Imagine a postapocalyptic world. Beside the ruined buildings of our own civilization - St. Peter’s Basilica, the Taj Mahal, those really great Art Deco skyscrapers - dwell savages in mud huts. The savages see the buildings every day, but they never compose legends about how they were built by the gods in a lost golden age. No, they say they themselves could totally build things just as good or better. They just choose to build mud huts instead, because they’re more stylish.
This is the setup for my all-time favorite conspiracy theory, Tartaria. Its true believers say we are those savages. We live in the shadow of the Taj Mahal, Art Deco skyscrapers, etc. But our buildings look like this:
The headquarters of Google, one of the richest corporations in the world. A third-rate 1500s merchant would be ashamed to live anywhere as bare.
So (continues the conspiracy) probably we suffered some kind of apocalypse a hundred-ish years ago. Our elites are keeping it quiet, and have altered the records, but they haven’t been able to destroy all the buildings of the lost world. Their cover story is that technology and wealth level haven’t regressed or anything, those kinds of buildings have just "gone out of style".
People say that conspiracy theories are sometimes sublimated expressions of critiques of our society. No mystery what this one is criticizing. Some people don’t like modern architecture. How many? I sometimes see claims like "nobody really likes it", and certainly it feels intuitively incontrovertible to me that the older stuff is more beautiful. But I know some people who claim to genuinely like the modern style. Are the modern-is-obviously-worse folks just over-updating on their own preferences?
The best source I can find for this is a National Civic Art Society survey, which finds Americans prefer traditional/classical buildings to modern ones by about 70% to 30% (regardless of political affiliation!). In a poll of America’s favorite architecture, 76% of buildings selected were traditional/classical (establishment architects said the poll was invalid, because you can’t judge buildings by pictures). A study of courthouse architecture determined that "[our] findings agree with consistent findings that architects misjudge public likely public impressions of a design, and that most non-architects dislike "modern" design and have done so for almost a century."
Yet 92% of new federal government buildings are modern. So I think there’s a genuine mystery to be explained here: if people prefer traditional architecture by a large margin, how come we’ve stopped producing it?
While changes in building materials, cost-cutting, etc might have a role, I think it would be myopic to focus too hard on architecture-specific explanations. The shift from Tartarian to modern aesthetics is consistent across art forms:
I have tried to be as fair as possible here. The first pair is the formal dress of the highest-status person in China in each time period. The second is an architecturally-celebrated building from Milan in each period (the university won the World Building Of The Year award for the the year it was constructed). The third pair is the receiving room of the mansion of a rich person from each period. For the last pair, I used a famous old public sculpture, and searched for the most-celebrated public sculpture from San Francisco, the nearest big city to where I live.
Older art tends to have bright colors, ornate details, realistic representations, technical skill, and be instantly visually appealing to the average person. Newer art tends to be more abstract, require less obvious skill, and have less direct appeal. Although it doesn't fit in meme format, I would carry the analogy to poetry (cf. The Fairie Queene vs. William Carlos Williams) and certain pieces of high status music (cf. Mozart vs. Philip Glass). Obviously these are broad generalizations vulnerable to cherry-picking; I'm mostly relying on your common sense here.
There is a lot of writing about "the modernist turn" and the origins of modern art, but I haven't been able to find anything that links all these artistic fields and tries to explain what happened in general. I am sure you will link me to great resources about this in the comments. Until then, some speculative responses that one might give the Tartarians:
The Modernist Turn As A Change From Flaunting Wealth To Hiding It
Paul Fussell says that pre-Great Depression mansions were beautiful giant houses in the center of town, where everyone could see them and marvel at how rich the owner was. During the Depression, it became awkward to flaunt wealth while everyone else was starving, and the super-rich switched to a strategy of having mansions in the countryside behind lots of hedges and trees where nobody could see them. I remember somebody (not a historian) claiming that the French Revolution had a similar effect on European nobility - it stopped being quite as cool to rub how rich you were in peasants' faces, and going to court in silks and gold jewelery became less fashionable. The closer you get to the present, the more rich people start to feel like their position is precarious, and other people might resent them - and to act accordingly.
On the other hand, they still want to show off their wealth. So they do it in a plausibly deniable way. They wear a really nice tailored suit or buy an abstract painting that seems completely black until you look closer and see it's a famous piece of modern art worth millions of dollars. This gets the message across, but it's not quite the same kind of "[email protected] you poor people" as wearing a suit made of gold thread or building a palace with marble statues of griffins in front of every door. If a poor person were to try to complain about how ostentatious and disrespectful you were by having a painting that mostly just looks black, it would fall flat.
I'm a little skeptical of this explanation because I'm not sure that this is actually fooling anyone. In some ways, it's even more disrespectful to spend millions of dollars on something most people don't even consider pretty. People don't really complain when some billionaire buys a Rembrandt, but they did roll their eyes when someone paid $69 million for an NFT.
…Or As Elites Getting More Out Of Touch Than Ever
A lot of people really angry about modern art say the opposite: that in the past elites made at least some effort to cater to the tastes of common people. But due to declining social technology, now elites prefer to signal allegiance to the elite class, and they do that by making buildings which please elite tastemakers and no one else.
