On Art, Architecture and Beauty

When discussing the concept of Art, I commonly come across a certain set of preconceived notions and subjective preferences that I cannot help but object to. For various reasons, these often involve art as it relates to beauty.

1. Restrictive definitions of art.

First of all, there are those who want to place art in a box and define it as something with a very limited scope or meaning. This is in itself, to me, a contradiction, almost an oxymoron. Art is, the way I see it, the complete and total opposite of narrow. It represents a widening of perspectives, an opening of possibilities, an exploration of reality and beyond. Shrinking its scope or trying to define it in a restrictive sense just seems counterproductive to me.

2. Art as an object.

Second, there are those who cannot approach art in an abstract sense, but who treat it as an object or a commodity. This strikes me as a rather bourgeois classification of art, as if art is merely something meant to hang on the living room wall and match the furniture. Art is not a product, it is ultimately a thought process. You often hear the argument that “my kid could have made that”, as if this somehow invalidates art. Whether a kid could have made something that shares physical properties with art does not relate to the concept of art. Art is not an ISO standard that can be quantified and measured in terms of quality of detail – that discipline is called craftsmanship. Case in point: Jackson Pollock. The groundbreaking aspects of Pollock’s artistry have very little to do with aesthetics, or assessing his skills as a painter. Instead, they are related to his almost scientific exploration of the physical properties of paint; how the material itself can be expressive and resonate with the eye and mind of the viewer, thus turning the concept of art, and the perception of the artist, upside down. Pollock’s work can in fact be seen as a criticism of the conventional concept of art.

3. Art as beauty.

Third, many people equate art with beauty, something I profoundly disagree with. The concept or beauty carries with it certain normative aspects – every age has beauty standards that are an expression of cultural preferences and norms, and thus, the idea of beauty can be discussed in an objective light, entirely without being muddled by personal preferences. This has virtually nothing to do with art – I believe art occupies a higher stratosphere than that.

Even accepting a very broad definition of beauty, I find this to be a much too restrictive description of art. I also believe it trivializes art, and strips it of meaning. If art is only meant to capture beauty, and if the perception of beauty, as it is frequently said, is individual, then it follows that art would only hold meaning for us as individuals. Hence, art could not carry significance to us as a society, which is a conclusion I just have to fundamentally reject. To me, art is the advancement of all things cerebral, spiritual and visual, and it benefits us as a species by widening our horizons and pushing the boundaries of our perception.

A few examples: the artistic discipline of sculpture enhanced our appreciation for the human form. The discovery of perspective refined our spatial senses. Impressionism captured the zeitgeist of an era in a way that still helps us understand it. Cubism and constructivism helped us process and humanize industrialism, something that was absolutely necessary to our mental health.

4. Architecture as art.

Fourth, perhaps mirroring the perception of art as linked to physical objects, discussions of art and beauty often slide into discussions about architecture, which I find misleading. To me, the architect has always first and foremost been a steward of the practical and functional aspects of everyday life, of laying the foundation for increased quality of life. The perspective of the architect as an artist is a romantic echo from the days when either the nobility or the church acted as patrons-of-the-arts, to further their own interests. This was a detour, even if a lengthy one. It had very little to do with the practical implications of daily life for people in general.

5. Beauty in architecture.

Fifth, those who object to modern building styles often see them as the end of beauty in architecture. There’s this notion that organic lines and irregular shapes are inherently more artistic, and that mathematics are somehow taking the art out of architecture. But who’s to say straight lines can’t be art? To argue the contrary frankly just seems a bit silly. In fact, who’s to say mathematics can’t be art? The people of antiquity explored this possibility at length, the golden ratio being but one expression of this; an observation and appreciation of the mathematical correlations to the proportions of the human body. Also straddling the border between art and mathematics, we find for instance scientists like Fibonacci and the mathematic principles of fractals, the implications of which resonate with the natural beauty found everywhere on the planet, allowing beauty to be viewed through the prism of mathematics, elevating both principles to something actually resembling art.

Because norms change, and the concept of beauty changes with the times, it can be said that we as a society are actually engaged in a whitewashing of things we consider ugly, even though those very things may have once been considered expressions of beauty. This is especially true of America, where architecture today is a slave to business interests, and buildings are razed because they’re worth more to investors if they are rebuilt in a style more consistent with popular preferences. This is leading architecture down a path of silly pastichery, completely unmooring architecture from its progressive role in channeling and shaping modern lives.

Modern architects like Frank Lloyd Wright or Ludwig Mies Van Der Rohe did not end beauty in architecture, but contributed to translating previously romanticized aspects of architecture into something more attuned to modern lives in an industrial age. Frank Lloyd Wright was most definitely a herald of change, and I happen to think it was mostly a change for the better. I don’t find anything worth romanticising in the living standards of the 1800s.

6. Art as divine inspiration.

Sixth, even among art aficionados, there is sometimes a notion that art needs to be aspirational, somehow reaching for the stars, imbued with a divine presence. This type of audience often rejects art that is perceived as ugly or disparaging, but I must confess I find it hard to relate to. Art reflects human nature, meaning, art can help us understand ourselves and our limitations, warts and all.

Rejecting art on the grounds that it is ugly fundamentally reflects whether you want to see art through rose-tinted lenses, or whether you want art to be true.

Coincidentally, the same holds true for theism and religion.

7. Modern art is meaningless.

Lastly, people who have a romanticized perception of art often end up rejecting modern art, expressing an opinion that art has gotten unmoored from its purpose, as if art has somehow failed, or is somehow “broken”. Personally, I find that art is nothing on its own accord. Art is a reflection of humanity. If art is indeed “broken”, it is simply because humanity is broken. If art can help highlight and diagnose what is broken, I think it is ultimately a good thing.

That, to me, is the promise of art.

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