Aesthetic judgments

Yesterday’s Scenes from a Multiverse (link here):

Testing an aesthetic judgment — but how?

This is about food, where (up to a point) tastes are indisputable. (No doubt there are a few people who eat dairy products but find the taste of ice cream terrible.) But even there, tastes can be educated and developed.

Then there’s art.

Last month the NYT had a piece on aesthetic judgments: “Architecture’s Ugly Ducklings May Not Get Time to Be Swans”, by Robin Pogrebin (April 7th), on the fate of Modernist and (unfortunately named) Brutalist buildings, beginning:

GOSHEN, N.Y. — As Modernist buildings reach middle age, many of the stark structures that once represented the architectural vanguard are showing signs of wear, setting off debates around the country between preservationists, who see them as historic landmarks, and the many people who just see them as eyesores.

The conflict has come in recent months to this quaint village 60 miles north of New York City — with its historic harness-racing track, picturesque Main Street and Greek Revival, Federal and Victorian houses — where the blocky concrete county government center designed by the celebrated Modernist architect Paul Rudolph has always been something of a misfit.

“I just don’t think it fits with the character of the county seat and the village of Goshen,” said Leigh Benton, an Orange County legislator who grew up in the area. “I just thought it was a big ugly building.”

Completed in 1967, the building has long been plagued by a leaky roof and faulty ventilation system and, more recently, by mold; it was closed last year after it was damaged by storms, including Tropical Storm Irene.

The building:

Pogrebin goes on to talk about other threatened Modernist buildings. Then:

Opinions are even stronger when it comes to Brutalism, a style closely associated with the Swiss architect Le Corbusier, and one that tends to produce weighty monoliths like the F.B.I. headquarters in Washington and Boston City Hall.

In an interview Theodore Dalrymple, a fellow at the Manhattan Institute who has written about the architecture of Le Corbusier, described Brutalist buildings as “absolutely hideous, like scouring pads on the retina.”

“One of those buildings can destroy an entire cityscape that has been built up over hundreds of years,” he said.

Historians note similar objections to saving Victorian houses, bungalows, Art Deco buildings, and the like — each displacing earlier styles of architecture and then becoming viewed as out-of-date and out-of-style, indeed as ugly.

Then there’s the role of education in taste. Pogrebin concludes:

Historians also say appreciating architecture can require an education.

“It’s like saying, ‘I don’t like [Jackson] Pollock because he splattered paint,’ ” said Nina Rappaport, chairwoman of Docomomo-New York/Tri-State, an organization that promotes the preservation of Modernist architecture. “Does that mean we shouldn’t put it in a museum? No, it means we teach people about these things.”

But Mr. Dalrymple said the notion that the public needs to be educated to appreciate Brutalism is like saying that people “need to be intimidated out of their taste.”

No expertise is needed to decide that a building is ugly, he said, adding, “It’s an aesthetic judgment.”

Breath-taking. Dalrymple appears to believe that aesthetic judgments are both entirely subjective and universal. We all know ugly when we see it. I guess we all know delicious when we taste it, too.

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