Recently I was walking through a college campus with my young son on my way to a Latin Mass. As we walked we saw a large modern “art” sculpture lifting itself from the earth. It was an abstract form of chaos made of metal with bright colors. It contorted in every direction as if the elements of metal themselves were struggling to be free of this ugly formlessness.
I turned to my son and drew his attention to the piece of metal. I pointed and said to him “That, son, is ugly.” I helped him repeat the words and correspond the word to the sight. I believed he could sense the meaning of the word even if he was younger than the age of reason. It is crucially important that my son understands the difference between beauty and ugliness. I have a duty to inculcate his sense of true beauty, so that he can be led to contemplation, instead of this profane chaos. But let me return to this in a moment.
Let us consider another example, this time a sacred space where the tabernacle of the Lord of Hosts rests with His Real Presence. We’ve all seen it. It’s the sort of church that is in the shape of a large rectangle. It has the architectural ambience of a repurposed industrial building. From the outside, we see a flat roof, and maybe some triangular accents scattered about. Inside, surrounding the metaphysical grandeur of the Blessed Sacrament, we are offered a testament to banality. It’s all soft edges and theatre seating “in the round.” A plain table stands at the center, beneath banners that may as well have been designed while listening to Simon and Garfunkle and meditating on Muppets. The overall effect is reminiscent of food without seasoning: it’s bland and boring. It may not be explicitly ugly, but the absence of beauty is striking. It’s overwhelmingly ordinary, and the effect still manages to be underwhelming.