Pub: Sydney Morning Herald
The ugly truth
Elizabeth Farrelly. Elizabeth Farrelly is an urban consultant and writer.
Trashed by art, the b-word is still expected of architecture, even if the profession doesn’t always deliver. Elizabeth Farrelly considers the beauty thing and why it matters
Whatever happened to beauty? Sure, the word is gauche. But don’t we still seek the quality itself? Maybe not, if the standard fare of your local gallery/catwalk/CBD is anything like mine. Paintings unsullied by technique of any kind, models striving grimly for the gutter-junkie look, buildings so blatantly budget-driven you feel ashamed to be near. In Woolloomooloo last month, a 55-year-old man exhibited 15 days’ worth of cumulative urinary produce. Call it performance art.
But then, one chances on a John Olsen drawing of frogs in a pond, brimming with delight. Or a glowing Renoir portrait. Or Gunther von Hagens’s Korperwelten exhibition in Berlin, currently drawing 1,000 people a day to gasp at a room full of real, dissected, “plastinated” bodies organs, sliced sections, even a whole vaulting horse and rider letting it all hang out. Not beautiful in itself, perhaps, but a profound homage to beauty.
So what about it, the beauty thing?
Beauty, which over the centuries has inspired quite as much piracy, perjury and murder as hosanna in paint or plainsong, is no longer of the essence in art. As Tom Stoppard’s Tristan Tzara noted in Travesties, “doing the things by which is meant art is no longer considered the proper concern of the artist. In fact it is frowned upon. These days a man may be an artist by exhibiting his hindquarters.”
Compare this with the more traditional view, as voiced for instance by the Abbe Batteux in 1746, defining the fine arts as “choosing among the most beautiful parts of nature, to make of them a beautiful whole, which is more perfect than nature herself, without, however, ceasing to be natural”.
More recently, in 1869, Matthew Arnold could confidently write that “culture indefatigably tries, not to make what each raw person may like but to draw ever nearer to a sense of what is indeed beautiful and to get the raw person to like that”.
These days, by contrast, the raw person is pretty much running the show. In the fine arts especially, as the philosopher Paul Ziff has pointed out, “not being beautiful needn’t matter”. You can pee in a bucket and be written up portentously by the critics.
In fact, not being beautiful is a positive advantage in the world of “serious” contemporary art, the main function of which is to amuse or shock. There, the slightest glance towards the b-word is enough to have an artist damned as merely decorative and sent off to Hockney-land. Genuine skill of the Michelangelo/Rembrandt/ Velasquez decades-of-practice kind is virtually unheard of and, on the whole, unacceptable. Skill suggests craft, dull and forthright. Beauty, in short, is out.
Ugliness, however, is actively sought. Not just in the fringe galleries of Newtown and Chippendale, either. As Richard Alston noted proudly in unveiling the National Gallery’s new $7.4million After Cezanne, Lucian Freud’s forte is “maximising ugliness”. Well, naturally.
This remarkable volte face is hardly new Stoppard’s Tzara is lampooning Dada, getting on for 100 years old already, and followed by abstraction, pop art and postmodernism. But there’s still a sizable chunk of the fine-art audience dazedly wondering how it happened.
Historically, it was the philosopher’s role to question, needle and shock. They were the ones to be excoriated, excommunicated, burnt at the stake. Over the past century, however, art has arrogated the shock-spot although whether an essentially visual medium is capable of adequate subversion is a moot point. And then there’s the interpretation problem.
It’s 47 years since Monroe Beardsley and W.K. Wimsatt identified the so-called “intentional fallacy”, which pointed out the error of assuming that the author’s stated intention was the right or only guide to understanding a work of art. And 14 years since Susan Sontag’s polemic Against Interpretation, pleading for a return to the immediacy of art-in-itself, to “the sensuous surface of art without mucking about in it”.
