When I visited the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris a few years ago, I had an surprising experience of ambivalence. It was impossible to not be in awe of its beauty, but I couldn’t shake a feeling of disgust.
Everywhere I looked I recognized that the beauty before came at an immense cost. For every stone lifted, a field row was left untilled. For every window pane stained, a coat was left unwoven. The cost was paid by the poor, twice over. The first was the price paid directly in labor and taxes; the second was the opportunity cost incurred from using materials and exploiting labor that might have been used toward more essential ends. If everyone in Medieval Europe was wealthy and at ease there would be nothing to object to, but that wasn’t the case. The beauty of Notre Dame came at a cost, and it’s one that I find difficult to overlook.
The best justification that I can imagine is that the beauty displayed by a cathedral uplifts the spirit of everyone in a community. A noble thought. Alexander Pope wrote that the calling of tragedy is,
To wake the soul by tender strokes of art,
To raise the genius, and to mend the heart.
This, it seems, could be said of architecture as well, so also with literature, painting, or any of the arts. Art does a great service to us all, but the virtue of beautiful art doesn’t exempt artists and patrons from their more basic human call to be good. M.K. Gandhi said (although it may be an apocryphal attribution), “There’s no beauty in the finest cloth if it makes hunger and unhappiness.” Likewise, it’s hard for someone to appreciate the uplifting intention of a cathedral when his body is crushed with hunger and exhaustion.
Beauty and Goodness
I’ve concluded that I needn’t forget my ambivalence toward sublime cathedrals, powerful fortresses, castles, and châteaux. In fact, I ought to allow that internal conflict to flourish. It’s a conflict that rages between our aesthetic and our ethical sensitivities — between beauty and goodness, and it’s a conflict that we too often pass over unmarked.
I want to continue visiting the places that spark this conflict within me. It’s worth remembering again and again that something can be both beautiful and ethically depraved. Beauty can be wrought at a great human cost. It’s a lesson with significance more contemporary than the construction of Notre Dame.
In actual fact, I’m not interested in involving myself in a critique of Medieval architecture. I’m really concerned about today, but again, not merely with architectural practice. Rather, I’m concerned about the ethics of our beauty standards in general.
The Question of Ethics in Art
I’m not saying that I have a doctrine to follow to ensure that the art we make remains ethical, I’m only saying that in our creating and producing — whether artistic or otherwise — we should never forget our responsibilities to other people. I could never come up with an adequate definition of art, but I’m confident in saying that any definition should include the pursuit of goodness.
That’s not to say that art needs to represent good things to be good (I’m not so old-fashioned). Art is good by doing good; making us aware of suffering and confronting us with what’s terrible in the world is one of the many virtuous services that art can perform. Even ethically considered, tragedy is among the best art. Even the most horrific pieces can be both beautiful and good.
Neither am I arguing that art needs to be primarily concerned with actions and effects. But art can’t help but produce effects, and it can’t avoid acting on those who experience it. I’m arguing that we should remain mindful of what it does.
The Responsibility of Art
And certainly I’m not suggesting that I or anyone can assume the role of ethical arbiter in art. On the contrary, the moment we politicize or govern art is the moment we transform it into an instrument of power and ideology rather a conduit of ethical practice. Obviously what I’ve proscribed only truly succeeds in resolving the problem if we all agree on what’s good, which we don’t. But this actually concerns me less, at least for now.
The weighing and measuring can only be done by the artist himself. As long as we remember that what is beautiful — whether in nature, art, economy, or in other people — cannot help but involve itself, for better or for worse, in ethical questions. Crafting a standard of beauty that is also good and virtuous is a personal and individual responsibility. Both the beautiful and the good are ultimately mine and yours to discover or to determine. We each have to decide; that’s the weight of moral responsibility — it lies on my shoulders alone, and on yours.
Of course the problem remains: undoubtedly the architects of Notre Dame believed that what they were doing was good, righteous, even glorifying, while I consider it oppressive and abhorrent, though beautiful indeed. My values, thoroughly 21st century as they are, question their values. All we can do, then, is to keep asking the ethical question: is this good? — continuing until it’s a grand series of questions and finally a basic attitude from which we approach everything in life including our art.
This isn’t a guarantee that we’ll be good, but in lieu of being good with certainty let’s at least work to be better. I’m confident at least that the result will lead us in the right trajectory. It’s a modest proposal but weighty enough to keep us constantly occupied.