It’s Time for Noble Complexity

Transcribed below.

Simplicity, Simplicity, Simplicity

Walk into the interior of a great church of the Middle Ages, or of the Renaissance, or of the Baroque era, and especially of the Rococo era. You can do it right now, because this is the age of the World Wide Web. What was your dominant impression of the place?

You might say “awe,” or maybe “beauty.” But perhaps the thing that struck you most was complexity.

Complexity has been out of fashion for more than a century. More than out of fashion: it has been repudiated as the pomps of the Evil One. We have only to look at the church architecture of the past seventy years to see how much this notion of simplicity as virtue and complexity as vice has become religious dogma. The words “noble simplicity” are constantly on the lips of bishops—as, for example, the Archbishop of Paris, who is currently restoring Notre Dame to look like a low-budget convention center.

Why is simplicity noble and complexity ignoble? Why is a folk song morally better than a Bach fugue? Is there really no noble complexity? Was the entire Gothic era in architecture rank heresy?

This seems to be what we believe. We—the citizens of the twenty-first century—have not quite repudiated Bach yet, because his name carries such a halo of greatness that we are not yet ready to drop him. But we perceive his music as a background wallpaper of pleasant noise. It is “light classical”: it is the soundtrack for upscale fitness studios, music to set going while we pay attention to somebody else, not music to shiver and weep over. It’s nice.

It looks as though we have forgotten how to deal with complexity. We do not know what to do with all the parts of a design if there are too many of them. How do we tell good Victorian architecture from bad Victorian architecture? If we look at a building and see that it has elaborate foliage tracery carved in the stone, and railings where the rail is supported by a repeating series of columns with different capitals, and angled bays and peaked cross gables with finials—do we even know what questions to ask about it? Do we have any way of judging whether it is good or bad of its type? Can we say whether the multiplication of details produces polyphony or cacophony? Do we know how to tell whether the details are part of a unity or just senseless decorations stuck on at random?

These are questions that require familiarity with the complex even to ask, let alone to answer. It is far easier to avoid them all and condemn the design for its lack of simplicity.

But we are giving up a great deal when we accept that fashionable facile condemnation. Simplicity can indeed be noble. In most cases, though, it is merely simple. Its message is conveyed, and received, without effort, and then we go on to the next thing. The argument of the Archbishop of Paris in favor of “noble simplicity” is that people in the world of today are too stupid for anything else. He does not phrase it that way, and no doubt he would vigorously object to that phrasing, but that is what he means.

Yet modern social-media-addled churchgoers are probably not any more stupid than the average medieval peasant—not any smarter, either. Medieval peasants were not born with an appreciation for Gothic art and architecture, in the sense of an innate understanding of the complex rules of composition. But they knew their churches were beautiful.

So do the stupid moderns. The uneducated yokels who object to the modernizing of Notre Dame elicit nothing but contempt—politely expressed contempt, but obvious contempt—from the smart people who know better. But what do they think they know better? They think they know better how to appeal to the average uneducated yokel. They are wrong.

Average uneducated yokels travel thousands of miles to see the cathedral at Chartres, the basilica of St. Peter, the Rococo churches of Austria. They do not make the same effort for the noble simplicity of post-World-War-Two churches.

Perhaps this is because the yokels do not want simplicity after all. We ask why our churches are empty and closing, and might it possibly be because people don’t find what they want there? Our answer has been to make our churches more like office buildings and our cervices more like committee meetings. But your average modern yokel gets that architecture and that experience at work and does not need more of it on Sunday morning.

It is time to consider the possibility that the average yokel is right about what appeals to the average yokel, and that the very intelligent people who think they know that the average yokel responds to noble simplicity do not really spend much time with average yokels. They spend all their time with other very intelligent people trying to imagine what the intellectual life of an average yokel must be like. It must be very simple, they imagine. The only cure for that false impression would be to talk to average yokels and listen to what they have to say about their own tastes and needs. It is a drastic measure, to be sure, but the time has come for drastic measures. And perhaps the time has come to admit a little more noble complexity into our aesthetic life.

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