Musings on Art and Taste

Many years ago, I had a lengthy correspondence with a friend in another part of Canada about what constitutes art. His basic argument was that art was not neutral or generic, but was the final product of high achievement: real art was “good” art. That is, art was defined by recognized masters and their works. Mona Lisa was art, Picasso was art, Monet was art — solely because they hung in galleries. It took cultural recognition or at least acceptance to make the change from simply a “work” to being art, according to my friend.

You could, according to his theory, tell what was art by what was hanging in the Louvre or any similar museum or gallery. All the rest wasn’t art. It somehow didn’t have a category or label. It was just ‘stuff.’ 

I, on the other hand, argued that art was defined by intent and that any judgment on its value could only be subjective. Sure, Mona Lisa is art, but so can chalk marks on the sidewalk be art, if the chalker had the intent of making a creative statement in his or her activity. Art, I argued, was the result of intention and effort, not the recognition it received from any audience.

In that sense, the handprints of early Cro Magnons on a cave wall in France are art, not because today we are amazed to look back in time some 40  millennia, not because we have decided that they have historical significance, but simply because the maker put their hand on the wall with intent to leave a personal mark. Every parent looking at their child’s rough efforts at drawing knows they, too, are art.

We can’t define something we call “art” by whether it strikes us as good or bad, I argued, because those are relative terms and everyone’s taste differs. Picasso still has his detractors, and those who consider his work ugly and worthless, at least aesthetically. Today’s art may have been yesterday’s dreck. Did Michelangelo’s contemporaries gaze on his work with the same reverence we do today? Or the Group of Seven? Look at the brouhaha over the Voice of Fire.

We never came to an agreement, my friend and I, over what defined art and taste. It wasn’t so much as a destination as a journey we were undertaking in our letters. Besides, we were young enough to be passionate about art and life that the act of writing was the joy, not the win or loss of any argument.

Which brings me to the question of architecture. Is architecture like art? Can it be art? Yes, I believe so. There is good architecture and bad architecture, but, to paraphrase Shakespeare, only thinking makes it so. What one person sees as good or bad is not so much about the architecture as about that person’s background, cultural leanings, tastes and education.

(Aside: There is a site called “Good Architecture” with a portfolio of houses and cottages — some of which are nice but others strike me as outstanding examples of “Bad Architecture” — but the name isn’t as pretentious as it first appears: the work is by architect Wayne Good; this only highlights the subjectivity of taste).

Rob Asumedi wrote his definition of “good architecture” on a now-defunct website ( www.simplybuilding.net/article/view/49):

Good architecture makes the human world a beautiful place. I do not need an M.Arch. to tell you that, and you do not need one to agree with me. It is obvious to anyone who lives in (or has visited) a place where modern design has not taken hold. It is obvious to the rest of us if we open our eyes.

Good architecture is a bedroom that makes the sex twice as good. Good architecture is a restaurant that makes the food twice as tasty and the conversation twice as lively. A garden that brings you twice as much inner peace and awakens feelings twice as deep. A park that brings together twice as many people for conversation and activity.

But, Rob, what is “beautiful”? Can you define good or bad without using other subjective or relative terms? Of course not, no more than you can describe water without using terms relating to wet. These arguments tend to ambulate around the same central problem all the time. Let me give another example.

In the early 1980s, I travelled to the Arctic, visiting the Yukon, Northwest Territories and Alaska for a few weeks, driving the newly-opened Dempster Highway all the way to Inuvik. In that time, I visited Dawson City, where the Canadian government had worked hard to preserve the old Gold Rush buildings in as original and as pristine a manner as the time and environment allowed. There were a lot of rough, rickety buildings around. It had an undeniably quaint charm, in a museum-ish but robust sort of way. Then I visited Skagway, Alaska, where the preservation was along the lines of a Disney-fied cuteness, a garish, trinkety-looking place with all the historical authenticity of Las Vegas. I loved Dawson, hated Skagway. But the tourists I encountered seemed to love the pastiche, the fakery, the glitter, and accepted Skagway as the more authentic reconstruction.

That’s what taste is. It’s a personal view, a personal experience. Is my taste elitist? Possibly, but that’s my taste. On the other hand, my taste in movies runs to classic monster, B- and scifi films, as well as Godzilla, which others (Susan included) consider cheesy and crass. 

Rather interestingly, over at the Dummies site (a site for the so-named series of books), there is a page from Architecture for Dummies that answers some of the questions about the changing nature of taste and style.

