One of the books I am reading right now is Alain de Botton’s The Architecture of Happiness. I found the following passage interesting, where he tries to come to grips with why we find certain things beautiful:
Why do we change our minds about what we find beautiful?
In 1907 a young German art historian named Wihelm Worringer published an essay entitled ‘Abstraction and Empathy’, in which he attempted to explain our shifts from a psychological perspective.
He began by suggesting that during the span of human history there had only been two basic types of art, ‘abstract’ and ‘realistic’, either one of which might, at any given time in a particular society, be favored over the other. Through millennia, the abstract had enjoyed popularity in Byzantium, Persia, Papua New Guinea, the Solomon Islands, Congo, Mali and Zaire, and it was just then, at the opening of the twentieth century, returning to prominence in the West. This was an art governed by a spirit of symmetry, order, regularity and geometry. Whether in the form of sculpture or carpets, mosaics or pottery, whether in the work of a basket weaver from Weak or that of a painter from New York, abstract art aspired to create a tranquil atmosphere marked by flat, repetitive visual planes, the whole being free of any allusion to the living world.
By contrast, Worringer noted, realistic art, which had dominated aesthetics in the Ancient Greek and Roman eras and held sway in Europe from the Renaissance to the late nineteenth century, sought to evoke the vibrancy and color of tangible experience. Artists of this stripe strove to capture the atmosphere of a threatening pine forest, the texture of human blood, the swelling of a teardrop or the ferocity of a lion.
The most compelling aspect of Worringer’s theory – a point as readily applicable to architecture as it is to painting – was his explanation of why a society might transfer its loyalty from one aesthetic mode to the other. The determinant lay, he believed, in those values which the society in question was lacking, for it would love in art whatever it did not possess in sufficient supply within itself. Abstract art, infused as it was with harmony, stillness and rhythm, would appeal chiefly to societies yearning for calm – societies in which law and order were fraying, ideologies were shifting, and a sense of physical danger was compounded by moral and spiritual confusion. Against such turbulent background (the sort of atmosphere to be found in many of the metropolises of twentieth century-America or in New Guinean villages enervated by generations of internecine strife), inhabitants would experience what Worringer termed ‘an immense need for tranquillity’, and so would turn to the abstract, to patterned baskets or the minimalist galleries of Lower Manhattan.
But in societies which had achieved high standards of internal and external order, so that life therein had come to seem predictable and overly secure, an opposing hunger would emerge: citizens would long to escape from the suffocating grasp of routine and predictability – and would turn to realistic art to quench their psychic thirst and reacquaint themselves with an elusive intensity of feeling.
He goes on to talk about how different people even in the same country, people in different classes, might find different things beautiful based on their psychological needs.
Now there are obviously arguments that can be made against this. (Though he is talking specifically about architecture and visual art in his book.) One could make cases that certain kinds of religion influenced art in different ways. Technology and materials allow for different art to be created. Also the history of design and art, how one artist influences another as an example, comes into play.
However, the main point that de Botton is trying to get at is that, while we still may prefer one kind of design over another, we at least might be able to get a glimpse at why people we disagree with might prefer something based on who they are and where they come from. He talks bout a factory owner that had sleek modern dwellings built for his factory workers to inhabit. However, they spent their whole day working in a modern factory. They wanted their houses to have a more traditional look, to feel like the places that they did not to get to spend enough time in, to look more like where they were from. They added wooden shutters, picket fences and garden gnomes. He also talks about how different people, depending on where they live and how they live, might want to spend their leisure time in a different environment, depending on what they are lacking in their everyday life.
I think you can still make value judgments on aesthetics. The point is not to say that everything is as good as everything else. A big part of the reason I write is because I believe there are things that are worth championing over others. However, I think understanding where someone else is coming from is obviously a good thing. It can at least maybe take something that would be filled with animosity to a level of friendly disagreement. And one never knows, maybe something new will reveal itself and become beautiful for the first time.
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