It’s still kind of mysterious why not-generally-popular aesthetics would please elite tastemakers, though. Maybe elites are specifically trying to signal not being commoners, by choosing the opposite of commoners’ aesthetic preferences?
This sounds a little conspiratorial for an explanation we originally came up with to counter a conspiracy theory, but I can’t rule it out. It might be helpful to go through a list of countries, see which have more modern vs. traditional architecture, and correlate that with their system of government and level of inequality. My impression is that the more democratic and developed a country, the more modern its architecture, which would require a lot of additional explanation.
…As A Change From Catholic To Protestant Aesthetics
Catholicism traditionally goes heavy on the ornateness, Protestantism heavy on the plainness. Something to do with a Protestant rejection of wealth as too linked to the powers of this world, and trying to get back to the poverty and humility of the original Church. If Protestant aesthetics "won" in a way that affected even people who weren't thinking in religious terms, that could explain some of the shift.
But the timeline and, uh, spaceline don't really work. The ornate room from Cardiff Castle is from 1880s Britain (albeit deliberately referencing older styles), and modern Milan is hardly Protestant. I think this might have been one of the threads that fed into this change, but it needs further explanation why it stuck around and spread so far beyond people who cared about religious matters.
…Or As New Timeless Aesthetic Truths
One possibility is that, even though normal people prefer traditional architecture, modern architecture is actually better, and good architects know this.
This is not really the way I think of aesthetics, but I guess it’s possible.
A weaker version of this might be the difference between a very sugary soda and a fine wine. Most ordinary people would prefer the sugary soda, but the fine wine has some kind of artistic value. Right? I don’t know, people always tell me this, but I’ve never been able to enjoy it.
This raises the question of what architecture/art/etc are for. Should eg the government, as a representative of the people, build buildings that people will like? Or should it build buildings with objective artistic value? Maybe in the hopes that this will cause people to appreciate the value, even though this hasn’t worked for the past hundred years? I think you would have a really hard case arguing for the last one, but it’s possible in theory.
You could also frame this as architects deliberately choosing some value other than beauty. Maybe beautiful buildings make everyone feel very proud of their country and connected to their past, but after World War II we realized that nationalism and romanticization-of-history are scary things, and now we’re trying to discourage them. Maybe our civilization is still on probation after a multi-decade-long mass murder spree and we need buildings that carefully avoid inflaming our emotions.
…As A Result Of Increased Cost Of Labor
I’ve added this in because people keep bringing it up in the comments, but I don’t think it works. Sure, it might explain architecture. But I don’t think it explains trends in modern clothing, art, poetry, or sculpture, all of which have also shifted towards decreased ornamentation, symbolism, and realism.
I predict you could buy clothing that looks like this for less than the cost of a nice suit, but nobody does. Is this connected to nobody making buildings that look like the Taj Mahal anymore?
…As A Result Of The Split Between Art And Mass Culture
Modern poems don't sound very much like the Odyssey. But modern superhero movies are a little bit like the Odyssey. Modern poetry doesn't have a lot of rhyme or rhythm. But modern pop music does have lots of rhyme and rhythm. Modern gallery art doesn't have colorful ornate realistic-looking scenes. But modern computer games and animation have lots of those scenes.
Older generations didn't have superhero movies, pop music, or animated features. Mostly they were missing the technology, but the genres themselves have also evolved. Maybe the existence of pop music makes people less likely to write poems that are "close to" pop music in some kind of artistic space. If you were going to write this today, why wouldn't you meet up with a garage band somewhere and put it to music?
Or maybe: since pop music is low status, if you want to write high status poetry, you need to make it as unlike pop music as possible, so people don't accuse your poem of sounding pop-music-y. Or maybe: pop music fulfills what people want out of some poetry much better than the poetry itself does, so if you want an audience, you need to write poetry that fulfills some other kind of need.
Maybe all the people who were looking for easy-to-enjoy things left poetry, gallery art, etc for easier-to-enjoy pursuits like superhero movies, computer games, and pop music, and so poetry and high art were left with disproportionately the sorts of people who were looking for more intellectual pursuits (or who wanted to pretend/signal that they were).
I'm a little skeptical of this one too - what replaced architecture? Or fashion? Also, I still very much want poems that rhyme and I don't feel like pop music is a perfect substitute for them.
…As A Change From Signaling Wealth To Signaling Taste
One use of art is signaling wealth. Pharaohs, nobles, and billionaires would patronize artists, funding the creation of masterpieces that sent the message "look how great I am". This only works if making beautiful things is expensive. For example, the clothing of the Kanxi Emperor (first picture on left) required servants to create the intricate patterns, dyes that had to be harvested from finicky insects and rare plants, etc. Displaying your ornate dyed objects let everyone know you were rich. With the invention of sewing machines, industrial dyes, rhinestones, etc, even poor people could dress like the Kangxi Emperor. With the invention of photography and printing, everyone could have realistic pictures of whatever they wanted. Actual rich people needed better ways to distinguish themselves.
One attractive option is to switch from signaling wealth to signaling taste. Rich people are more likely to know other rich people and be plugged into rich people social networks (and if they're not, they can always hire people who are). To signal taste, you need art where the difference between good art and bad art is very hard to discern (if anyone could discern it, then ability-to-discern wouldn't signal having more taste than average). You want some kind of complicated code that makes sense to tasteful people, feels impenetrable to tasteless people, and (if possible) changes every so often so that tasteless people can't just memorize it.
