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Contemplating the Spencer Finch installation at the RISD museum

There is a long history in the modernist tradition of assuming the beautiful must be a lie and that ugliness must be evidence of truth. One can understand the origin of this idea in a reaction against ossified academic standards, and simultaneously a revulsion against the hypocrisy of society. The modern world has seen more systematic moral dishonesty than any previous age, from Victorian moralism to political propaganda of all sorts and the manipulations of contemporary commercial culture.

But it is nonetheless a fallacy, like the mistaken assumption that cynicism is more likely to be correct than good faith. We have to reflect that if optimism can sometimes be stupidity, pessimism can often be cowardice. Hope and aspiration, even idealism, can be powerful forces for understanding the world; beauty, when real and not illusory, can be the deepest manifestation of the real. Truth, above all, is profoundly complex, and is never found in the self-indulgence of nihilism.

–Christopher Allen, from a review of artist Berlinde de Bruyckere

This quote came to me by way of one of my most treasured “we met online” friends, Miriam Louisa Simons. A woman of many parts, she is, among other identities, an artist, writer, mystic, visionary, teacher and friend now living in Australia.

She has aggregated an effulgence of insights and advocacy for nondual awareness. Explore that world at any of these Simons-created wisdom depots:

the awakened eye

the awakened eye blog

wonderingmind studio

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At an outdoor temporary pavilion in the main parking lot at the Southern California Institute of Architecture are fellow architects Peter Cook, Hernan Diaz Alonso, Eric Owen Moss and Greg Lynn, where Moss is director. (Rafael Sampaio Rocha / September 26, 2010)

I have had Architecture and Beauty: Conversations with Architects about a Troubled Relationship (Yael Reisner and Fleur Watson) on my desk for weeks now but have not been able to give it my full attention just yet. The distractions have not been minimal, from four weddings in five weeks—these have been those full immersion, all weekend long destination nuptials—to a full allocation of my reading quotient spent finishing Franzen’s Freedom (And a worthy distraction it was. A few previous posts about the book can be read here and here.)

But Reisner (married to architect Peter Cook) is keeping the topic in the ideasphere. A recent panel discussion staged in Los Angeles featured Frank Gehry, Thom Mayne, Eric Owen Moss, Peter Cook, Hernan Diaz Alonso and Greg Lynn.

From a review of the evening written by Christopher Hawthorne in the Los Angeles Times:

In the end, if the panelists didn’t exactly embrace the topic at hand — and if the uneven discussion that resulted was, itself, far from a thing of beauty — that could hardly be counted as a surprise. The group of architects Reisner asked to take part, representative of the larger group she features in the book, have always eyed beauty with wariness, if not outright hostility. There were times during the panel when it seemed the huge, standing-room-only crowd had gathered to listen to a bunch of Hatfields discuss the McCoys.

Gehry, after all, found his early breakthroughs in the 1980s by mining the less-than-gorgeous urban landscape of Los Angeles, incorporating chain link and corrugated metal into off-kilter, deceptively ad-hoc buildings. Mayne’s most powerful work is similarly interested in subverting and breaking apart conventional ideas about symmetry and prettiness. Moss once told me that the worst insult one L.A. architect could give another, when he was starting out three decades ago, was to call his or her work “beautiful.” Something closer to ugliness or toughness was the goal, or at least architecture unconventional enough to reliably rattle bourgeois sensibilities.

That attitude still holds sway, despite the fact that the architecture world — not to mention the world at large — has changed radically since the emergence of Mayne, Moss, Gehry and other members of the L.A. School in the 1970s and ’80s. Nearly two decades after the art world went through a difficult but cathartic debate on beauty, architects — or at least these architects — continue to find the subject remarkably nervous-making.

Hawthorne goes on to get a few digs in about what was probably a bit of an awkward gathering. He reports that Moss held his head in his hands for most the discussion and then offered his view that he didn’t think talking about beauty was “useful” any more. Gehry is reported to have advised not to consider outside judgments regarding which buildings qualify as beautiful or which architects were important. “You do your work and you shut up and you take your lumps. And if you keep doing that, maybe you find your own sort of Zen self. And that’s probably a great place to be as human beings.” Mayne is quoted as saying that issues of globalization, the Internet and instantly changing fashions have made it was impossible to determine a single standard for beauty. “Whose beauty are we talking about?” he asked.

A new generation of artists ARE interested in beauty, and Hawthorne points to the recently opened Architecture Biennale in Venice. Curated by Kazuyo Sejima, beauty is brought back, front and center. the exhibit features unabashedly beautiful projects by Madrid’s Andres Jaque, the Indian firm Studio Mumbai and the young Tokyo architect Junya Ishigami, among others.

I particularly liked Hawthorne’s closing point:

The panel wrapped up before the group had a chance to explore in any depth what ought to have been the focus from the start: Why certain architects continue to see pursuing, confronting or embracing beauty as something to be embarrassed or even ashamed about, or something that diminishes the seriousness of their work, all these years after that notion emerged. When I spoke with Gehry by phone this week, though, he offered a pretty good explanation.

“When you go directly after beauty, it’s like you’re competing with God,” he told me. “If you go after other things, you’re only competing with Borromini and Bernini. That’s still tough, but it’s not impossible.”


Japanese calligraphy, beautiful in its inexplicable mystery (From the LACMA collection)

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Beauty is not a concept. …Beauty harmonizes consciousness from top to bottom. It is as organically vital as digestion. Beauty is, or ought to be, no big deal, though the lack of it is. Without regular events of beauty, we live estranged from existence, including our own.

—Peter Schjeldahl

Yesterday I had an engaging and thoughtful conversation with art impresario/gallery directory/arts and community advocate/photographer Martine Bisagni. Ever the visionary, Martine’s latest project is the Brooklyn Workshop Gallery and associated Brooklyn Workshop Gallery Foundation. More about that undertaking will be forthcoming here.

Our conversation was far ranging but of course (it seems to be my inevitable proclivity) we touched down on beauty. I’ve written about this particular portion of the art terrain many times on this blog (do a search on beauty for a long list of posts). This quote from the New Yorker‘s Schjeldahl seems like a good addition.

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Botticelli’s Birth of Venus and Kate Moss modelling for Topshop were cited as contrasting ideals of beauty in a debate on whether or Britain has become indifferent to beauty. Photograph: Corbis/AFP

Beauty. A topic that never goes away. I’ve written about it many times on this blog, quoting from some of my favorite books in the subject. Like the other big tent concepts of Truth, Reality and God, it just keeps roping us in, generation after generation.

The latest riff on this tune is a witty piece by British art/cultural critic Stephen Bayley. I’ve posted it on Slow Painting but I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to rant a bit here. While Bayley’s piece is full of that famous British irony and playful cynicism, he does touch on how the shift to a more values-based approach to life is in keeping with the turbulent “revolution” (my word–is it too soon to apply that term to what is happening right now?) we are witnessing. I’m watching and you’re watching as cultural preconceptions and attitudes fractalize and morph into completely unexpected forms. As the title to the aptly-named book Uncontrollable Beauty implies, the Big B will not be held hostage and will not go away, hard as many have tried to shut it out. Its tenacity is, well, downright inspiring.

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