Just for fun

Brussels, Music, and Humanity

EDITOR’S NOTE: This essay is reprinted here with the gracious permission of
The Brussels Times, where it first appeared.

Brussels is at its best in early Summer. It has nothing to do with the weather or Spring. The Grand Place is as beautiful as always and Gare du Nord as ugly as it is in every other month. The Cathedral of St. Michael and St. Gudula is still a triumph of the gothic style. And the Quartier Léopold – the European quarter – is still that very same exponent of postmodern architecture and style (or lack thereof). And yet in May something happens to Brussels that transforms it into the capital of beauty for at least a brief moment. It is a concentration of such beauty, talent and aspiration that it lifts the city out of the realm of everyday life. It is the Queen Elisabeth Competition.

Romantic souls tend to believe that true love never dies. “Though lovers be lost, love shall not” – Dylan Thomas wrote in one of his most loveable poems. I like to believe in that too, even though I have witnessed all too often how the bulwarks of reality break the waves of love and know that even the purest kinds of love can be exhausted and lose their energy. Yet it seems fair to say that queen Elisabeth’s love for music continues to live on in the concours that she first organized in 1937, and that to this day makes Brussels and the world, if only for a brief spell, a more beautiful place – perhaps even a better place.

At times I am willing to believe that music makes the world and people truly better. The relationship between music and morality is something that has puzzled philosophers and writers for ages. Some – like Plato – believed that music risks to corrupt the soul. The Hungarian writer Sándor Márai expressed the belief that music is dangerous, because “it seems to carry a larger danger in that it has the power to arouse the deepest emotions in people.” These words were written down in Embers, arguably Márai’s most beautiful novel, in which profound emotions turn out to be profoundly problematic.

Many others though have argued that music awakens humanity in humankind. That it lifts man to higher levels of mutual understanding and that it binds people together. That it stimulates the senses and makes us more sensible and sensitive. Simply put, music makes us better persons.

Such a view was the leitmotif of many of the writings of Vladimir Jankélévitch. The French philosopher – who was also a fairly talented pianist – wrote a great deal about music. He wrote books about Fauré, Ravel, about the expressiveness and morality of music. He held the view that music is a duo of hearts and that it leads to the “disarmament of the hearts” of those who listen and are listened to. Jankélévitch believed that people rarely live their lives to the fullest. Very often we just slumber through life and fall prey to l’ennui: existential boredom. We are not concerned with how best to spend our time, but with how we can let time go by. And yet there are also moments and ways in which we are awakened from the slumber of every day life. Moments that break the banality of being. They are intense and “adventurous” moments that open our hearts and challenge our minds to such an extent that we can no longer have the luxury to be bored and feel as if a deeper meaning in life is lacking. Love is such an adventure. And so is music.

Queen Elisabeth would undoubtedly have been inclined to agree with Jankelevitch. In her correspondence with her friend Albert Einstein she expressed the view that music gives meaning to life, it makes us reach for a world beyond, something more profound and deeper, perhaps even something divine. Moreover, it helps us deal with the whims of fate and cope with tragedy. As is well known, Queen Elisabeth’s life wasn’t destitute of tragedy – epitomized in the untimely death of her husband, King Albert I.

I would love to sympathize with that positive view about music and morality, and maybe I do – I am not sure. But if music really has such a profound moral meaning, if it makes our lives more meaningful and our hearts and minds less empty, if it makes us better persons – are there kinds of music that are better equipped to do this than others? Or does any kind of music possess the same power to awaken people from their existential slumber? Probably not. Probably it is true that not all music has the same capacity to awaken our moral senses. But that might be a dangerous truth, for it entails the view that certain forms of music are better than others. That certain kinds of music might not at all awaken our moral senses, but might even hamper their development. Such a view opens a path down history one should not be very willing to take. It is a path of inquisition and Entartete Kunst, of books being banned and burned, of paintings and painters being destroyed, and of terrible misery.

In the end it is difficult to disagree with the great essayist George Steiner, who argued that art and the humanities don’t humanize at all. Steiner found this hard to accept. He could not fully understand it, and yet he could not deny either that even a man of culture who has a civilized mind can have evil in his heart. Almost moved to tears, Steiner recounted stories of Nazi’s who loved Mozart and Beethoven as intensely as they detested Jews, Slavs and anyone they believed to be Untermenschen. At one and the same day these Nazi’s could kill a couple of people in the morning and go to the opera in the evening. Where are the humanity and the power of music in that? In the face of evil, all that is beautiful is powerless.


The Persistence of Beauty

EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the address delivered by invitation to the Academy of Philosophy and Letters at its annual meeting in June, 2015.

It may be that the greatest challenge facing those who love classical music in our modern age is the one facing those who do not also love Beauty. Those who reject the idea of Beauty, who deny its value, or who relegate it to meaninglessness – as in fact so many of today’s most vocal proponents of classical music emphatically do – are at a loss to explain what it is that music offers us. What makes it worth conserving? What gives it meaning or makes it relevant to our lives? If classical music is not about beauty, then what is it about?

We might convincingly characterize all of classical music’s present struggles, as well our orchestras’ persistent failures, to find a place in today’s Brave New World as attempts to answer that question, avoiding a commitment to Beauty at whatever the cost. Our orchestras are in this predicament because they are, for the most part, run by those who do not admit or understand the nature of Beauty – or else who cannot or will not defend it. And let’s face it, it’s a dangerous thing to defend Beauty today. You’re likely to be assaulted with the Ugly stick. Many of those who would have stood up for Beauty very probably learned along the way that it is better to keep your head down and your mouth shut; it is far pleasanter, in many ways, to just go along with the rabble than to oppose it. And for the rabble, it’s now an unassailable given that music is not about Beauty.

Of course, the most obvious efforts to deny Beauty in classical music are the attempts to make the music itself ugly, or else to make it ridiculous. With that tactic alone orchestras have managed to drive away a great many decent people during the course of the last century. Music, the Modernists told us, has to be ugly because modern life is ugly. Webern and his Modernist pals may have been quite certain we’d all one day be whistling their horrendous atonal “tunes,” but they’d be hard pressed to find anyone today who could recall one. The Postmodernists tell us music must be ridiculous because life is ridiculous. They brought us stunt-men like John Cage, and pieces like the one I recorded with a European orchestra recently that included a part in the score written for an inaudible dog whistle. To drive the point quite literally “home,” Modernists house our orchestras in brutalist buildings of rust- and algae-streaked concrete, and Postmodernists impose on us concert halls that look like crashed-landed spaceships. Well, perhaps much about the way we live now is ugly and ridiculous, but we have only to look around us to be convinced that it’s largely the crackpot theories of the Modernists and Postmodernists that make it so.

Still, perhaps in the wake of the sickening devastation of the First and Second World Wars it was difficult not to sympathize with the Modernists’ sentiment. And that’s when the idea first seriously took root in the international music community. The horror that broke upon the world with the dawn of industrialized warfare must have seemed to suggest that the modern condition was one of an abject and novel ugliness. What the argument depends upon, however, is the assumption that, in an ugly world, Beauty is no longer relevant.

And it’s a losing argument. The ugly and the ridiculous in musical composition have been largely defeated in our concert halls because they have been rejected unequivocally by the human ear. When they do appear in a concert program today they are not-quite-ingeniously sandwiched in the middle of the evening, because programmers know that audiences will arrive late or leave early to avoid them. And it’s no good scorning the audience for its “philistine” appreciation of Beauty. They’ll just elect not to show up for the scorn or for anything else, either. In fact, not surprisingly, that is exactly what has happened as naturally conservative audiences abandoned their symphony orchestras.

It’s the source of much consternation for those who expect classical music to go the way of art, where fame and fortune reward offensive scribbles, mindless drippings, pickled sharks, and giant balloon animals. David Goldman, writing as “Spengler” about the phenomenon, wondered at the fact that art galleries devoted to ugly modernist art should be full while concert halls featuring the musical equivalent are empty:

When you view an abstract expressionist canvas, time is in your control. You may spend as much or as little time as you like, click your tongue, attempt to say something sensible and, if you are sufficiently pretentious, quote something from the Wikipedia entry on the artist that you consulted before arriving at the gallery. But when you listen to atonal music, you are stuck in your seat for as long as the composer wishes to keep you. It feels like many hours in a dentist’s chair from which you cannot escape. You do not admire the abstraction from a distance. You are actually living inside it. You are in the position of the fashionably left-wing intellectual of the 1930s who made the mistake of actually moving to Moscow rather than admiring it at a safe distance.

Music, perhaps for precisely this reason, has resisted the ideological uglification that the Brave New World order has imposed more successfully on its cousins Art, Poetry, and Literature. Music is still an unconquered repository of Beauty, standing like a fortress above the onslaught, built on a canon to which we still respond and always return. Orchestras, however disheartened they may profess to be at the prospect, will always perform Beethoven’s Fifth because audiences will always want to hear it. In fact, they will be more inclined to hear it the uglier our world becomes.

And that is because beauty does not deny the ugliness, the pain, the torments, the sorrows, or even the ordinariness or baseness of existence; it transforms them. Writing at the turn of the century about the push to make poetry vulgar, Samuel McChord Crothers put it in much the way any normal, decent person might. He called this person The Gentle Reader and he gave him these words:

When the poet delves in the grossness and the slag, he does so as one engaged in the search for the perfect. …So I say, when drain pipes and cross-cut saws and the beef on the butcher’s stalls are invested with beautiful associations and thrill my soul in some mysterious fashion, then I will make as much of these things as I do of the murmuring pines and the hemlocks. When a poet makes bank clerks and stevedores and wood-choppers to loom before my imagination in heroic proportions, I will receive them as I do the heroes of old. But, mind you, the miracle must be actually performed; I will not be put off with a prospectus.

In the canon of classical music, the miracle is often performed, and we attend concerts precisely to witness it – to take part in the miracle. Bank clerks and stevedores and wood-choppers alike realize in Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater – or in Bach’s St. Matthew Passion, Wagner’s Liebestod, Britten’s War Requiem, or the first movement of Tchaikovsky’s sixth symphony, for instance – at once both the commonality and the peculiarity of their condition and its woes, and they participate in the transformation of the slag and sorrow that accompanies their journey through the world into something transcendentally beautiful that shines from beyond it. When we reject Beauty – when we insist on wallowing in vulgarity and ugliness – what we ultimately reject is this possibility of transcendence. It might be even more accurate to say that we reject Beauty because we first reject the Transcendent Himself.

Without a way to reach beyond it, we are left to wander for a lifetime through the earth-bound desolation of our material reality, after which there is simply nothing. We retain, nevertheless, our deep need to escape from the bleakness of existence. But our only option now is to create our own heaven right here in the dust. We must shape our physical world into Utopia, by ourselves, with just the strength of our wills.

So what next for those who insist that music is not about Beauty? If music cannot, through Beauty, transform our relationship with or transcend the ugliness of reality, then it must change physical reality itself in order to eliminate ugliness. It must transform society. Next comes the insistence that we attach classical music to an ideology – to “change we can believe in.”

Orchestras, desperate to be relevant now that Beauty has been declared ir-relevant, get busily to work on everything except that one thing which they essentially exist to do. Sure, they play their concerts every week, but they’ve become a little apologetic about that part – and, on top of that, a little ironic about the fact that they’re playing Beethoven again. Like the hipster who wears dirty flannels with his carefully-coifed mustache lest you mistake him for someone “fashionable”, orchestras today want you to focus on their plans to bring about social progress lest you mistake them for the inheritors and champions of an art form created by dead, white, privileged, Christian, heterosexual, European men. They, after all, the consensus seems to assure us, are the cause of everything we need to change about society.

And this is where most efforts to describe just what it is that classical music is about are concentrated today: it’s about making our world a better place. Musicians are styled as ambassadors of change and sent out into their communities to show everyone that they are somehow more important, or at least more relevant, than they are willing or able to argue that Bach and Beethoven are. Orchestras clamor for anything written by or celebrating life’s “victims”, hoping to refute their historical association with life’s vilified “winners”. They set their hands and their instruments heroically to the task of bringing an end to inequality, poverty, injustice, and environmental abuse, to repairing our broken families and our failing schools, and to curing all kinds of systemic “-isms”, depending on who you talk to. Of course, all these things are easy to count even if they are difficult to measure. But they are nigh to impossible to achieve.

What will happen, we have to wonder, when orchestras and the canon of classical music inevitably fail to bring about world peace, the end of poverty, environmental balance, and homogenous diversity? Like the purveyors of the ugly and the ridiculous, orchestras selling social progress are on a collision course with reality. How many more decent, ordinary people will our orchestras alienate with their gross misunderstandings of both the nature of classical music and human nature itself?

Well, if it can’t cure society’s ills, then maybe it can do something for us as individuals. There’s a frenzy of interest that surrounds advances in neuroscience and nano-technology that promise to explain how music enhances our brains, how it facilitates our synapses, how it makes us better at math, and ultimately how it makes us more successful in our careers. After all, it must have some use in the material world. What can it profit us?

Anyone familiar with the struggles facing the long tradition of classical liberal education in today’s cynical “diploma market” will recognize this lamentable tune. And it reminds me of an amusing account that Kitty Ferguson shares in her book, The Music of Pythagorus:

When someone asked what the practical use of one theorem was, Euclid turned aside to his slave, sniffed, and muttered, ‘He wants to profit from learning, give him a penny.’ The Pythagorean aphorism was ‘A diagram and a step (an advance in knowledge), not a diagram and a penny.’

It’s quite a slippery subject, and difficult to tackle in our utilitarian age.  There is a valuable little university that I frequently come across in my travels that always vividly reminds me of this challenge. And that is because, in passing by, one can’t fail to notice its slogan, finger-painted as it is in gigantic letters all over the windows of its most prominent building: “Knowledge that works.”

Of course, there is knowledge that works, and it’s very important: knowing how to construct a Gothic arch or how to decipher an MRI scan, for example. But music was never that kind of knowledge. During the Middle Ages, it was an essential part of the Quadrivium, the second tier of the seven Liberal Arts – distinct from the Practical Arts such as medicine and architecture – and prerequisite to studies in philosophy and theology. All men whose station in life freed them from the necessity of learning a craft or trade studied music. It is not at all extraordinary that King Henry V composed some very respectable pieces himself – a Gloria and a Sanctus both survived the ravenous fires of the Reformation.

