“What dazzles, for the moment spends its spirit; What’s genuine, shall posterity inherit.”
-Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, ‘Faust’
Recently, web designer Brian Holdsworth made a video response and reflection on the coming rebuilding of the portions of Notre Dame Cathedral destroyed in the recent fire. This video, Notre Dame vs. Modern Architects, dives deep into theories of architectural beauty. The major point Holdsworth makes is that there is a major distinction between that which is timeless and mere architectural ‘fashions.’ He points to the lack of interest among the people of Alberta in maintaining a local art museum, a ‘state-of-the-art’ style from a few decades ago. This structure was replaced by a contemporary ‘state-of-the-art’ building. In contrast, a century-old government building (Neo-Classical in style) is maintained without calls for constant rebuilding. Too much of what passes for architecture these days is mere fashion rather than timeless beauty. Modern architects are too much like Hollywood celebrities trying to build their egos with the bizarre, the unusual, and the ultra-modern (whatever that means). Great emphasis is placed on breaking ‘rules,’ perceived innovations, newness, and the construction of techno-narcissistic glass boxes. Architects like Le Corbusier and I.M. Pei have populated the landscape with junk. In contrast, architects of the Classical, Renaissance and Neo-Classical periods build on previous innovations and considered the role of beauty in their work as well as the surrounding public and private spaces. Great cathedrals like Notre Dame took centuries to build. Köln Cathedral, for example was built between 1248–1473 and 1841–1880. Completion of this Roman Catholic Cathedral was even celebrated by the Protestant German Kaiser Wilhelm I. The value of art transcends the particulars of religious or ideological creeds. With many a landscape now populated by aesthetically-bankrupt designs, there is a serious need for a re-emphasis on beauty and wisdom of traditional architectural styles. Postmodernism, in all its forms, has run out of steam.
Ancient Greeks associated beauty with proportion. Romans built on the legacy of the Greek with temples such as the Pantheon in Rome (perhaps the best-preserved building from the ancient world). Modern aesthetic theory, however, began in what is now Germany in the eighteenth century. In the midst of the Enlightenment, the philosopher Alexander Gottlieb Baumgarten published a landmark text called Aesthetica (1750). Baumgarten coined, or rather, appropriated the word ‘aesthetics’ to refer to a sense of beauty or taste. Peter Watson notes this development in his book German Genius (2010).
“The “science” of the relationship between experience and creation was called “aesthetics,” a word coined by Alexander Baumgarten in 1739. The link between aesthetics and history was that both disciplines , for the Aufklärer [‘Enlighteners’], “assumed the possibility of a leap on to a higher plane of understanding…Perfectability, genius and the phenomenology of the spirit were the main elements in formulating a more comprehensive theory of historical development”…Baumgarten conceived the view that the senses must be capable of perfection, just as reason was. But he did not think that this perfection corresponded to the way mathematics was perfectible. A picture or a poem was for Baumgarten “a sensuous representation of an image of perfection.” Perfection could be achieved through the act of creation — the perfection of a work of art lying in its unique ability “to weld diverse impressions and confused apperceptions into an individual whole that conjured up a pure image.”” -Peter Watson, ‘German Genius, p.74.
Baumgarten’s theory of aesthetics as a kind of ‘science of sense experience’ was a clear product of the Enlightenment. The ‘leap to a higher plane of understanding is there’ (albeit rather limited in terms of resolution) but this theory, as articulated by Baumgarten, lacks the rigors of a Jungian psychological analysis or the comprehensiveness found in later texts on the subject. Despite these drawbacks, Aesthetica served as a powerful beginning to one of the most important areas of philosophy.
Philosophy itself is divided into several branches: moral philosophy, epistemology (theories of knowledge and knowing), logic (procedures for arguing which lead toward a particular conclusion based on certain premises), metaphysics (determining what is ‘real’) and aesthetics. I would argue that, to a great extent, aesthetics undergirds all of these other branches. The ability for humans to create and appreciate works of art far precedes complex abstract reasoning skills present in the vast tomes of philosophic texts from Plato to Chomsky. Art goes to parts of the human psyche must deeper.
