Beauty and use: natural and traditional connections. An interpretation of Wittgenstein’s and Simmel’s views of art, by Ferenc Hörcher

At least since Hegel, architecture is regarded as the particular artform which is destined to meet two, seemingly antagonistic criteria: beauty and use or function. This dual focus could survive the rather dramatic change aesthetics suffered during the nineteenth century, when in professional academic discourse Kantianism succeeded to cut away aesthetic value from an analysis of the useful. Some of the most renowned theoreticians of aesthetics in the 19th century looked back with manifest nostalgia to earlier phases of architectural history, when unknown masters built houses without a hint of latter day architects’ self-glorification and hubris. Their works seem to rely on a traditional common taste, which thought it natural that beauty is closely dependent on usefulness.

20th century architectural thinking is less clearcut in this respect. Architecture experienced the rebirth of the phenomenon of the star architect, who had to prove her originality by turning towards the extreme, the sublime and the surprising, leaving behind concerns of functionality and tastefulness. However at the birth of artistic modernity in the early 20th century handwork and a natural taste was still honoured.

The paper presents Ludwig Wittgenstein’s and Georg Simmel, a contemporary of Wittgenstein, as two examples of this latter trend. Wittgenstein views of art, as manifested in the exemplary solutions of the Wittgenstein House, as well as in his notes in the collection of Culture and Value, were deeply influenced by a traditionalist view of architecture and art in general, which did not contradict in his mind a radical modernism, expressed in the Bauhaus-like features of the Wittgenstein House. But more importantly, he seems to share some of the ideas of Simmel, as expressed for example in Simmel’s essay Der Henkel. Both of them look at the artworld as part of the „Lebenswelt” of a community, and not simply as an abstract formal structure, the unparalleled embodiment of an original artistic genius, good for aesthetic appreciation only.

The paper wants to show the nuanced way these two thinkers examined architecture, how they tried to make sense of their own artistic experience, and how they were able to show not only the connection between art and function, but also the social (and sometimes even religious) function of art. It will interpret the two authors’ simultaneous modernism and cultural criticism as well.

Ferenc Hörcher

Harvard Citation Guide: Hörcher, F. (2015) Beauty and use: natural and traditional connections. An interpretation of Wittgenstein’s and  Simmel’s views of art, International Society for the Philosophy of Architecture, [blog] 21 June 2015, Available at: http://isparchitecture.com. [Accessed: 21 June 2015].

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