But even without knowing any of that, we might look around at the audiences in our concert halls. It’s becoming something of a cliché to remark on the grey hair. We wring our hands and wonder what would bring the young people to concerts? What do they want out of the experience? More fun? More excitement? More sex? But our obsession with youth and Youth Culture aside, what might we suppose our elders are hoping to “get” from the music? Do we ever ask ourselves why they make the considerable and ever-increasing effort to attend concerts? Why are those who contribute most generously to our institutions of classical music also the ones have so little time left to enjoy them?

The wisdom of age might consist largely of the ability to appreciate finally the value of things because there are simply fewer opportunities to use them as means. Striving gives way to circumspection; we draw nearer to the threshold that separates this world from the next. As we approach our natural end, perhaps we also approach an intimacy with ends.

Obviously, our elders come to concerts not because they hope the music will make them better at math or more successful in their careers. There is no use to which they plan to put the music they come to hear, cleverly plying it to realize their five- or ten-year plans. I think if we asked them, we would find that classical music for them is only about Beauty. I think they would sympathize with John Ruskin, who said, “Remember that the most beautiful things in the world are the most useless.”

And maybe this is the real reason that audiences for classical music are aging: that it takes so much longer for us to shake off the utilitarian mindset that pervades our modern world, so well-rooted it has become in our unexamined ways of thinking and being. It is harder and harder for us to find our way through our inherent materialism to that space in which we value a thing for itself alone. And until we can sit with classical music and value it in that way, then we don’t really value it at all.

As James Matthew Wilson reminded us at our conference last year, “Aristotle proposes that something is a good in itself when, in being done for or valued for itself, it is actually valued for the sake of beauty.” And what is classical music if it’s not this thing: a good in itself, valued for the sake of Beauty? All the for-sake-of-whiches that we try to attach to it fail to justify its existence and explain its value because they begin by precluding the thing which classical music essentially is.

Many of those who have abandoned classical music to its painful Modernist and Postmodernist contortions, including many of the conservatives who should have been its natural allies, have taken refuge in popular or rock music instead. And while that is understandable – because the pop and rock genres never abandoned the tonal language that makes music intelligible, and on top of that borrowed much of what works best from the classical tradition – it is also not a fair trade.

Classical music is almost entirely unlike pop or rock music. It belongs in a different category altogether. It is not something to be overheard, but something to which we must give our full attention. It is not entertainment, but something much more like a religious experience. In fact, the birth and history of classical music is inextricably joined to the history of the Church. And the completeness of their affinity is reflected in the traditions of the concert hall, in the way we approach the music and the way that we hear it. As Roger Scruton explains,

You entered both the church and the concert hall from the world of business, laying aside your everyday concerns and preparing to be addressed by the silence. You came in an attitude of readiness, not to do something, but to receive something. In both places you were confronted with a mystery, something that happened without a real explanation, and which must be contemplated for the thing that it is. The silence is received as a preparation, a lustration, in which the audience prepares itself for an act of spiritual refreshment.

The music, like the religious mystery, draws us into it and holds us in its enchantment. It opens for us a door into a space that exists beyond our physical world, and what we hear moving in the music through that space is us. The symphony takes us on a journey through the secretive shadows and the uncertain vistas of our human condition. It touches those things of value within us, and it invites them to witness the miracle of transubstantiation wherein the dross of our daily existence, however trivial or tragic, is changed into the possibility of our salvation. “Your feelings at the end of a great classical symphony,” Scruton confirms, “have been won from you by a process which involves your deepest being.”

Nothing like this happens at a rock concert. To begin with, we do not approach the music with the same preparation of stillness and silence. Instead, we are animated by a noisy sort of excitement that anticipates, in Scruton’s words again, “participation, rather than contemplation.”

If the classical concert is more like a religious experience, the rock concert, Scruton explains,

is more like a collective celebration, in which everyone joins in and there is no mystery at all – only life, expressed and accepted for what it is. In the usual Rock concert, the excitement, and the message, are contained in the very first bar. Rhythm, tonality and the main spurt of melody are thrust immediately into the ears of the listener. There is a ‘let’s go!’ feeling to the music, and an invitation to leave aside all those long-winded and difficult emotions that have hesitation as their initiating mark.

There is, of course, a certain exhilaration that this kind of raucous musical release brings us. But it is not like the transcendence that classical music offers us, either in its durability or its depth.

Johann Sebastian Bach said that “The aim and final end of all music should be none other than the glory of God and the refreshment of the soul.” That is another way to say that the aim and final end of all music should be Beauty, for it has always been with beauty that we glorify God just as it has always been beauty that refreshes our souls.

Bach’s is an unpopular notion in our secularist age. That the truth of it shines through all our willful and accidental corruptions and corrosions testifies to the fact that classical music is still indisputably and essentially about Beauty, even for those of us who do not believe in God. Beauty falls like the refreshing rain on all our souls alike.

But classical music will need champions in the camp of conservative thought to survive for the benefit of future generations. For those who might think they love classical music, but who detest Beauty or the God it traditionally glorifies even more, the only thing left to do is to silence the music in order to forget the God. And that, I suspect, is the greater part of the battle we’re facing next.


Beauty in Music: Inspiration and Excellence

Reprinted with gracious permission from The Society for Classical Learning, where it first appeared.

I. Beauty in Music

“[A]nd the Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and he became a living soul.” Genesis 2:7

Rhythms, melodies, harmonies speak to us of immaterial things

The modern world is full of false dichotomies. There are divisions between reason and revelation, fact and value, and male and female that require careful definition so that the desired joining of the two is possible. The division between the material and the immaterial, that is, the body and the spirit, is one of these. Genesis 2:7 speaks of forming Adam from the ground, and breathing into him the breath of life, or the spirit. Two things indeed, but curiously, the result of the combination of these two is the living soul. The one thing that seems clear here is that the soul is alive, and that it somehow is the combination of the two elements of matter and spirit.

The manner in which one walks can show the point of intersection between the physical and the spiritual – that is, the interface between the sensation of literal movement in sight and sound and the conclusions drawn about the intangible personality, mood, and emotional state of the walker. When the tempo of the walk is varied, observers draw different conclusions about the walker’s state of mind. What does tempo have to do with intangibles such as intention, friendliness, or confidence?

Plato’s famous lines in the third book of The Republic speak of how the musical modes are linked directly to the various character traits he is either for or against in his ideal City.

‘And which are the harmonies expressive of sorrow? You are musical, and you can tell me.’
‘The harmonies that you mean are the mixed and tenor Lydian…and such like.’
‘These then,’ I said, ‘must be banished…’

These modes are the basis for both melody and linear harmony, and when combined with rhythm made a place for music that was far larger in scope than that we offer today. That scope is nothing short of soul-shaping. In the conclusion to the Preface of his thoughtful book on musical aesthetics, philosopher Roger Scruton sees this scope:

It came as a surprise that so dry a question as “what is a sound?” should lead at last to a philosophy of modern culture. Had I thought more about the Pythagorean cosmology, and the true meaning of harmonia I should perhaps have known beforehand, that the ordering of sound as music is an ordering of the soul.

Plato seems to be recommending nothing short of government-run musical censorship. Our present-day enlightened embrace of all musical expressions is not so much the result of a hard-fought battle for individual freedom as a belief that music has no such powers to shape and affect the soul. If we really believed that music had the effect of training the next generation to be dissolute, irresponsible, and cowardly, we might find ourselves censoring music.

Listening to music is not the same activity as listening to sounds in general. The difference between them is that we listen to sounds in order to know the thing making the sound (the sound of a car or the sound of a baby crying), but we don’t listen to the sound of music to hear an oboe playing, or a guitar strumming. Rather, we listen to hear the sound it is making. We may recognize the sound comes from an oboe, but we want to hear what the oboe is playing. There is the source, but there is meaning in the order of the sounds themselves. The goal, when we listen to music, is to hear what it is saying: the contours of the melody, the harmony, the rhythm speak to us of a musical event. These elements are the medium by which the communications come – these elements are the language of the composer/performer.

Beauty is partly the correspondence between the material and immaterial

When we do hear these elements, we verbalize the experience in terms that are similar to other aspects of life. We describe personality traits, emotions, ideas, moods. Often unconsciously our minds are looking for patterns, symmetries, orders, and expressions that will speak to us of meaning. These physical sounds correspond to these intangible aspects of human experience. If there is a shape or trajectory to the experience of hurt in a broken heart, or the experience of awe before a King, it may be that composers can capture something of it in the various elements of a composition. The beauty of the work is partly the result of this perceived correspondence. There is something fitting, right, correct, or profound in a successful work that is beautiful, but to be able to perceive this correspondence, we need another element.

The imagination exists not so much for the purpose of making things up, but for recognizing correlation, relation between things – seeing connections. It is not by accident that we agree that the rhythm discovered in a brisk walk to the podium reflects confidence, or urgency, while a broken rhythm implies indecision, distraction, anxiety. We have experienced the connection between these things so often that we have learned to become fluent in this language.

Imagination is an organ of perception with which we can make this correlation: it pairs the physicality of a perceived music with human moods, characteristics, states of mind or personality. Just as we have linguistic metaphors, we also have musical metaphors. We describe the aspects of music in non-musical terms all the time: loud sudden outbursts may imply anger; melodies can be described as languorous, angular, smooth, tender, demanding, or questioning. These are by their linguistic nature metaphoric – the sounds themselves have none of these characteristics. Music is by its nature disembodied so if we are to speak of what it expresses, we are forced to use metaphoric language. The imagination grasps these relations. Could it be that our imaginations are not “making things up,” as much as recognizing a truth in correspondence? When we find just the right metaphor, when we hit on the right combination and communicate it precisely, it is part of the experience we call the perception of beauty.

The telos of music

Music is thought to be an entertainment, a diversion, a mood-setter, or a time-filler. But for the ancient and medieval scholars, music was a window through which one could see the created order, as well as a way of training the soul toward integrity.

The beauty of music is one of the sources of Plato’s hierarchy of love in the Symposium and in The Republic:

And therefore, I said, Glaucon, musical training is a more potent instrument than any other, because rhythm and harmony find their way into the inward places of the soul, on which they mightily fasten, imparting grace, and making the soul of him who is rightly educated graceful, or of him who is ill-educated ungraceful; and also because he who has received this true education of the inner being will most shrewdly perceive omissions or faults in art and nature, and with a true taste, while he praises and rejoices over and receives into his soul the good, and becomes noble and good, he will justly blame and hate the bad, now in the days of his youth, even before he is able to know the reason why; and when reason comes he will recognize and salute the friend with whom his education has made him long familiar…
…Thus much of music, which makes a fair ending; for what should be the end of music if not the love of beauty?

Plato taught that a love of music instilled a love of beauty that spilled over into all areas of life, leading up the hierarchy to love of justice. Roger Scruton has written, “…beauty is not simply a redundant addition to the list of human appetites. It is not something that we could lack and still be fulfilled as people. It is a need arising from our metaphysical condition as free individuals, seeking our place in an objective world.”

If the telos of music is beauty, how then do we teach music? By training our students’ imaginations, starting with how to hear the elements of music. The elements of Adam were matter and spirit, fused together to make a living soul that reflects the Imago Dei. The elements of music are: rhythm, melody, harmony, form, texture, and timbre, fused together to make a composition that can reflect the ideas, experiences, the very humanity of both composer and listener. Knowing what to listen for, we begin a new way of listening for the student. The ability to discern, to distinguish, to perceive the language of music is the beginning of genuine taste about music, and taste is a facet of wisdom. So music is forming our souls; it really does matter what we listen to, and what we offer in our services, just as it matters what our churches look like, and how our liturgies are designed, not only for didactic purposes – to have our theology correct – but to link the harmony of the Trinity with our daily lives.

So where does music come from? Is there more to music than emotional expression or mood setting?

II. Inspiration

“…I have called by name Bezalel…and I have filled him with the spirit of God, in wisdom, and in understanding, and in knowledge…” Exodus 31:2

The Greek Muses

Many of the Greek writers mention the Muses. Homer, Socrates, and others speak of them, but Hesiod is the one who speaks of the specifics that are commonly held. There are nine:

Calliope – eldest, epic poetry
Clio – history
Erato – love poetry
Euterpe – music
Melpomene – singer of tragedy
Polyhymnia – sacred poetry and geometry
Terpsichore – dance
Thalia – comedy and pastoral poetry
Urania – astronomy/astrology

These nine sing their inspirations. The Muses inspired far more than the subject of music only. Their subjects include all of our human artistic and intellectual pursuits, and the inspiration for each was conveyed by way of song. The very word music is taken from Mousike Techne (“the work of the Muses”). Nearly everything that we today refer to as “the arts and sciences” were, in the Greek mind, inspired through song by the Muses, and that inspiration leads Homer to compose The Illiad, leads Thucydides to write The Peloponnesian Wars, leads Sophocles to write Oedipus Rex, and leads Pythagoras to discover musical harmony and the music of the spheres. What comes is an approach which is so inspired, that is, that resonates with the truth to such a degree, that it will feed philosophers, scientists, and artists for millennia: the prerequisite for beauty is harmonia – the fitting, right, and mathematically sound interrelations of disparate objects. These Nine Muses were the keepers of the secret knowledge of harmony, and the significance of this knowledge and its power and influence over all of life are symbolized by the fact that they are the daughters of Zeus himself.

Beauty can be reflected in painting, sculpture, photographs, but there are arts such as plays, films, and music that include another aspect of human experience: time. As soon as you introduce the element of time, one’s perception of the work requires the ability to remember what has already occurred. Memory thus becomes a significant aspect in the immediate apprehension of these arts. To lose your memory is to lose yourself. If you can’t recall your identity, every effort must be made to rectify the situation. Memory is essential to identity. It is also essential to apprehending music, for exactly the same reason.

