May 23, 2023, 05:57AM

The Classical Vs. Modern Debate in Art and Design

People have preferences when it comes to art, architecture, fashion, and music.

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Classical music or jazz. Gothic architecture or brutalism. Renaissance painting or abstract expressionism. Some people long for the days when art was beautiful, while others praise the story of experimentation, even though some experiments may be better than others. Some classical art and architecture adherents make statements decrying all of modern work. These sweeping statements usually employ recycled examples from brutalism and abstract painting or sculpture without much nuance. If modern art is garbage, then Monet’s also garbage. If modern architecture is terrible, then Art Deco is also terrible. But what’s worse is the implication that we must go back to these old styles for art and design to be beautiful and meaningful.

People have preferences when it comes to art, architecture, fashion, and music. And when you remove the strictures of the church, patrons, and culture, allowing artists to make what they want, then some work may end up being ugly or preferred by only a few. Many in these competing polemics seek to endorse or condemn the ideas of philosopher Roger Scruton, who expresses strong opinions about his preferences. However, most ignore his broader concerns.

Scruton proclaims his personal opinions about art and architecture without hesitation; he prefers classical art and music. And it’s good to have these contrary views. But othersfocus too much on his preferences than on many of his foundational claims. He endorses experimentation in art, which implicitly acknowledges that some will fail or not be to everyone’s liking. With the revised publication of his classic book on architecture in 2013, Scruton wrote a new introduction. He says that “raw functionality hurts the eye and the soul.” Spaces deprived of any decoration or variation, yet possess pure functionality, aren’t conducive to human flourishing. Just think about a stale hospital room. Lots of ugly things may perform a function, but that’s not a good excuse for dropping aesthetic components.

Further, a common type of post circulating on social media shows an immaculate building (or other object) and asks artisans why they can make objects like this. This challenge sounds counterintuitive. First, despite Scruton’s personal preferences, he claims that not every building, for instance, should strive for the highest levels of beauty. If so, they’d vie for attention, and this tension counters the positive aesthetic experience that each alone should’ve enabled. Rather, Scruton proposes the idea of fittingness to guide the urban design, and this derives from the idea that beauty comes in a gradation. Second, at least in visual art, people continue to create in the classical styles, sculptures in marble and still life paintings of feast tables. It hasn’t disappeared, but the multiplicity of styles and experiments make each style have less of the spotlight. Besides, novel art draws much of the attention.

Scruton mentions another point worth considering. More than advocating for a particular style, his concern lies with the lack of aesthetic discipline, which he mentions in a discussion about architecture. “Just as we should not look for more objectivity in any study than can be obtained from it,” he writes, “so should we not be content with less.” Through eye-tracking studies, neuroscience, psychology, and philosophy, people have discovered common attributes for successful buildings. Designers aren’t committed to specific details (and we know from Kant that there’s no formula for beauty), but the results of these studies show common types of elements. For example, a plain facade of a building diminishes people’s experience, than one with some added details; these “details” allow a multitude of options, according to the designer. The crucial difference for Scruton is that the classical tradition integrated aesthetic discipline into their education and approach. Modernism doesn’t. Mark Foster Gage, architect and professor, edited a volume on aesthetics for architects, and writes in his introduction that aesthetics is no longer taught in architecture schools. While maybe not absolute, it’s rare to find an aesthetics course permeating throughout a design school’s education curriculum.

Recently, I went to an exhibit of work by Cy Twombly at the Museum of Fine Arts Boston. While I’d seen some of his work in the past, I didn’t know much about his oeuvre and his inspiration. Twombly drew inspiration from the ancient world, both visual art and literature, including Homer and Plato. He collected as many artifacts as he could afford and transport. On the surface, much of his art work typifies the derision that my child could do that. In some instances, it may even be true. Despite not liking everything, I found myself considering the claims that his work was seemingly making about the classics. Even some of the works that I couldn’t love on a purely visual level challenged me to consider what Twombly might’ve thought about these ancient texts. For example, one asymmetrical diptych consisted of a larger canvas on the left painted blue—fairly even tone with subtle gradations. The other canvas (smaller and hanging slightly lower) on the right remained white with the name Plato scribbled on it with the titles of three dialogues underneath in smaller letters: Phaedrus, Symposium, Republic. Many might carp at the lack of aesthetics of this work, and maybe that’s fair. But it challenged me to contemplate why Twombly chose these three dialogues to mention with the blue canvas possibly symbolizing the sky. Modern art, if we’re receptive, can often provide a new way of looking at something, which is valuable, even if the work isn’t deemed as excellent.

I wrote this because it’s disheartening to see the simplified positions oscillating through cyberspace defending and denouncing periods and styles of art without careful investigation. Art appreciators should strive to expand their horizons and fuse new works with their old favorites, whenever possible. It’s reasonable to dislike some works of art and architecture, but dismissing an entire period seems far more extreme without the requisite attention to a wider view of what’s contained in that period and what those artists were seeking to accomplish.

—Michael Spicher is an educator and researcher in Boston and runs Aesthetics Research Lab, follow him on Twitter: @MRSpicher


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