Nevertheless, works that defy response of any intelligent kind without pre-digestion of a hefty narrative side-text-cum-instruction-sheet are still commonplace. Even in Newtown. Even in Chippendale.
Thing is, though, if art is now goddammit, still? focused on provocation, however obscure, who’s doing the beauty thing?
Well, architecture, for one. Beauty, trashed by art, is still expected of architecture. Not that one finds it delivered with the daily paper, exactly. And not that the word itself is common ar(chi)got, either. But, twist and turn as one might like a fish on a string, there’s no way round the fact that beauty albeit euphemised and trivialised into “good design” is alive and preening as an expected part of the architectural package. Indeed, it’s about the only territory that architecture hasn’t relinquished already to other, more predatory professions.
So what is this beauty thing, and why does it matter? Standard common-or-garden positivism, after all, would have us see humans as material creatures, impelled by animal needs and little else. And yet, sane people pay squillions for a picture of a few irises, and travel around the globe to experience Kings’ College chapel or Mies van der Rohe’s Barcelona Pavilion. Why?
As the 18th-century philosopher David Hume one of the last to be excoriated pointed out, “beauty in things exists in the mind which contemplates them”. Most of us now believe that beauty is a perceptual thing and therefore incapable of either definition or consensus. Often this recognition leads people simply to shrug and back off. “Well, that’s all subjective.” End of story. In many ways, though, the surprising thing is the degree to which consensus does exist, regarding paintings, screen idols or glamour autos. Otherwise those irises would be worthless.
One thing is clear, though. Beauty hasn’t always been skin deep. This is a comparatively modern reduction: ancient thinkers enjoyed a more holistic, and wholesome, understanding. Neither Plato nor Aristotle distinguished between visual and moral beauty. Plato, interested above all in (male) human exponents, saw beauty as one of the eternal forms, of which things-in-this-world were mere copies, while Aristotle used the term arete, or excellence, to combine virtue, education, accomplishment, prowess and looks into a single concept.
With the Renaissance and the Reformation came the seeds of modernism; a growing desire to distinguish between the apparent and the “real” splitting physical from moral virtue and the development of a Calvinist contra-tendency to see physical gorgeousness as proof of inner corruption.
Modernism tirelessly elaborated the distinction between form and content, making much of the notion that truth and virtue were inner qualities only obscured by decoration, which was therefore essentially dishonest. Sigmund Freud and psychoanalysis gave impetus to the idea that “truth” was some kind of buried treasure, needing exposure. And if beauty was truth, it must therefore lie not in embellishing or perfecting nature, but in stripping away until only essences remained. Thus, suddenly, there was painting without figuration, literature without metaphor, music without melody, architecture without detail.
To some, abstraction felt invigorating, cleansing, uplifting; cathartic even. To others, including many of the arts’ most devoted admirers, the new ethos merely deleted all that was comforting in art and, in thus excising cartilage from joint, left only grinding pain.
The huge uproar that had surrounded Manet’s Olympia in 1863 to the point where armed guards had to be stationed outside the exhibition related not to any lack of beauty, far from it, but to the muse’s professional status as a courtesan, and her casual, confronting nakedness. Form, as it were, without content at least without the right content. Cezanne, as D.H. Lawrence pointed out in 1929, had deliberately, bitterly unlearned beautiful drawing in order to smash cliche, the better to reveal truth. And he was reviled for his pains.
A century later, though, Picasso would greatly admire Degas’s “pig-faced whores”, and develop, with Braque, his armpit test for real painting. “Is this woman real?” Picasso demanded of Braque-as-critic. “Could she go out into the street? Is she a woman or a picture? Do her armpits smell?”
The desire for truth-through-ugliness wasn’t entirely new, of course. Roman art, for instance, had had its own wart-faced period as the empire declined. But the moderns’ pursuit was new in both its vigour, and its enduring nature. For the Romans, as much as the moderns, this was in part a search for the specific. Beauty is generic: ugliness individuates. As the classicist Johann Winckelmann noted in 1764, “another attribute of lofty beauty [is] the absence of individuality”.