Music traces a pattern in the mind that lingers after the music moves on. The memory holds that trace, and the composer counts on our capacity to do so in order to describe the pattern fully. Like words in a sentence, we encounter music as moments in linear succession, but musical patterns are made without words; that is, the pattern is not literal but rather more like patterns in architecture or a garden because they too are each apprehended in succession. The Greeks gave one answer for both the questions: Where does music come from, and what part does memory play in its perception? We know that the father of the Muses is Zeus himself, but we seldom hear about their mother: her name was Mnemosyne (“Memory”). So, for real inspiration, great knowledge, for our right creative gifts to be released to do their jobs, to comprehend the nature of tragedy, epic, history, science, dance, even theology, we need the authority of Zeus, but we also need the knowledge of what has gone before – we need memory. This memory is not only of the previous words and notes in the artwork to which we presently attend, but the knowledge of our own history. What have great artists of the past done? How are we inheritors of their wisdom?

How then do we teach music? History. We need to remember. But there is one more thing to consider.

III. Excellence

“Finally, brothers, whatever things are true,… honest,…just,… pure,…lovely,…of good report, if there be any virtue, and if there be anything worthy of praise, think on these things.” Philipians 4:8

Our day is as much the product of history as any other day. We are the inheritors of a relatively new field of study called aesthetics. It is a modern word, first coined in the 18th century, and discussed at length by Immanuel Kant and others until eventually the whole line of inquiry was relegated to the subjective world of values, to join her sister faith in that limbo. As a result, in the last 225 years, our culture has assumed that beauty first is only a matter of individual experience, and eventually, a matter of purely personal preference. Once the goal is mislaid, it is impossible to gauge whether a work is growing closer to it, so the loss of a telos requires the loss of a concept of excellence. Innovation and technical ability soon take the place of real imagination, correlation, and beauty.

Thus, the loss of what the ancient Greeks and Christians, as well as the Medieval Christians, thought of as excellence in art in general and music in particular is really a modern loss of confidence. The literal meaning of confidence suggests acting con fide (“with faith”). A lack of faith in God leads eventually to a lack of the ability to produce “simple predication” (as Richard Weaver would say). At first we lose the ability to say, “This is the point of art.” Then we lose the ability to say, “That is beautiful and that is not.” Then “that is art and that is not.” And eventually we find we can only say, “There is nothing more to art than the shock of the new; the expression that forces an audience to respond.” Reinstate faith, and we find ourselves led back to a definition of beauty that finds its source in the perfect character of God, and once He is our standard, “better” and “worse” are meaningful categories again. Beauty is the goal of art – I don’t say “prettiness” is the goal – I say beauty.

Then what is this beauty? How many philosophers have run aground making rules about beauty? What we need are not so much cultural standards by which to retroactively judge the beauty of an object; what we need is a useful foundational principle and definition of the word “objective.”

Objective beauty is simply that which is found in the object rather than in the response of the viewer/listener. Thomas Aquinas held that beauty was defined both by the characteristics of the object and the effect that object has on the viewer/listener. Ultimately, the Christian view of beauty will include both aspects in imitation of higher models, but when one’s day is dominated by the subjective side of the spectrum, as we are today, a reintroduction of the opposite side is welcome. We must reintroduce the study of form. When one describes the contours of the piece of music itself, the way it is composed, the way it is performed, the form it offers for contemplation, the meaning of the words chosen, one is describing the object itself, and the resulting opinion offered based on these things should be called “objective.” Don’t make the mistake of hearing “objective” as a synonym for “truth” as some will assume. The truth is far more illusive, and we have hardly scratched that surface with this approach. But what we have done is regained a category for musical discussion that requires thought. What we need is a definition of objective that leads to a fuller understanding of the work instead of considering a work based solely on whether or not we are moved by it. Teaching objectively about music means that we will address three aspects (at least):

Performance (an evaluation of the virtuosity of the performer)
Composition (an evaluation of the means of musical expression)
Content (an evaluation of the message or statement of the work)

All three of these require study, and that study will not only reveal what there is to know about the piece of music in question, but also will hone the sensibilities of the listener to be increasingly able to discern and explicate music. Over time, exposure to this sort of approach feeds our starved imaginations on excellence, and we find that instead of having to tell students not to listen to music that we might consider bad for them, they find they simply aren’t all that interested in the trivial, the base, the coarse. There would be nothing more encouraging for a music teacher than to hear a singer screaming his one-dimensional song of pain and passion, longing to be taken seriously, only then to see his student yawn and change the station.

A Theological basis for excellence

What then would be a basis for a Christian school intent on teaching excellence? We teach that taste is more than personal preference; it is a facet of wisdom. Taste is the ability to discern between what is good and what is excellent. Discernment comes more by way of regular exposure and experience (as a master trains the wine-taster’s palate or the piano tuner’s ear) than with rules and requirements. What is needed is a master teacher who can not only know music but make connections from music, by the imagination through metaphors, to the realm of human experience, and finally to real theology.

Any work of art requires an element of unity and of diversity combined. The Greeks debated about the one and the many, but great works have both elements. The reason is that the Creation itself reflects both unity and diversity in each of its categories (such as tree, fish, man), and we find we are only satisfied when the two are present. Too much unity? Tedium. Too much diversity? Chaos. Why should it surprise us that both the Creation and our tastes are created by a God who is ultimately both perfect unity and harmonious diversity in His Trinity?

The basis for the work of art-making is found in the doctrine of the Incarnation. We are taking invisible things such as ideas, experiences, feelings, and making them perceivable through the various physical media we use (clay, film, stone, paint, music).

Even the basis for an understanding of why we need musical education is theologically based. Our imaginations are damaged by the Fall as well. Through the study of music (or art in general) we grow in our abilities to see connections between things. In modern thought the damage done to our tastes is ignored by simply relegating the entire category of beauty to the dustbin of subjectivity, but a kind of human maturity can come as the result of taking the claims of beauty seriously. The reality is that we are aesthetically damaged as well as in every other way, and the only way back to fuller humanity is through prayer and a rethinking of the definition of taste for His glory.

Education is more than teaching about subjects; it is the training of the sensibilities to love that which is worth loving, attaching the heart to the good. Music has been taught in the Classical and Medieval worlds as a means of shaping the soul to live the good life. We need to rekindle an appreciation for music in that way, rather than offering either standardless popular music or esoteric academic music. I am convinced that if we were to take the connections to our theology seriously we would find we could reintroduce the general public to the concert hall again, as the music there would be relevant again.

So, how then do we teach music? We do it by way of comparison. Compare the works of our composers in the past and the present, and offer the foundation of criteria to evaluate the object, beginning with the performance, the composition and the content. Then, include the aspect of making music, by piano, orchestral and band instruments, and choral singing. The composition makes use of the form and elements of music, and that, with a sense of what the music is saying, leads the performer to his interpretation. It is what makes music meaningful to all concerned.

IV. Conclusions: a sacramental view of the world

“For judgment I have come into this world, so that the blind will see and those who claim to see shall become blind.” John 9:39

The Naturalism that disallows serious consideration of the supernatural has led to many unforeseen consequences, not the least of which is the loss of the spiritual purpose of material things. When Jesus calls himself the vine and us the branches, he has opened our eyes to an aspect of the Kingdom of God, but in speaking so, he has also given a great honor to vines. Without the supernatural dimension in our thinking, we may still have vines, but on closer inspection, we will find that vines have lost something in the transaction. They are somehow less grand.

In the same way, a sacramental view of music grants a special honor and significance to music – a position that allows us insight into the mind of God and his Creation by way of harmony.

The combination of a sacramental view of the world with a holy imagination can feed the soul with visions of the transcendent through the details of the world. This is beauty – the correspondence of the material object with the transcendent spirit – a resonance of harmony heard through the din of the fallen world. Please note I do not say in spite of the fallen world – although it is that at times – but even by way of the fallen world. This is the power of God: to show His harmony even through the elements of brokenness around us.

A sacramental view of the world suggests a metaphoric relationship between the physical and the spiritual, and this in turn gives rich depth to metaphors of all kinds, including musical ones. It also gives us a purpose for art and music: beauty. Beauty is at least in part the recognition of the correlation of matter and spirit, and we need to teach the next generations to unpack those metaphors – to see sacramentally. This requires the inspiration of God the Holy Spirit, the true Muse the Greeks could only guess about, and the gift God gives us of an imagination.

Beauty has lost its way in the 20th century in that we have lost our connection with the transcendent – that is, you cannot have the experience of seeing through the objects of this world into the next if you no longer believe there is a next. Naturalism, that seemed so optimistic in the 18th century, now appears a dead-end intellectually. Nature apart from her Creator becomes meaningless matter, and sadly, human enterprise can aspire to nothing higher than that same soul-less existence. The modern man (and I include the post-modern man in this) is haunted by his own humanity, seeing the ghosts of meaning, significance, ecstasy, profundity, joy, in the daily grind of his life. When he stops to reflect, he senses the musical rhythm in his breathing, his heartbeat, his walking pace; sometimes there seems to be more to eating meals than sustenance; he catches the notion of harmony in a well-run football play; perhaps a momentary glimpse of unity where he most expects diversity, say in his marriage; or diversity where he most expects unity, say in his twin children; he may even lift his head from anxiety long enough to find a certain joy in the rhythm of sleeping and working, or maybe looking back on a long life, discern even a kind of melody in his days, a certain beauty in the rise and fall of his fortunes, each connected in a line to the others in ways that couldn’t be seen while going through them.

This is what music is for. More than simply a means of distraction from the hard aspects of life – like a sort of emotional drug used to deaden us or entertain us while we rest – music has the ability to outline something of the actual experience of living. It speaks of the human condition because it is, like any metaphor, the use of the physical material of this world to draw attention to that which transcends our present moment. It has the ability to both reflect our experiences and shape the way we see them.

Music education then, has the ability to remind us of the relation of this matter and spirit, shaping our souls to love the beauty of harmony. This is why the ancients educated by way of music and gymnastics. This is why music has always held the position it does in the Quadrivium. Musical education leads to a love of harmony in all things.

How do we teach music? The elements, the history, the comparisons of excellent works, and finally the extension of this harmony – which is the beautiful relation of disparate things – to all aspects of life: to justice, to marriage, to virtuous business relations, to love of those who are different than yourself, to math, science, philosophy, and ultimately to the Triune God Himself. The beauty of harmony tunes our affections to virtue, love, and the mind of God.

Music rightly understood cannot save our souls, but what writer and critic Donald Drew has said about great literature applies to music as well, “after experiencing it, there will be more of a soul there to save.”


Works Cited

Plato. The Republic, Book III.
Scruton, Roger. Aesthetics of Music.
_______. “Beauty and Desecration,” City Journal, Feb. 2009.


Renewing and Rejecting

It has been widely accepted for a hundred years, and in any case since Oswald Spengler’s Decline of the West, that ‘the West’ denotes a comprehensive form of human life, that this form was once flourishing and expanding, and that it is now declining into sterility and self-doubt. The sense of living at the end of things is so widespread that those who seek to renew our cultural inheritance, to affirm their faith, or to draw upon the legacy of self-confidence that was handed down with the Enlightenment, tend to be regarded either as weird eccentrics or as dangerous reactionaries. This is especially the case in the universities and cultural institutions, where a kind of morose antipathy to the Western inheritance accompanies a deep suspicion of all those who wish to teach it and to build on it.

It is not just that we, in the West, have developed a critical response to our own traditions. Self-criticism is a virtue, and part of what distinguishes Western civilisation from its more evident rivals, such as Islam. The great turning points and refreshments of the Western spirit have come about through questioning things – at the Renaissance, for example, when our artistic practices were measured against those of the ancient world and found wanting, at the Reformation, when our religious institutions were mocked, satirised, and eventually reformed in response to radical scepticism, at the Enlightenment, when everything was turned upside down in the name of Reason. Through all such upheavals our forebears maintained a distinctive continuity of interest and inspiration, which can be seen in all the institutions that survived into modern times, and of course in the extraordinary artistic traditions that are the glory of our civilisation.

At a certain stage, however, and for no apparent reason, self-criticism gave way to repudiation. Instead of subjecting our inheritance to a critical evaluation, seeking what is good in it and trying to understand and endorse the ties that binds us to it, a great many of those appointed as cultural stewards – professors of humanities, curators, producers, critics, cultural advisers and commissars – chose rather to turn their backs on it. The prevailing idea seemed to be ‘this is all dead and gone. We can pretend to be part of it, but the result will be pastiche or kitsch.’ And this repudiation of the tradition has been accompanied by vigorous denunciations of the social order and mores of those who formerly enjoyed or created it, whose sexist, racist, hierarchical, etc. attitudes apparently distance them incurably from us living now. I think everybody who has attended a humanities department in one of our universities will be familiar with this attitude, and with the ‘culture of repudiation’ that has arisen around it.

Two examples of this culture of repudiation are of particular interest to me, since they illustrate the enormous damage that it is inflicting on our society. The first is architecture, the second classical music, both practices integral to the health and happiness of a modern city, and both betrayed for no good reason by the ‘experts’ into whose hands they have been placed.

Architecture and music are worth comparing for one very important reason, which is that, while the second is a fine art, and one that entirely draws on its own resources for its own spiritual ends, the first is a skill, which is measured partly in terms of its utility, and which cannot in the nature of things demand genius or originality from its ordinary practitioner. This distinction has been acknowledged at least since the birth of philosophical aesthetics in the eighteenth century, and it is of increasing importance to us, in an age when critics and impresarios count ‘originality’, ‘creativity’, ‘transgression’ and ‘challenge’ as the primary aesthetic values, and dismiss the love of beauty as a lingering form of nostalgia.

When it comes to building a city, an enterprise undertaken by many hands over many years, and in which the principal goal is to create an enduring community united by the sense of settlement, it is rarely possible to call on a single architect to create the final result. To see a city as an act of originality, creativity, or self-expression is precisely to wrest it free from the world of human uses and to place it in its own museum – like the unliveable city created by Le Corbusier at Chandigarh. The great and successful cities of Western civilisation – Paris, Florence, Barcelona, Edinburgh, the German cities so tragically destroyed in the Second World War – have not been conceived as works of art, and certainly not built with the idea of originality in mind. They are evolved solutions to the problem of settlement. They achieve order and unity by the devices that are natural to us, when we strive to fit in with others in an enterprise that we did not begin. They use patterns, materials, and details that naturally fit together; their buildings are aligned along streets; they exhibit the feel for proportion and scale which people understand without knowing how to explain it. And they are organised according to a kind of ‘generative grammar’, which is like a language in that anybody can learn it and make his own remarks by means of it, but which is normally spoken in straight and unoriginal prose.

