It’s dismaying to face the holidays with so much ugliness emanating from what we once called the “cradle of civilization” or what Christians referred to as “the holy land.” The only help for it, it seems it me, aside from real peace coming to this part of the world, is beauty. This is no trivial or superficial pursuit. “Beauty teaches,” wrote Virginia Woolf. “Beauty is a disciplinarian.” What did she mean? What are we to learn from beauty?
I found part of an answer years ago when I heard a pianist named Loren Hollander talk about the great Gothic cathedrals of Europe. He said that those soaring structures didn’t come about because of gains in engineering, though progress there certainly was. The builders of those great cathedrals knew something. They had special knowledge to impart.
He had in mind the realm of the spiritual which was the farthest thing from the mind of Virginia Woolf, at least in the sense of religion. But she did try for universal insights and sometimes felt she came close. This moment, she wrote, “goes down to the bottom of the world — this moment I stand on.”
Where now can we go for moments like that? More often than not to art. It is there, in the museums, symphony halls and opera houses that we find sufficient aggregations of talent and wealth to express the aspirations of a people. They have become, in many ways, our sacred spaces.
And what can be seen in American architecture of the past fifty years? They began in a post-war yearning for order, which gave birth to the rare, spare elegance of Mies van der Rohe. In symmetry and straight lines and the logic of proportion would be found reassurance and calm. This was the language of the modern, and it gave way, unexpectedly, near the end of the twentieth century to a quest for historical references, post-modern ornamentation, flamboyance. But it wasn’t as easy as it looked. There are four things that must never be tried unless you’re very, very good: ballet, the violin, the plays of Noel Coward and post-modern architecture.
The first two are enduring forms of art, of course. The latter two, properly realized, are artifacts of a moment, a moment that did not go down to the bottom of the world, but, while it lasted, dazzled audiences eager for diversion from the hard work of becoming.
And what we became, once safely into the new century — which, we learned, held no safety at all — was wild in our wish for extreme experience, for complexity barely contained, much less controlled, the sort to the seen in the swirling shapes of architect Frank Gehrey. The orderly box no longer would do. The urgent demand was to be bowled over — over and over again. It was another form of forgetting.
What we discover in beauty is our own nature. Ada Louise Huxtable, the great architecture critic put it like this: “Art is the style of an age. Art never lies. It tells us exactly what we are.” That is the teaching, that is the discipline for those who create art and those who respond to it. They are called to capture the essence of an era with humility and truth. Only armed with this understanding can we, today, tame the great wave of excess on which we’re riding and arrive at a sensible assessment of what can be done with who we are. Dostoyevsky, after all, was right: “The world will be saved by beauty.”