Catholics and Puritans

I was having an email discussion with Malnic over aesthetics. Malnic is very stimulating in this regard. We got to a discussion about Catholics and Puritans and architecture. Now, I'm not religious. I am a stone cold atheist. But I remain fascinated with religion for artistic and philosophical reasons. I see aesthetics as being reflective of our worldviews, and I put Catholics and Puritans in opposition to demonstrate this.

Catholics love big cathedrals. They love the smells and bells of the liturgy. They dress their clergy in vestments, have stained glass windows, sculptures, and all the rest. Malnic points out that Catholic architecture reflects the wonder of the divine as in this picture here:

This great vaulted ceiling is supposed to invoke the greatness of God and all that. You see the detail in the architecture and the stunning stained glass windows. This is the theological equivalent of maximalism. More is more. The problem with this maximalist aesthetic is that it actually ends up debasing the divine and making it quite ordinary and even kitschy. The epitome of this mindset can be found in the fake plastic virgins that Catholics buy to display in their homes or the dashboards of their cars.

I find such displays to be repugnant and ugly. Of course, beauty is in the eye of the beholder, so Catholics may find this kitschy crap inspiring. But there was one group in particular that found this crap as nauseating as I do, and this was the Puritans. The Puritan name itself came from their desire to purify Protestant churches of the Catholic ways. They were the minimalists of their day. Their belief was that these visual representations of the divine and the ceremony and the rest were actually insulting to the Almighty and not merely because of bad taste. They believed firmly in the commandment concerning graven images. This would include statues, stained glass windows, and the rest. Faith was abstract and could not be represented in visual mediums but only through words and ideas. This was reflected in their churches and their design.

Puritans did not build cathedrals. They built simple wooden structures that were plain. There were no stained glass windows. Everything was simple and straightforward. This design and ethos lives on today in many New England churches. It also represents a distinct difference between America and Europe. Of course, Protestants would bring back the kitsch because religion loves bad taste. You can see the same bad taste in Hinduism, Islam, and Buddhism. Where does this bad taste come from?

Bad taste is the province of the ignorant. Puritans had the advantage of being wicked smart, and they preferred a faith that was more cerebral. Dumb people who are not as literate prefer visual expressions of faith. If this sounds like something from Neil Postman, it is.

For me, I am only interested in effects. I actually enjoy some aspects of the Catholic aesthetic in much the same way that I enjoy glam rock and hair metal. The principle that you must keep in mind is that the overly visual results in debasement and comedy in the long run. It might look good now, but in the long run, it will be a fucking embarrassment. If you doubt this, compare AC/DC to Poison:

AC/DC remains virtually unchanged while Poison has become a kitschy joke. Over the long term, people ditch the kitsch. They shun the overly visual for the plain and simple. This is because plain things convey seriousness. AC/DC has gained respect over the years even from the earnest publication known as Rolling Stone that only in the last couple of years saw fit to put Angus and the boys on its cover. This is the same mag that had no problem putting Justin Bieber and Lady Gaga on the cover.

This aesthetic debate ties directly into the minimalist/maximalist debates of today. The McMansion lifestyles are firmly in that Catholic aesthetic. It also explains why stupid people adore bling and extra features and all the rest. Minimalism is "boring." Maximalism is exciting like ice cream with all the toppings. But that maximalist confection comes with a sugar crash. You can't make a meal out of candy.

If you go over to a site like mnmlist, you will notice that Leo Babauta does not do pictures on his blog. Zen Habits is the same way. Why is Leo echoing the Puritans with this eschewing of the visual? This is because it has the effect of making you mindful and contemplative. We live in an age of massive visuals all competing for our shortened attention spans. Yet, there is Leo with his text based but elegant websites countering all that mass consumerism. There is elegance in simplicity.

Aesthetically speaking, you can't go wrong with the simple and the plain. It doesn't matter what it is. It could be writing or music or fashion. It could be your home, the decor, or the car you drive. In all things, the best aesthetic choice is going to be the simple choice. I base this not on my mere personal preferences but on the enduring appeal of those simple designs. Less is more. This is what the Puritans knew. The experience is not in what is represented but where it actually occurs--in your mind. By going with simplicity and plainness, you give room for the mind to fill in that white space. The result is a more powerful and lasting effect.