So there can be no surprise that ugliness came on the heels of capitalist democracy. Ironic, though, that modernism, universalising in virtually every other respect, should so stubbornly seek individuation in this.
Truth-ugliness did not leave architecture unscathed. In some, such as the romantic Le Corbusier, the excavation of truth emerged as primitivist fundamentalism, in which everything from geometry to scale is justified by appeal to everyman, equipped with a full set of the creative first-principles to which latter-day humans had been blinded by generations of acquired prejudice. Adolf Loos, on the other hand, ranted against ornament precisely because he saw it as primitive, and designed the grimmest house on record for the luckless Tristan Tzara, of all people. (History does not record whether Tzara lived there for a respectable period).
Bauhaus founder Walter Gropius, after an early foray into log-cabinism with the Sommerfeld House (Berlin, 1921), repudiated craft-primitivism for a different form of ugly. Gropius argued that “the architect has overvalued his usefulness; the engineer, on the contrary, untrammelled by aesthetic and historical prejudice, has arrived at clear, organic forms.”
Writers such as Geoffrey Scott, who wanted to learn from tradition, exploring Ruskin’s belief that true ornament (such as gothic) revealed and articulated structural “truth”, rather than obscuring it, were rejected out of hand. For 40 years, engineering ruled.
The rest of the story is broadly familiar. By the 1960s art had become so abstract and self-serving that, as the critic Harold Rosenberg put it, “instead of being an act of rebellion, art is being normalised as a professional activity within society”. Pop art, especially as personified by Warhol, became both the apotheosis of this view and its solution: shocking by refusing to shock; using mass repetition to generate a reputation for originality; consciously contriving, in Robert Hughes’s words, “to turn the art world into art business” and being exalted for it. Satirising the very cow one milks. Nice work.
Plus, it looked good. Pop art had a profound effect on the beauty thing. Pop art made it OK, even among intellectuals, to be vacant, popular and venal as long as you looked good. Subversion had nowhere to go. In architecture, in an atmosphere flavoured by Ed Ruscha (glorifying gas stations and Los Angeles strip development); Reyner Banham (billboards, concrete silos, car culture) and Robert “architecture is shelter with decoration” Venturi, Charles Jencks, Philip Johnson, Robert Stern, Charles Moore and Frank Gehry, inter alia, cut their variegated postmodern teeth.
Beauty, by now, was skin deep at best. Gehry, current architecture’s most luminous star, made a name in the ’70s manipulating ordinary elements in strange and extraordinary ways, and a global career in the ’90s turning architecture into sculpture, demonstrating that form without content moral, narrative or spatial is not only possible but downright successful.
This is well understood and fully exploited, of course, by the advertising industry, which has now familiarised us so deeply with pseudo-fiction and pseudo-art films that a standard sumptuous-fatuous movie like Moulin Rouge comes across as little more than an extended hair-colour ad.
At a political level, the beauty thing is not at all well understood. Not that that ever stopped a pollie. At all levels of government, now from Paul Keating, Bob Carr and Frank Sartor we have seen fervent anti-ugly campaigns. Interestingly, the breadth and abstraction of their approach has varied in inverse proportion to their distance from the target.
Keating, with the least direct power over architecture, intervened minutely in particular proposals Parliament House, East Circular Quay and the Finger Wharf at Woolloomooloo. Carr, as Planning and then Arts Minister, as well as Premier, has made particular mistakes (including an early, towering consent on East Circular Quay) but latterly contented himself with some editorial huff about ugly apartment buildings in Maroubra, followed by an expensive but ponderous and essentially toothless committee report.