This grammar has been much studied, and has undergone periods of renewal and revision, notably at the Renaissance, and during the emergence of the Georgian pattern-book and the Victorian neo-Gothic. But it existed right up to modern times, and can be witnessed in the cast-iron columns and tin cornices of Lower Manhattan as much as in the Gothic arches of an English country church or the rhythmical fenestration of a Georgian terrace. Anybody can learn it, and anybody can also learn to adapt it to new uses and new materials. Quite suddenly, however, in the wake of the modernist movement, the architectural schools turned their backs on this grammar and the tradition that it represented – a tradition as old as Western civilisation. It was not that they had simply absorbed the critical spirit of the modernists, or were looking for ways to use the new materials and new engineering skills in ways that would harmonize with the on-going tradition of city-building and city-dwelling. They were in a state of out-and-out repudiation. The past was the past and no longer available. We were not to belong to it. We were to begin again, with something entirely new. Building was to start a priori from wholly new assumptions, and any attempt to fit in to the old idea of the street, or the old vocabulary of detail and the old genial syntax with which people had built side by side in harmony, was a kind of betrayal, a lapse into ‘pastiche’, ‘nostalgia’, and ‘fake’.

What exactly do those terms mean? And if they mean something, is it a bad thing that they mean? And if it is a bad thing, is the only way to avoid it through some act of total repudiation? Those surely, are the questions that we ought to be addressing, but which are almost nowhere discussed in schools of architecture. And we should set this fact beside another, which is that, whatever we think about the old ways of building, it is to these old ways of building that people gravitate, not only as tourists (though how many tourists clock in to downtown Tampa, or the concrete suburbs of Paris?), but as residents too. Indeed, if you explore the private residences of modernist architects you will find that they often lie discreetly behind elegant façades in unspoiled countryside or (in the case of Richard Rogers) in a Portuguese fishing village composed of the old materials in the old vernacular idiom and inaccessible by road. People flee the new structures, which are imposed on them by planners and impresarios who seek to claim credit for their advanced taste, but who would not dream of living in the result. Why, in the light of this, was it not possible to go on in the old way – not repeating what had been done, but nevertheless adapting it to our changing uses? What indeed was it that caused the radical break, the act of repudiation? Why should we think that adaptation, on which all communities, all species, all individuals depend, is somehow no longer available?

This same question haunts the world of classical music. As I suggested, the two cases are distinct, in that most surviving architecture is the product of ordinary and uninspired people, guided (at best) by good manners and considerateness, whereas most surviving music is the product of artistic inspiration. But this difference makes the comparison all the more instructive. The classical tradition in music has evolved through a continuous dialogue between creative composers and a self-sustaining community of performers, listeners and concertgoers. Unlike architecture, which is imposed on all of us regardless of whether we like it, music can only be imposed on those who want to listen to it or perform it, and therefore survives only through its appeal. When a style becomes tired, when a musical vocabulary declines into repetition and cliché, it loses its audience, or retains their interest only in an uninvolved way, like background music in a restaurant. The tradition then depends on renewal – on the artist who, like Beethoven, discovers a new application and a new territory into which the old devices can be extended. This situation is beautifully dramatized in Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, where Wagner epitomizes the dialogue between the musician and the audience. The new melodic language of Walther adapts to the musical tradition of Nuremberg, which in turn adapts to Walther’s melody. The drama shows the audience evolving in response to the music, and the music shaping itself in response to an existing tradition, so as to become part of it by also changing it.

Just such an evolution was in Schoenberg’s mind, when he began his experiments in atonality. He became increasingly aware that experimental music means nothing if it cannot create an audience adapted to it – an audience that takes pleasure in hearing it, and which responds to it in something like the way that it responds to the existing repertoire. Whatever we think of the result (and in my view it is best described as ‘patchy’) the intention was to renew a tradition, and not to turn one’s back on it. By the time of Darmstadt, however, the culture of repudiation had taken over. With Stockhausen and Boulez it was no longer a question of adapting music to the audience, and the audience to the music. It was a question of starting again, from a new conception of the art of sound. And if the audience didn’t like the result, that was only further proof of its reality as a ‘challenge’ and a ‘transgression’. Besides, in the new state-controlled culture of post-war Europe an audience was no longer necessary. The arts could be entirely funded by the state and the state, as a socialist institution, could be entirely controlled by the modernists – by those believers in progress and the future for whom the past had finally refuted itself. That, essentially, was the cultural bequest of post-war Germany, and it proved infectious even here in America. Every attempt by composers to establish some kind of continuity with the existing repertoire, and to appeal to a community of listeners whose ears had been shaped by the tonal language, has been regarded with suspicion by the avant-garde, and as a rule dismissed as pastiche or cliché.

Interesting here is the case of George Rochberg, the American composer who joined the post-war cult of serialism and made his own highly competent contributions to the genre, before admitting to himself, following the tragic death of his teenage son, that serialism is empty of expressive content, and could not be a vehicle for his grief. It took courage for Rochberg then to do what his artistic conscience told him to do, and to return to the classical tradition. “There is no greater provincialism,” he wrote in 1969, “than that special form of sophistication and arrogance which denies the past.” Thereafter Rochberg allowed his music to be guided by his ear, not by fashionable theories, and produced three or four of the most beautiful string quartets of the 20th century. The third quartet was dismissed by Andrew Porter as ‘almost irrelevant’ and became the target of relentless abuse and scorn from the academic critics, the more so in that it was openly popular. And in due course it had a real influence on such composers as David Del Tredici and John Corigliano. Despite being dismissed as pastiche, Rochberg’s quartets are, it seems to me, genuinely original – and their originality consists in their studious respect for the principles of voice leading and romantic harmony, even while expressing the composers very real desolation at his loss.

Most people now live in cities – or rather they congregate around cities, while increasingly avoiding the heart of them, fleeing for protection to the suburbs. But if we ask what draws them, nevertheless, into the city centre two things above all seem important: first traditional architecture, which creates the vision of a community of free beings at peace; second the symphony hall, which invites the listener into another, inward vision of the same free community. And just as a city renews itself through adapting to new uses, while maintaining continuity with its past, so does the classical tradition in music renew itself, by incorporating new feelings and new forms of social life into the live tradition of polyphonic sound. This kind of renewal is never achieved by repudiation. Only by adapting what has worked for us, can we embrace and give form to what is new.

Our model for the future should therefore not be the sterile works of Stockhausen and Boulez but the patient attempts to adapt the old to the new, and to find notes that touch the hearts of listeners because they express the heart of their composer. George Rochberg’s music points us in this direction. But it raises the question that surely troubles all serious music-lovers now, which is whether we can find our way to a musical syntax which is as expressive as the tonal language of Rochberg, but which is not shut off from the surrounding world of popular culture. This is the theme to which I shall address myself in my next post.


The Fear of Backwardness

EDITOR’S NOTE: This is an edited transcription of the lecture delivered by Léon Krier at our inaugural The Future of the Symphony Conference in September 2014. The video of this lecture can be viewed here.

Many of our doings and sayings are really motivated by fear. René Girard, who is well known in this country, has differentiated very clearly desires – metaphysical desires, desires which are directly motivated by bodies, and desires which imitate other desires but which are not felt, which are not considered to be of strict necessity. We still do not quite understand what motivates this desire – that the desire of desire can be stronger than the desire itself. For instance, Girard identifies anorexia as not a physical but a mental debility in which somebody desires something that he does not understand and that can destroy him. And fashion is really that phenomenon which explains or realizes the extraordinary dominance nowadays of metaphysical desire. How otherwise to explain the fact that, for about eighty years now, many gifted musicians refuse to write music, but write a kind of anti-music which instead of giving pleasure gives pain?

How can one explain that despite the failure of modern architecture – which was very visible already from the start – such a flawed theory, demonstrated by extremely bad results in both the urban sense and the architectural/technological sense, came to be repeated so many times around the world and then became the dominant system, not only in our cities but above all in our education system, forbidding any reference to traditional architecture or urbanism except as something which is no longer allowed? I studied for two terms at Stuttgart University, and when I understood that what was being taught there was going to destroy any idea that had motivated me to study architecture, I gave up.

The Washington Monument at dawn, Baltimore
Baltimore’s Washington Monument at dawn.

I had the extraordinary chance to have been born in a very beautiful environment, and I found the pleasure I had known in that formidable environment again this morning, very briefly at six o’clock, when I got up in my room here in the hotel. This is not a romantic vision of Caspar David Friedrich, but it’s actually the main square on Charles Street. It is this experience, this personal experience, that has marked anybody who is really interested in traditional architecture or traditional music. Most people are marked by this extraordinary experience, and I think the most important distinction which we have to make is that traditional architecture and traditional music are not historical phenomena, but transcendent phenomena. They are like language, or like mathematics, or like anything good: they are really atemporal goods – good beyond their time.

I try to educate my students to make a fundamental distinction – not to use the term historical architecture, but to distinguish traditional architecture and modernist architecture by a technological difference. In fact, traditional architecture is defined by technology, and therefore is atemporal. It is not linked just to the past, but is that experience of humans building at their scale because there is no other possibility. Obviously the use of fossil fuel energies has created the extraordinary possibility to ignore human capacities, to ignore climate, to ignore soil, and build virtually the same kind of buildings everywhere, independent of climate and of geography.

Echternach, Luxembourg
Echternach, Luxembourg.

I grew up in Luxembourg City, which was virtually intact despite the Second World War that passed over and destroyed the northern part of the country. But I was educated in the small town of Echternach which had been completely destroyed by the Brunstad Offensif. Most of the American artillery was sitting on one side and they would bombard the Germans on the other by artillery, and on the way, they destroyed the city. This is considered by most people as an historic city but is in fact a reinvention of the 1940s and 1950s. I grew up in these building sites and it was an extraordinary experience which has lasted for a lifetime. I have pursued this kind of environment all my life. And I realize, now that I am 68, that all my theories and writings have been about how to make such an environment – not only to preserve it, but to create it ex novo.

I spend my summers in Mallorca practicing music, and also under this porch I have been writing a book which is called Corbusier After Le Corbusier. In it I am reforming, correcting, and translating Corbusier’s ideas into traditional architecture. For a musician it would be extremely interesting (and I think there are people actually attempting) to take Pierrot Lunaire and write out the ideas – because there are ideas in Pierrot Lunaire as well as interesting forms and expressions – but to translate it in a mode of Mahler or of Mozart, or of anyone who wrote music which you can listen to the second time without getting bored.

Palma de Mallorca, Spain
Palma de Mallorca, Spain.

Because what those great musicians have done is virtually invented a world from scratch, building on an enormous edifice of sounds, to create something which is entirely new, in the same way that architecture was invented two thousand, three thousand years ago – many, many centuries and millennia ago. Musical architecture, in that sense of symphonic monumentality and extraordinary spatial dimension, is something relatively new. It is such a glorious experience that you cannot imagine that it will go for a thousand years. There won’t be ten thousand Brahmses or Mozarts writing two thousand five hundred symphonies.

On the other hand, I think that, because they have discovered this world, once we have studied it and, with our sensibilities and the enormous talent which is born every day, met this world, that it will become our own. And then one can probably write a fifth or sixth Brahms symphony which will be as good as the first or second. I think it can be so because there really are new worlds. Discovering one is like moving into a painting – imagine a great landscape of Claude Lorrain and painting it the other way around. It’s virtually an invention of landscape but you can move in it. It’s actually what film does: from one image you create a world. The one world is concentrated in a single image.

I grew up as a modernist, of course, in revolt against my parents. My mother was a musician. I drove them mad with Schoenberg and Webern and so on. My mother always said of Stravinsky’s music, “What is this horse burial? Why do you play this?” And of course, my first building designs were extreme acts of provocation and protest. It’s really when I did my first project for the town where I had been educated, Echternach, that I realized Corbusier could no longer be my master – because plowing any of these enormous buildings which I had been drawing into such a town would mean utter destruction. It is only when I started doing these kinds of projects that I felt the necessity to really relearn a craft that is no longer taught.

Now, it took me twenty years to build the theory which is now being practiced as New Urbanism. It was truly an act of rediscovery – uncovering what had been done for thousands of years before. But what we do not do today is understand the motivating force of modernism. We really don’t understand what modernism is. Well, there are ways of approaching the problem or explaining it by metaphor and by allegory. Modernism in architecture – and music – is very much like the artificial invention of a language, like Esperanto. Esperanto was used by tradesmen and by a very small number of people. But imagine that a very powerful political group took over not just a province or a country, or even a continent, but over the world and imposed Esperanto as a single language, forbidding all other languages and declaring them as purely historical – no longer valid, no longer legitimate for use today. That is what has happened to architecture and even to music.

In architecture it can be explained very simply in a material way. Because of the introduction and use of fossil fuel energies and the fabrication of new building materials, like steel-reinforced concrete or plastics or plate glass – all of which we need enormous amounts of energies to produce – we can achieve building performances which before were not possible with traditional, natural materials. Yet there is no specificity to these new materials. Most people think that concrete or steel or the industrial production of nails created new architecture. In fact, it is not architecture that they created, because the forms which are possible with concrete are independent of the material and there is nothing you can’t cast – a classical arch in concrete as well as a square hole. There is nothing authentically modern to have square forms with concrete, or completely free forms. There is no form for these materials because they can be shaped in any way. You can cast the buildings, put them upside down, and they will be fine for a while. There’s no real authenticity with so-called modern materials.

And because there is very little experience, there is of course no language. There is no language comparable to the language of traditional architecture, which is extremely complex and which is very specific to regions or altitudes formed by different cultures and climates. I think if one used synthetic materials for a thousand years it is absolutely certain that human intelligence and senses and sensibilities will create a language to be the equivalent of traditional architecture, but it will take many centuries. We have not even started. That is why these buildings, which have been produced lately, are so completely out of control. They are just the size that some financial will or political will – or some kind of will independent of traditional scales – allows us to build. Now, when you consider that in the future fossil fuels will become extremely expensive, very scarce, and probably very difficult to use, suddenly we can see that the future of modernist architecture is very limited, and therefore also of modernist art.