Peter Watson wrote of the views of one of Baumgarten’s contemporaries — Johann Jakob Bodmer — on the artist as a wise creator. The notions of ‘wise’ and ‘creator’ are significant for the two aspects which make a great artist, namely that he is both a craftsman (a man of experience who can employ seasoned judgment, drawing on tradition) and creative individual (someone who can employ creative exploration to his craft to produce timeless masterpieces).
“For Bodmer, the artist became a Promethean figure, a “wise creator,” whose vision “forces his contemporaries to think and act in a new mould,” someone who epitomizes his own times while attempting to change and improve them. Bodmer also introduced a teleological element: each creation of genius results in an expansion of consciousness, opening the path to the apprehension of a better — more perfect — world, enabling us to transcend the present.” -Peter Watson, ‘German Genius’ p.74.
Aesthetic theory reached its apex in the German lands with the Romantic poet Johann Christoph Friedrich von Schiller (1759–1805). Schiller was a poet, philosopher, playwright, and friend of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. Among his most important philosophical contributions was his On the Aesthetic Education of Man. He argued for the importance of aesthetics for a person’s moral development.
“When we develop our aesthetic capacities, we develop our moral capacities, so much so that aesthetic education renders moral education superfluous.” -Friedrich von Schiller
The many schools of modern architecture and the celebrity architects they turn out (like Norman Foster) are mere barnacles which have affixed themselves on the venerable history of architecture. They offer ‘originality’ with little to no skill, little to no awareness of the intricacies of the masterpieces crafted by their illustrious predecessors, and often lack the craft skills necessary for the architect in previous centuries. Architects from Michelangelo to Karl Friedrich Schinkel were humble enough to work within successful architectural traditions (though they made modest improvements). The point there is that they made an existing style their own without turning it into a purely ideological brand (such as being ahistorical or anti-traditional).
The branch of philosophy known as aesthetics was historically grounded in craft, exploration, and ideal. What distinguishes the philosopher (lover of wisdom) from, say, the sophist (a person associated with the practices of superficiality practiced by rhetorical teachers in ancient Greece) is an emphasis on associating with what one does not know. The sophist employs trickery to get what he wants, he is more likely to associate with what he already knows than expanding his own horizons. The genuine philosopher pursues expanding his domain of competence. A solid theory of aesthetics must incorporate this exploratory element. Such exploration can be seen in the works of Leonardo da Vinci (1452–1519). Consider his Mona Lisa. He was doing far more than painting a picture of a merchant’s wife. He was exploring shadow, geology, facial features, and even hairstyle (most women of the time would not have had their portrait painted with their hair down like that). Leonardo did not, however, throw out the rule book. He worked within a tradition and expanded its boundaries in several notable ways.
Modern artists need to develop the capacity to look beyond mere fashions of the present time and engage with timeless examples of beauty from centuries previous. The Cathedral of Notre Dame stands as an example of beauty built by a countless number of hands over the course of centuries. It stood the test of time and will continue to do so. The same cannot be said for the aesthetically bankrupt structures of I.M. Pei or the Brutalist monstrosities present on so many college campuses.
“The artists are the people who first articulate the unknown.” -Jordan Peterson
In recent years, psychologist Jordan Peterson has spoken a great deal about art and the role of the artist in society. His perspective is one based in a solid understanding of the Big Five personality traits and the interplay of order and chaos. Some of his remarks on art seem to derive from the same line of thinking going back to Baumgarten and Bodmer in the eighteenth century. There is no evidence that he has consulted either of these thinkers. While he may have received knowledge of their ideas second hand, it is more likely that they all are pointing toward important development in art which reflect on deep aspects of the human condition.