The greatest work of art in the whole cosmos?

Karlheinz Stockhausen, the German advant garde composer of mostly non-melodic music, has died. He became best known to the public when he commented that the September 11 attacks constituted “the greatest work of art imaginable for the whole cosmos.”

“Minds achieving something in an act that we couldn’t even dream of in music, people rehearsing like mad for 10 years, preparing fanatically for a concert, and then dying, just imagine what happened there,” he elaborated. “You have people who are that focused on a performance and then 5,000 [sic] people are dispatched to the afterlife, in a single moment.”

Later, he backtracked a little, saying that the attacks were “Lucifer’s” greatest work of art.

Form & Meaning in Church Architecture

The Third Church of Christ, Scientist, in Washington, D.C., has been declared a historical landmark because it is such a good example of the architectural style known as “Brutalism.” The building is only 36 years old, it has no windows, it is ugly, it is utterly unfunctional, and the congregation itself hates it. But now it cannot be demolished, as the congregation wants to do, or even substantially remodeled.

“Brutalism” was a radical, in-your-face style of architectural “modernism,” brutally rejecting ornament, meaning, and obsolete pre-modern notions such as beauty. It is characterized by the use of extremely rough, hardly-finished concrete, emphasizing the nitty-gritty materiality that is all there is to existence.

Brutalism for a Church

So why would a church want a building in the “brutalist” style? I mean, Christian Scientists don’t even believe in the true existence of the material world, so that their theology is contradicted by every detail in the building! Well, back in 1971, some of you may recall, churches wanted to be relevant to the modern world, and “brutalism” must have seemed very cutting-edge and impressive, a sure way to draw in denizens of “the secular city.”

Well, the “brutalist” sanctuary was designed to hold 400 worshippers, apparently the size of the congregation in 1971, but now it has only 40 or so. And, despite its designation as a historical relic, the building is mocked and derided as a blight to the neighborhood by the people who live in the city. One lesson to be learned is that committing yourself to a fashion is the surest way to be old-fashioned, since, by definition, fashions are always changing. Notice, by contrast, that the classical architecture of Washington’s national buildings is STILL magnificent and that it never ages in its appeal.

Another lesson is for churches today. A basic principle of aesthetics is that the form must be in harmony with the content. And when they diverge, it is the FORM that is going to communicate more than the content that it is supposed to convey. Today we have church buildings designed like pre-fab industrial buildings (conveying the message that the faith is cheap and temporary), concert halls (conveying the message that faith has to do with entertainment) and shopping malls (conveying the message that faith has to do with consumerism). Pre-modern churches were built in the shape of crosses, conveying the message that in the church people come together in the Cross of Jesus Christ. You can certainly have contemporary church architecture. My first Lutheran church had a contemporary style that communicated powerful Christian messages: a massive concrete altar; a skylight pouring in light from above; steel and brick structures that communicated the solidity and strength of what was taught in that building.)

Of course, the Gospel can be preached in any style of building or in no building. But just remember, the laws of aesthetics and the relation of form and meaning operate whether anybody likes them or not. Beware of unintended messages. And of becoming irrelevant in one’s zeal to be relevant. Remember the “brutalist” church in D.C. Stop by and see for yourself. It’s going to be around for a long time.

Architecture and the Aesthetics of Totalitarianism

The arts, of all kinds, give us insights into how and what their creators think and feel–that is, to their worldview. In this story on some of the grandiose building projects of Venezuelan dictator wannabe Hugo Chavez, Charles Lane draws on some actual aesthetic scholarship to make some revealing points about “high modernism” and why that style has been so attractive to totalitarians:

Chávez acts on an ideology that anthropologist James C. Scott of Yale has called “high modernism.” In his brilliant 1998 book about the phenomenon, “Seeing Like a State,” Scott explored the peculiar mix of good intentions and megalomania that has driven one unchecked government after another to pursue the dream of a reconcentrated populace: “a strong, one might even say muscle-bound, version of the self-confidence about scientific and technical progress, the expansion of production, the growing satisfaction of human needs, the mastery of nature (including human nature), and above all, the rational design of social order commensurate with the scientific understanding of natural laws.”