The question is “What is modernism?” It is the excess of modernity. It is trying to be more modern than being modern. We are all modern – we cannot help being modern. Just by being here we are modern. So it is not a quality to be modern. We are modern whether we like it or not. It is a question of fate, not of choice. Whereas modernism is definitely something to do with an ideological scheme.

A house pretending to be a monastery
A house pretending to be a monastery.

And this started much earlier than synthetic materials. It has to do with the development of Europe, with the political development and also the military expansion – this extraordinary will to expand beyond the limits of Europe and to absorb other cultures. Architectural language had been troubled for at least 250 or 300 years – well before modernism started. Modernism can actually be explained as a reaction against the trouble in the language.

We began to see strange confusions. For instance, we find a building that looks like an abbey or a monastery – some religious building. In fact it is not an abbey. It is a house for a very rich man designed by a very talented architect. It pretends to be a monastery, but it is a house.

Persius's Potsdam pumping station
A pumping station in Potsdam, designed by Persius.

Or consider a building designed by the very talented architect Persius, who was a student of Schinkel; and though it looks like a mosque, it is not. It is a pumping station for the fountains of Pottsdam, built in the 1840s. This was the strange trouble in the language: why would one create buildings which would no longer represent what they historically mean?

You had then extremes like a simple block of flats in Geneva where you have the whole history and all the styles of the world you can imagine just unfolded for such a lowly purpose. And that leads to protest. It is so extreme and completely absurd, that there is no more language; there is just noise, messages that are meaningless, and it leads to protest and refusal.

flats in Geneva
A block of flats in Geneva.

Twenty years later, in 1914, a very talented architect in Denmark, Ivar Bentsen, foreshadowed the Bauhaus in two competitions for the opera in Copenhagen. The square was all the same architecture. You can only distinguish the opera house by a kind of tower which is dressed like it was an actual building. Modernism in that sense can be seen as a protest against Victorian excess, against this enormous outbreak of eclecticism.

Design for Copenhagen by Ivar Bentsen
Design for Copenhagen by Ivar Bentsen.
Church designed by Mies van der Rohe
Church designed by Mies van der Rohe.

The protest led to other more important movements, producing buildings like the one Mies van der Rohe built it at the Illinois Institute of Technology. What is it? It is not a warehouse; it is a church. I think the cross has been replaced by a searchlight, which is very interesting.

Then, of course, there is the Pompidou Center in Paris. Now the question is, if you build pumping houses which look like mosques, houses which look like monasteries, culture palaces which look like some oil refinery or some building having to do with industry, or a church which looks like a warehouse, what should monasteries look like? What should warehouses look like? What should industrial buildings look like, in order that there is no confusion? It’s very difficult to understand. These buildings, these reactions against Victorian excess, are considered to be more rational than Victoriana. In fact, they have very little to do with reason. The Pompidou Center was planned not only to have the walls move, but also the floors were meant to move up and down. That is why the structure was carried outside as were the stairs – so that everything could move because movement was meant to be progressive.

Centre Georges Pompidou (aka “the Beaubourg’), Paris
Centre Georges Pompidou (aka “the Beaubourg’), Paris.

That is really where we are. How has progress – this idea of progress – come to dominate something which in fact should give stability? Historically, the stability of structure has never prohibited mobility of use. Throughout history we have buildings change use and change meanings; market buildings become churches and so on. There is a very long history of change of use, despite the solidity and immobility of the immobile. Immobilier in French and immobiliare in Italian refer to the fact that buildings are immobile. They do not move because they are not cranes or instruments. Now, why such a stupid ideology? That such an excessive set of ideas should become dominant is still difficult to explain.

Extension of the French Senate building, designed by Christian Langlois
Extension of the French Senate building, designed by Christian Langlois.

At the same time the Beaubourg was built, Christian Langlois built an extension for the Senate building in Paris and Spreckelsen built his arch of La Défense. They are both modern architecture produced by the same regime. But of course the French state would never see itself symbolized by the building of Monsieur Langlois.

But whatever happened in the Beaubourg could be done in any kind of building. You didn’t need the mobility. Actually the mobility never happened: they built solid masonry walls inside, in order to have a proper museum. The floors never moved. You can perform that feat on oil derricks or boring platforms on the high seas because, though they are extremely expensive, they bring in inconceivable amounts of money. But, as we know, culture does not make direct income.

All this happened in architecture at an extremely large scale, destroying historic cities of incredible value. If a painter would take a painting of Gozzoli, a beautiful wall painting in San Gimignano, and would start to restore it in this manner – saying, “I don’t believe in historic restoration; I want to express myself, so we will restore Gozzoli!” – there would be world scandal. How can such an idiotic idea to destroy a really important work of art be funded? That is exactly what is happening not only to our cities but to our landscapes.

A “restored” mural by Gozzoli
A “restored” mural by Gozzoli.

They are guided, and now disciplined and actually ordered, by two charters: the Charter of Athens and the Charter of Venice. And these cannot be reformed. I tried to understand this set of ideas – like the Charter of Venice, this completely absurd set of ideas – that says if you restore an historical building you must not imitate history. You have to differentiate anything you do by material, by color, by proportion, by character – in fact, you must violate the historic building. Otherwise it is not modern. That’s what the Charter of Venice says. The Charter of Athens stated long ago that cities should not be reconstructed as cities, but be divided, deconstructed in extremely large zones of single use – housing one way, culture another, education – all separate, and linked by public or private transport. They are unsustainable ideas, and yet they dominate the world.

And not only do they dominate the world, but they dominate particularly bureaucracy. And bureaucracy does not think. By its nature it cannot reflect critically on what it does. It must apply what it is told to do by law and by regulations which it is supposed to administer. And that is where the thing becomes extremely toxic, because when we now try to build traditional towns or traditional buildings we are faced with a bureaucracy that not only does not understand us but opposes us.

I became interested in an important project in the center of Moderna. The officer of restoration refused the project. We went to the minister in Rome and he sat down with us. He said, “Professor, can you tell us why you put peaked roofs on your buildings?” We were sitting in a room above Rome; we could see thousands of peaked roofs from where we sat.

I said, “I’m sorry. It is either peaked like this or inverted like that. You think there is a flat roof, but there is no flat roof. Have you ever looked at a flat roof? It is always leaning one way or the other because the water has to be carried away.”

“I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” he said, and we went on. But that is the mentality, because bureaucracy is not supposed to think.

A year later I had another project for the EUR district in Rome – a district built partially under Mussolini – and I was to restore the main square with a huge parking area going under the buildings. When the project was presented, everybody liked it. But the head of public monuments refused it, saying, “You cannot do imitative architecture. Mimetic architecture you cannot do.”

I responded, “But Signora, can you tell us what is non-mimetic architecture?”

“We are not supposed to engage in theoretical discourse.”

Again I said, “But Madame, we are imitative beings. Everything in nature is imitative, mimetic. Flowers imitate flowers, humans imitate humans, everything is imitative and repetitive.”

“We must not engage in theory,” and she stopped the project. It was never built. This is now the system which dominates our towns and cities, and it cannot be reformed. It will die its own death by the exhaustion of fossil fuels, or by simply becoming too expensive.

form versus uniform

Traditional architecture is technology before any style. It is technology and typology of building solid buildings, responding to purposes of individuals or of communities, of small or large groups, and it is the accumulation of these experiences which creates the tradition. It is a technique to resolve the building in a pleasant, practical, and lasting way. Innovations happen when they are necessary. In the Middle Ages you do not invent hangars for airplanes. There are no airplanes. But when airplanes appear, there are suddenly hangars for airplanes. That is when innovation happens typologically. Most architects are educated nowadays to be inventive, to create typologies. They present a building and they say, “This is my typology.” Completely insane – a building is not a typology. No one can invent a typology just because he or she likes it. We are in a situation, really, of regression, not of advancement. The fear of backwardness, of not being “in tune”, not being “cool”, is I think paralleled by the fear of age. Why don’t people want to age anymore?

So they buy a beautiful, old house in a beautiful village and then they paint it red, flatten the roof, or make windows which don’t fit. It’s the idea of being different, but different from what? That is always the question. Because the fact is that we are all individuals. Whatever we do is individual. Whether we write, we sing, we walk, we stand, we cook, everything we do is marked by individuality. So there should not be any fear of not being individual. We cannot help being individual any more than we can help being modern. We are individual and we are modern. It is not something about which we should bother. Anyone playing the trumpet will play different from the one next to him, because the shape of his lips or his lungs is very different from that of the other, despite their being similar. This obsession with being individual, of developing individual expression, is nonsensical. And you can only develop individual expression within disciplines which are already shaped and which have been practiced.

art versus so-called art

The thing now with modernist art that has dominated for so long is that we have no more art. Most museums of modern art for me could be closed down without any interest. My test is always this: if you take a piece of so-called modern art and you put it next to the dumpsters and rubbish in the courtyard and it is taken away, it’s not art – because anyone with any sensitivity or any intelligence will recognize a work of art. It has something more about it than just rubbish.

This is where I come to the parallel of music and architecture. Building a very large complex is symphonic work. If you build a large complex over twenty or thirty years – like building a town – you need some discipline which is going to ensure that there will be harmony of parts despite the contrarianism of the users who are going to inhabit it. You need some simple discipline, which can be understood and shared by a large number of people. That is what traditional architecture was about; and that is why we have these incredible treasures of traditional architecture still surviving, despite the will to deform or to destroy them or to wipe them out.

I am practicing this for the Prince of Wales in Poundbury, England and it has now several phases complete. We have built about 45 percent of it. It’s going better and better. It started with enormous difficulties, because the builders were not able to pursue such complex tasks. But now they have been trained and we have architects who have been well trained; and the buildings which come now after twenty years of work and practice are really extraordinary.

A scene from Venice, Italy
A scene from Venice, Italy.

What is distinguishing about traditional architecture – and I think you will find a similarity in music and its universal differentiations – is the very great distinction between vernacular building and classical architecture. In all cultures which have practiced architecture in a systematic way, you have this distinction of vernacular building: very simple buildings which are just walls and pillars and roofs, representing a language of construction which does speak of nothing else but construction. A door is a door, a window is a window, a tile is a tile. There is no message beyond its own being, whereas classical architecture is something more. It is really an artistic translation of building beyond elements of construction into a language that transcends the pure utility of the simple nature of an opening or closure or embrasure or a covering. In Belgium for fifty years now we have given a prize which distinguishes between vernacular and classical architecture – because they are achievements which are of a very different nature, even though they are complementary. You can understand this clearly when you see it in a picture from Venice. Anyone can see which buildings are more important than the others because they are marked by a more elaborate language.

vernacular and classical geometries

I introduce the differentiation of vernacular and classical in town planning because when people see a street that is not straight, not a gridiron design, they say, “Oh, it’s medieval.” It’s not medieval. Geometry in nature is always meandering. There is no straight line in nature. It’s an invention of the geometry of Euclid. There is no straight line and there is no square angle in nature. There is nothing regular or completely self-identical. It’s all similar, but still all slightly different. To have the correct terminology is very important if you reconstruct, because it’s not self-evident. It has to be so clear that people can easily accept it. Between the gridiron plan and more natural geometry there is enormous consequence for the experience and the use of towns.

The gridiron plan became the dominant technique of building towns in the Indies, in South and Central America, and also in North America where it was used almost exclusively – except in villages lost somewhere in the hills of West Virginia, let’s say. But once you conceptualize these two ideas, you can use them, because they are also intellectual models. You can use them to very powerful effect not only to espouse the land – vernacular geometry is much easier to conform to the land – but also to create very great tensions between the straight and the meandering, between the flow and the node. It is this mixture of geometries which is, I think, most satisfying when you experience towns. There is no better demonstration of this dynamic than Venice: the Grand Canal and so on. Even though most buildings are very regular, they often occupy positions that are very irregular when you look from the air. And that irregularity allows adaptation to the geographic and climatic conditions much more easily than does the gridiron plan.

A vision of Washinton, DC
A vision of Washington, DC.

In this differentiation between vernacular and classical, the classical is reserved for very important buildings, which are for the whole community or for the whole town or for the whole nation, creating a hierarchy of expression and locations – in contrast with the more simple, more laconic nature of the vernacular. For instance, in this form of vernacular geometry, you can have very modest architecture without being boring. It’s always very interesting. Whereas when you have Euclidean geometries and gridiron plans, you must have much better, more ambitious architecture in order for it all to be bearable. Nothing is more boring than barracks architecture. So it’s the mixture of these two geometries and the correct placing of the hierarchy of buildings going from private or individual to public and more common-use which are the tools we use to order a great town. I applied it even to Washington DC: flooding the Tiber Creek creates a big lake, and Americans do not have to go to Venice on their honeymoon – they can come to Washington.

vernacular building and classical architecture

In architecture, it is a well-accepted idea that vernacular is pure technology of building. But it is not pure technology in an abstract sense; it is human technology impregnated by the size and the strength and the capacities of the human body, just as musical instruments are designed for the human hand or for the mouth or for the ear. It is the translation of this simple, purely technical performance into an art form that is what we call classical architecture. And you have it in all different cultures which have developed architecture. But in modernism this distinction doesn’t happen: there is no distinction between concert hall architecture and house architecture. It’s just that one is big and one is small. The Villa Savoir, a charming building of Le Corbusier which measures twenty by twenty-two meters, becomes the Royal Festival Hall in London, which measures fifty by seventy meters. Same number of elements, same architecture. Yet it’s by enlarging size that you change also meaning in nature. Galileo wrote pages on the fact that you cannot design a horse that is a hundred meters tall: it will collapse under the laws of gravity. It is this appropriateness of size, scale, and character which I think marks and limits architecture and gives it shape.

the distortion of classical proportions

I was struck by the tuning of a piano or a violin. You first overstretch the cord or string, and then release it until it comes to the right vibration, until the tone is harmonized. I do this with my students. They have to take precise measurements of a column, or a vase or a car, and then they have to manipulate those measurements in order to understand why something is classical and to understand that that is a live value, a living designation.

For instance, you take a classical column – Tuscan, the most simple Doric kind – then you vary diameters. Keep the same number of elements, the same moldings, but make it much narrower or much wider, arbitrarily. The result can be called the anorexic or the bulimic column. Or change the vertical proportions. By making slight changes you can powerfully change the column’s character. It goes from elegant to heavy, from martial to enchanting. Or use the same elements but misplace them; it becomes a-tectonic. The logic of form and construction is disrupted if you do not assemble it in the correct way.

