The True and the Beautiful

Claire Berlinski is trying to understand the collapse of architectural standards in Paris after the Second World War. (H/t: Instapundit.)

I need to make the case that my judgments about this aren’t arbitrary. I’m saying something more objective about beauty than, “I like building A but I don’t like building B.” So I need to start with a robust theory of aesthetics. Here’s what I need it to do:

It needs to be able to tell us, in some detail, why Building A is more beautiful than Building B. These principles should be broadly applicable to all buildings.

It would be useful to show that these principles may broadly be applied to the idea of “beauty,” generally.

I’d like to explore the idea that it’s at least reasonable to associate “the beautiful” and “the morally good.”

This point must be based on evidence, the nature of which must be defined. So, for example, I want to look at the criminogenic quality of ugly buildings, and the way people tend to get sick and die sooner when they live in and among them.
I've never been to Paris, so I can't speak with much authority on the beauty of the buildings there. However, I can tell her why the beautiful and the good used to be thought connected. Here is an old post:
Htom asked for a break to put his thoughts in order before we reconvened on the subject of levels of reality -- that is, whether a thing can be "more real" than another. Here's St. Augustine on the subject:
Look around; there are the heaven and the earth. They cry aloud that they were made, for they change and vary. Whatever there is that has not been made, and yet has being, has nothing in it that was not there before. This having something not already existent is what it means to be changed and varied. Heaven and earth thus speak plainly that they did not make themselves: "We are, because we have been made; we did not exist before we came to be so that we could have made ourselves!" And the voice with which they speak is simply their visible presence. It was thou, O Lord, who madest these things. Thou art beautiful; thus they are beautiful. Thou art good, thus they are good. Thou art; thus they are. But they are not as beautiful, nor as good, nor as truly real as thou their Creator art. Compared with thee, they are neither beautiful nor good, nor do they even exist. These things we know, thanks be to thee. Yet our knowledge is ignorance when it is compared with thy knowledge.
That gives us two 'levels' of reality: God, and creation. The original claim of Mark Twain's suggested that a human creation could -- if it were also true and beautiful -- be "more real" than other things that were part of God's creation.

Confer with Tolkien's idea of sub-creation, and his creation myth in the Silmarillion. Human nature has a capacity to seize upon the True and the Beautiful as they are in other things. We can separate them intellectually from the things they are in, and think about why they are beautiful. We can take things that are imperfectly beautiful, and imagine how to make them more so. We can, in our arts, make them actually more beautiful.
The Twain discussion tracks to this earlier post, and this one. Twain's subject was Wagner's opera, which he criticized intensely -- but his admission undoes all the criticism.

If you can make art that is more real than nature, then you are refining something found in the natural world. That is what Aristotle suggests art exists to do: to perfect the natures of things. You start with the good in the world, and perfect it. Nature might provide shelter in a cave. Men taking shelter in such caves made them places for worship by decorating their walls with other beautiful scenes found in nature. Such a cave begins to be improved by being made more perfect, and thus -- this was Twain's insight -- more real.

A cathedral is just an artificial cave, in a way. Notre Dame is more real because it is more beautiful. It is more beautiful because it more perfectly realizes the goods that it was brought into being to serve.


Anonymous said...

My theory is that it is hard to end up with something beautiful, if beauty was not part of the original objective.

In the hands of a capable maker, the most mundane of objects can become beautiful. I have a set of table ware that I bought because I needed forks and knives and spoons, but I selected that set on impulse one day, because their design was graceful, harmonious, and satisfying.

The same is true of buildings, or any other object found in the useful arts. However, some artists and designers do not choose beauty as an objective. They produce ugly art on purpose. They make a lot of noise about the artist determining what is art, and they fool those with sophisticated tastes into buying their drek, but the native and unschooled eye still notices that the object is -- ugly.

What I noticed about the visual arts in general is that a lot of people, some of them very famous, have diligently applied their training to produce works that are offensive to the eye. This is what is being taught in our colleges, these days. Our artists are being taught disrespect for all classical values. Because beauty is a classical value, they disrespect it, along with such other quaint notions as harmony and proportion.

Ms. Berlinsky may want to associate beauty with moral good in architecture, although I can find no reason to make the association. I do think that the rejection of the good goes hand-in-hand with the philosophy of rejecting classical values, generally.


douglas said...

