Tuesday, January 05, 2010

The High Cost of Ignoring Beauty

Americans are used to building regulations that enforce utilitarian standards: insulation, smoke alarms, electrical safety, the size and situation of bathrooms, and so on. But they are not used to being told what aesthetic principles to follow, or what the neighborhood requires of materials and architectural details. I suspect that many Americans would regard such stipulations as a radical violation of property rights, and further evidence of the state’s illegitimate expansion.

This American attitude has something healthy about it, but it tends to go with two quite erroneous assumptions about beauty and the aesthetic. The first assumption is that beauty is an entirely subjective matter, about which there can be no reasoned argument and concerning which it is futile to search for a consensus. The second assumption, congenial to those who adopt the first, is that beauty doesn’t matter, that it is a value without economic reality, which cannot be allowed to place any independent constraint on the workings of the market.

The first assumption, that beauty is subjective, owes much of its appeal to the fact that it is functional in a democratic culture. By making this assumption you avoid giving offense to the one whose taste differs from yours. He likes garden gnomes, illuminated Christmas displays, Bing Crosby singing “White Christmas,” and a thousand other things that send shudders down the educated spine. But that’s his taste, and he is entitled to it. Leave him to enjoy it and he will leave you to get on with listening to Beethoven quartets, collecting antiques, and designing your house in the style of Palladio. But sometimes the assumption becomes dysfunctional. Each year his illuminated Christmas display increases in size, gets more bright and obtrusive, and lasts longer. Eventually his house has an all-year round Christmas tree, with Santa protruding from the chimney and brightly shining reindeer on the lawn. To be honest, the sight is insufferable, and entirely spoils the view from your window. You retaliate by playing Wagner late at night, only to receive blasts of Bing Crosby in the early hours. Here is the democratic culture at work—on its way to mutual destruction.

This kind of thing has been felt strongly in Europe, and it is one of the reasons for the reaction against McDonalds. While everyone has a right to advertise his wares, the advertisement must not spoil the place on which it shines. And American advertisements seem invariably designed to do just that. Maybe they don’t have that effect in America: after all, it is hard to see how the average American main street can be spoiled by an illuminated sign or by anything else. But the main streets of European cities are the result of meticulous aesthetic decisions over centuries. Do we really want the double yellow arches competing with the arches of St. Mark’s?

That question might prompt us to revise the assumption that beauty is subjective. Aesthetic judgements may look subjective when you are wandering in the aesthetic desert of Waco or Las Vegas. In the old cities of Europe, however, you discover what happens when people are guided by a shared tradition which not only makes aesthetic judgement central, but also lays down standards that govern what everybody does. And in Venice or Prague, in Bath, Oxford, or Lisbon, you come to see that there is all the difference in the world between aesthetic judgement treated as an expression of individual taste, and aesthetic judgement treated in the opposite way, as the expression of a community. Maybe we see beauty as subjective only because we have given the wrong place to aesthetic judgement in our lives—seeing it as a way of affirming ourselves, instead of a way of denying ourselves.

There is a parallel here with manners. Even if Americans feel entitled to build as they wish, they don’t feel entitled to behave as they wish towards their neighbors. On the contrary, in America’s culture manners are of supreme importance, and recognized as the ultimate guarantee of peaceful coexistence. Americans greet their neighbors, speak politely, are always smiling. If someone bumps into them in the street they apologize; they cannot take leave of anyone, not even a stranger, without wishing him a wonderful day. And courtesy is the ruling principle of all business dealings. In short, American manners exist so that people will fit in, not stand out. They are ways in which individuality is suppressed, and a lingua franca of conformist gestures adopted in its stead. And this has a function, namely to protect the private from the public, to ensure that each person is secure within his space, and that the public realm is minimally threatening.

When it comes to beauty, our view of its status is radically affected by whether we see it as a form of self-expression, or as a form of self-denial. If we see it in this second way, then the assumption that it is merely subjective begins to fall away. Instead beauty begins to take on another character, as one of the instruments in our consensus-building strategies, one of the values through which we construct and belong to a shared and mutually consoling world. In short, it is part of building a home.

We can see this clearly if we look at the rituals and customs of family life. Consider what happens when you lay the table for a meal. This is not just a utilitarian event. If you treat it as such, the ritual will disintegrate, and the family members will end up grabbing individual portions to eat on their own. The table is laid according to precise rules of symmetry, choosing the right cutlery, the right plates, the right jugs and glasses. Everything is meticulously controlled by aesthetic norms, and those norms convey some of the meaning of family life. The pattern on a willow-pattern plate, for example, has been fixed over centuries, and speaks of tranquillity, of gentleness and of things that remain forever the same. Very many ordinary objects on the table have been, as it were, polished by domestic affection. Their edges have been rubbed off, and they speak in subdued, unpretentious tones of belonging. Serving the food is ritualized too, and you witness in the family meal the continuity of manners and aesthetic values. You witness another continuity too, between aesthetic values and the emotion that the Romans knew as piety—the recognition that the world is in other than human hands. Hence the gods are present at mealtimes, and Christians precede their eating with a grace, inviting God to sit down among them before they sit down themselves.

That example tells us a lot about aesthetic judgement and the pursuit of beauty. In particular, it shows the centrality of beauty to home-building, and therefore to establishing a shared environment. When the motive of sharing arises, we look for norms and conventions that we can all accept. We leave behind our private appetites and subjective preferences, in order to achieve a consensus that will provide a public background to what we are and what we do. In such circumstances aesthetic disagreements are not comfortable disagreements like disagreements over taste in food (which are not so much disagreements as differences). When it comes to the built environment we should not be surprised that aesthetic disagreements are the subjects of fierce litigation and legislative enforcement—even here in America, where each person is sovereign in his land.


I have concentrated on architecture since it provides such a clear illustration of the social, environmental, and economic costs of ignoring beauty. But there is another cost, too, and it is one that we witness in individual lives as well as in the community. This is the aesthetic cost. People need beauty. They need the sense of being at home in their world, and being in communication with other souls. In so many areas of modern life—in pop music, in television and cinema, in language and literature—beauty is being displaced by raucous and attention-grabbing clichés. We are being torn out of ourselves by the loud and insolent gestures of people who want to seize our attention but to give nothing in return for it. Although this is not the place to argue the point it should perhaps be said that this loss of beauty, and contempt for the pursuit of it, is one step on the way to a new form of human life, in which taking replaces giving, and vague lusts replace real loves.

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