in its animating philosophy, is an enemy to man and to human culture. Pope Francis has said, inexplicably, that sacred architecture must be free of cultural influences and human subjectivity; it is the same Francis who has said that the Church must be acculturated for the various peoples she wishes to evangelize. These two statements contradict one another.  

But the problem is more severe than the failure of the particular projects to account for the culture of Italy or of the Catholic Church. For modernism, with ways of life it encourages or demands, has gone far to scrub away genuine human culture from the earth. It is not, then, that the winners fail to be Italian or Catholic. It is that they succeed in being anti-Italian and anti-Catholic, not merely avoiding every opportunity to speak the language of the people and of the Church but speaking, shouting, the Language of No, which says that there shall be no symbols, no language, no shared history, no human devotion to what transcends place and time but what is embodied in both place and time: no culture.

If you look at the government buildings in Brasilia, the modernist capital appropriately set in what had been the middle of nowhere, and if you look at the Catholic cathedral there, the thing that looks as if a mad scientist had irradiated a sea anemone and the creature had grown gigantic and was about to crawl on its tentacles to devour Rio de Janeiro, you are not simply looking at what does not say “Brazil” or “Rome.”

The problem is not that the modernist architecture does not belong where it is but that it does “belong” there and anywhere, indifferent alike to Brazil as to Belgium, to south as to north, to the Spanish and the Indian as to the English and the Irish, or rather hostile to them, erasing the memory, electrocuting the common languages. Its stones reverberate the Language of No. The problem is not that the modernist architecture does not belong where it is but that it does “belong” there and anywhere, indifferent to the surrounding culture.Tweet This

I hear the objection: we cannot build baroque churches forever. Strange, that the word baroque has resumed its original sense, as an insult leveled by neo-classical artists against an age that was greater than their own. Yes, the baroque was sometimes characterized by excessive decoration, but in the main it gave us immortal, humanly powerful, and profoundly dramatic art: think of Caravaggio’s “Conversion of St. Paul,” in the church of Santa Maria del Popolo, in Rome; or Bernini’s “St. Teresa in Ecstasy,” in St. Peter’s; or Bach’s Passion According to St. Matthew. We do not need to speak in baroque. But we do need to speak in human language. And that is what modernism prevents.

Nor was the modernist movement ever necessary. The modernists said that the old forms were exhausted. That was not true. The watercolors of Winslow Homer are not the neo-classical oils of Sir Joshua Reynolds. Rodin’s Thinker is deeply indebted to Michelangelo, but Rodin is not the Florentine—he stakes out his own path. We did not need Alban Berg to reduce music to mathematical skitters; the composers at the end of the nineteenth century were working in a wider variety of genres than had ever existed. 

We sneer at the Victorians as if they were stodgy old prudes, but Tennyson, Browning, and Arnold were all embarking on poetic paths in a dizzying array of forms; they were immensely creative, metrically and musically. There had never been anything like Tennyson’s Lotos-eaters, or Browning’s dying bishop ordering his tomb at Saint Praxed’s, while he floats in and out of coherence and bad conscience.

Look at The Triumph of Religion, the series of murals that the stubborn John Singer Sargent painted for the Boston Public Library. Tell me that it was just a matter of slavish imitation of past forms. Sargent had, in fact, taken those forms, learned from them, and turned them to his purpose, so that it is impossible to suppose that the murals were painted in any other time but his own; and yet those same paintings speak in a language that was alive in Greece 2,500 years ago—and alive, also, in the Church since she first began to build on her own.

From 1850-1950, you will find American Christians of all denominations building churches in a broad variety of styles. Sometimes these are baroque, sometimes neo-Gothic, sometimes neo-Romanesque, as in my boyhood church, St. Thomas Aquinas (Archbald, Pennsylvania); sometimes they echo the spare New England meeting house, as in another church my family attended for many years, Sts. Peter and Paul (Phenix, Rhode Island); or they revel in the rich color that characterized late-nineteenth-century tastes in homes and churches, as at St. Anne’s, in Woonsocket, Rhode Island; why, every and any church in the United States could be a small adventure in the arts.  

Then the modernist virus infected the minds of churchmen, who, by the time I was a boy, were encouraged by bad education to consider themselves superior to such trivial matters as beauty and human storytelling. At great expense, they obliterated much of that art the people still loved, sending it down the ecclesiastical memory-hole. People are starved for beauty, and we give them capsules with dust in them. People have lost the language of their own church’s art, and we give them works that blare out, in their blankness, that there shall be the Language of No, the teller of the anti-story.  The modernist virus infected the minds of churchmen, who, by the time I was a boy, were encouraged by bad education to consider themselves superior to such trivial matters as beauty and human storytelling.Tweet This

I have often thought that people who believe in suicide for the aged may harbor a visceral terror for the blank, faceless, mechanistic, inhuman hospital ward; death with a frozen smile on the harried nurse’s face as she rushes off to care for someone more interesting than yourself. The sterile glare of the ward says that suicide might be better. It is the only thing it does say. It is also what the architectural medalists say. Shut your mouth and die.


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