I don't have taste, so I'm agnostic as to the virtues of the particular code that people ended up with. Maybe it involves real but hard-to-explain aesthetic truths, such that far-off civilizations who have no contact with us would independently converge on the same art being better or worse. Maybe it's arbitrary but self-consistent, the same way lots of features of English grammar (saying "was" instead of "be-ed") are arbitrary but self-consistent and it's reasonable to think of that as "good English" and various deviations as "grammatical errors". Or maybe it's all totally made up, and elite tastemakers randomly declare stuff that seems cool to them to be the new big thing, almost as a taunt ("look how socially powerful I am, such that I can make people fall in line and call any old garbage Art, even this stuff"). Cf. the Ern Malley Hoax. Probably all three of these are true in different subfields at different times.
A friend, more in touch with the pulse of rich-people-society than I am, objects that billionaires still like buying paintings by Old Masters. But I don't think that contradicts this. Being able to buy a Rembrandt still signals wealth fine: Rembrandts are in limited supply and everyone knows they're expensive. But a modern painter with Rembrandt's skillset wouldn't be able to make it big - their talents are no longer in short supply.
Why Does This Matter?
Partly because art is nice and we should want more beautiful things or at least try to understand where our beautiful things come from.
Partly because exploring these questions can shed light on broader questions of class, signaling, and how intellectual/cultural/economic elites relate to their social inferiors. It seems like premodern artistic elites and commoners were on the same page. Then something happened to put them on different pages. Why? How does that relate to the formation of classes in general? Is society better off if elites successfully win the support of commoners by patronizing art that they like, or win their respect by surrounding themselves in awe-inspiring trappings of wealth? Or if elites are barred from using that particular propaganda lever?
And partly because modern art and architecture are examples of fields talking to themselves. In a way, this is good - they've successfully implemented a technocracy where the best and brightest are able to pursue their own visions rather than pander to the masses. In another way, it's confusing - public art, architecture, etc is supposed to be to the benefits of residents, but it seems like those residents can’t get their voices heard.
Every field is shaped by some combination of ground truth - the thing they're supposed to be studying - and incentives. Economic theories in capitalist and socialist countries will share some characteristics - there’s a real world with real economic laws that are hard to miss - but they'll also take different paths depending on what the surrounding society celebrates vs. condemns.
And the incentives depend on who they're trying to impress. Sometimes fields are trying to impress the public - Justin Smith writes about so-called "Spiderman Studies" classes where college humanities departments try to look hip and in-touch to attract more students. Other times fields are definitely not trying to do this - you get status by appealing to other experts in your own guild. Doctor Oz might be the most famous and publicly-beloved doctor, but he has zero credibility in the medical field. I may have a popular blog where I write about psychiatry (and I try not to lapse into Doctor Oz style charlatanry) but the blog doesn't raise my status in the medical hierarchy at all, and might actively hinder it. Best-case scenario, you want a field that talks to itself enough that you get status for impressing other experts with your expertise, not for impressing the public with demagoguery.
But if you talk to yourself too much, you risk becoming completely self-referential, falling into loops of weird internal status-signaling. Science has a safety valve here - they've got to at least contact the real world enough to do experiments. But humanities fields (or social sciences where experimentation is hard and wrapped in layers of interpretation) don't have that defense. If their signaling incentives lean too far one way, they surrender to the public so cravenly that it's pointless for them to have expertise at all. If they lean too far the other way, they become actively contemptuous of the public, ignore all criticism, and the whole edifice risks becoming vulnerable to any Sokal-style attack that uses the right buzzwords.
Art is interesting because in some ways it's less "about something" than other fields are. Maybe there are real timeless aesthetic truths, but they're a lot harder to detect than the timeless truths of math or science, and you can do art history pretty well without worrying about them at all. That makes it an unusually clear laboratory for examining the status incentives within fields. Sometimes the definition of "good art" changes. It probably wasn't the discovery of a new timeless aesthetic truth, so what was it?
The turn is an especially vivid example of a shift in the art world. If we understood what factors shaped it, maybe we would learn more about the factors shaping other fields with clearer targets.
I think I disagree here. "Back" is functioning as an adverb, not a preposition. It indicates something about the manner of their return; one could replace it with "quickly" or "triumphantly" or "slimily." The fact that the adverb and the object refer to the same place doesn't make the sentence redundant or grammatically incorrect. You wouldn't blink an eye at someone who said "I'm going back to my hometown," for example.
Shakespeare used "from whence", as well as other "redundant" phrases like double negatives and double comparatives ("more better"). Redundancy is pretty common in language; it's a feature that can serve for emphasis or more generally to make the message more resistant to distortion; its condamnation seems more often than not to stem from misguisded attempts to apply formal logic to human languages, whose rules are fairly arbitrary and whimsical.
"Whither X" served as a parody of old fashioned self-serious foreign affairs journalism: e.g., "Whither Indonesia?" In other words, the implication is that the newspaper's expensive Indonesian correspondent doesn't have any headline news about Indonesia, but he has some thoughts about its future that he's going to share.
