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.

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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  • The photo at the top of the article reminded me of a French saying to the effect that God is everywhere except in ugly churches…

    • James Stagg

      Au contraire! It reminds me of the feeling of awe engendered by my first visit….so much so that two anti-Catholic cousins felt DRAWN to accompany my second visit….and were visibly overcome by the majesty of this very unique shrine to the Virgin. But, those, of course, were visceral reactions to the work of these architects……..and artists.

  • I visited the LA cathedral for the first time a couple of weeks ago. It reminded me of what Mark Twain said of the music of Wagner, that it was better than it sounded; the cathedral is better than it looks. That’s pretty faint praise. I like the tapestries a great deal; they’re a powerful portrayal of the universality of the Church and the communion of the saints. The thin-cut alabaster slabs, serving for windows, are attractive, but the whole front of the church — you can’t say “sanctuary” — is amorphous, deliberately so. The people walk across it as you’d walk across your front yard. There are at least fifty large Catholic churches within an hour’s easy drive of my house that are far more beautiful and impressive and human.

  • Rob W.

    That is one UGLY church.

    • Bono95

      Actually, it looks a lot better from that perspective than did in the picture shown in Mr. Salingaros’s previous post “Fashion and Design Ideology in Sacred Achitecture”

  • Nikos Salingaros

    Dear Professor Esolen,

    How nice of you to visit this essay. I did not choose the photo of the Cathedral, since my article is not specifically directed at this building. A detailed review was in fact published in Crisis Magazine in October of last year, entitled “Fashion and Design Ideology in Sacred Architecture: A Review of Our Lady of the Angels”. There I comment on the positive qualities of the tapestries and alabaster slabs.

    Here I attempt a much more general explanation of the dichotomy between natural and unnatural art and architecture, which I feel lies at the heart of the present debate. This debate goes on in certain circles that my friends and other informed persons read and participate in; elsewhere the case is closed and the world is forced to accept the peculiarly lifeless 20th century aesthetic without question.

    With best wishes,


    • Dear Professor Salingaros:
      Thank you — we sane people have to stick together!
      Sometimes the most obvious things are the hardest to see, because we take them for granted and don’t notice them anymore. But if you look, for instance, at a show like This Old House, you see that people still love the colonial, the Cape Cod, and the Victorian style for their homes, and that they still cherish the artisanship that goes into the making of a well-turned balustrade, or a rocking chair, or pleasant finials and moldings. But nobody will pay good money to see an enormous brick or steel box — what is the point? Everybody with the means to do it will go to Europe to tour the old villages and their medieval streets, but who wants to tour the eight lane highway that cuts through Phoenix?
      Best regards —

      • Nik R

        This discussion, and that comment in particular, makes me think of the current state of the music world (I am a musician). In classical music for example, we see composers trying to stray farther and farther from traditional harmony into atonality and polytonality. While the non-traditional theory has produced some fascinating sounds and ideas, it doesn’t resonate with the average listener the way that a Bach piece or a Beethoven piece would. Why? Quite simply, the roots of traditional western music are based on physics: the harmonic series, properties of sound, etc. There’s a reason why cycle five root motion sounds so natural…it’s the fifth is the second strongest frequency in any given sound produced by a musical instrument or voice.

        In the jazz world, we want to get rid of more traditional harmony, and more traditional rhythmic figures in favor or “experimental” music. But in jazz, I think the battle is a different one; it is the battle of egos. After all, if you can’t play “There Will Never Be Another You” in 7/8, how could you possible be worth your salt as a jazz musician? Certainly not that some good experimentation isn’t important and vital to keeping music sounding fresh and exciting, but we have a tendency, I think, to forget why we got to the point where we did. Moreover, I think we have a tendency to forget why we play music in the first place. All of us play because we heard something that fascinated us…before we could understand it.

        In short, it seems as though we’ve exchanged the pursuit of beauty for the pursuit of intelligent. We feel a need to “understand” everything, but that undermines what makes something beautiful. Beauty captures a man’s heart; it speaks a deeper truth than our intellect. While the pursuit of knowledge and understanding is a good and altogether noble pursuit, when we pursue knowledge (particularly of the arts) for a purpose of pure understanding, not for a purpose of beauty, we tend to forget what it is that captured our heart in the first place, what first drew us into that deep love affair. We lose God and create our own tower of Babel.

