Taste and Aesthetics

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One may find it necessary at the beginning of this discussion to separate aesthetics from art given the fact that aesthetics deals with opinions on perception of the world in general. Though, any branch of work that deals with beauty and thus taste is inevitably bound to be referred to as art.[1] The relation between the two is not unlike that of aesthetics to architecture in that the latter has a very specific function and how “good” its design is, is primarily related to how well it performs this function. Thus, judgments on what it looks like correspond to taste. There is a common thread that binds the writings on aesthetics and taste in architecture over the centuries. This thread is the fact that the writings are a product of their times and inherently reflect the culture of the time in which the writer perceived beauty. This paper will examine the concepts of aesthetics and art throughout different sources and perspectives.

One of the earliest writings that discusses the place of aesthetics and art in architecture was The Ten Books on Architecture by Vitruvius. [2] The book became famous in the world of architecture because of the assertions within the writing that a given building or structure must have the three basic qualities of firmitas, utilitas, venustas. These could be roughly translated as the innate essentials of a building, being the need to be sturdy and long-lasting, practical and aesthetically correct.[3] The idea therefore was that a building and its aesthetics would have to reflect the uses of the structure it their most innate manner. Aesthetics without use are shallow. For Vitruvius, aesthetics were tied up with the concept of symmetry to the extent that he was a firm believer in the assumption that there could be no aesthetics without symmetry. In fact, Vitruvius understands architecture in terms of it being inspired by nature and as a replication of it. Vitruvius's aesthetics ideas were based on a belief in objective beauty conditioned by the laws of nature rather than by man's attitudes. He regarded a perfect temple as the product of natural laws rather than the work of an individual. The individual could discover those laws but not invent them. Nevertheless, he regarded as permissible, even as necessary, the correction of objective laws of beauty in the interest of the spectator's subjective requirements. Eurhythmy had to supplement the interest of the spectator's subjective requirements. Here too Vitruvius achieved a compromise and a balance. Therefore beauty depended both upon objective measure and the subjective conditions of perception. This was the natural result of centuries of aesthetic exploration and discussion.

The interest in direct observation of nature followed into the European Middle Ages, when the notion that “nature delight primarily in the circle” fit into Christian thought. [4] The rose windows of the Gothic cathedrals were one of many examples. Having that knowledge in mind, Ruskin's language of the issue of aesthetics could be understood in terms of three essential words in the context of architecture: savageness, changefulness and naturalism. It was the usage of these three essential words in the identification of the basic characteristics of Gothic architecture. He arrived at these three terms through years of research on the examination of nature and architecture and though his choice of method to explore nature, drawing.

The concept of aesthetics for Ruskin, is closely linked to the concept of 'organic vision', or a manner of considering the natural world as an integrated whole, resembling a living organism. The idea, therefore, was that most artists, and in particular the ones that work with Gothic architecture, were able to come up with their best work when the work reflected a synergy inspired by nature, given the fact that this would be the use of a method through which 'life' would enter their work.

During the 18th century, named the Age of Enlightenment, the notion of “Empiricism” was introduced. It was thought that “all knowledge of matters of fact derive from experience”.[5] Therefore, in Hume's terms, the issue of aesthetics finds its ultimate grounding in the context of aesthetic response. Nevertheless, it was quite another matter as to whether we are to honor each and every individual response. To do so, would be to fall back on the eye of the beholder position. Hume's idea of aesthetics is highly subjective and he contends that “though it be certain that beauty and deformity more sweet than bitter are not qualities in objects but belong to the sentiment, internal or external-it must be allowed that there are certain qualities in objects which are fitted by nature to produce such particular feelings”.[6] Hume therefore essentially argues that beauty is ascribed to an object not from the detection of qualities but as a consequence of the arousal of certain feelings, which are subjective in them.

Geoffrey Scott states that it is “coherence in architecture, distinct though it is from beauty, has a function of its own. Humanized mass, space, and line are the basis of beauty, but coherence is the basis of style”.[7] In Scott's writings it has been clearly stated that the various aspects of mass, space, and line give the substance of character in terms of aesthetic pleasures. This provides the feelings of splendor secluded and disconnected. One could however find the objectives of architecture in terms of a lot more then just the fulfillment of isolated pleasures. Architecture's beauty is not just found in synthesis. "It controls and disciplines the beauty of painting, sculpture, and the minor arts; it austerely orders even the beauty, which is its own. It seeks, through style, to give it clarity and scope, and that coherence which the beauty of nature lacks."[8] He states, that one transcribes oneself into the present form. This metaphor of transcribing or inhabiting resolves the old aesthetic puzzle about how feelings can take form by assimilating it to the more fundamental puzzle of embodiment. Scott goes to on to state that the functional fitness in architecture is not a matter of immediate perception but is an intellectual inference and therefore the adequate functioning of a structure cannot affect its aesthetic quality.

In conclusion, on an appraisal of the concept of aesthetics over the ages, what becomes clear is that aesthetics and taste in architecture have primarily been determined through the standards of norms and beliefs in the given age. A belief in the forces of nature would demand a synergy of nature in architecture, while a movement for free thought grants that beauty is subjective and lay in the eyes of the beholder. Nevertheless, it appears clear that one's surroundings and beliefs heavily influence aesthetics and taste in architecture and that nature has played a very significant role overall.


Adams, Laurie Schneider. Art Across Time. New York: McGraw- Hill Companies, Inc, 2007.

Alberro, A., and Stimson, B. Conceptual art: a critical anthology. The MIT Press, 2000.

Hume, David. “Of the Standard of Taste.” In IRH 101 Readings. Toronto, 2010

Ruskin, John. “The Savageness of Gothic Architecture” from The Stones of Venice, vol 2, chapter 6.” In IRH 101 Readings. Toronto, 2010

Complete text found at http://books.google.com/books?id=RE4AAAAAYAAJ&oe=UTF-8

Scott, Geoffrey. “The Architecture of Humanism: A Study in the History of Taste.” In IRH 101 Readings. Toronto, 2010

Vitruvius, Pollio. The Ten Books on Architecture. New York: Dover Publications, 1960.

[1] Stimson, Alberro & Blake, Conceptual Art: A Critical Anthology (Cambridge: The MIT Press, 2000), 162.

[2] Adams, Laurie Schneider, Art Across Time (New York: McGraw- Hill Companies, Inc, 2007), 190.

[3] Vitruvius, Pollio, The Ten Books on Architecture (New York: Dover Publications, 1960),

[4] Adams, Laurie Schneider, Art Across Time (New York: McGraw- Hill Companies, Inc, 2007), 543.

[5] Ibid., 680.

[6] David Hume, “Of the Standard of Taste,” in IRH 101 Readings (Toronto, 2010), 14

[7] Geoffrey Scott, “The Architecture of Humanism: A Study in the History of Taste,” in IRH 101 Readings (Toronto, 2010), 33

[8] Ibid.,33