Ordinary Beauty

Lately, I’ve taken an interest in website design (as a matter of fact, I built this blog design completely from scratch). Besides learning the technical aspects of how to build a website, this newfound hobby has prompted me to think more seriously about aesthetics. This, in turn, has prompted me to start reading Roger Scruton’s Beauty: A Very Short Introduction. I haven’t gotten far into the book yet (which, of course, is very short and only scratches the surface), but it has already touched on an aspect of aesthetics that is of particular relevance to our everyday lives: the distinction between the sort of beauty we find in J. M. W. Turner’s paintings or a Gothic cathedral, and the sort which we find in everyday objects: a beautifully laid table, articles of clothing, or a website.

But the beauty of a well-designed website or a well thought-out outfit is not the same as that of Longhena's Sta Maria Della Salute in Venice or Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier. It is in the latter that the divine reveals itself in our world; it is by the latter we are taken aback, and called to contemplation. The former, however, is beautiful in a different way: it just looks right. These two kinds of beauty are not at odds, of course. A beautiful painting in a room full of other beautiful paintings is just that—one painting among many others. On the other hand, an extraordinarily beautiful piece of architecture is enhanced by modest settings; there is nothing to compete with its beauty, and there is nothing to spoil it.

In fact, in architecture, it is more important that things fit appropriately together; that nothing disturbs the sense of harmony created by a street or square where nothing stands out and, as Scruton puts it, “good manners prevail.” This is true also of web design, the furnishing of a room, or the laying of a table. To focus on the other, divinely inspired form of beauty at the expense of the everyday beauty of ‘fittingness’ is a mistake, and may even be self-defeating, writes Scruton:

Much that is said about beauty and its importance in our lives ignore the minimal beauty of an unpretentious street, a nice pair of shoes or a tasteful piece of wrapping paper, as though these things belonged to a different order of value from a church by Bramante or a Shakespeare sonnet. Yet, these minimal beauties are far more important to our daily lives, and far more intricately involved in our own rational decisions, than the great works which (if we are lucky) occupy our leisure hours. They are part of the context in which we live our lives, and our desire for harmony, fittingness and civility are both expressed and confirmed in them. Moreover, the great works of architecture often depend for their beauty on the humble context that these lesser beauties provide. Longhena’s church on the Grand Canal would lose its confident and invocatory presence, were the modest buildings which nestle in its shadow to be replaced with cast-concrete office-blocks, of the kind that ruin the aspect of St Paul’s [Cathedral].….Another consideration follows, which is that the emphasis on beauty might in certain cases be self-defeating, by implying that our choices are between different degrees of a single quality so that we must always aim for what is most beautiful in everything that we choose. In fact, too much attention to beauty might defeat its own object. In the case of urban design, for example, the goal is, in the first instance, to fit in, not to stand out. If you want to stand out, then you have to be worthy of the attention that you claim, like Longhena’s church. This does not mean that the humble and harmonious street is not beautiful. Rather, it suggests that we can understand its beauty better if we describe it in another and less loaded way, as a form of fittingness or harmony. Were we to aim in every case at the kind of supreme beauty exemplified by Sta Maria della Salute, we should end with aesthetic overload. The clamorous masterpieces, jostling for attention side by side, would lose their distinctiveness, and the beauty of each of them would be at war with the beauty of the rest.

There can be such a thing as too much of a good thing, even as far as beauty is concerned. Certain works of Baroque art are certainly the testament to this. Moreover, it seems to me that it is especially inappropriate to strive for the sort of beauty exemplified by grand works of art at all in certain functional arts. Website design, I think, is one such example, where the only thing that matters is the fittingness of the design elements (both the fittingness in relation to one another and the content). What makes the pursuit of this form of beauty inappropriate in some cases but appropriate in others, though, I cannot say definitively. Instead, I invite you to share with me your thoughts on this in the comment section, which I will leave open. Archenassa, in Scruton’s novel Perictione in Colophon, offers hers:

Architecture cannot progress as music and poetry progress, so as to conform solely to the needs of genius. Architecture is a public enterprise: the architect does not build for the private client, but for the city. All of us are compelled to live with the result, which must, therefore, be offensive to no one. Originality should be second to good manners. The case is no different from clothing, which ought to be original only if it first conforms. The pattern book resulted from a long process of trial and error, whereby the appearance of the city and the feelings of the citizen were gradually brought into harmony and an easy conversational relation established between buildings and their passerby.

This answer, to the extent that it is an answer to my question, seems incomplete. It addresses why the pursuit of fittingness is always appropriate in architecture, but not when (or why) the pursuit of Beauty with a capital B is appropriate. The answer, perhaps, is that it depends upon whom the building is for. If the answer is “God,” then it only seems right to make it as beautiful as possible.

Editor's Note: This article was originally published under a different title on the author's personal blog in February 2016.