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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.




March 5, 2004, 5:33 PM

This is one of the better things you've posted here. I've always been of the mind that new and different, in and of themselves, are neutral characteristics, which need not have anything to do with quality. I neither accept nor respect the cult of novelty. No matter how "original" or "groundbreaking" something might be, if it's not as good as or better than what's come before it, then it's inferior, and I'm not interested.

The very idea that I can be won over by glorified mediocrity or outright rubbish just because it's novel is highly insulting. An artist who attempts such a thing is telling me s/he has no respect for me at all--s/he is, in fact, a fraud.



March 5, 2004, 8:41 PM

No, the art and architecture school gives the student a finely tuned awareness of the fashion of the day he ENTERED, thus leaving him or her 30-90K in and an already out of date sense of fashion. Perhaps if the art and architecture schools taught skills, philosophy and history, one could make their own art and understand art correctly. I think its time the students of the world started seeing the Emperor has no clothes.
(credit to Vomit the Lukewarm on the last quote)



March 6, 2004, 4:46 AM

I'm going to disagree on two basic points. First, that once something is "perfected," attempting any bold departures is a bad idea, and second, that the criteria for evaluating design are transferable to art.

What coincided with Modernism was the rise of the middle class - a large group of people who were wealthy enough to live in the sort of comfort that, previously, only the select few could afford. Sheraton, Chippendale, and Hepplewhite chairs were products for the ruling class - only the select few could afford them.

Could we have just striped away the ornaments and made simple, effective seating? Probably. Actually, I think that's what Marx and Engels had in mind. Eames and van der Rohe perhaps made some unfomfortable chairs. They also made some damn comfortable ones; chairs that acknowleged that ornamentation was not just unsustainable, but unnecessary to beauty.

They were experimenting, and out of those experiments came the furniture we have the burden of living with today. I've never sat in an 18th century chair, but i'd be willing to put them up against an Eames Lounge, or even a Barcelona couch. I'd even be willing to put them up against some certain Ikea knock-offs.

Now, does art have so clear an overriding goal as comfort is for furniture? It seems that for the analogy to hold, you would have to agree that it does. I tend not to think so, but let's assume that it's true. Let's say that the goal of a work of art is to capture a deep feeling that the artist has, and to convey it to the viewer. Let's postulate that that has always been, and will always be, the purpose of art.

Still, the only way to argue that there is no need for innovation in art is to believe that the reaction of the artist to the world today is the same (or should be the same) as it was in Rambrant's time. That out modern society has not, not substantially, changed how we experience life. That globalization, electronic media, and widespread improvements in living stardards are qualitatively no different then a better horseshoe.

To be sure, it is praiseworthy to go about refining what exists, and somewhat egotistical to try to create something new. But creating something new, successfully or not, is necessary. This holds certainly in the case of design, and I think it holds in the case of art, as well.

I believe that Rambrant belongs to the group of artists that also include Carvaggio and Canne - artists who we admire not just because of their refined technique, but also becuase their artwork represented a break with existing traditions, a desire to create something new.



March 6, 2004, 6:36 AM

Great posting - the problem is not new (at least in USA) - when I went to art school in the late 70s it was pretty much the same - teach theory and not craft?

How do we mix two paints to come up with a third color? No one in the faculty knows...

This is what happens when what's "new" rather than what's "good" is what is considered "art."

Not me.


Godless Roach

March 7, 2004, 10:49 PM

Americans are obsessed with new. It's inevitable, because you want to escape this implacable system and you are taught about the glory of new products, every damn minute. Nevertheless, new should not be a criteria for defining art. Concepts like beauty and truth are better parameters. New can be a virtue, but not by definition. Try to be new all the time and you might lose your essence, your center, that drive that makes you gun for the soul.



March 9, 2004, 6:45 PM

While I agree that Mies' Barcelona chair is uncomfortable (although a physically large person would disagree and say - finally, something I can sit on) I have to disagree that Charles Eames' chairs are. Designed with his wife, Ray Eames, the bent ply, fibreglass, and leather chairs are, each and every one, remarkably comfortable. I can only assume that you haven't sat on any, and are making a lazy point: certainly there are a lot of chairs designed by architects that do hurt.



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