good, better, best
Post #229 • March 5, 2004, 8:31 AM • 6 Comments
John Massengale ("a recovering architect") has an interesting post that talks about connoiseurship. Even though the topic is furniture as it relates to urban design, it has a few points that could be applied to art and art criticism.
In 1998, I made a short trip with Rob Steuteville, the editor of the New Urban News. In the middle of visiting five New Urban projects in two days, Rob suddenly said, "You know, sometimes visiting these projects really gets depressing. When I started the New Urban News five years ago, I thought we'd be a lot farther along by now. But on a scale of one to 10, I can't give this project more than a three."
The next day we saw a town-center project under construction that Rob liked a lot more: "I'd give this a seven," he said.
"If this is a seven, the Campidoglio is a 27," I said.
"You can't compare a new urban commercial development to a Roman piazza!" he said with exasperation.
But New Urbanists know how simple some of the most beautiful Italian piazzas (or best New England villages) are and how simple it should be to make something as good.
This is a perennial problem for art. Technically we know how to make a work of art as beautiful as any made. Why aren't we doing it?
He goes on to wonder how to evaluate both the town-center project and the Campidoglio fairly without disparaging either. He then finds out about a concept called Good, Better, Best. (I'm forcing a little narrative here.)
I first heard of Good, Better, Best when I owned a store called America's Best Traditional Designers and Craftsmen. From my architecture practice, I knew a number of craftsmen who made wonderful traditional furniture, windows and paneling, and other types of cabinetry and woodwork. I also knew how difficult it was to find these woodworkers - who usually worked out in the country somewhere - and how much more exposure greatly inferior craftsmen had. So I started a store to sell their work.
So he educated himself about the particulars: he went to museums, read up, and looked and looked.
The dimensions of the 18th-century chair embodied hundreds of years of experimentation. By 1700, chair makers had discovered the proper angle for the back, the perfect height for the seat, and the ideal depth for a cushion that would support the leg without cutting off the flow of blood behind the knee.
Chair makers perfected the form for the comfort of the human body and then used that form to make supremely beautiful art from functional objects. Sheraton chairs, Chippendale chairs and Hepplewhite chairs all had the same basic dimensions, and yet they looked very different because both their forms and their elaboration were very different.
The chair makers knew where to put their energies in making those elaborations. All the best chairs had several carvers working on them: The best carver would work on the top rail, the next best would work on the carving around the seat, and the apprentices would carve the feet. Not because the feet were less important than the top rails, but because they were farther away from the eyes of the beholders. ...
The criteria for the judgments were simple: 1) design and proportion, 2) construction and detail, and 3) materials and finishes.
The rain on the parade? Modernism.
There are some obvious comparisons with the Modernist principles of architecture and urbanism, which swept away traditional design. Even though they invented "the science of Ergonomics," many of the Modernist designers who made furniture only paid lip service to the functional paradigms for the comfort of people sitting in their chairs.
The proof is in the pudding: In the name of functionalism, superstar architects and designers like Mies van der Rohe and Charles Eames designed some of the most uncomfortable chairs in the history of the world. They were less interested in comfort than the expression of modern materials and industrial processes. ...
That produced a very different result than the traditional values of Good, Better, Best, which judged objects not on the basis of their originality, but on the execution and elaboration of ideas and forms that had been proven to work.
Such is the price of progress. But here's the problem:
Twentieth century architecture and urbanism rejected timeless principles of design for principles judged to be of the time. This was often done by turning traditional principles on their head, to create what Machado and Silvetti call "unprecedented reality." The search for novelty made the criteria for judging architecture and urbanism subjective, while the standards for judging traditional architecture and urbanism are comparative and objective.
They're still subjective - this is judgement, after all - but because there are are standards, there is more to agree about. The choice is between comparative standards or unprecedented reality. The idea of holding to standards goes up the nose of a lot of contemporary art makers and their champions, but Good, Better, Best lets you judge examples of work according to other examples in its tier.
Implicit in Good, Better, Best is also a way to resolve Rob Steuteville's problem: If we create a scale with Good assigned 1 to 10, Better 11 to 20, and Best 21 to 30, we can grade the 27 piazza on the same scale as the 9 TOD town center without disparaging the town center.
Substitute Rembrandt for the Campidoglio and your average local art star for the town center and you come up with a pretty reasonable way of evaluating art.
Massengale makes an interesting point about education as it relates to the above:
This has many useful benefits. One is that you can teach the principles for making a good traditional building or street to anyone, so that the student does not have to be especially talented to reach the level of Good. With the looser standards of Modernism, only the most talented and inventive reach the level of Good. The exception is in a Modernism based on well-defined principles, as is taught at Cornell. But in this age of Eisenman and Koolhaas, that is rare.
Most art schools teach how to invoke unprecedented reality, which is a better term for what this is usually called: originality. An artist ought to be generating at least some unprecedented reality or he's not doing his job. But by emphasizing the novel, the art world has become fashion-driven. The cutting-edge art school experience has the students graduating with little more skill than they entered with, but with a finely-tuned art-world fashion sense. The blows to sincerity and integrity have been palpable. This is why I favor craftsmanship and connoiseurship - I believe human concerns ought to be addressed by art not just intellectually, but formally. Otherwise, you get the results that you often see on the gallery wall: art that does to your soul what sitting in the Mies chair does to your back.