Is Beauty Still Relevant? Is Art? Is Archiecture?, by Nathaniel Coleman

In this paper I will discuss the problematic of the idea of what the ‘good architect’ is, or might be, in the present epoch. Adjunct to this discussion, consideration of what ‘good architecture’ is, or might be, must follow. Discourses on both tend to be strangely dissociative, as if architecture really could be autonomous. A fallacy I will leave aside for the moment. Ideas of the ‘good’ in terms of practice and its results that might be considered likewise bedevil our capacity to judge as we waiver between ideas of radical subjectivity and absolute ideals. Interestingly, the call for papers for this conference reveals something of the problem introduced above and thus also a pathway to its solution: in an effort to rescue aesthetics from a street level conception of it, the call starts with the proposition that the ‘subject of aesthetics is often taken as dealing with questions of mere beauty, where the word “aesthetic” is colloquially interchangeable with beauty and liking.’ Rather than agree or disagree with the attempt to rescue aesthetics from itself, my interest here is ‘beauty,’ more so that it is a question of ‘mere beauty.’ To my mind, this proposition reproduces the very problem the conference purports to address; as if beauty was simply a matter of ‘the look of a particular object,’ or is interchangeable with impulsive ‘liking.’

And yet, the ethical dimension of beauty persisted at least from Socrates, via Plato, to Alberti, and onward from there to Ruskin and Morris, and arguably to Le Corbusier as well, each of whom was as preoccupied with the aesthetical (as a matter of beauty) as much as the ethical (as also a matter of beauty). But this only works if we think of beauty as a sense of wholeness, as Socrates did, as ‘that to which nothing may be added nor taken away but for the worse.’ Perhaps surprisingly, it is a definition of comprehensiveness that helps us to judge works of architecture that are equally radical or conservative, postmodern or deconstructive. Indeed, even in an epoch in which no universal ideal of beauty as syntonic prevails, the superlative aim of completeness persists as a guide to practice and as way to judge its results alike. Only in this way could Wittgenstein’s claim that “ethics and aesthetics are one and the same” (1921: §6.421) be credible.

In order to work through the problem of beauty, to rescue it from claims of its apparent meagreness, I will attempt to get at it from two directions at once. On the one hand, I will make an appeal to the thinking of Ananda Coomaraswamy (born 1877, Columbo, Ceylon – died 1946, Needham, Massachusetts), as a proponent of tradition and inheritor of the line from Plato to Morris, and on the other, Gianni Vattimo (born 1936, Palermo), who is as much intrigued by a hermeneutics of tradition as by generalized communication and a weakening of strong thought, and its attendant violence, represented by western metaphysics. And yet, Vattimo and Coomaraswamy share a revaluation of art that rescues beauty from being ‘merely,’and as such, suggests how architects might reclaim the richness of their task, albeit in a dispersed way, to act on behalf of the beautiful and ethics simultaneously.

Nathaniel Coleman, Newcastle University, UK

Harvard Citation Guide: Coleman, N. (2012) Is Beauty Still Relevant? Is Art? Is Archiecture?, International Society for the Philosophy of Architecture, [blog] 06 May 2012, Available at: [Accessed: 01 June 2012].

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