Beauty, Aesthetics, Anaesthesia, Architecture

Beauty is dangerous (in architecture these days).  A juror used the word in thesis reviews recently.  It was both controversial, and easily dismissed because the word basically does not come up in architecture design studios or crits, neither as a goal of design, nor as an approach to critique.  On the whole, “beauty” and “aesthetics” are felt to be superficial, something subjective, irrational, and impulsive, not worthy of intellectual discussion. “Beauty” seems irrelevant to making good buildings.  Why? What are the implications?  Is that good?  Are there ways beyond the impasse?

Terry Eagleton, in his The Ideology of the Aesthetic (1990) concedes that aesthetics in modern times has been degraded to “a kind of sandbox to which one consigns all those vague things… under the heading of the irrational… where they can be monitored and, in case of need, controlled (the aesthetic is in any case conceived as a kind of safety valve for irrational impulses).”  Since art, including some parts of architecture, has become synonymous with aesthetics for many, it has become increasingly irrelevant for some.

Eagleton and Susan Buck-Morss have shown that this conception of “aesthetics” represents a profound shift from the original use of the word Aisthitikos, Greek for “perception by feeling.”  Morss writes “The original field of aesthetics was not art, but reality–corporeal, material nature… a discourse of the body… It [was] a form of cognition, achieved through taste, touch, hearing, seeing, smell.”  Aesthetics had to do with how the bodily senses worked, especially in relation to the brain, how the senses are the filter through which the brain thinks and acts, more biological apparatus than social construct.

There has thus been a profound shift, even a reversal, in the understanding of the word “aesthetics.”   What once was body and objective truth, is now mind and subjective fiction. What once referred to sensible experience, the empirical, and the real, now refers to cultural forms, the imaginary, and the illusory.

Among the first to “blame” for this shift in meaning was Alexander Baumgarten, a German philosopher who is often credited with “inventing” the field of aesthetics (ca. 1750).  Baumgarten appropriated the word aesthetics, which had always meant sensation, to mean taste or “sense” of beauty. In so doing, he gave the word a different significance, thereby inventing its modern usage (for more, see notes below).

But the transition was slow.  In the 19th-century, aesthetics still often had to do with the body, with physical perception and corporeal feeling. This was the case when physician-poet Oliver Holmes imported the word “aesthetics” into the English language for the first time in 1846 to refer to the medical procedure of deadening the senses:  “an-aesthesia” or “anaesthetics,” as in no-feeling, no sensations.   Anesthesia is thus the removing of feelings and sensations, or aesthetics.  Today it’s hard to recall that “aesthetics” and “anaesthetics” and “anesthesia” are so closely related conceptually.  Aesthetics seems to be all about subjective, irrational ideas about taste, and the other is biological reality, truth.  Art was at one time about inner truth too, but I digress.

Walter Benjamin, in his famous essay “Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” (1936) also ruminated about this shift.  He investigated the role of modern technology, and how it has altered our perception of the world, especially the privileged world of “art,” and by extension aesthetics.  His essay deals (in part) with the different psychic and physical relationships between viewers and art in the modern world, how different cinema is, with its technical spectacle and mass audience, from the solitary inspection of a painting with “aura.” His is a complex argument that involves politics, metaphysics, mass culture. The end of his essay warns about the aestheticization of politics by the Fascists, and the politicization of art by the Communisits.  But again I digress.  A good explanation is offered in Buck-Morss’ essay “Aesthetics and Anaesthetics: Walter Benjamin’s Artwork Essay Reconsidered” (in October, 1992).

The implications of this shift in our definitions of aesthetics seems relevant for architecture, and for studio culture today.  How does the technology which surrounds us, and which is given ever increasing pride of place in the tools we use to create our architectural visions, in the fabrication and construction process, and in shaping the spaces we inhabit, affect our understanding of aesthetics, and of art?  How do the physiological senses about “comfort” and “safety” interact with the psychological senses about “beauty”?  Can they be separated, as we too often seem to do?  How can we integrate them so they are more equal partners and modes of discussion?

Building as anaesthesia is not the answer.

NB: My last post about Roger Lewis raised similar concerns in relation to public competitions. Two further supplemental notes:

1) From Wikepedia:  In 1781, Kant declared that Baumgarten’s aesthetics could never contain objective rules, laws, or principles of natural or artistic beauty.  Kant wrote: “The Germans are the only people who presently (1781) have come to use the word aesthetic[s] to designate what others call the critique of taste. They are doing so on the basis of a false hope conceived by that superb analyst Baumgarten. He hoped to bring our critical judging of the beautiful under rational principles, and to raise the rules for such judging to the level of a lawful science. Yet that endeavor is futile. For, as far as their principal sources are concerned, those supposed rules or criteria are merely empirical. Hence they can never serve as determinate a priori laws to which our judgment of taste must conform. It is, rather, our judgment of taste which constitutes the proper test for the correctness of those rules or criteria. Because of this it is advisable to follow either of two alternatives. One of these is to stop using this new name aesthetic[s] in this sense of critique of taste, and to reserve the name aesthetic[s] for the doctrine of sensibility that is true science. (In doing so we would also come closer to the language of the ancients and its meaning. Among the ancients the division of cognition into aisthētá kai noētá [felt or thought] was quite famous.) The other alternative would be for the new aesthetic[s] to share the name with speculative philosophy. We would then take the name partly in its transcendental meaning, and partly in the psychological meaning.”  Nine years later, in his Critique of Judgment, Kant use the word aesthetic in relation to the judgment of taste or the estimation of the beautiful. For Kant, an aesthetic judgment is subjective in that it relates to the internal feeling of pleasure or displeasure and not to any qualities in an external object.

2) From an entry in the Philosophy Archive on “aesthetics” that ties some of these things toegether: Aesthetics owes its name to Alexander Baumgarten who derived it from the Greek aisthanomai, which means perception by means of the senses. The word aesthetic can be used as a noun meaning “that which appeals to the senses.” Someone’s aesthetic has a lot to do with their artistic judgement.  For example, an individual who wears flowered clothing, drives a flowered car, and paints their home with flowers has a particular aesthetic.  Since actions or behavior can be said to have beauty beyond sensory appeal, aesthetics and ethics often overlap to the degree that this impression is embodied in a moral code or ethical code. Schopenhauer’s aesthetics is one developed variation on this theme; Schopenhauer contrasted the contemplation of beauty against the evil world of the Will. The theory of surrealist automatism is extra-aesthetic in that it is supposed to be practiced without (conscious) moral or aesthetic self-censorship.  The writer Ayn Rand assumed a hierarchical nature of philosophy that builds in complexity & dependence from metaphysics through epistemology, ethics & politics to aesthetics (“Philosophy, Who Needs It?”, 1974).  Aesthetic arguments usually proceed from one of several possible perspectives, i.e.: art is defined by the intention of the artist (as Dewey); art is in the response/emotion of the viewer (as Tolstoy); art is a character of the item itself; art is a function of an object’s context (as Danto); or art is imitation (as Plato).


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