Certainly Valerie and Instapundit are both right that Modernism and it's attendant discarding of the rules of architecture that preceded it en masse are largely responsible for the swell in ugliness in architecture since WWII. Those rules had been worked out over millennia, and if we discard them largely, and the academy has done just that- I hardly received any training in working through classical rules of proportion and scale- then it will take a considerable time to recover the ability to produce beautiful things, with exceptions arising from the tenacious ability of such socially embedded rules to persist in the background, and appear despite the prevailing fashions of the time. Instapundit mentions early (Villas) vs. late (Unite d' Habitation) Corbusier, and it can be said that at least Corb had full training in the classical ideas of proportion, and in fact wrote quite a bit about working with proportion, so his works do have a sense of that aspect of beauty in them, however much they fall away from the traditional ideas of beauty in other ways. He sometimes surpassed the limits of his own philosophy because of his classical education as an architect.

In some ways I think architecture is crawling back to ideas of beauty after being lost in the wilderness for quite a while, but it's at what is in some ways an incredibly basic level of re-understanding the proportions and structures of nature and merely appropriating them because modern computing power allows us to mimic them effectively, but it still misses the larger questions that man developed in architecture later when we addressed ideals and not just a mimicry of natural order, as we did especially in Classical or Gothic architecture.

That is also where we had considered and integrated the ideas of an ethical architecture, one that sought the universal truth, the beauty that went beyond nature. When modernism tore that away, one of the unavoidable side effects was at some point people were developing architecture that had little to no consideration of the inhabitants of the building- an ethical lapse of the first order- for example, the work of Deconstructivist Peter Eisenman. Actually, he was worse, he intentionally created spaces that were nearly uninhabitable:
"It was frequently repeated that the Wexner's colliding planes tended to make its users disoriented to the point of physical nausea; in 1997 researcher Michael Pollan tracked the source of this rumor back to Eisenman himself. In the words of Andrew Ballantyne, "By some scale of values he was actually enhancing the reputation of his building by letting it be known that it was hostile to humanity."
Pretty much speaks for itself.


douglas said...

So what of beauty and an ethical architecture? Well, I think if it's possible to create an architecture designed to be hostile to humanity, which one would have to deem unethical, then it's surely possible to design ethical architecture. It seems to me that nature is the starting point for what constitutes beauty in form and function and the marrying of the two, as it's functionally proven over a longer time frame than we can appreciate, and the creator of it can only be regarded as far superior to us. But mimicry of natural forms and systems is not enough. If we are "created in the image of God" then we are also capable of creating in ways that the rest of his creation is not, in ways similar, however far removed, to his own. We can consider ideal forms and ways of working, we can consider the effects of something on those other things and creatures around it, and we can consider the effect over time on our creations. The photo of the Montparnasse Tower in the Berlinski article is an interesting one. It looks photoshopped, as the tower violates everything Paris is about- it projects up out of the uniform 5-6 story urban fabric, is of modern glass and steel in a stone city, is grand of scale relative to it's surroundings, but has no sense of grandeur or symbolic purpose that falls on something that can be seen by so many from so far away. The photo looks photoshopped the building is so out of place. Arche la Defense, while large and modern, at least makes reference to other symbols in the city- most obviously the Arc d'Triomphe, and is oriented to refer to the pre-existing civic axes that orient the major public spaces. I'm really quite stunned that the Montparnasse tower was allowed to be built.

Now, about Paris, one of the things that is quite beautiful are the squares, parks, and grand Boulevards as transit corridors and public spaces, but interestingly, these were cut by force through the city, by Hausmann. The problem was the narrow spaces and streets of the old city were claimed to contribute to the disease, crime and unrest and so clearing squares, parks and boulevards was supposedly ethical in creating a more livable city, but also, he wanted to make it easier to move troops around the city and make it harder to barricade streets because unrest had become so problematic, and so the wide boulevards (and they are very, very wide). So, ethical? Depends on your perspective perhaps. I think there are a great many instances of works of architecture that were created under tyrannical regimes that could be considered beautiful if not for the patron being served, so can something be unethical and beautiful at the same time?

Certainly, just the consideration of the question needs to occur in the architectural world, as right now, it really doesn't but on the fringes. Certainly, it's not being discussed in the academy in any meaningful way.

Grim said...

Ms. Berlinsky may want to associate beauty with moral good in architecture, although I can find no reason to make the association.