Central to high modernism is an aesthetic sense that prefers straight lines and right angles to the crooked pathways and sprawling gardens of spontaneous rural development. Nyerere, for example, was determined to give his East African country a landscape dotted with symmetrical “proper” villages, like those he had seen in England.

Architecturally and ecologically unsustainable, high modernist projects always collapse of their own weight sooner or later. As Scott writes, “the history of Third World development is littered with the debris of huge agricultural schemes and new cities . . . that have failed their residents.” Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union fit that assessment also, as visitors to Germany’s Eisenhuettenstadt, begun in the 1950s as Stalinstadt, can attest. Designated “the first socialist city on German soil” by East Germany’s Communists, it was plunked down next to an immense steel mill and commanded to thrive. Today, the depressed city is hemorrhaging residents.

Yet the high-modernist experiments continue — think of China’s Three Gorges Dam and the accompanying vast uprooting of villages. Fundamentally, they are not about economics. High modernism is the architecture of centralized political control. When people live scattered across the countryside or, in the case of Venezuela, clinging to the mountainsides around the capital, they’re relatively hard to govern in any fashion, let alone by authoritarian means. In government-built grids, Scott notes, they can be identified, counted, conscripted and monitored.

The Literature of Otherness

Thanks to those of you who reviewed the Beowulf movie on this blog. You saved at least one middle school teacher from taking her 7th graders, which would have been highly embarrassing, to say the least.

One writer, Blake Gopnik, also found the movie falling short of the original, but he gave some different reasons. Mr. Gopnik said that when he read the poem as a young man, it was so compelling to him that he studied Anglo-Saxon in college so that he could read it in the original language. What he loved about it was precisely how different its imaginative world is from our own. The movie makers, though, thought they had to make it up-to-date and thereby eliminated its alienness, which is its biggest appeal.

reading “Beowulf” takes us to a new place, where people think about the world and its stories in terms that don’t make sense to us. That’s why it takes a year and more to come to terms with it (at least in Anglo-Saxon) and why the effort’s worth it.

I don’t buy the tired old cliche that “Beowulf” is great because it touches universal themes. What’s great is that it isn’t universal; that it’s its own thing; that its bards managed to build a world for us that’s so complete a package, in its verse and tale and coloring, that we can still get lost in it all these centuries later. Whereas watching the movie leaves us absolutely in the place and present where we started out. It’s just “Die Hard” in chain mail.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m a big fan of “Die Hard” and “Spider-Man” and even trashier fare. (Did someone just say “X-Men III”?) It’s just that I’m also a fan of “Beowulf” as something very different from all that — as a work that truly makes you put yourself into the skin of an ancient Germanic marauder. What could be more thrilling than that?

In all their many interviews, it’s clear that the creators of the film could barely stomach the strange “Beowulf” they started out with. They didn’t dare imagine that, even with a little cinematic help, their audience might ever come to terms with its foreignness. Instead, they had to bring the poem fully “up to date” and make it easily digestible.

This is a brilliant point, applicable to much ancient and other-cultural literature and to the way they are translated. Consider, for example, many modern Bible translations. The up-to-date language tries to make Abraham and Isaac into one of our contemporaries. They are not! They are from an ancient world very different from our own. A good Bible translation, to be fully accurate, should faithfully render the strangeness and the obscurities, instead of trying to make everything familiar and clear when the original is not so. A good Bible translation should, like the Beowulf poem, take us into its world. That’s why the King James version–whose translators purposefully used language that was already archaic in their own time–is still so evocative and powerful.

How to Play Rachmaninoff

Some great composers create music so aesthetically complex that hardly anyone can play them.  For example, hardly any pianist has hands big enough to reach some of Rachmaninoff’s chords. But where there is a will, there is a way. 

HT:  C. R. Biggs

Reformation Rap

For those of you who consider yourself too cool for polka, I offer here a battle rap smackdown between Martin Luther and Pope Leo X. Yo.

(This is by students from Bethel University in St. Paul, MN. Caution: some bad language and irreverence in church.)