This document, Achieving Better Design: Residential Flat Developments in NSW (July 2000), laboured under the misapprehension that if only architects had more control dominating the expert panels and designing all buildings everything would be all right. Unfortunately the evidence isn’t with them. Just about every really loathed building you can think of as opposed to the merely tawdry was architect-designed. Most of them got awards.
And you’re right, there is a teensy little problem with the competition people.
The Lord Mayor, undaunted by years of hammering at the pitiless coal face of development control, seems to share the opinion that beauty is something for which you can legislate. The new “Design Excellence” chapter in the City Plan requires design competitions for every major building proposal in the city. It’s a system not unlike San Francisco’s famous “beauty contest”, which doles out scarce development rights only to the most favoured proposals maybe one or two a year. Without such restrictions, though, and in a speculative, instant-gratification culture such as Sydney’s, competitions are likely to produce superficial results at best.
Good architecture, contrary to what many would like to believe, requires both time and money. It needs time for thinking, arguing, cajoling, testing, teasing out; and money for material, space, light. The Medicis knew this. As did Francois Mitterrand, who spent years getting the grands projets up in Paris. The Property Council’s recent essay in altruism, “The Design Dividend”, attempted to prove that while design may cost, it also pays. It worked for the Medicis, but anything with a time frame over three months is hard to get up in Sydney.
Good architecture relates external expression to internal spatial quality. It interprets the brief in an intelligent, insightful, even inspirational way. It solves with easy elegance problems the client hadn’t even anticipated. It uses detail to articulate inner integrities. Alberti was right. Beauty in architecture “is that reasoned harmony so that nothing may be added, taken away or altered, but for the worse … some inherent property, to be found suffused all through the body of that which may be called beautiful”.
Because of all this, good architecture doesn’t just fall off the back of an envelope. It costs. And a four-week quickie competition, which is all most developers can bring themselves to tolerate, just isn’t going to do it for you. Nor all the expert panels in the world. Shame really, but there it is.
Above all, good architecture requires good architects, and these are made, not born. We just don’t make them any more. Not as a rule, anyway. Robert Hughes morosely predicted, on scrutinising Holbein in 1983, “nobody will ever draw the human face as well as this again. The tradition is cut. The bow unstrung.” The same, regrettably, holds for architecture. Technique is simply not taught. It’s not taught because the teachers themselves were not taught.
And the cultural nourishment has gone, too. As the critic Hilton Kramer lamented in 1993: “The truth is that a total immersion in popular culture, which itself is far more degraded in its values than it was even a couple of generations ago, unfits the mind for the comprehension of high art.”
Despite all this cultural amnesia, though, we still have a hankering to see more in beauty than the merely visual. As The Spectator’s unregenerate High Life columnist, Taki, remarked recently, “Charlie [Glass] has the terrible habit, which he got from me, of seeing carnal beauty as physical evidence of spiritual beauty.” (Glass, somewhat implausibly, was famous for appearing at London’s Bafta awards with both Goldie Hawn and her daughter, Kate Hudson.)
I believe the same is true in architecture. That the compulsive seductive power of a certain image or spatial sequence derives less from the visual itself than from the idea it conveys about possible lives to be lived therein. That is, we respond to the beauty of architectural form with a subliminal expectation as to its spatial, and even moral, content. Again, advertising knows this. Film-makers, too remember Bunuel’s Obscure Object? And estate agents.
It is from this moral content that beauty derives its therapeutic value, salving the fractious soul. Coleridge’s ancient mariner is redeemed only when, responding involuntarily to the oily splendour of the water snakes, “I bless’d them unawares.”
So maybe it’s time for art, including architecture, to reinvent itself. For a long time, it’s been the duty of science to reassure, and art’s duty to shock. But now that there’s scarcely a suggestion, conjunction or bodily fluid that still has the power to shock; now that all the really scary stuff cloning, artificial intelligence, genetically modified foods has moved to genetic science; maybe now is the time for art to take another look at what it does best, namely, the beauty thing.
ILLUS: Illustration: Amanda Upton