If the vernacular and the classical languages are such a very strong reality of the historic and the transcendental experiences of architecture, is it the same with music? You cannot have an allegretto that lasts for twenty-five hours. You would go crazy. These variations of tone, of rhythm, of timbre, of quality are limited, but it is actually their contrast which creates music. So how much classicism do you need to be a happy person? That’s really the question. How much classicism do you need to build a beautiful town. It doesn’t need to be all classical. You need a very large dose of vernacular. You cannot have cream every day.

Chicago's White City
The White City of Chicago’s World Fair.

A kind of ideal of classicism was performed by Burnham and his colleagues for the White City in Chicago. It was an extraordinary creation, but it was not a model of how the world could be. It was an ideal, Worlds Fair kind of world.

Another extreme of classicism would be the Beaux Arts utopia, where everything is beautiful – even the toilet seat is decorated with pearls. But it’s unsustainable in a psychological and an aesthetic sense.

proportions of classicism and vernacular

And at the opposite end of the spectrum you have animal architecture, which is without any meaning beyond its own self. It’s just a pile of material that performs a certain utility. It has also its own beauty, because whatever we do over a long period of time we can only stand it and it can only survive if we cultivate beauty. Even the most solid building cannot survive for very long if it is too ugly. It just becomes unbearable. It will be blown up and destroyed. So it’s beauty which gives a building a quality that is absolutely necessary for its survival. But I think it’s the mixture of these two qualities of classicism and vernacular which gives a town or a landscape its lasting quality. In Venice, or in Williamsburg, for instance, you will find this kind of mixture of classical and vernacular.

Today, following the categorical confusion which modernism brought about and which was largely unconscious, there is no intelligent theory of modernism. We read Le Corbusier – and I love Le Corbusier, despite his problems – because he was a great writer and poet, but his work is childish. There is no serious theory there, no rational theory of how to build the world. It’s unsustainable.

all mixed up

This now being the predominant set of ideas, often the industry continues anyway with the traditional models of vernacular and classical, but when they do they always get it wrong in scale or expression or size. There is a reason why very large common buildings need to be more elaborate than houses: because when you have a simple barn blown up a hundred times it becomes extremely brutal in shape. You need something more to make it not only symbolically more important but also more readable. Classical architecture is that set of forms which allows greatest readability of elements at a distance, imparts permanence, and also creates symbolic value and beauty at a scale which would not be inherent in common building forms.

size, type, and expression

Today we are faced with strange vernacular temples, hotels that imitate cottage but are the size of an aircraft carrier. Or we have little palaces – cottage size, but obviously ridiculous in scale. When you have relatively small settlements – and let’s put this in the context of music, as in the simple song with the single voice – it can go on for, say, four minutes. But if you have a single voice carrying on for twenty-five hours, you’ll get bored. To orchestrate five hours like Wagner does, you need a lot of art and it needs to be very well modulated to be bearable. I lived in a small village where there was no architecture for sixteen years. There were just three columns inside the church – just enough to have walls, openings, some tiles on the roof, and divided window panes. But art is not missing when this is placed in a beautiful landscape. The landscape takes care of the art. But in large cities you need a much richer language. In the nineteenth-century, this led to the proliferation of imperial carnival classicism – crazy buildings which become such an extraordinary performance. The education required to achieve this performance becomes tyrannical and leads to complete rejection. The Beaux Arts movement trained people until 1958, and then it was finished because, even though it was collegial education, it was also very tyrannical. The same tyranny has descended upon scientists and engineering students – it’s extremely gruesome. Doctors have to study for ten years – absolutely horrendous – day and night. Why this revolt did not happen in medical education or engineering is a mystery to me. Why just in architecture?

architectural tuning

The best formula is this mixture of classicism and modernism, where just a few public buildings have a bit more than vernacular. And that can make very charming environments. We understand it by contrast. A building four hundred meters high topped by a statue of Lenin nearly a hundred meters high is public imperialism. The private is reduced to nothingness. On the other hand, we have private imperialism. Think of Fifth Avenue and, of course, St. Patrick’s Cathedral. It is quite a nice building, but it’s utterly meaningless among the giants of Fifth Avenue. It is completely humiliated in that setting. The properly structured, classical city is much more balanced.

I limit general building fabric to a very simple theory. Despite the fact that we have motorized vehicles, and even if we have unlimited fossil fuel, no problems with technology, and equipment galore, we should still practice traditional architecture and planning because they are imbued with a humane and aesthetic scale, which is really important.

public imperialism
Public imperialism.

And I identify nine ways of ordering towns and placing buildings. By arranging architecture on one side and urbanism on the other, you have between them nine modes, or combinations, by which to do it. There is a lot of choice, depending on the landscape and so on. What is perfectly unbearable as a generalized proposition is the combination of classical geometry and vernacular architecture. We generally call it “barracks architecture” and it is perfectly unacceptable. It’s fine for barracks and factories, but not for common habitat. So you have these two possibilities of geometry in combination; and then what is an absolute necessity is to have, within towns and within walkable distance, mixed used and mixed scale, which naturally leads also to mixed architecture.

private imperialism
Private imperialism.

But mixed use is not an absolute guarantee of a fine city, because you can create a single building containing all uses – and this was Corbusier’s idea: to have a landliner where you have the church and the factory, the public offices and the art gallery, and the housing and everything all in one building. But that is not a city; it’s a building. Buildings are not cities and cities should not be buildings. A large city is not a large house.

nine combinations of architecture and urbanism

You have another deviation when you have uniform volumes, independent of use – where the businesses, the houses, the public offices, the temple, and the library are all contained within the same uniform volumes, controlled by a cornice line and disciplined so they become completely uniform. That’s equally nonsensical. Then you have “anything goes” mixed use. Even though mixed use is a necessity, it’s not a sufficient condition for a meaningful town.

Now, the distribution of vernacular and classical: if our home is the size of a monastery, the housing is a monumental mosque and the church is a tiny, little, dog house. You can call that well-applied but mis-sized architecture and vernacular. You can also misapply classical architecture to the utilitarian building and the church becomes just a naked box. By analyzing small or large buildings according to these principles, you are able to value whether a building is correctly structured, correctly scaled, or semantically – in the sense of meaning – correct. Only once you have a correct composition can you have a beautiful building. Otherwise it is just illusion, confusion, and deconstruction.

application and sizing of vernacular and classicism

I think that the most important book written about energy was Kunstler’s book, The Long Emergency. And I think it is absolutely necessary to read that book. What it teaches us is that the oil peak is not going to be a symmetrical figure. It rise will rise to its peak and then there will be abrupt, very brutal change – in which we already find ourselves – leading to extreme wars and extreme violence, perpetrated to maintain our dominance in that field and in order to run our pack of instruments and maintain our mode of life. Curiously and interestingly, this peak corresponds to the nadir of the traditional arch, which used to dominate.

Modernism was very interesting when it was an experimental art, when just a few rich clients would build their interesting houses. It has become absolutely lethal as a scheme for mass building – a toxic investment. And it’s going to disappear with the increased cost of energy. It’s the fossil fuel economy that really has changed our mode of managing the air, time, energy, and land, and it is going to change. We have to prepare for that because otherwise it will erupt over our heads.

What dominated traditional architecture was climate and soil, and these conditions created very different architecture between regions. For instance, the architecture of the Basque hillsides and that of the Landes region, which is just twenty kilometers away, are very, very different. Meanwhile, the architecture of the Basque hillsides is virtually the same as that in the Himalayan Mountains because they have similar climatic conditions. It is really climate and altitude which have a very strong influence on the shape and style of buildings, historically and traditionally.

landscrapers, skyscrapers, and sprawlers

When you have a lot of fossil fuel energy you can build the same building in any climate and any altitude, but it will have no permanence because the energy it will take to maintain these buildings will be too expensive. There is only one model to counter the hubris of scale we now achieve, this excess of verticality or horizontality – and they are related problems: suburbanism piled high or suburbanism spread thin. Three dominant building types – the skyscraper, the sprawler, and the landscraper – always occur in excessively large, single-use zones.

Such zones reach beyond the limits of human scale, following the Charter of Athens which we might also apply to gastronomic intake in something like this way: instead of twenty-one varied meals each week, we have all the liquids on Monday, all the meats on Tuesday, all the fats on Wednesday, pasta on Thursday, Friday (for Catholics) fish, all the alcoholic drinks on Saturday, and the baked goods on Sunday. Then after one week the individual is dead. This is what we have been applying to cities. Housing is not the same as houses. To misunderstand that leads to the deconstruction of settlement. It’s inhuman because it has nothing to do with human settlement. And it’s not sustainable.

This incredible, extraordinary repetition represents the deconstruction of the landscape of human beings. We must reconstruct our overgrown cities because exceeding their proper size, as overgrowing the specific size of a cell, is disease – is cancer. This is what is happening to cities. It is as if families grew, instead of by multiplying the number of individuals, by growing the bodies of the parents until they far exceed their natural size; and this is what has happened to cities that have over-expanded, sprawled horizontally or sprawled vertically.

models of city growth

It is the excess, the cul-de-sac reality, which creates planned congestion. Enormous skyscrapers are vertical cul-de-sacs, which congest the network on which they sit. Why there are not more opponents of skyscrapers I do not understand, because they are completely unreasonable. Imagine skyscrapers developing not just for a generation but for 500 years. Let’s say we have no limit to fossil fuel. It would be absolutely unbearable, except living on top, to be in such a compound. It is idiotic, a completely silly idea, and it’s toxic investment. It’s destroying the future of humankind.

This extraordinary jump of scale, which you have independent of ideology, could be represented as Medieval economy, Renaissance economy, and the economy of the nineteenth century. Most utilitarian states already have enormous lots – lots taken just for housing that would be the size of three traditional towns. These enormous lots are often given to a single architect with a single function, which leads necessarily to boring architecture, and boring architecture is unbearable. So architects invent interesting forms to make the boring program more lively, and hence there are things sticking out and leaning over – this silly ballade, which is no music, it’s terrible boredom and meaningless.

Poundbury's polycentric plan
The polycentric plan for Poundbury, Dorset.

Even if we had no limits to energies we should still go back to traditional plotting – in Poundbury, after all, we have the Prince of Wales as a single large landowner, but we have lots which are very different sizes, allowing very different forms of use and therefore also of architecture. Poundbury developed as polycentric instead of having a polynuclear nature. If you have enormous concentrations, this also leads to extraordinarily and extremely rigid social stratification. It is social zoning. For instance, in Colombia you have zones according to income – something like nine categories of income. You cannot buy a house if you are from one class in a zone of a different class. But it is differentiation of scale – great variety of scale, mixed scales, mixed use, mixed architecture – that leads to a rich and varied traditional architecture environment.

a home in Poundbury, Dorset
Poundbury, Dorset.

The buildings at Poundbury are now as good as any historic buildings in England. We limit our heights not metrically but by numbers. I think that a good scale for towns is three floors: what you can walk every day ten times without getting bored. Anything higher is a stress. I lived in Madrid on the eighth floor, walking up it twice every day in order to keep in shape – but it’s hell walking eight floors. So imagine even the slightest irregularity in the use of energy; when electricity is no longer assured high buildings will become extremely difficult to use.

number of floors versus height

But this limitation to three stories is no limitation to height. We are not against high buildings per se. The Eiffel Tower is a three-story skyscraper. The Capitol in Washington is a one-story skyscraper. The Washington Memorial is 150 meters high; it has no story. So you can build very high, symbolically powerful buildings, without having many stories.

Going back to small scale operations, we only use small builders, with a maximum of twenty employees. In that way you bring back and you encourage small scale, local craftsmen – those who can actually live where they work. And this redevelopment of crafts allows you to use forms which you are not able to use – a richness and an authenticity of elements which you are not able to use – with large forms of industrial building.

Cayala, Guatamala
Cayala, Guatamala.

The project in Guatemala called Cayala is now having a lot of success. It took eight years to get it off the ground, but we had very good architects who are our main partners there and who were trained at Notre Dame University in Indiana. We now have this new generation of talent that has been properly trained. In music, you are lucky because you still have the old craft of playing instruments the proper way being taught. In architecture, we don’t have that. We have one school in the United State which teaches the craft of designing traditional buildings, and unfortunately often the industry is not able to follow. But every one of these sites is a teaching instrument.

architectural kitsch

Many architects think that imitating traditional forms is not creative, but nobody can reinvent the roof or the window. It is a complex in itself. You don’t need to reinvent the window. It has been invented. All these reinventions are just noise. The problem we have to deal with is that the industry is often reproducing traditional models, but their replacements are all fake and therefore one of the toxic results – maybe the most important toxic result of modernism is that traditional architecture has become a product of scandalous inauthenticity. The market actually buys the worst kitsch. People get fake houses. They spend their life’s earnings to get a fake house, which after twenty years is just rotting, as you well know. So every building site is reeducation of the industry.

the architect's dilemma

Conservation: I know architects who have spent their lives restoring beautiful, historic buildings. They never get a prize; there is no glory. There is now one prize in this country, the Driehaus Prize, which finally recognizes the quality of people who do the right thing. You can get the world star by doing something like this – I drew this long ago and now it’s built: the army museum in Dresden looks like that. There’s no word for it but idiotic, because there’s no value in it.

Now people are so illiterate that they cannot distinguish architecture anymore. When a good restoration is done properly, they think it’s historic but not inventive. But to do a proper restoration now is an unbelievable effort of invention, conviction, education, and persistence – over months and years – to get it right. Otherwise it’s just full of mistakes.

Consider the Euro bank notes: I counted on the seven or eight bank notes eighteen mistakes of architecture. Imagine that many mistakes in some official government document. The perpetrator would be locked up. But the people who drew these, they are are scot free. It’s comical.

beauty is in the eye of the beholder

Beauty, it is said, is in the eye of the beholder. True, but the eye has to be in a certain position, otherwise beauty cannot be in it. A man can admire the beauty of a fire, but if his feet are in it, his eye will be filled with horror. To him there is no more beauty in the fire. Everything in nature, including whatever we do, is beautiful. Even the worst sound is beautiful if we have the right distance from it. Conversely, you can play the loveliest music you want, but if you are a kilometer away from it, it’s meaningless – it’s just noise in the distance. The distance, the height, and the relationship to the beholder need to be correct. That is where modernism fails on all scales. And that is what we are trying to rectify.


