Saturday, 9 December 2006

Aesthetic Relativism

In his book 'On Beauty' Umberto Eco asks the question 'what would a traveller from the future who came to our time identify as our aesthetic ideal?'. His answer was that "he will have to surrender before the orgy of tolerance, total snycretism and the absolute unstoppable polytheism of beauty". Such is the legacy of aesthetic relativism, a theory of beauty that can be explained by two succinct quotations. The first is the Shakespearean proverb 'beauty is bought by the judgement of the eye' and the second is from Immanuel Kant who said that aesthetic judgements are one's 'whose determining ground can be no other than subjective'. In other words beauty is a concept that is relative to individuals or indeed cultures or periods in time. Aesthetic relativism sounds rather sensible but it has the potential to create a crazy, confused and ultimately ugly world as complete freedom and chaos are inextricably linked.

In the middle of the eighteenth century the Viscount Bangor and his wife the Lady Anne Bligh, both people who were passionate about architecture, decided to have a house built -- the only problem was that they were unable to agree on the style and the result was the most hideous compromise.

The photo is the front elevation of Castle Ward in Northern Ireland, built to the specifications of the Viscount Bangor. As you can probably tell, the Viscount was a 'Classicist' favouring Doric columns, palladian proportions and triangular consoled pediments. The classical style wasn't limited to the front elevation, it was continued into the front half of the house which was complete with the appropriate friezes and yes, more and more columns. Now this is where things go slightly crazy and you begin to see the flaws in the principals of aesthetic relativism. Lady Anne Bligh was not remotely impressed with the classical style instead favouring the newly popular Gothic style.

This second photo is the rear elevation of Castle Ward designed to the Gothic specifications of Anne. Again the Gothic details were not limited to the pointed windows and quatrefoils of the rear elevation, the back half of rooms included such features as vaulted ceilings that fit in with the style. I hope you agree that this is more than simple compromise it is lunacy. But how do reconcile the two diametrically opposing ideas of beauty? I'm sure we all have an opinion as to whether the Viscount Bangor or the Lady Anne had a better vision of beauty but it is the tyranny of relativism which dictates that we are incapable of asserting that our beliefs are correct.

Without assertion of belief there can be no discussion let alone argument. If we are all right, who could possibly dare challenge our opinions? Thankfully compromises between individuals rarely lead to the extreme idiocy that led to the creation of Castle Ward but our built up environments are by and large ugly, without the ability to assert this nothing will ever change. So what am I saying? Have an opinion and don't feel afraid to express it because, well, some people's ideas of beauty are just plain wrong.