All civilisation, as well as all religion, ultimately rests on the truth that we do not "need" beautiful things to be good. Beautiful things belong precisely to that category of reality which is, as the Greeks first taught, beyond necessity. They are precisely "unnecessary". This is their glory.James V. Schall, S.J., The Praise of 'Sons of Bitches', 24.
Thus man is, in fact, that being in the universe who can build unnecessary things and make them beautiful. And conversely, the ultimate sign of barbarism is to burn down something that is truly lovely - and to burn it down in the name of man himself, as if this act would somehow ennoble him further. Indeed, even more, the final mark of incivility is never to build a beautiful thing in the first place. This is why in the end, all barbarism, even all heresy, comes to attack beauty in the name of bread. In other words, the most radical contempt for the poor is to proclaim that they need bread more than beauty, that they literally do, in fact, live by bread alone.
Very little remains to be said. The sort of facile Puritanism attacked here recurs in every age, but it seems to be endemic to our own era in particular, and to take root especially among the young. To my mind, this attitude is uniquely infuriating, demanding as it does that the universal human need for beauty be put on hold until some social ill is solved - as though our world will ever be completely free of poverty, corruption, crime, disease, or any other manifestation of human frailty. Meanwhile, in an age of such affluence that even the modest stipend of a graduate student or a welfare recipient is sufficient to purchase a host of luxury products beyond the imagination of Louis XIV, fewer and fewer resources are available for the creation and dissemination of beauty.
Schall's essay was spurred by a reflection on the great cathedrals of Europe, and of their builders - all hopelessly impoverished by today's standards - who thought it worth their time to produce a lasting monument to the craftsmanship, artistic vision, and religious faith of their community. I can think of few projects conceived today that bring art into the public square as decisively as a Gothic cathedral. Certainly, we spend millions of dollars on "the arts," and much more on "entertainment," some of which has significant artistic value - but the mechanisms of the marketplace are such that our enjoyment of art is always somehow circumscribed. At best, our artistic appreciation might be shared with a select group of other ticketholders; more usually, it takes place in the privacy of our own home. Yet, as we go about our everyday lives, the spirit of the medieval cathedral builders sometimes slips through the cracks - a Donne sonnet on a subway poster, a bust of some long-forgotten civic figure outside a government building, or a neo-Gothic church that has not yet been torn down to make way for condominiums.