Beauty and Desecration

EDITOR’S NOTE: This is a transcription of the plenary address delivered by Sir Roger Scruton at The Power of Beauty Conference, hosted in October 2014 by the Franciscan University of Steubenville and the Dietrich von Hildebrand Legacy Project.
It is reprinted here with their gracious permission,
and we encourage you to watch their video of the address.

Just to say a few general philosophical things to begin with about why beauty matters: We live in a world in which utilitarian values are not just triumphant but for many people the only values that there are. There seems to be no sense that things can have a value which is not a form of use. This means that all of us are engaged all the time in what some philosophers call instrumental reasoning. Whenever we’re asked to justify something we try to find a purpose for it – we justify, for instance, the shape of this room in terms of its purpose, which is to gather people together to listen to a lecture. If it’s not very efficient at that, then the room has not actually achieved what it set out to achieve.

In all our activities we are familiar with this kind of reasoning, but what other kinds of reasoning are there? We know perfectly well that instrumental reasoning can’t be the only kind because if something is a means to an end, there has to be an end that it’s a means to. That too needs a justification. So we do reason with each other – rather insecurely but nevertheless we do reason – about the ends of our activities, what our goals are, and whether we should be pursuing the goals that we pursue. This is especially true in activities like building – building a room like this, or setting out on a career, and so on – in which there is a long-term project involved and an end point that you can’t very clearly envisage.

When you set out to build something you can’t clearly envisage the end point just from a ground plan. You need some conception of not just what it will look like but what it will be like to live with it. Only if you know what it’s like to live with it will you be justified in building it. Here is an example of a simple activity in which aesthetic reasoning is fundamental. One reason why modern architecture is such a failure is that people don’t do this. They don’t try to envisage what it will be like to live with the product of their building, only what its capacity is for the number of people assigned to it, and so on. Reasoning about what it’s like to live with something means bringing the end of your activity forward into the present so that you sense its being, as it were, with you in the moment where you are. And that is one of the roles of beauty and of aesthetic judgment in our lives: to do just that.

In another area, of course, we argue about our ends from a religious point of view. We know that people have this conception of the meaning of life, as lying in some way beyond life – either in the transcendental or in the afterlife. And this meaning is sometimes revealed in the present moment, the moments which people are apt to describe as sacred: the moment of liturgy and worship, the moment of revelation, of reading a sacred text, and so on. Perhaps being blessed with that experience is what Saint Paul described as the peace that passeth understanding.

That’s a very powerful emotion and a powerful experience if you can obtain it. But of course we live in a world where not everybody does obtain it or even seeks for it. And increasingly the surrounding culture either ignores that sort of thing or denigrates it. So it’s very difficult to explain to people who are immersed in the secular culture today exactly how you would think about justifying the ends of existence and not just the means. We need some other notion of the real presence in our life of the meaning of things if we are going to be able to justify to others who are skeptical exactly what it is that we want them to do. I think this is our situation today.

Pierre-Auguste Renoir: La Montagne Sainte-Victoire, 1889
Pierre-Auguste Renoir: La Montagne Sainte-Victoire, 1889

Here is a picture, a landscape by Renoir. There’s no particular reason for me to have chosen this landscape – and all landscapes presented on PowerPoint are hopeless anyway, because, as you know, it’s backlit and it doesn’t contain the texture of the paint, and certainly not that of the canvas. Still, you see in that a particular artist’s attempt not just to present a little bit of la douce France, which everybody loves, but also to make you love it, too. And whatever goes on in that landscape is imbued with a sense of peace and order and it takes from the surrounding colors the vitality that makes life meaningful. Renoir, like other Impressionists, painted a world to which we belong. Belonging is an all-important aspect of human experience. Not everybody has it, and of course our jails are filled with the people who don’t. Most people in this room, I imagine, got here without criminal offenses, and feel that they do instinctively belong in the world and are in the business of trying to make that belonging more rooted, more permanent, more wound together with coexistence with their fellows. That of course is part of what education is about. And that’s what you see in that beautiful landscape by Renoir: a painting of ordinary fruit trees and an ordinary mountain in the distance, and so on – but painting it all as part of the world to which we belong.

For Renoir and his contemporaries, it was a post-religious world. They were very much people of their time who were skeptical about religion. And in any case, they regarded it as their duty as painters to show that it is this world and not the next that matters. It is quite hard to paint the next world, as you can imagine. It has been done in words by Dante, and a few painters have tried to follow him, but for the most part it has been a failure. Nevertheless our world is not that bad. It is imbued with its own tranquility, and that tranquility can reside in perception itself. That’s what Renoir was telling us: stop, stand still, look. In that perception you will see that this thing in front of you has a meaning all of its own, a meaning which justifies you being in it and reminds you that you belong to it. There’s a moment of standing still that we all can achieve and in which we can let the otherness of the world dawn on us. It’s something other than me – not just imagined by me, but there in front of me and including me nevertheless.

When painters do this – the painters of modern life, as Beaudelaire called them – they don’t behave as photographers behave. This is something very difficult to explain to people these days as everybody goes around with this criminal object in their pockets immortalizing the ephemera of their existence, and as a result desecrating it with their own trivial perceptions. Renoir wasn’t doing anything like that at all. He wasn’t pointing a camera at this landscape. Maybe the landscape didn’t entirely look like that. He was trying to extract from it what it means, not just from a perceptual point of view but also spiritually.

We live in a time when there is much ugliness around us and much desecration – in many ways, a deliberate making ugly of things, or a carelessness as to whether things should be ugly or beautiful. And many things that we regard as beautiful we discover to be desecrated not just by the way we treat them but also by the works of art which are supposed to celebrate them. We know this obviously from our experience of the human form. The human form is all-important to us because it is the primary locus of meaning, the thing that means most to us in the world. The human face and the human body come before us imbued with the life of the spirit. But we can also, as we know, desecrate them – as they are desecrated by pornography and such things, which turn the subject into an object. And being turned into an object is essentially to lose one’s spiritual value.

Part of what lies behind this is a growing obsession with power. Power is the great commodity that is as it were transferred from person to person in the world we are creating. Many people would say, here is old Scruton up in front of an audience enjoying his power. You are transferring to me that power, the power to hold your attention and to infect you with my reactionary attitudes. This power is something that I have not yet justified to you. Many scholars influenced by people like Foucault will say that I couldn’t justify it. The institution is structured by domination, and I’m enjoying that domination and triumphing over you, the victims who are sitting before me. Now, you don’t actually believe that because you know that you are sitting there willingly, but nevertheless you can redescribe the whole of the world in that way. You can take the most innocent thing – the love of a mother for a child, or a child for a mother – and there’s power in that too. If there weren’t, the mother couldn’t protect the child. But yet, it’s not the power aspect of it that’s important here, it’s the love aspect. All our loves create powers.

In all the things that matter to us most there is that element of power. Of the tranquility that Renoir is trying to put across to us in that painting, many of our literary and artistic critics today would ask the question, “What does this tranquility conceal? Who is using it, who is gaining, who is losing?” And you can imagine the text in Modern Language Review which will analyze that painting and try to persuade you that it is there as part of the hegemony of the bourgeois class, representing nature as a place that endorses its comfortable and relaxing attitudes, excluding the truth about labor, which went into creating those fruit trees in the first place – in other words, legitimizing the power of the French bourgeoisie over the French proletariat. In that way Renoir becomes part of the ideology which is being imposed upon us by our Western culture. We need to liberate the oppressed, the victim, from beneath this ideology. And the victim of course will turn out to be whoever the current obsession is – probably working-class women in this particular case.

When you start thinking like that, nothing is as it seems. It’s as though there’s a reality behind everything and that reality is the power that people exercise over each other. And that’s why beauty is a kind of deception – because it’s always concealing those real relations between people in which one class or one person or one group has dominion over another. But of course for the Impressionist painters that’s all nonsense. For them, seeming is everything. What Renoir was trying to do in that painting is to remind you of something that you would otherwise not notice: namely, that the world does seem in a certain way to you and that’s what it really, really is – in other words, how it comes across to you in your immediate perception when you’ve stopped all the instrumental reasoning, forgotten all the powers and the projects, and just look. But because of this obsession with power, people do wipe away the face of the world so that the way things seem is no longer available to us, and that means that beauty is no longer available to us, either.

Chapman brothers: Zygotic acceleration biogenetic de-sublimated libidinal model, 1995
Chapman brothers: Zygotic acceleration biogenetic de-sublimated libidinal model, 1995

Here’s an example of a work of art, if you can call it that, which was created by two brothers. It’s quite normal now in the products of the British art schools for people to do joint works of art like this because that way you get rid of the romantic idea of the artistic genius who has something special to say. You’re doing it together with someone else. And of course, the purpose in this case is to make the human body repulsive, into a kind of liquid, standing in these childish Mary Jane shoes with all the parts deformed – penis instead of nose and things like that. What its point is can only be understood if you realize that these boys were brought up in an art school which tells them that the purpose of art in not to beautify life, in no way to replace the sacred moments that religion might have given us, in no way to give you a sense of the meaningfulness of things. On the contrary, it is to deconstruct those things, to show that life is essentially meaningless, and you can best do this by taking the human body and making it repulsive.

Tracey Emin: My Bed, 1998
Tracey Emin: My Bed, 1998

We all know of Tracey Emin’s famous bed – which last changed hands at two million pounds – in which she presented, well, her bed – after she had got out of it, of course, and with all the debris of her night’s dissipation lying on the carpet around it. And there it is. It’s in the Tate Modern Gallery now, its permanent resting place, although of course those sheets are going to rot away quicker than most sheets do. I want to contrast it with another bed, which I mentioned in the film I made about this: Delacroix’s bed. Delacroix, as you know, is a great French painter from the Romantic period, who is also a highly learned and interested cultural figure, perhaps one of the greatest of the nineteenth-century cultural figures in France.

Eugène Delacroix: Un Lit Defait, 1828
Eugène Delacroix: Un Lit Defait, 1828

Here is his bed. This isn’t an actual bed, of course, this is a painting of a bed. In painting it, he has tried to transfer into the bed some of his sense of the value of lying in it, of being the thing that was in it, and also what it meant to wrestle with the sheets in that way. A comparison of these two does help you to understand a little bit about what’s gone wrong with art today. Tracey Emin’s bed presents itself but obviously nothing beyond itself; it just is there. Delacroix’s bed presents something other than itself. It’s a life that’s been translated into those fabrics, a perpetuation in another form of a spiritual wrestling, which we know from Delacroix’s life and his other paintings – that wrestling with fabric, with reality, the flexibility of this world, and the attempt to impose upon it a meaningful human form, if you like, a testimony to the spiritual life with which we invest all the objects that we’re in touch with. So he was looking for a kind of harmony, order, even a redemption in the shape of those sheets. He’s searching for the trace left in them by the spirit, which will be a meaning beyond the present moment. Here we’re talking about the difference between an attempt to represent life, which is also a transfiguration of a life into something which is a permanent record of the spirit, and the mere debris of a life. Once you see it you realize that only the first of those is a genuine artistic activity.

However, we’ve entered this period in our history where ugliness has become a kind of cult – not ugliness as such but more transgressive ugliness, like those melted-together human figures of the Chapman brothers. It’s an ugliness that pollutes or negates some familiar ideal or value. Transgression is something which also has a certain appeal, especially to younger people. It’s an act of self-affirmation that frees itself from judgment. The transgressive gesture is one that says, “I don’t actually care whether you judge me or not. I’m going do it and I’m going to affirm myself against your judgment, and that is in itself a liberation.” I think we’ve seen this in every sphere of human endeavor since the 1960s: the assumption of the freedom to offend, the freedom to annihilate other people’s vision of what matters, and to show that the values for which other people live don’t count for you. That’s a stage which obviously all of us have to go through at certain points in our lives. We have to fight against our parents, fight against institutions, fight against the people who seem to be preventing us from being what we truly are and going out into the world and claiming it as our own. In the normal run of things that’s not a particularly bad thing to do because, after all, once you’re out there in the big world, feeling the winds of change around you, you realize that you are actually on your own and that it was a terrible mistake to be so offensive to the people you need, and gradually you work your way back to them. You reassume possession of them in their view and you are reconciled and forgiven, as in the famous parable of the prodigal son. So there’s a paradox in this position of assuming the freedom to offend: it’s only because other people’s values count for you that you can be exhilarated by defying them or disavowing their ideals.

William de Kooning: Woman III, 1953
William de Kooning: Woman III, 1953

Nevertheless this is certainly what artists at a certain stage did. De Kooning was a paradigm of this. He’s an artist who, I think, has largely been seen through now, except in America – and the reason why he has not been seen through in America is that a lot of money has been spent on his pictures. So museums, art critics, and private owners conspire together to make sure they are not going to lose the two million dollars that they spent on them. If you can keep the values up, your museum is still worth what you invested in it. This is just called Woman, and it’s his representation of what a woman fundamentally is. All those ideals of womanhood which you might have entertained in your self-deceiving moments are as nothing compared with this representation.

And here is another instance of this way of approaching our ideals. Rusalka – some of you may know this great opera by Dvorak – tells the famous story of Ondine the water nymph who falls in love with a mortal. And it’s a beautiful, romantic story not only about the mystery of woman but also about the importance of chastity and purity in preparing a woman for love, and the danger in which she is put by that. And of course this is symbolized by the fact that there she is living in the water. If she comes out of it, is that the end of her? And if she tempts the mortal into the water, is that the end of him? This story has been told many times, but never as well as by Dvorak. This is the production that Covent Garden made of that opera in which Rusalka, the pure water nymph who dreams of an erotic relation which no water nymph is allowed, is a prostitute and the water is the bath in which she is lying, expecting the stream of lovers. And for reasons that can’t be explained she sings an aria to the moon.