My guess is that it must have been a fairly common flourish in the nineteenth century, maybe cemented by Trotsky's book "Whither England?" I definitely first encountered it in Monty Python's "Whither Canada?" To be perfectly honest, I still don't know if it means "where, in an abstract sense, is country X going?" or "how do we get to the idealized, perfected version of country X?"
John 13:36. In Latin this question reads "Quo Vadis?" which you might have encountered in art. The New Testament verse may well refer back to Book of Ruth, but I'm positive that most citation links go through the New Testament.
‘ Part of a longer promise of fidelity, spoken by Ruth to Naomi, her mother-in-law. The longer text reads: "Entreat me not to leave thee, or to return from following after thee: for whither thou goest, I will go; and where thou lodgest, I will lodge: thy people shall be my people, and thy God my God: Where thou diest, will I die, and there will I be buried: the Lord do so to me, and more also, if aught but death part thee and me."’
i think you might be ignoring the role of novelty here. like, if youre the sort of person who is very interested in a given art form (say, designing buildings), youre gonna study them a lot, and then get bored of the types of buildings that already exist, and want to see and create new weird buildings. i mean, i agree that its weird and maybe bad that weird artsy buildings have become a thing for government buildings, but i dont think its surprising that the architecture world is interested in buildings that the average person isnt, because the average person doesnt want an interesting or novel building, they just want a good building (a reasonable desire!). its like stravinsky's atonal music. it sounds worse, like, aesthetically, but its very clearly weird and novel, and if you think about music all the time, (maybe) you want that.
but yeah, thats where i think the modern art communities' tendency toward weird unappealing stuff comes from. all the appealing-to-normies stuff got discovered already, and now people are trying to find weird new ways to work in the form
I don't think modern buildings look more different from one another than traditional buildings do. I just saw the Sagrada Familia today, which seems interestingly different from every other building but still clearly ornate and more in the "traditional" than "modern" camp.
Do other people think modern buildings are more varied?
i dont think the version of modern architecture that ends up in like, corporate buildings is particularly diverse, but i think the most famous and esteemed architecture of the last 50 years is *extremely* diverse. frank gehry vs frank lloyd wright vs moshe safdie vs zaha hadid look like they come from different planets.
The divergence correlates with mass media, so your theory makes sense. In the 1800s, an elite person had probably only seen a few dozens magnificent buildings in their life. Today, every architect has seen (pictures of) nearly every magnificent building on Earth. So as the pool of comparable buildings has exponentially expanded (from dozens to thousands), novelty has become much more prized.
Prestige within a creative field is so tightly bound with novelty that it’s pretty much inevitable that ambitious new works must abandon older forms, even when many of the artists and elites may prefer them.
Personally, I think the greatest music ever written was from the Romantic era, specifically Beethoven’s symphonies. Plenty of music critics (classical ones, at least) would agree. And yet, nobody writes in that style anymore, and nobody seems to think anybody should be writing in that style. Romantic music is done, like it or not (I don’t).
If I discovered an unknown symphony by Beethoven, as brilliant as any of his others, and I passed it off as my own work, would I get any traction? I think the same critics that lionize Beethoven would dismiss my symphony as some kind of silly, Beethoven impression. Maybe they would concede that it’s a particularly well-executed impression, beautiful and clever and all that, but nothing that advances art form.
I think it’s interesting that there may be an exception here, albeit a middle brow one. If you want to write Romantic music, make it a film score. You won’t get the same level of elite respect, but everybody will love you (see Williams, John).
People do write music in that style. It's just that one can't make a living just writing in that style. Of course, a symphony requires a big commitment in time and energy, but getting one's symphony performed by a decent amateur orchestra is often a personal high point and money be damned.
I had forgotten about dramatic composers who write music for movies, video and live productions. They don't produce symphonies, but they'll use a lot of the same emotional mechanisms and musical mechanics.
There’s an interesting extension in there — parody gets close to this. I enjoy P.D.Q. Bach for the music just as much as I do for the weird musical jokes that require at least serious band geek background if not full on Bach historian reference material. Similarly, some of the stuff from people like Bo Burnam is only good for the humor, but some of it is legit catchy and fun in its own right (note the massive spread of tiktok memes based on the recent Netflix special.)
Parody works best when the person behind it really knows what they’re doing. I sang some serious choral pieces composed by Peter Schickele, aka P.D.Q. Bach back in college. The piece about Mary Queen of Scots from his "Three Meditations" was one of my favorites.
Tom Lehrer is like that, he's a genuinely gifted songwriter. Had he decided as a young person to try to become Stephen Sondheim he'd have had a legit shot at it. Maybe over on Earth-37 that's how he's known. (But sadly for them they never got the priceless dark Tom Lehrer songs that we did here in our little corner of the multiverse.)
No, we mustn't. We may. If we wish to. Or if it was at least as pretty/as good as what came before (or better, though 'better' gets a bit complicated in arts).
But exalting rubbish just because it's novel? What's the point? And, if it takes years of training to see that something that looks/feels/sounds rubbish isn't actually rubbish - well, that's a technical accomplishment, sure but an artistic one? I have my doubts...
I can't agree that Theolonius Monk is modern. The man passed away 40 years ago, right? I find his jazz quite pleasant, certainly compared to a lot of other jazz, though...
Fine artists circle jerking is my attempt to insult artists who think their mission is to educate, enlightened, transcend or point out with silly little cubes of colours that "racism is bad" or some such. Or rely on stunts to impress the world of art. Such as an artist putting his shit into a can, selling it and the buyer buying for the oh so ironic and post modern fact of buying the criticism of buying high/incomprehensible/shit art... Is the buyer guilty? or the artist? or the critics? whatever, just a big circle jerking of pretentious but well educated and well heeled people...
Well, I'm sure you know more than me about it so I don't really expect to be 'right' per se.
But I'd consider jazz a fairly old music form as it emerges (afaik) in the early 20th century and things like indus, electro, heavy metal, even pop rock as modern. And things like atonal or weird sounds like the stuff shared by someone else on the thread (background/radio noises of some sort) to be 'modern' as a way to say 'only appealing to a tiny number of elite/experts'.
I won't pretend that I know how music aficionados actually classify stuff so if you say Jazz is modern then I'll take your word for it.
Maybe reading too much into things, but something bothers me about this as an argument. Surely being a reactionary is bad if the new development you are reacting against is good, but being a reactionary is good if the new development you are reacting against is bad. Using the word to dismiss someone like this *presupposes* that the modern development is better than what came before. Which may well be true, but it would need to be argued for. And I am not sure that it is all that obvious that modern music surpasses Beethoven.
I think we do need to pursue new forms, and there is plenty of post-Romantic music that I love. If we had declared Beethoven "the one true music," we would have closed the door on lots of other brilliant composers and innovations. I just think it's unfortunate we seem to have to close the door on older forms in order to pursue new ones. I'm not sure if there's a way around this. We "must" pursue new forms, for better and for worse.
The people I knew writing in that style considered it a way to understand the music better. It wasn't about more or better, it was about understanding what was under the hood, so to speak. It was a way of appreciating it. I had a friend who wrote her thesis on using AI to generate fugues in the style of Bach. It was her way of appreciating how good Bach's fugues were.
Personally, I don't "get" music, but I know a lot of people do.
I think if you can accept that Beethoven wrote as well in the style of Beethoven as it's possible to write, then a modern imitator could only write *as well* as him, and not better. And since Beethoven's music came first and is heavy with mythology, the modern stuff would never catch on.
However, there are plenty of times when a composer has essentially copied someone else's style, and because the imitator did it better than the original, it's the imitator that we remember. (E.g. J. S. Bach imitating Buxtehude, or Mozart imitating J. C. Bach.)
> CORENTIN: Always wanting to experiment further, to move forward, is part of human nature. The use of new chords and more and more complex rhythms in order to express as closely as possible the spirit of the new times has led to the dissolution of tonality. As long as it remained natural, this evolution produced masterworks in which tradition and novelty coexist in infinitely variable percentages. The dosage was sometimes explosive, sometimes tousling, but often successful.
> Today, I’m more convinced than ever that there is no natural border between styles. The schools may be opposed but not the styles, which should complement each other. But in the 1960s, suddenly it was all about serialism and electro-acoustic music; there was the quasi-institutional obligation to wipe out the past, and the subsidies only went to what has been called "contemporary music" (the word "contemporary" being abusively linked to a style instead of just meaning "of our time"). Without this political, ideological, and basically non-artistic doctrine, there would have been a natural complementarity between tradition and innovation, in music as in all other arts.
> ERICH: I know some great American composers, like Arnold Rosner and Harold Shapero, have spoken of having felt alienated in American music departments, due to the dogmatic serialism there. In your experience, have the conservatoires of Paris been more accepting of 19th-century idioms?
> CORENTIN: Absolutely not – quite the contrary! Western Europe, and France in particular, has spearheaded this systematic destruction of all artistic tradition, of any style that could be related to the past. The conservatories have been forced to practice a clean slate policy. This undermining action, well supervised by the institutions and the media, has had the disastrous result that, for several decades, composition – in the original sense of the word – is no longer taught in the conservatories. I did all my musical courses at the Conservatoire National Supérieur de Musique (CNSM) of Paris. I obtained five Prizes … but I was not able to attempt the "Composition" Prize since this Prize is only for composers of so-called "contemporary" music, that is to say "experimental".
glad you like it! and while i'm at it, i might as well recommend the recording of some of boissier's music recently released on toccata classics. it's really excellent, in my opinion. here are some excerpts: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_7ZAS1yBKEs
I agree with all this. I think where it gets challenging is where the most parsimonious ways of doing something, given the constraints of tonality and the other rules of music, have already been "taken", so to speak. I think this may be true of fugal counterpoint, which seems to want to tend stylistically towards a kind of robust baroque language a la Bach and Handel, and no-one since the mid C18th has really been able to do it particularly differently. So do we accept that that’s basically how fugues sound, or do we resolve not to write fugues? Not sure
Obviously there’s no right answer, but FWIW Gaudi is generally considered a modernist icon, and that seems very right to me. Sagrada Familia to me seems far closer to something in the 20th century than e.g. Notre Dame, the U.K. parliament.
Gaudi was a unique representative of the general trend in later 19th Century taste toward Art Nouveau, which was a decorative style based on flowers and other living things.
Art Nouveau was succeeded by Art Deco (e.g., the Chrysler Building), which is similar but based on rectilinear shapes without as many biological references.
Both were beautiful but expensive. Art Deco took a hit with the stock market crash of 1929, which accelerated the trend toward streamlining. The small number of buildings put up in the 1930s, such as the Rockefeller Center, are quite elegant.
But WWII changed elite tastes in favor of cheap-looking buildings in the name of egalitarianism and a general we-don't-deserve-beautiful-buildings self-loathing. On college campuses, for example, the good old buildings are generally from the affluent and tasteful 1920s, then the really ugly buildings are from c. 1950-1980. After that, many colleges tended to try to put up buildings that look rather like the old buildings that everybody likes, often just with bigger windows.
That last part must be an American thing, possibly because the people who donate buildings to colleges are the sorts of people who like that sort of thing.
In my country where nobody donates money to universities, new university buildings look like new office buildings, which means a bunch of glass in a more or less interesting shape. They give the impression of a slow and incomplete recovery from the awful-in-every-way buildings of the 1950s-70s.
Architects like to distinguish themselves professionally by developing a new look. For example, the New York Times just raved about Swiss architect Valerio Ogliati's "Architecture that Makes the Case for Discomfort." Ogliati builds houses out of concrete that look like opened cardboard boxes that you would need to stomp flat to fit it in the recycling bin.
Lots of architects have built ugly concrete houses before, but Ogliati has come up with a way to make them more expensive. So Kanye West is hiring him to build an underground artist's colony for him in Wyoming.
In contrast, until about 2000, even though I follow architecture a little, I never even heard of the man who had been Architect to the Stars in my hometown of Los Angeles in the 1950s, a black architect named Paul Revere Williams. Creative people like Frank Sinatra would call him up and tell him he wanted a house in, say, Japanese modern-style with world class acoustics for his hi-fi.
But despite this great back story of a black man making it to the peak of the home architecture pyramid in postwar Hollywood, I never heard Williams talked about by architecture critics because he didn't propound a new look or a new theory. He was dismissed because he designed homes in whatever style Lucy & Desi or his dozens of other famous clients wanted.
> Ours, he believes, is a globally mashed-up era with no meaningful shared references or objective truth. And so buildings, he says, must stand on their own. … takes his own inspiration, for example, from the monolithic rock pile structures of the Aztecs, for which historians cannot find an antecedent.
Art is the refuge for philosophers who can't stomach rebuttals, so I'll just say we seem to have different worldviews.
Paul R. Williams sounded familiar, he should be more famous, I heard about him from 99pi:
Much respect for the artist who can work in any style. I think in F is for Fake they talk about the forger often having phenomenal technical skill, because they can fabricate or source the equipment and mimic the stroke style of many other great artists from different periods. Yet if properly attributed, their works are often worth nothing.
Make sure you see Parc Guell, impressed me far more than the Sagrada Familia. The Dali museum in Figueres is also a really extraordinary experience - it's not a museum so much as a single giant work of art.
To the extent that new building methods have arisen (and living in New York City) I think architecture has really taken a turn. But like any other human endeavor it has cycles.
I think it is important to remember how many buildings people put up that fell down immediately because they didn’t really have a clue about what keep, building up. Flying buttresses were an engineering necessity before they became an aesthetic fetish.
I am reminded of the Code of Hammurabi: "If a builder has built a house for a man, and has not made his work sound, and the house he built has fallen, and caused the death of its owner, that builder shall be put to death."
That wouldn't need to be in there if there wasn't at least the perception that badly-designed buildings that collapse on their occupants were a problem worth legislating against.
Something can be common enough to be worth legislating against whilst still being very uncommon. Modern countries all have building codes, but it would be false to suggest that modern buildings keep collapsing because nobody knows how to make them structurally sound.
The legislation is probably necessary not because builders didn't know how to build good buildings, but that you can make a lot of money by building a deficient one and charging the client for a good one.
The client often can't tell the difference, so you make the builder liable for failures.
I can do a design of anchors in concrete, but there's very little chance you'd know if I did it wrong--not because you couldn't understand it, but because ACI 318 Chapter 17 is a pain in the dick and few people who don't design anchors for their job will put in the effort. (Indeed, even if it *is* your job, you'll learn to do it, then use software provided by manufacturers thereafter.)
And if I specify adhesive anchors, those are *very* sensitive to proper installation. But it's cheaper for the contractor to do it wrong, because one major requirement is doing a good job cleaning the hole after its been drilled. (Dust left in there will dramatically reduce strength.) It's very unlikely you would catch a contractor who did it wrong, and once the epoxy hardens you have no way to tell if it was done wrong other than pull testing, which is very expensive--it can hold well enough to survive casual effort, but still be too weak for the design-basis load.
While this exact example is modern, the dynamic it describes hasn't changed in the past 3,000 years, hence Hammurabi's dictum putting the onus on the builder.
There's a Chinese robber problem going on here. Given the vast number of buildings constructed throughout history, it's easy to find examples of ones that collapsed. That doesn't mean that the percentage of buildings which collapsed was a particularly high one.
Alternatively, _To Engineer Is Human_ by Petrowski. The theory is that new ideas in engineering are built much stronger than necessary. As time goes on, the reserves of strength are pared back until there's a disaster. Things are then built more carefully. Lather, rinse, repeat.
