A friend of mine insists that Frank Lloyd Wright was a great architect who’s designs were exceptional. I disagree. Frank Lloyd Wright designed a few great buildings (Johnson’s Wax Administration Building and the Guggenheim Museum) but he also designed many disasters (Falling Water, the Robie House). I wouldn’t consider him a great architect. He doesn’t belong with those I consider great, like Beethoven, or Michelangelo. But Wright wasn’t a failure either; he was able to sell the idea of architecture to the masses. For that he deserves credit.
But who am I to judge architecture or great art? The daughter of a man who strove to be one of ’s greatest architects, that’s who. He taught me that a good architect considers the form and the function of the building he is designing. One without the other is not architecture. A great architect designs buildings that fit both their form (dictated by the lay of the land and by building materials) and their function elegantly. A building is meant to shelter us and protect us from the elements. That is its primary meaning. Without meaning it’s like a stone standing in a field; there, but lacking human context. Good buildings are those that fit their meaning; a home improves the quality of life for those living in it; an office building improves the ability of employees to work effectively in it. It doesn’t matter if it’s a house, an office tower, a church or a museum; a building must have some sort of function.
With the Guggenheim Museum, Wright was able to design a building, a form that fit its function —which was to display and protect the items within — flawlessly. Perhaps it’s because of something inside him. He was, after all, a great exhibitionist. But his design of the house called Falling Water, in Bear Run, Pennsylvania, played romantically with form, but ignored its function as a home. Its halls were too narrow, its drafts too constant, and the moisture in the rooms, caused by the river below, made the house uninhabitable as a home.
What makes something art? What makes a painting, a sculpture, music, or literature a truly great work of art? I’m sick of hearing that it’s all subjective, that art is self-expression or that it’s whatever we like to hang on our walls. Those words are used by posing artists — with a class in finger painting under their belts — and duped consumers who have lost all sense of aesthetic judgement. The posing artists, too lazy to force a rigorous education on themselves, are as much to blame as our consumer culture. Both are in the business of producing commodities, not art. The disgrace is that a true artist must try to work within the contrived world of artificial art. And they’ve two choices — either they sell out, giving in to the industry of art which dictates that two parts shock value equals an increase in market value — or try to make a living in another field, creating real art when they can find time.
There was a time when people studied and apprenticed themselves to great masters in the arts. A time when a great painter learned biology, history and engineering. A time when a great composer often knew how to play every instrument. A time when great art was created.
Today we have junk labelled art, with ridiculous price tags. There is something substantial about real art, a pull, an aesthetic pull that isn’t in most of the schlock produced today. You can feel it in Beethoven’s music, in Leonardo Da Vinci’s paintings, in Henry Moore’s sculptures. The presence of a sculpture can capture you in a dark room. The pull of music can tease you and force you to listen. The aesthetic pull can reassure and comfort. It has taken our society from tribalism to civility — it’s in the choices we make each day. Choices made well adhere to this aesthetic law; they’re in harmony with the physical world. This aesthetic law steers us away from putting an armchair in the middle of a hallway, or a picnic table up in a tree. So many choices are aesthetic and when that pull is ignored, mother nature disciplines — we bang our shins or fall out of trees.
My biggest worry is that real art, the kind that teaches us how to listen and develop our inner aesthetic guide, will get lost. Buried in the waste of junk that currently passes for art. A few weeks ago it was announced that our custodian of aesthetic knowledge, the Royal Ontario Museum, is getting re-designed. Will the design consider aesthetic form and function? Will it be a work of art? Or will it be a sales job, something we’ll be tearing down in twenty years because it didn’t quite work, because the sensation today isn’t aesthetically valid. We won’t know until it’s built, until we’re standing inside it, until the sensitive among us can feel the aesthetic tug of the building itself. For now we’ll have to trust the architect, Daniel Libeskind, with the responsibility of creating a design that is aesthetically valid.