Gargoyles, Grotesques, and the Paradox of Useful(less) Art
Why attach a normal gutter spout on a church when you can have one shaped like a dragon? Many Christians today would answer that question in pragmatic or financial terms. Because a ‘normal gutter spout’ works just as well as a dragon gutter spout, and because a normal gutter spout is cheaper. And not only that, Christians don’t believe in dragons.
And yet as I have been visiting numerous churches around Paris, the gargoyles continue to shock and marvel me (like this relatively tame one pictured here at the Sacre-Coeur Basilica). What were these architects and building committees thinking? Didn’t they understand that there are better things to do than fashion gutter spouts like goats and cheaper things than attaching carvings of fat men with bulging eyes to their church walls?
Before directing these questions toward some conclusions, I should clarify the meaning of gargoyle. As already mentioned, gargoyles (from the French gargouille meaning ‘throat’) are gutter spouts to keep the rain away from buildings. Technically, other carvings that do not function as gutter spouts are not gargoyles but either grotesques or chimeras, although architectural neophytes like me often lump them together under the term gargoyle. Opinions vary on the meaning of the figures used for gargoyles, grotesques and chimeras, whether representing the presence of evil outside the church to a fascination with the world of magic and superstition. Some Christians throughout the history, such as St. Bernard of Clarivoux, declared gargoyles idolatrous.
However gargoyles and grotesques were or are viewed theologically, it is remarkable that church architects and builders dedicated the initiative and resources necessary to transform gutter spouts into scary sculptures. Last week there was some sustained conversation on Transpositions about whether art is useful or useless, with most participants concluding that art should not be useful in a utilitarian way, but in the sense of having a purpose. But what about turning useful things into something beautiful? In other words, whereas I think that many Christians and churches are guilty of using art for merely pragmatic or didactic purposes, I think we are often equally guilty of keeping useful things ugly. A gutter spout, of all things, is a perfect example of where function usually ignores form. But should it be that way?
One conclusion from reflecting on gargoyles, therefore, is that useful things can and should be beautiful too. Gargoyles teach us that function should not be separated from form.
But then there are grotesques, sculptures attached to church buildings that are just there in all their surprising grotesqueness. This helps us see the other side of the coin, that art does not have to be useful. In short, grotesques teach us that form does not have to have a utilitarian function.
I realize that I have not even touched on the theological meaning of gargoyles and grotesques, but for the sake of this post, I am suggesting that these mysterious figures finely represent the paradox of the usefulness and uselessness of art.