FWIW, I would have put the Sagrada Familia in the modern camp. But modern as in the Gaudi/neo gothic/art deco ways of the 1920s. EDIT: just checked Wiki. "Antoni Gaudí i Cornet (/ˈɡaʊdi/; Catalan: [ənˈtɔni ɣəwˈði]; 25 June 1852 – 10 June 1926) was a Catalan architect known as the greatest exponent of Catalan Modernism."
So definitely "modern".
I think Summer is on to something. Personally, that's why I dislike almost all paintings/fine art post the impressionists/art deco/1920s. It gets to be rubbish very fast, mostly because (imho) fine artists are just jerking each others off.
Bassed on some reading I did related to this post, I think Gaudi doesn't actually count as "modern" in the contemporary usage of the term. "Catalan Modernism" basically corresponds to Art Nouveau, which comes earlier than what's called "Modernism" in other contexts ("Art Deco" comes between the two.)
I'm surprised you don't think of Sagrada Familia as the perfect example of a "beautiful building with modern technology". I thought it was more beautiful than any of the old cathedrals I've seen, Haga Sophia, Notre Dam and the likes included.
I mean, just the sheer amount of detail in every corner and the almost-pattern present everywhere, not quite symmetrical but still satisfying, meant to keep your gaze slowly moving.
It was genuinely psychedelic, it's a building, it's static, but I could swear it was moving and "breathing" while looking at it.
It's fantastic. But visiting it does tend to both provoke and immediately answer the question of "Why don't we build things like this any more, with the exception of this one actual thing?" Because it took 150 years to build and it's not finished yet.
The Sagrada Familia is an outlier. It is plausibly the weirdest large religious building in over 2000 years of Christian history.
It's also one of my all-time favorite religious buildings (alongside the Pantheon and Hagia Sophia). Gaudi, in his strange and very individual way, was an absolute genius. And until his architecture became a symbol of Catalan nationalism, it was absolutely loathed by much of the contemporary public.
So I have no idea how Gaudi fits into a discussion of popular versus elite taste.
In some cities they totally are (think Singapore, Abu Dhabi, even Chicago has some pretty unique buildings). One aspect that drives some of the lack of purely ornate architecture (I'm guess) is the shift from noble wealth to commercial wealth. Google needs to continue to be profitable which constrains the amount they are willing to spend on a new building (and how long they are willing to wait for it) while the King can just jack up taxes or the Pope can sell indulgences and steal all of the marble in the Colosseum.
I guess there's a risk with equating modern with minimalist. Whereas minimalist, suggest reducing to a simple (single) form, there's no such limit on modernism. Considering the variables: colors, materials, shapes, structures, etc. there are infinite possibilities for exciting/inspiring modern design. Perhaps we're just in the mud hut period of modern design and it hasn't yet evolved.
I think modern architects try very hard to be varied, and if you score them on their own terms they contain diverse shapes, visible surfaces, historical references, etc.
But that type of score-keeping may not make much of an impression on somebody who thinks modern buildings are all ugly, leaky, and built to be torn down as soon as the 39 year depreciation schedule has run.
This is how I interpret really out-there fashion shows, too. But, at the end of the day, the fashion industry has to sell clothes at Target, so all the designs have to be reinterpreted back down to reality.
Great line about this in the movie (and I guess the book) "The Devil Wears Prada". Paraphrasing here but Streep’s character says to the young assistant who doesn’t understand the subtle differences in sweater color tones something along the lines of "You know how many years of research, trail & error went into that particular shade of green that you randomly snatched from an isle at JC Penny? Many fucking years!"
The Anna Wintour-character in The Devil Wears Prada has total recall of every change of fashion of the last half-century and a strong knack for discerning whether the world is ready or not to bring a particular old look back into fashion.
The real Anna Wintour got to where she is because she really has that kind of brain.
If you want an uber-nerdy analysis of the role of novelty-seeking in the arts, there's a book by Colin Martindale called The Clockwork Muse that tries to fit equations of novelty to poetry, paintings, etc. I don't think it's really baked (too many parameters given the data), but it is a very interesting cut at the issue.
This is my interpretation of free jazz. "Why bother with rhythm or melody" sounds bad/weird to normal people but if you've spent your childhood and professional life playing highly structured music, maybe it's more appealing.
I've often thought of a notion of stylistic saturation, that once an art form has more (premium and varied) content than any human being could experience in a lifetime, the drive within the field for further development largely ceases. While no one writes like Beethoven, as a cellist I can say that many many musicians still play his music, and many audiences still appreciate it.
We are all missing some perspectives and I think that's why there's value in sharing one's own thoughts and listening to others' as well. We can't expect the other party to listen. We can only make the first attempt to express our perspective and views.
> Maybe our civilization is still on probation after a multi-decade-long mass murder spree and we need buildings that carefully avoid inflaming our emotions. I don’t think anyone has ever claimed this seriously, but it makes a certain kind of moral sense.
people have ABSOLUTELY claimed this seriously, so so much postwar art is exactly about this, clearly and explicitly. please read some midcentury criticism or like any art history or theory
With all due respect to Jews, that's bullshit. If it wasn't barbaric to write poetry after the destruction of Troy by the Achaeans, after Athenians subsequently to the famous dialog had killed every male Melian and sold their women and children into slavery, after Romans had utterly destroyed her sworn ally Carthage and sown her fields with salt, after Temuchin's coalition defeated the Tartars and killed every single male taller than a wain's wheel hub etc. etc., then it's not barbaric to write poetry after Auschwitz, and vice-versa.