        • Alecto

          I studied harp with a highly respected teacher who frequently played for dying patients at a local hospice. She believed individuals resonated to certain keys, that her mission was to unlock the “key” which alleviated their physical, mental and spiritual pain. Sound is a wave, and music is felt as well as heard; this is the premise of music therapy. It wouldn’t be difficult to demonstrate that atonal or polytonal music has a jarring effect on our bodies, minds and spirits. And that which distorts and disaffects cannot be beautiful and cannot heal.

        • Tony

          You are speaking my language … Last fall I wrote a book, now being considered at one of the Catholic presses, on the texts of old hymns as theological poems. I think, from what I know of the intricacies of medieval and Renaissance poetry, that poets now do not have the slightest idea how many intellectual and linguistic and architectural and musical skills went into the crafting of Spenser’s Amoretti or Herbert’s The Temple. My students are stunned into silent wonder when they are shown how much is actually going on in, say, a small poem like Herbert’s Colossians 3:3. So I wonder, now, whether the same holds true of painters, sculptors, and composers. I’m supposing that it does. The more I think of a Bach chorale, like Jesu, Meine Freude, the more I think that the only way to address it is as a polyphonic theological poem; and the deliberately dissonant and form-allergic annoying music of our time is not only unpleasant, it is even simplistic …

          • Nik R

            I agree completely with that, but I do want to be careful not to hammer deliberate dissonance or “form-allergic” music too hard, because it does have a purpose. Dissonance, especially in the form of atonality (or polytonality) has a very special sound to it. This sound does have it’s purpose, as would any “dissonance” in art or sculpture, I would imagine. In my humble opinion, the purpose of this dissonance, or of breaking the rules and creating unexpected sounds is to delay the eventual resolution that our hearts, minds, and bodies naturally desire, which can further beauty if used properly. So, it can be a very powerful tool, and I believe it should be studied. To me, the problem is that exercises in developing technique becomes the finished product, which is quite simplistic, since it essentially tosses out beauty in favor of the intellect.

  • ColdStanding

    I have been wondering why the trad side has been getting creamed at every encounter.

  • Bono95

    Bill Watterson once said in one of his Calvin & Hobbes strips that “Architects should be forced to live in the buildings they design, and children’s book authors should be forced to read their stories aloud every single night of their rotten lives.” 😀

    • robert rieilly

      Chicago architect Bruce Graham once asked famed German architect Mies van der Rohe why he did not live in his famous glass and steel apartment building on 860 Lake Shore Drive. Mies responded, “There’s no place to put the furniture. I was born in a little village in Germany. I can dream and imagine this new world, but I can’t live in it.”

      • hallwoman

        when I was attempting to get my architecture degree at a certain Ivy league college in a “gorges” town, I was fed the modernist line all the way. I was also familiar with Bruce Graham’s famous quote from Mies. That LA cathedral is a monstrosity. It will go down as a great building, but it’s a lousy church just the same. Call it whatever you like, but that ain’t beautiful, it’s just “interesting” and it’s not the same thing.

  • Prof_Override

    Uff-Da – what a paranoid screed. Baseless accusations tossed at a broad movement like it’s a living breathing person. Don’t look over your shoulder Nikos – they’re coming to get you!!

    • Augustus

      Ridicule is not an argument. It is a intellectually lazy tactic of the left. Maybe one day you’ll learn to make coherent arguments supported by evidence. That would, however, require effort.

  • Alecto

    A couple of women at my parish raved how “beautiful” the Orlando Basilica of Mary, Queen of the Universe was. During my last visit, my mom and I made a special trip to attend Sunday mass. I was expecting something quite different. The grotesque sculpture of Jesus crucified on tubular glass over the altar was so incongruous, it distracted from everything else. There was a lack of cohesion in the interior space which made me feel that the entire project had been thrown together by committee vote comprised of 19th and 21st century members. The lighting looked like it had been designed during a trip…on LSD. It’s a perfect representation for the 21st century’s lack of objective standards in anything, including taste.

  • jaymis

    Quick, somebody get a torch and some weenies. Let’s put this abomination out of it’s misery. Who is the fool Bishop that approved this monstrosity. It looks like a Soviet style re-education center.

  • poetcomic1 .

    With all the discussion of “Beauty-Capital-B”, we can easily overlook the crime against innocence that is nihilistic ‘art’. I am thinking of G.K. Chesterton’s conversion vow before ‘a gaudy, little image of Our Lady at Brindisi”. Paul Claudel explains it best: