Some thoughts on Aesthetics

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At the centre of our notion of design as an art, of art itself and consequently of architectural composition and design quality in manufactured things lies the idea of aesthetics as a generator of value and a branch of philosophy.  The nature of aesthetics and aesthetic sensibility have been the subject of many treatises throughout history.  During the Renaissance the subject was considered in great depth in connection with music, painting, sculpture and architecture.  Analogies passed backwards and forwards between these arts and this proved useful in clarifying concepts and sensibilities.

I have been mulling over the thoughts that follow over quite a number of years, but it will be clear that there is more thinking to do! The focus here will be on aesthetics in connection with designed entities, but in order to do this I think it necessary to set the art of designing in the context of other arts.  Our sensibilities are not so intellectually channeled that we do not bring similar value systems to bear on different arts and our expectations of one art are often coloured by our enthusiasms concerning another.  Indeed throughout history practitioners of one art have sought inspiration in others, often practicing more than one art or through associating with other artists, they have been influenced by the methods and values of associated but different disciplines.

Adopting a historical perspective from our current stand point in the early years of the twenty-first century, suggests that, for by far the greatest proportion of art historical time, art and aesthetics were very much subject to social convention.  But it is clear that, for instance, in Renaissance times artists struggled with their identity within society, often due, it seems, to their assumed sensual indulgences compared with the adherence to more rigid social rules which society required be, at very least the outward, convention in other walks of life.  Of course, the intellectual, the lonely genius, questioning the basis of the conventional wisdom imposed by monarchy, state, the church etc. is also seen in the history of science. We look upon people such as Leonardo da Vinci and Galileo in earlier times as men of great intellectual or artistic personal integrity who either protected themselves from persecution by secrecy or came into direct conflict with social power, which sought always to protect the status quo.

During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, this rebellious trait of the creative intelligence emerged in notions such as the noble savage; the bohemian life style; the search for the exotic; the lonely romantic genius and finally in the twentieth century in the avant-garde.

But these developments are a part of the ‘posturing’ of art and artists within society, which I touch on again below when I consider creative mood. I would firstly like to try to get to the central essence of aesthetics.

Aesthetic sensibility lies within our notion of enjoyment – our appreciation of experience for its own sake – and we tend to think of designed entities as products of an art.  While the word art itself has possibly become ambiguous and suspect, the idea of ‘the arts’ as a whole has a more useful common currency.  I would like to consider aesthetics in the context of ‘the arts’ in a very broad sense. Firstly because this allows us to consider two aspects of the arts that are fundamentally different.  I propose to consider the distinction between arts centred on communication and those centred on artefacts or things made.  It is helpful to an understanding of design aesthetics that we distinguish between these two categories of artistic endeavour.  The communicational arts are obviously conversation, theatre, song, poetry, rhetoric and literature of many forms, graphic design, and their media descendants: film, radio, TV, and digital communications.  The artifactual arts comprise architecture, industrial and product design, crafts, sculpture and some forms of painting.  Interestingly, painting lies at the crossroads of artefact and communication.  Our appreciation of a painting is based on values relating both to something communicated and something made.  To greater or lesser extents all arts are a combination of artefact and communication, but usually with a bias in one direction or the other. 

Much of the evidence we have about primitive societies is in the form of artefacts, but we can only presume that gestures were the origin of communication in the earliest communities as well.  Early artefacts are the accoutrements of life; things made which were meant to last, sometimes tools such as flint or stone axes etc, sometimes arrangements of stones in the landscape or marks on stones using pigment or carving which merely had aesthetic or magical value.  The gesture, on the other hand, we can imagine as the use of the body and the voice, to communicate meaning.  

I have used the word gesture consciously to include waving, pointing, facial expressions, the sounds of the voice, as well as clapping and beating implements.  We can conjecture that the interweaving of these two activities, the making artefacts and communication through gestures of various kinds represent the first emergence of culture, a mixture of artifice and communication.  Of the technology of our ancestors we have much evidence, but the evolution of gestures into patterns of language we can only assume to have developed as an emergent oral tradition in parallel.  It is interesting that it is only once the art of communication develops a technology of its own that it starts to leave traces for later generations to find.  Notched sticks and inscribed tablets precede more formal carved inscriptions.  At source, therefore, the technology of communication, while to some extent having a practical dimension, the recording of communications (agreements; quantities; achievements, etc.), takes on the dimension of longevity and immortality.  Hence it is the foundation of culture: ritualistic, formal and striving for immortality.  The arts must have flowered when first one person admired the skill of another in the application of his or her craft.  Out of these beginnings we can imagine the birth of the artisan on the one hand and the storyteller on their other, both of whom probably gained their legitimacy through amplifying the power and potency of the chief, the warrior-prince, the magician and the priest. There is a long association of the arts with both power and magic. 

The gesture is the origin of the expressive and communicational arts; the artefact is the origin of the technological arts.  This leads to the division of the arts we are currently familiar with as indicated in the table below.  While the distribution and listing is of value, it is equally valuable to consider the interplay between them.  Such a listing avoids what I consider the artificial barriers created by such notions as ‘the decorative arts’; ‘the performing arts’; Art; Fine Art, etc.  Some of the expressive/communicational arts have highly developed technologies, just as some of the technological arts have significant expressive/communicational aspects, but by drawing the distinction we may study their relationships

The Communicational Arts (gesture) The Technological Arts (artefact)
Conversation gastronomy
Literature Apparel
Theatre Equipment
Dance Vehicles
Music Buildings
Painting Enclosures & Pavements
Graphic design Gardens
Sculpture Landscapes

There are two distinct kinds of activity which require the exercise of aesthetic sensibility:

Appreciative and Creative

The appreciative aspect of aesthetics relates to any individual or collective aesthetic experience and judgment of any experienced phenomena.  The creative aspect concerns the activity of designers and artists who seek aesthetic appreciation from others of the artefacts and gestures they create.  Design quality resides to a large extent in the anticipation and manipulation by the author or designer of those aspects of the artefact or gesture being created that will elicit an aesthetic response. The aesthetic principles of appreciation, thus, also become the aesthetic principles of creation

It is also instructive to remind ourselves that the communicational arts aspire to a number of great themes, which are developed through two fundamentally different modes of expression, the tableau and the narrative or perhaps the “picture” and the “story”:

Ethics

Honour

Immortality

Faith

The Family

Crime

War

Nobility

Enlightenment

Irony 

The Primordial forces

Freedom

Wealth & Power

Government

Poverty & Oppression

Love 

Passion

Whatever the abstract or analytical approach we take to aesthetics, there are, in the culture of modern art and design some heresies (though these may be weakening):

decoration

symmetry

pastiche

cosmetics

beaux arts tradition

historicism

In architecture and design there are also recognisable tenets of the modern movement:

fusion of inside and outside

industrialisation

honesty of expression

individualism

anti-classicism

anti-tradition

universality

intersecting planes

transparency not opacity

lightness not weight

rationality

frame and skin not walls with holes

utilitarian functionality

Fundamental aesthetic issues  

The principles of aesthetics pervade our notion of the Arts.  Defined in the dictionary as (1) the branch of philosophy concerned with the study of such concepts as beauty, taste, etc and (2) the study of the rules and principles of art, aesthetics must be closely allied to the idea of enjoyment.  To what origin may we ascribe aesthetics?  Beauty and taste are elusive concepts and we might analyse them in due course.  With the benefit of our placing of design within a broad spectrum of arts, can we now effectively identify ‘the general rules and principles of art’ within which it operates?  Let us examine possible principles.  Common to all the artifactual arts is their appeal to us through the senses: sight; hearing; touch; smell and taste.  Of the senses, in a communicational sense and therefore also in an intellectually conscious sense, the most developed are sight and hearing.  While our most developed means of communication is based on speech and language, we also appreciate meaning through purely visual communication.  The tradition of the visual arts includes drawing and painting; sculpture and modelling and, of course, architecture.  Considerations of visual stimuli leads towards some possibly fundamental aspects of aesthetics in the visual, spatial and plastic domain:

perception

orientation

in relation to the physical world, but also, closely related to our biological being:

familial

sensual (erotic)

and then, related to cognitive and intellectual motivations:

order

clarity

What is clear, when we consider the more intimate visual arts, is that the tactile world is closely allied to the visual and our capacity to understand what we see is very much based on tactile and physiological association and memory.  The familial and sensual/erotic aspects of painting and sculpture are acknowledged, but it is perhaps harder to see the impact of these on design. However, if we think about the close interplay of these forces in the cognitive development of the child it is clear that such influences must be deeply ingrained in the way we perceive things, and therefore must be (possibly buried) among the fundamentals affecting the creation or appreciation of even the most abstract or cerebral artefact.

At the same time the origin of architecture in particular and design as a whole is tied up with geometry and as a consequence the aesthetics of geometry must be central to architectural and design aesthetics.  

We may now attempt to set out the principles of aesthetics: 

important to perception and orientation are:

1  Unity: the awareness of a distinct entity

2  Diversity: sufficient articulation within the unity to hold the attention; sufficient parts to allow the establishment of relationships and possibly sufficient complexity to create a sense of mystery

3  Lodgement: The particular or universal participation of the entity within a greater order of things.

4  Clarity: for the parts to be effectively distinguished

5  Order: guiding principles that establish relationships

Such qualities can be appreciated in our experience of nature as much as in man made artefacts.  

There remain others to be added:

6  Recognition: the acknowledgement of significance and value through association and memory.

7  Perfection: the notion of completeness and faultlessness, of approaching the highest degree in all other qualities.

8  Rarity: the thrill of rarity or uniqueness in time and space

And in terms of things designed and made by man:

9  Virtuosity: the deployment of skill and economy of means

10 Originality: the creation of a new dimension to experience.   

Thus the principal qualities of aesthetic appreciation of inanimate phenomena created by man might be considered as follows:

1) Unity

2) Diversity

3) Lodgement                                the ordinary

4) Clarity

5) Order

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6) Recognition                               the key

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7) Perfection

8) Rarity                                        the extraordinary

9) Virtuosity

10) Originality

to which we can add three more qualities related to experience of animate phenomena and interaction with animate and sentient creatures and fellow human beings:

11)  Familiarity

12)  Sensuality

13) Eroticism

While these last three facets derive from our response initially to our social and biological experience, they are also so fundamental to our perception of and responses to experience as a whole, as to play at least a part in all aesthetic activity.

Of the thirteen aesthetic qualities set out above, only virtuosity and originality exclusively relate to the artefacts and gestures of mankind, i.e. things made.  It is interesting that some people, indeed historically the majority, applied these values also to nature, believing that its many aspects originate in the activity of a divine creator.  

Since aesthetics is, at least in part, an aspect of human response to experience, it is coloured as a whole by a further factor:  Mood. 

Mood is the particular state of mind or feeling of he or she who appreciates or more potently, creates.  

Mood establishes the overall nature of an aesthetic creation, communication or sensibility.  It might be less obvious that the mood of the creator affects event the nature of a created artefact, but there is always a mood driving human activity. Mood includes such stances and states of mind/body/spirit as honesty; sentimentality; nostalgia; romanticism; cynicism; level-headedness; pomposity, humour, seriousness; awe; defiance; sadness; celebration; purposefulness; playfulness; rationality; aggressiveness;  passion; anguish; provocation; compassion; acceptance; judgmental; moral. We read from the artefact or gesture the mood of its creator.

Mood can be either something conveyed by the artefact or gesture, or simply the guiding state of mind of its creator.  At a most basic level it relates to the polarity:

Tranquility – Excitement

Tranquility and excitement are each desirable states that aesthetic sensibility might seek.  They are mostly, though not always, exclusive and relate to feelings within both the mind and the body.

Harmonies and contrasts

Within the form of an artefact or the composition of a cluster of artefacts there will be harmonies and contrasts.  Harmonies derive from closely related qualities while contrasts derive from dissimilarities, essentially opposites.  While harmony might be considered the overall goal of aesthetic activity, applied excessively it may result in safe, dull and homogenised experience.  Contrast, while being the opposite of harmony in one sense, is also an almost essential ingredient of aesthetic composition.  Contrast, in visual terms, aids perception.  Think of print on a page, best (though of course not always) set out as black on white- the extremes of colour.  With the discovery (invention?) of the colour wheel, we also perceive contrasting hues: blue and yellow, red and green.  Contrasting elements, of for instance colour, brightness, form or scale, add excitement and interest to our experience and can become important aspects of design quality.  It can be “brave” to introduce unexpected contrasts into a composition and this is often regarded as a mark of design virtuosity.

In music as well as in the visual and plastic arts, harmony and contrast are both put to use,  Loudness and quietness, high and low notes are employed as much as the close relationships of pitch and timbre that make up a theme or melody and different movements of a symphony can be of highly contrasting mood, tempo and pitch.  It is from musical terminology that we derive the use of a word to describe a further aesthetic quality related to harmony and contrast but distinct and that is discord. Discordant elements are introduced into both musical and visual compositions to provoke the senses by creating minor irritations that heighten experience as a whole.  

We can discover and employ harmony, contrast and discord in almost any area of aesthetic composition and their effective, imaginative and daring use is regarded as a mark of virtuosity in art and design.   

Kinds of order

I described order above as consisting of the guiding principles that establish relationships.  It is important to consider what kinds of principles can guide relationships to create order.  Order is the opposite of chaos or in other words order is the arrangement of elements that we can recognise and that consequently confirms our belief that reality is structured.  Put another way order is the basis of comprehension and seems to imply a synergy between mind and matter.  Without order it would be impossible to structure our lives.  Nature we discover is full of orders, but often combined in such complex and competing ways as to seem like chaos.  From the earliest times, making ordered, recognisable inroads into the apparent chaos of the wilderness was an important factor in the development of humankind and of civilisation.  Let us look at some examples of perceptual, formal order.

Self-similarity:  We recognise self-similarity in nature when forms seem to be composed of elements that repeat a shape or motif at different scales. A self-similar object is one whose component parts resemble the whole. This reiteration of details or patterns can occur at progressively smaller scales and can, in the case of purely abstract entities, continue indefinitely.  In nature it is often a mark of growth as in sea shells and trees.  In the twentieth century a mathematical investigation of self-similarity lead to new theories of order and stability in nature with the discovery of fractal geometry and (the oddly named) Chaos Theory.  In architecture self-similarity tends to be expressed through proportion, though some architects have explored the use of fractal geometry in the design of building components and systems. Another form of self similarity is the building as a reflection of the city and vice versa.   

Repetition:  Repetition is probably the simplest form of order.  Repetition inevitably creates pattern, either as randomness or as clusters, axes and grids.  It is also inherent in symmetry.  Repetition seems to create a sense of order by reinstating the validity of one element by repeating it, a bit like hearing the same piece of gossip from two different people.  Multiples, whether of exact duplicates, or elements with a family resemblance, become recognisable motifs or patterns in their own right.  Think of bookshelves or streets.  

Symmetry:  A time honoured aesthetic device and basis of architectural composition is symmetry.  Symmetry regularly occurs in nature and there are many examples starting with the human form and as displayed by many animals and plants in combination with self-similarity.  Our most basic appreciation of symmetry is the axial symmetry of one half of an entity appearing as the mirror image of the other.  It’s a very special subset of repetition.  Symmetry will be found in all types of artefacts and in architectural composition even though the Modern Movement in the twentieth century decried its excessive use as a reaction to the Beaux Art form of composition that grew out of Palladian symmetry.  Symmetry is a very powerful quality, probably because it is a characteristic of things so fundamental to our life experience such as the human face and body.  Symmetry can be strongly associated with pleasurable experience of family and sensuality, but it has also been used on a grand scale to denote power.  Royal palaces and country houses from Elizabethan times up to the early twentieth century utilized symmetry to organize the plan and the elevation of the building as well as its gardens and the axial avenue into the countryside or city.

The axis: The axis starts with the route: the straight line as the shortest distance between two points. It is also determined by the line of sight.  It is interesting to observe that the next most basic geometric truth is the right angle or the most opposite direction possible to the first chosen straight line route or axis.  There is a vertical line, too, that from the point of intersection of these two axes, defines the most distant line from the first two in three dimensional space.  This latter line, the vertical axis is actually a physical entity, established by gravity, as I shall shortly discuss, and capable of easy establishment with a plumb bob.  With these relationships we can thus establish a true level plane.  The level axis is a fundamental of architectural order allowing designers to orientate and order spaces and routes in a comprehendible way which can be more or less formal and rigid.  The street or spine are typical axes, but axes are also a feature of single spaces, which combined with repeating structural elements and two or four fold symmetry offer the most basic architectural organisation.  The organising of space into axially planned elements which may then be linked together in clusters either formally (according to rules of symmetry) or informally (according to functional or contextual pressures) lies at the heart of architectural composition. 

The plane, containers and other geometries:  Beyond the axis, the most fundamental system of ordering composition, and effectively defined by the space between a major axis and its right angled secondary axis, the plane and especially the level plane allows the creation of a comfortable, walk-able, comprehensible area that can form the basis of architectural composition. Examples are the urban square and the atrium in buildings as well as decks and rooms.  Stacked planes give another of source of order through repetition and symmetry.      

Proportion:  I mentioned proportion when discussing self-similarity above.  Proportion in our current discussion is the relationship between different dimensions in an artifact, for instance length to width to height.  In carefully designed entities its proportions will be the result of a considered application of some established ratios that are considered to be pleasing to the eye and/or in sympathy with the natural order.  Proportional systems may be regarded as analogous to musical scales and are similarly related to number.  There are simple additive proportions such as 1:1, 2:1, 3:1 etc., but there are also that have been adopted historically because they seem to yield pleasing or satisfying lines, planes and spaces and depend on irrational numbers such as 1:√2, or 1:1.414.  There is another proportion that lies between 1:1 (square) and 1:2 (double square) and that is what is called “the golden section”.  The golden section is defined by dividing a line in two such that the ratio between the smaller and larger segment is identical to the ratio between the larger segment and the line as a whole, i.e. a:b as b:(a+b) or, as it happens 1:(√5 +1)/2 or again 1:1.618.  the root two and the golden section rectangles seem to offer a pleasing proportion neither so obvious as the square nor so obviously dual as the double square, hence the term the golden mean.  Being irrational numbers however, they are problematical in terms of the additive  and modular requirements of practical building and component design (additive repetition) and for the golden section at least there is a whole number approximation called the Fibonacci series, in which each number is the sum of the two preceding numbers: 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, 34, 55, 89, 144.  Some of these numbers are interesting in their own right and the proportion 89:144 is1:1.618, calculated to three decimal places, i.e. the series starts with the proportion 1:2, immediately becomes 1:1.5 and then approaches ever closer to the golden mean.  Pleasing proportions have been the subject of much investigation by both designers and mathematicians, but the self-similar aspect of proportion is probably the most important to architecture.  The classic proportions described above, rather like the musical scale, seem to establish a norm that allows us to judge  other qualities such as the slimness of sky scrapers and gothic cathedral buttresses,  and verticality versus horizontality in architectural massing.

Balance:  There has long been an intuitive counter-thread to the axial, mathematical and symmetrical approaches to order discussed here.  This approach was probably first evolved by oriental aesthetes who inherited the ancient eastern arts such as pottery, calligraphy, flower arranging and indeed archery as well as the tea ceremony, known collectively as “The Ways” and which tended to look to nature for their sources of order.  In nature, geometric precision and axial symmetries were not common at a human scale, but instead in the countryside they saw a kind of informal balance. 

In the west and in England in particular it became known as “the Picturesque” and was especially important in eighteenth century landscape design.  While the country house might have been foursquare and symmetrical (in true Palladian style) its grounds would be an idealisation of the “natural” landscape, though actually an artefact in its own right and a far cry from true wilderness.  The Japanese garden and its more extreme form the Zen Buddhist garden are also in this tradition.  Nineteenth century romanticism rediscovered  the simpler quasi-vernacular architecture of pre-renaissance houses and villages and the Pre-Raphaelites followed by the Arts and Crafts movement sanctified an informal balance as the basis of an acceptable order.  This mode of composition also appealed to the early Modern Movement architects, who were seeking to rebel against a still strong classical (formal, symmetry based) approach to architecture. They invented a kind of modern architecture that opted for a sense of balance through limited, consciously asymmetrical compositions, and which, unlike its antecedents, also sought to release itself from nature by defying gravity and inhabiting an abstract space time continuum.  There are many forms of informal and asymmetrical balance in design, which need to be employed with restraint and caution if they are to avoid the pitfalls of either the overly composed or the plainly chaotic.

Much of the above is to do with communications and artefacts rather than our relationship with nature. In many ways the rules of composition and aesthetics applied to gestures and made objects aspire to principles discovered in nature. It is in that area that this musing needs further extension.

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