What is considered beautiful and what is considered ugly changes over time. The Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., designed by Edward Durrell Stone, a leading architect of his day, was considered the height of architectural beauty when it opened in 1971. Today, it’s ridiculed for its boxy shape, gigantic lobbies, and modernistic decorations.

Sometimes, an architectural style that was once considered beautiful will fall out of favor, only to be rediscovered decades later. In Miami Beach, the city’s once thriving Art Deco hotels fell into disrepair in the 1970s and 1980s after years of neglect. After preservationists pointed out the merits of these architectural treasures, the hotels were renovated to become hip tourist destinations. Art Deco has once again become synonymous with the beauty of Miami Beach.

Truly outstanding works of architecture never fail to wow us with their spatial power. Such structures as Stonehenge and the Parthenon are still admired for their monumentality even though they are thousands of years old.

It goes on to say how Roman architect Vitruvius insisted that three fundamental principles are essential to architecture: function, structure, and beauty, which is still applicable today (although beauty is impossible to quantify, or even properly identify outside a personal perspective). At the end of the page are five questions you can ask to determine what is “good architecture” by answering these questions:

  • Does it express its function in a meaningful and visually interesting way?
  • Does it complement or contrast with its surroundings?
  • Is it well built?
  • Does it age well?
  • Do the building’s spaces surprise, inspire, mystify, delight, or disturb?

I’ll leave the reader to refer to the original for the detailed explanations, but perhaps for me the most important comment is that, “Good architecture solicits a visceral reaction.” That doesn’t mean a good or bad reaction: the evocation is all that is required to be good. It might be horror or dread that the architecture evokes!

Architecture seems — as can be seen from the debate around the fabric-covered recreational buildings here in Collingwood back in 2013 — to generate the same sort of emotional response that art, music and theatre create in many observers: love, hate, passion, sorrow, joy, laughter, tears — but never neutral. We should notice the structures around us, not ignore them.

In The Soul of Man Under Socialism, Oscar Wilde wrote,

A work of art is the unique result of a unique temperament. Its beauty comes from the fact that the author is what he is. It has nothing to do with the fact that other people want what they want. Indeed, the moment that an artist takes notice of what other people want, and tries to supply the demand, he ceases to be an artist, and becomes a dull or an amusing craftsman, an honest or dishonest tradesman. He has no further claim to be considered as an artist.

The negative reactions to the local rec facility designs surprised me in their vehemence. There were almost immediately two camps: those who loved them unconditionally and those who reviled them. It didn’t seem to have many of us in the middle ground who felt unbiased towards them. Yet they answer “yes” to all the five questions, above.

Perhaps it’s good that architecture like art and music should create strong feelings. But in many cases, those with opinions were not educated in the fields but had an ideological rejection of them. Many people reacted viscerally, not intellectually: the function of the buildings or that they adequately answered local needs did not interest them.

We can’t say why we find it good or bad except in those circuitous emotional references. We seldom express our tastes in terms of counterpoint, chiaroscuro, palladian windows and pilasters — experts can, but we can only say what we like. Or don’t. But when the argument is based solely on personal like or dislike, it devolves into futility. 

The author of Architecture for Dummies opines, “Buildings and cities are more likely to improve in the future if more people become knowledgeable about architecture.” True, but who among us has the time, the energy or the patience for such education? The people who design the buildings, of course. They are the experts, like the musicians who write the symphonies or the artists who brush the oils onto canvas. But education is not enough: talent must also be there. To paraphrase Truman Capote, anyone can type: few can write. Talent cannot be quantified, although it can be recognized (as can its lack).

When the concept drawings for the new Library were presented, I found myself in the rather lonely group of people who actually liked the design. Same with the designs for the new recreational facilities: I liked the basic fact they were different, outstanding, unusual, and broke away from the established blandness of municipal buildings. The tired old orthodoxy of big rectangles of bricks and glass just seemed so dreary and banal in comparison. For me, the acid test of acceptability was creativity. 

The buildings looked new and the newness stood out more than any faux heritage elements that a bricks-and-mortar structure would contain. Others wanted comfort in the visual elements, the unadventurous comfort in solidity of bricks and steel; the easily recognized components one can see while walking along the street. It was a dichotomy between forward- and backward-looking people.

We can never agree on what’s “good” or “bad” design because that’s subjective and we cannot all agree on personal perspectives. For structure and function, I am willing to trust the talent of the person educated in the fields of design and architecture. If the structures do that well enough, then we should accept them and eschew the ideological interference and the rooted conformity that prevents some of us from appreciating them.

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