Covent Garden: Rusalka, 2012; Image by Alastair Muir
Covent Garden: Rusalka, 2012; Image by Alastair Muir

Now that’s simply one example of a very ordinary occurrence in opera productions today. The idea in so many opera producers’ minds when given a romantic fairy tale like this is of course to desecrate it if you can, and also to bring in sex, violence, and all the usual stuff in order that the audience you have trapped there – an audience of ordinary, decent middle-class people who spent a couple hundred dollars for the ticket – well, you can really give them a hard time. You’re never going to get them there in any other way because they came for this beautiful romantic legend – and they won’t come again, but you’ve got them for a couple hours anyway. This is the way in which opera productions tend to go now. Why did all this come about?

I think we can’t understand this great movement to desecrate works of art like that if we don’t attend a little bit to the phenomenon of kitsch and the distrust of beauty that arose because of kitsch. The Romantic movement that arose, as you know, at the end of the eighteenth century and dominated all of art through the nineteenth century was a movement away from beauty, the homely sorts of beauty that appeal to ordinary people and that don’t seem to threaten them. There was a movement toward the sublime, presenting great tragedies rather than sweet fairy tales, emphasizing the difficulties of human life, the difficulty of emerging from a life of oppression, and so on. We have many great works of Romantic art which focus on these fairly negative aspects of the human condition but try to find beauty in them nevertheless. All this is epitomized in Beaudelaire’s famous poem to beauty, which I recommend you to read, Fleurs du Mal. There was a movement away from the beautiful and at the same time a fear of the sweetness that beauty can bring into our lives. Isn’t there a kind of deception involved in that? If life really is as bad as we all know it to be, isn’t art deceiving us by trying to make us accept it and find sweetness and consolation in it? Maybe there is no sweetness and consolation. Maybe art should have another role, that of showing the truth to people who wouldn’t otherwise be able to perceive it. If art concentrates on beauty, isn’t it going to degenerate into a form of lying, a form of faking things?

Sandro Botticelli: The Birth of Venus (detail), 1486
Sandro Botticelli: The Birth of Venus (detail), 1486

I’ll give you a contrast between two Venuses. Everybody knows Botticelli’s Venus, who is so detached from the world, and I contrast him with the Venus of Bouguereau, being the famous salon painter of the nineteenth century in France who was a wonderfully accomplished painter in the style of Ingres, but a question mark inevitably is placed over him because of this sweetness and gentleness and also the perfection of everything he did, which seemed to many people to be a kind of lying. Beaudelaire expressly defended Manet against Bouguereau because Manet was showing us life as it is without any of this cloying sweetness. You all know Botticelli’s Venus, not an easy way to show it, but in that face you see a particular conception of what the erotic is. Botticelli was a Platonist, who believed as Plato did that beauty is an object of desire but it’s also a gateway to the transcendental, that you understand what beauty really is if you follow through that gateway, leave behind your earthly desires, and unite with the spiritual condition from which they originally spring.

William-Adolphe Bougereau: The Birth of Venus, 1879
William-Adolphe Bougereau: The Birth of Venus, 1879

This face for him was not an object of sexual desire but an object of a sexual desire that had been transcended. She was Simonetta Vespucci, who was mistress of his prince Lorenzo de Medici, and therefore unobtainable anyway. The thought in this Venus is the symbol of the erotic as Plato conceived it, something to be transcended into the spiritual.

Bouguereau’s Birth of Venus, as you see, is all perfection of form but doesn’t mean anything. There she is, sniffing her freshly shaven armpit, waiting for the lover who’s going to come through the bathroom door, and obviously she’ll have to get rid of the company meanwhile. Bouguereau was a great master of color and form, but somehow the sentiment is fake: it isn’t a real Venus. This is sexuality in its ordinary, vulgar form without any attempt to show you the meaning of it and its reflection in the transcendental.

Desecration takes many forms. But if we worry about kitsch – which all artists today do – what do we do about it? There are two ways of dealing with it. First, try and find a way of producing real art that is not kitsch. And that’s a really hard thing to do: producing art that doesn’t have this fake character, isn’t childish and isn’t a Christmas decoration. Or you can do what Jeff Koons does: produce something that is so obviously kitsch that no one could ever accuse you of it. He’s saying, “Of course, this is such obvious kitsch that I must be making another and deeper point.” No one has ever discovered what the deeper point is. But there it is, desecrating a beautiful classical façade probably for many years to come.

Jeff Koons: Balloon Dog (Magenta), 2000
Jeff Koons: Balloon Dog (Magenta), 2000

The causes of this situation in which we find ourselves go deep. We have acquired this distrust of beauty because it is an invitation into realms that have been mined. There are traps here. You might fall into the trap of Bouguereau; however beautiful your human figures, they turn out in the end just to be standard Christmas card porn, or something like that. The reality slips away from you and you’re left with this fake.

Artists have come to distrust beauty. And I think you all know this from modern cinema and much modern music as well. There is an attempt often to show that you’re a genuine artist by producing something that nobody could possibly like, so you must be serious. And there are consolations also of ugliness, consolations of showing that in some way life doesn’t matter anyway. That’s the meaning of the Chapman brothers’ sculpture. Life is simply a nothingness. We happen to have been born and we will die and decay and disappear – and so what? There’s a charm in that kind of view, a charm which I call the charm of disenchantment. Being disenchanted with things gives you a kind of glamor. If you go around a room of people who are ooh-ing and aah-ing with fake enchantment about kitsch, then your being disenchanted gives you a kind of distinction.

Many artists aspire to that distinction of not being taken in by anything, not being dupes to the surrounding culture and values. Added to this there is a desire to desecrate values as well, like putting graffiti on things or a moustache on the Mona Lisa. When that moustache was first put on the Mona Lisa by Marcel duChamps, you can see what he was doing. He was saying, “Yes, yes, yes, but we’ve gone beyond that. That’s all nonsense. You might be taken in by that but I’m not.” And essentially, ever since that gesture which was made a hundred years ago, the majority of art that we’ve come across, at least the art coming from art schools, has been putting another moustache on the Mona Lisa. The question automatically arises as to whether there is any point in doing it twice, let alone a thousand times. The thought behind all this is that we’ve asked too much of art, we’ve asked it to be a substitute for religion, to be the light from and the window onto the transcendental. If it disappoints us, we start becoming angry with it. Disappointment turns to repudiation.

So what is the mission of art, then? Is there a mission we can still maintain? I believe we all have a need for redemption. I don’t mean that necessarily in the religious sense. I mean that we need our actions, our gestures, our plans and projects, to have a fulfillment of some kind, to lift us out of the day-to-day appetites that otherwise swallow us. All our actions aim towards this; they aim beyond themselves to a point of rest in which we can look back and endorse what we have done. This is obviously the case with human relations, especially love relations, but it’s there in all our lives and a life without this, without ideals, gets tired of itself. When people set out on the path of transgression it’s partly because they’ve become disappointed with the possibility of actually achieving this sort of redemption.

Where, then, does beauty fit into this and what can it actually do by way of satisfying this desire? I have argued that the search for beauty is the search for home, for a place where you can be at home with yourself and with others, but in particular where you belong. Going back to the Renoir painting, which is a painting of a landscape as a thing that we belong to, being at home means being at home with yourself. And that means seeing yourself in some way as another, as another person, seeing yourself from outside – not just this selfish self-involved thing you are familiar with when you wake up in the morning, but that other thing which you were when you went to bed, having spent the day with other people. You want to be at home with what you find. I think this search for being at home does not start with high art, nor does it end there. One of the reasons people have become so confused about beauty is because they have constantly taken their examples from the realm of high art, those great and difficult things like Botticelli’s Venus, which you have to think about for an awfully long time before you know what it really means. High art challenges us in the deepest parts of our being, and maybe we get turned off by it, we feel we can’t live up to it, so let’s live in another way. But that’s not where the search for beauty begins, nor is it where it ends.

I think it begins and ends in everyday life. People misconceive aesthetics when they see it merely as the realm of beauty. It is as though that’s all we were ever thinking about when we were going around our world making aesthetic judgments. “Oh yes, that’s beautiful. No, that’s ugly.” But that’s not the way we behave at all. We actually make completely different kinds of judgments. We talk about whether something fits in, whether it’s graceful, whether that would be the right way to go forward, does this color fit with that color and so on. And I think people take revenge on beauty because they don’t see that there’s something more important without which there can be no revenge. And that more important thing is just our instinct to get things right, to make things fit in and harmonize. This is where the aesthetic judgment is a fundamental part of our everyday lives; we are making it all the time.

Now, I’m not a natty dresser but even I had to question whether this tie goes with this jacket. It probably doesn’t, but nevertheless the question occupied me for a certain amount of time, and it was part of my attempt to fit in and harmonize and also to fit in to this occasion where I’m giving a public lecture. You could put this, however, in a much more pretentious and philosophical way by saying that when we do this we’re trying to realize ourselves as subjects in the realm of objects. That’s the language that Hegel and his followers would use. It’s a tough language, but you can see what it means. We are free beings, we are subjects who have an inner life, but that inner life is not meaningful to us if we cannot in some way make it into an outward reality among other outward realities. In all our gestures we are trying achieve that, to become something real, and part of things – to belong, in other words.

So, this realization is something that goes on all the time and all rational beings are engaged in it. Children know about this already. In these two little girls you see what Wittgenstein would call the natural expression of aesthetic judgment. There they are, trying to fit things in the right place on the table. They’re not saying to themselves, “Is this beautiful, is this ugly, or sublime?” Those words are not part of their vocabulary, probably, but they are asking themselves the question, “Is this right? Am I getting it right? Should it be a little more to the left?” You can see the intent expression here, something only human beings manifest. No animals manifest this sense of the rightness and wrongness of things because these girls are not reasoning instrumentally. They are completely beyond the idea of the function of these things. They are trying to fit things together so they look right, so the guests will find that they look right, too. That’s the beginnings of the aesthetic attitude.

We know this as well. We don’t accept the world simply as a thing out there, an assembly of objects. We try and adorn it and fit it to ourselves and us to it. We are always aware of the distinction between things standing out and fitting in. Sometimes it’s right for them to stand out; sometimes it’s wrong. Fitting in is one of the most important aspects of our life in every sphere of human endeavor. We all have this need to be part of something greater than ourselves, and this is something that happens to us all day long: that we know that we are part of something greater and we know that we are either fitting in or not fitting in. Obviously there is a distinction between looking right and being right, but one of the important features of the aesthetic is that that distinction gets collapsed. If you look back at the two children, there isn’t a distinction between the plate being in the right place and looking in the right place. Being and seeming have come together and that’s perhaps something that’s really important for us – to live in a world where every now and then being and seeming coincide, so that nothing, as it were, deceives us anymore.

I think this is part of the great social significance of the aesthetic. We live in a world which has in many ways been uglified, and it’s a world that we want to redeem so that we are part of it once again and our fulfillment is reflected back to us from all the things we encounter. And that’s really part of what I mean by redemption and that is the function of the aesthetic. This search for getting things right is an all-pervasive thing, no matter what circumstances you are in. Even if you’re living in a trailer park you can do things right. You can go to a local timber merchant and buy the Georgian windows to replace the rubbish that would otherwise be there, you can have a little cornice and so on. And if there’s a lot of money involved you can still get things totally wrong.

This is a part of London, and as you can see, someone’s made a mistake here. There’s another example of London mistakes. But here is getting it right. This is just an ordinary Victorian street in London. Someone has built a bridge across it so that two buildings communicate, but this is a totally different thing. Although there’s lots of different buildings there, they all harmonize. They harmonize because they’re standing along a street, they are all built of vertical components which match each other, and contain they classical details, cornice and stringcourse and pilasters and so on. And here’s an example of a modern town center, the center of Reading, built entirely out of horizontals. One of the important differences between them is everybody wants to live here, and nobody wants to live there, and in fact nobody does live there. The center of Reading was destroyed completely by this development and it’s standing empty and vandalized and covered in graffiti.

modernist living room
A living room of modernist design

This emphasis on the horizontal was originally a very aesthetic thing. The modernist aesthetic exemplified in this interior is entirely designed in this way. You can see that, yes, this is a kind of aesthetic ideal. Nobody, I’m sure, has ever sat in this room but nevertheless you can see that it has aesthetic thoughts behind it. Unlike this. But the modernists, of course, were in reaction against this, all this Victorian clutter, which again is something that most people would find extremely difficult to live with now.

Here is an example of a rather perfected modernist interior: Wittgenstein’s house in Vienna, which he designed for his sister. Wittgenstein, like me, had the sense that architecture ultimately must get the vertical emphasis right, must make verticals stand in parallel to each other, and that the sense of detail matters. This is not my preferred form of architecture but you can see the aesthetic instinct at work in everything in this building. He designed it for his sister, who never lived in it. It ended up as the embassy of a communist country, for which it is wonderfully suited.

Haus Wittgenstein, Vienna
Haus Wittgenstein, Vienna

This is an example of what architects really can do when it comes to making corners. This is the corner of a church in Rome, by Pietro da Cortona. You see when you have the sense of detail, the classical idiom and this desire to fit things together, how a building comes alive and captures the light of the sun and incorporates that light into itself, makes it part of its own spirit, so to speak. Even in architecture the human spirit finds its embodiment.

In conclusion, those examples were sort of taken from the air, really, but they’re meant to emphasize the place of aesthetic judgment, of our desire to get things right, in ordinary, everyday life and in our enterprise as builders and dwellers, as people who have settled down. We know that we are free beings, but we also know that freedom demands recognition. This is something that Hegel emphasized. It has to be re-expressed for every generation.

Pietro da Cortona: Santa Maria della Pace (corner detail), Rome, 1667
Pietro da Cortona: Santa Maria della Pace (corner detail), Rome, 1667

We’re not truly free until others recognize that we are free and grant us the space to be free in. And that means that we’re in relations of mutuality with each other. My freedom is always rubbing up against the edge of your freedom, and that boundary between us is the public world where we both belong. And it is in shaping that boundary between us that the aesthetic sense is so important. That’s where, in our search for recognition from each other, we attempt to be graceful towards each other and to bring each other to our side. I bring you to my side, you bring me to your side, so that the boundary where we coincide is mutually acceptable. This reasonably cool grace is a matter of harmony and fitting in. Of course, it cannot be achieved without the habit of giving and receiving: I give way to you, you give way to me, I offer you things and you receive them. This is what the public world ideally should be. That kind of giving and receiving of things is what should be embodied in our ideal forms of architecture.


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