The association comes from Aquinas' deduction that goodness and being are the same. Perfection is thus both 'to be made as good as possible' and 'to be brought into being in the greatest possible degree.' That's just two ways of saying the same thing, Aquinas tells us.

We talk about this in terms of potential and actual, but that's also just another way of talking about levels of being. A potential is less fully real than an actual. So when we say that an architect has fully realized the potential in his design for this cathedral -- well, it's right there in the words. It is fully realized. It is fully real.

Would the cathedral be perfect without being beautiful? If not, then it is not fully realized unless it is beautiful. It is less real, as a cathedral. It is also less good.

Since Aquinas is talking about the good simpliciter, this applies to moral good as well as the good in general.

Eric Blair said...

We've had this discussion before. It goes back to WWI, when Europe for all practical purposes, committed suicide.

Everything since then flows from that discrediting of all the cultural assumptions.

james said...

If "form follows function" perhaps one problem is that some functions are left out of the planning. A hydroelectric dam can be vast and inhuman; who cares? But humans are supposed to inhabit rooms and halls and see and be seen through windows. If these things aren't scaled to human comfort, they miss part of their role.

People sometimes stand and talk in our hallway. I've been in hotel or apartment hallways where, even apart from worry about noise, I just wasn't comfortable doing that. Something--I'm not trained enough to know what--wasn't right about the size and ambiance and sound. They were meant to funnel the hapless to their cells.

I've been in living rooms that seemed designed to host large parties of people standing about, but in which I couldn't imagine a way to fit 2 or 3 comfortably. The layout was just wrong.

douglas said...

James, would not a dam which also was a pleasing place for those who work or visit, and visually appealing to those who chance to set eyes on it be a better, more fully realized, more perfect dam than one which cares not for those issues so long as it properly produces hydro power? Why should not the human element be considered for even a dam?

Tom said...

The connection between aesthetics and moral philosophy is a fascinating topic, but I've always had a problem understanding how one thing can be more real than another.

It seems to me that either something exists or it doesn't. The computer I'm typing this on is real; unicorns are not. I have difficulty conceptualizing the idea that God is more real than His creation: Both exist, so both are equally real.

More suitable for a purpose, more lasting, more impressive, more perfect, more beautiful ... All those things I can see on a spectrum, but "more real" I have difficulty with.

Grim said...

It's the difficulty that makes the concept worth attaining, I think. It's an insight into something beyond the ordinary.

Still, it's not hard to start with it. Let's say you want a house. How real is the house before you do anything to make it? Well, it's not impossible. So, it's more real than a square circle, whose reality is unsupported by the universe.

Now you buy some land, so you have a place for a house, and you buy the materials and have them brought to the land. At this point, the house is a little more real: now you have a potential for a house, not just a possibility. The potential is completely unrealized, of course, but it's a new level of reality.

Now you hire some workers, and begin building the house. You pour the foundation, and begin putting up the walls. You get a roof on, and get the structure to the point that it is 'dried in.' At this point it is still a potential house, but it's a much more realized potential. It's not finished, but you could use it for shelter -- i.e., for the function of the house. It's a much realer house than the boards and stones were lying on the ground. That, in turn, was realer than the mere idea of the house in your head.

Now you finish the house, so you have a house that is no longer potential but actual. This is a real house in just the sense you meant about your computer. It's more of a house than the dried-in structure you could have slept in.

So the first thing I'm asking you to consider is that a more perfectly-executed house is 'more real' in the same way that the final house is 'more real' than the dried-in structure. It's come to be more perfectly. It's a better house, but it's also more fully realized as a house.

The first thing to grasp about Aquinas' insight is that 'better' and 'more fully real(ized)' mean the same thing.

Grim said...

If you would like to see the consequences worked out in a literary way, you should read Gene Wolfe's Wizard Knight series. It's only two books -- The Knight and The Wizard. They're pretty amazing at times. I happened to find a copy of the first one in a tent in Iraq as I was waiting for a flight home after my last deployment there. It was the perfect book for that moment.

Tom said...

Your explanation makes sense, but I don't really agree that each step makes the house more real. At each stage, we can simply describe what is and that is what is real.

However, the first step you took is very interesting: A house is possible, but a square circle is not. Also, the connection with the word "realized" is interesting.

I'll have to think about this. Thanks for the explanation and the book recommendations. I'll check them out.