Sketches of Beauty, Shades of Remoteness
A little moth asked the other day, what makes something beautiful?
I wonder and doubt if I could ever give a fulfilling answer. As a topic it is almost too monumental to touch. Certainly to write about all at once. But maybe we can glance at it from time to time. So, a short visit.
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There seems to be a common mistake of confusing beauty with novelty. I think this arose because popular artists seem to have redirected—and confined(!!)—themselves to a few flourishes of novelty at the expense of other artistic expressions.
The enchantment of such works is passing. When some painted novelty gets old we can easily pretend it never existed and move on. We scarcely have to be embarrassed. But architecture has a more lasting influence, we all have to live with the results.
Some examples of this art as novelty, from the same architect:
If we are being charitable we could call these designs enterprising, neat, original, striking, etc. Perhaps even memorable, but only insomuch as they appear very odd.
Novelty is not bad, but it’s not beauty, and it’s usually clear in the intent of some works that beauty is not really the aim. Historically for art, that seems a little odd. Someone once said that the real product of modern art is not the thing itself, but what is said about it. In that sense, the artist here has won.
(Actually, did this architect win? Do you know his name?)
Anyway, I don’t think it’s very productive to document miserable buildings or write lamentations. I only want to make a few small points. If we know what fails to produce beauty, can that tell us anything about beauty? Fumbling around in the dark, can we find a secret from its shadow?
Maybe the beautiful benefits from the opposite of novelty: a kind of fitting-in. Beautiful things sometimes feel like they might have always been there. In fact when we see something exceptionally pretty, maybe a film or a dress, we might declare it a timeless classic. Novelty fades, beauty grows with age.
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Consider Fallingwater, Frank Lloyd Wright’s recognizable house. This is I think one of the most flattering images taken of it:
It half fits in. It wants to fit in. But I think it fails. If you get closer, you might feel the same:
There is a kind of parasitism with its environment. A one-way fitting in. The waterfall makes the house more beautiful, but the house does not make the waterfall more beautiful. The nature is not enhanced by the house, which is a series of observation decks. It feels a little bit more like a zoo than a home. There is an attempted distance, almost antiseptic, that leaves the house as an object gawking at the scenery instead of part of it.
To make something beautiful deep in nature, your work would have to build so that it dwells within that nature. Such buildings don’t need to mimic nature—the glow of windows from a house in the woods is a beautiful yet a wholly human invention—but one would reasonably expect such homes to at least draw their materials from the source. Any number of cottages and cabins achieve this, though they are not novel. They certainly don’t have monkey bars.
There’s a similar and hopefully obvious parasitism with our first architect: He is committing a parlor trick by sticking novelties on top of more beautiful settings. If the work looks interesting, it is by shocking contrast. It takes from the environment but does not give back.
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Let’s look for a positive vision of fitting-in. Consider Venice: It is actually full of very plain, sometimes even shabby buildings, but each is constructed with the others in mind. Each building tries to fit in, and in doing so every building adorns every other building.
The rows sing a harmony, and even if no particular building is very special, the result is quite beautiful. If someone attempted a novelty here, which is often what architects try to do now, it would damage the scene. The same is true for many streetscapes.
I am not suggesting that you cannot make something both beautiful and novel! Just that many artists now tend to aim solely at the novel, and this exclusion (laziness? lack of inspiration? pessimism?) tends to create art that is not particularly beautiful.
Any place can still accept unique buildings. The Basilica of Santa Maria della Salute on the grand canal is unlike any other sight in Venice yet it plays its part quite well. It was once novel, but it clearly did not rest on novelty. Its aim was to glorify and celebrate things beyond itself, and we know it succeeded.
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What makes something beautiful?
Fitting-in is probably too absolute to be part of the answer.
But I think it helps illustrate how beauty must involve a lot of sensitivity to context, which is partly why its so difficult to give a concise answer to the question. What is beautiful in one context may be grotesque in another. Fitting-in is just one shade of sensitivity to context. Perhaps this sensitivity is what we really should be focusing on.
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When the little moth asked this question, I thought along these lines because I was already thinking about how fame and acclaim often seem to hinder art. Or at least the artist. To my (admittedly cloudy) eyes, artistry seems to improve when there are fewer, or temporally longer, feedback loops. I suspect so many are caught up in the connectivity of their audience that they begin to miss out on some level of self-examination. I hope you understand that this thought need not be limited to artists!
This topic and some related ones are what I have actually been trying to write about, though I don’t seem to have the words yet. Some amount of culture and genius are not born out of cities and crowds, I believe, but instead the remotest places. Perhaps almost all of it. We often only notice it once it gets to the city.
There is an old tale, one told by Leonardo da Vinci. This time instead of myself I will let his own words relate it:
A stone of a good size, recently uncovered by rainwater, lay in an elevated spot where a pleasant grove above a stony road. Surrounded by herbs that were adorned by various flowers of different colors, the stone viewed the great number of stones lying in the road below it. It conceived a desire to roll down, and said to itself: “What am I doing here among these herbs? I want to live in the company of my fellow stones.”
So letting itself roll down, it finished its tumbling course among the companions it desired. But after a while it began to suffer distress under the wagon wheels, the hoofs of iron-shod horses, and the feet of travelers. Some of them turned it, and others trampled it. At times it raised itself up a little, all covered with mud or animal dung, and in vain looked back at the place it had left behind, a place of solitary and tranquil peace. This happens to those who leave the solitary and contemplative life and choose to live in cities among people full of countless evils.
We meet again later, in another part of the forest,
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The top sketch is a crop of Dancing Satyrs and Nymphs, paper and chalk, Andrea Sacchi, 1609 - 1661