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Art and architecture: why beauty matters

by Valerie Nadeau April 12, 2016
Art and architecture: why beauty matters

Thoughts on modern architecture inspired by the BBC documentary Why Beauty Matters

If you had asked someone who lived between the years 1750 and 1930 what the purpose of art was, they would probably have answered: beauty. Today, society seems to have forgotten that. The documentary Why Beauty Matters, a BBC documentary with Roger Scruton, explores the different ways in which beauty is what makes life worthwhile, and how we are losing the meaning of what beauty really is.

Graphic by Florence Yee.

Graphic by Florence Yee.

Dada art was the very beginning of art that was not meant for beauty. It was created as an anti-war movement and most art pieces were targeting the bourgeois nationalists and colonialist interests because they were thought to be the cause of the war. In 1917, Marcel Duchamp presented his upside-down urinal and called it art, with the purpose of making fun of the entire system that had been installed to judge if something was really art and what was allowed to be called “museum art.” Unfortunately, the public misinterpreted the message Duchamp was trying to convey, and instead understood that everything could be art if we said it was.

This was the beginning of making art pieces that intended to be shocking and not beautiful. Art was no longer primarily about the interpretation of something, but now could be literal objects presented as art, something we had never seen before. For example, Damien Hirst’s famous piece called A Thousand Years (1990) is a glass box containing a dead cow’s head being devoured by thousands of flies. This is supposed to portray the cycle of life—birth, reproduction and death. Flies feed on the dismembered cow head, reproduce and die in the glass box. It is quite shocking to see, not beautiful or pleasing to the eye at all.

If you look at architecture, it appears that this line of work has also taken a wrong turn since the ‘60s. Walking around in the city, you notice ugliness on every street corner. In the ‘60s, many architects became impatient with the beauty and detail of a structure and started building primarily for use, seemingly deeming beauty useless and tossing it completely aside. This resulted in grotesque concrete structures popping up all around the world. Many of these buildings were later abandoned or had to be demolished because no one wanted to live in them anymore. They were simply too ugly for anyone to buy them, like the CN fruit warehouse in Montreal, which still stands but is left abandoned.

After demolishment, a new modern structure would be built in its place, only to be considered hideous again within 50 years. Modern is only modern for so long—it always outdates itself. The only buildings that remain timelessly beautiful are the ones where architects paid attention to detail, such as the Molson Bank building on St. Jacques Street in Old Montreal, the Ernest-Cormier building on Notre-Dame Est or Le Place d’Armes Hotel on St. Jacques. No one would ever dare demolish these beautiful monuments. They are all examples of the type of architecture that modern architects have given up on, in the sense that they won’t ever try to replicate this type of architecture due to the extra time and money it takes to make. In the long run though, it seems more profitable to build something that will always be found beautiful and that will last longer than to build a monument which is built for immediate use and that no one will care if it is demolished 30 years later. The Laurentian Hotel, which was situated on René Lévesque Boulevard, is a perfect example of a building demolished shortly after construction, even though it was perfectly usable. Armchair architectural critics claimed it to be “hopelessly dated and very ugly.”

During a Ted Talk, artist Theaster Gates talked about beauty, pointing out that “people act differently around beautiful things.” He explained that “if you’re in an environment where there’s a bunch of waste on the ground, it’s easy not to care for that place, to add your filth to the existing filth. By making a place beautiful, which often means simply peeling back the layers of what is already there, we remove the distractions.”

When we remove beauty from an object, that object soon becomes useless. Use is in need of beauty to survive. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but it’s safe to say that some beautiful things are appreciated by everyone.

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