Nothing boils my blood more than seeing an author stifle the flow of his own post to express epistemic humility i.e.
> I am sure you will link me to great resources about this in the comments. Until then, some speculative responses that one might give...
Only for comments like yours to then chastise the author for a lack of deep reading. Suggesting a book that sheds light on the subject of the post makes sense, but your tone is unnecessarily dismissive. The author's hedging statements are specifically for people like you, and given that I find those statements slightly kill the experience as a reader, I would hope that their target audience would take them seriously.
I agree that deeper reading would shed light on much of this post, however I want to know, from a strategic perspective, do you think that using an uncharitable tone to deliver that message to the author is better than a charitable one?
also, more intellectually, remind everyone that "why did people start building like this" is at least partially an empirical question with right and wrong answers discernible from, oh I don’t know, reading what those people and their defenders and popularizers were saying about their own work
people complain about armchair psychology but at least people generally do have some information about what other people are like that is accessible by just thinking about it and it’s worth understanding one’s own mental models that way, but the idea of figuring out why people are building buildings a certain way with comically limited awareness of the actual historical record is…something else
A perfectly valid reason for making your point, but not a particularly cogent defense for the tone you chose to employ. You do you, but the poor taste in tone only serves to distract from your otherwise valuable point, so from a selfish perspective you may benefit from rethinking your approach.
Given that this was just a casual remark that wasn't part of any argument being made in the piece the "please read some..." manages to come across as an attempt to deligitimize any criticism or suggestion that maybe modern art isn't special and valuable made by anyone who hasn't proved they agree with you by wasting (insofar as they don't enjoy it) a bunch of time learning about 20th century art.
Im sure you didn't intend this but it comes across like an astrologer saying: how dare you question astrology when you don't even know what it means when Venus is retrograde and Jupiter is in Leo or whatever.
the whole "argument" is a weird combination of speculative narrative detached from reality/the historical record, and half-baked aesthetic theory about what’s valuable in art and why people like the things they do. I mean imagine using a single uninterrogated figure from a suggestive survey question to ground your opinion that this is all bullshit and spending the rest of your time trying to figure out why the elites could be so wrong. also zero awareness of practical considerations like resource constraints, relevant events in economic history, engineering, etc. it’s fine to critique it on the grounds that it’s wrong and un-rigorous by pointing to an especially egregious example of obliviousness.
if you’re gonna try to explain why people who listen to astrologers behave as they do and the way that that might have changed over time, you better have some knowledge of what astrologers actually say and what people behaving according to their advice take them to mean
IMO the architecture thing is somewhere where (as elsewhere) reactionaries have correctly identified a problem but don't get at the core issue, instead hazily blaming a perceived group of "elites".
The big issue is cars. We destroyed a great deal of our cities to make way for cars and the resulting infrastructure is bleak and ugly, and so now our cities are bleak and ugly. The most encouraging recent trend for beauty in our built environment is cities that are reducing the amount of space that is given over to cars, and making room for mass transit, pedestrians, and greenery (COVID-related outdoor dining is a part of it but the trend was happening before). A kinda plain building on an inviting street with people and trees is way better than a super-awesomely-ornate building surrounded by parking lots and highways where it feels dangerous to walk around.
My go-to for Tartarian History (though I've never seen him use the term) is AgarthanSchwab, on Twitter. Unfortunately, he's deleted many of his most relevant threads for this topic (such as one proposing that the Hindenburg was sabatoged and that the media was in on it), but this is the kind of rationale he uses as to how apocalypses could be collectively forgotten.
That was interesting. He seems to have it all lined up in his head as a nice theory. It's a good job that all women are primarily concerned with social standing and conformity though, because if they weren't there would be a gaping hole in his suggested compliance mechanism. Still compliance to the norm being what it is explains why I'm typing this in the religious (Church of England naturally) and moralistic society of the modern United Kingdom and not in some secular, tolerant society where women might have the vote and homosexuals be tolerated, or even worse socialists tolerated in polite society.
Franco was a monarchist. It's like making distinctions between communists, anarchists, and socialists on the Spanish left instead of just calling them all "communists", so we should make distinctions between the Catholic traditionalists, conservatives, fascists, and monarchists on the Spanish right.
I don't know which group of embalmed cadavers voted "Three Dancing Figures" San Francisco's best public art, but they haven't got a clue. The correct answer is obviously the Bay Lights on the Bay Bridge. If you relax the "public" requirement, the Serpent Mother was made here and is on a completely different level than "three dancing figures".
AFAIK construction costs (specifically contractor prices) and building codes are a huge deal with why all buildings look the way they do today. Even the billionaire's house didn't involve a hundred artisans painstakingly sculpting around all doorways etc and would cost a lot more if it did. Also there's a lot less supply today of construction workers who can do intricate wood carving so even if you wanted to have carved sculpted doorways it'd be hell to source them, so unless you really really care about it you might as well just get nice airy construction filled with natural light.
I have an outfit that looks a bit like this: http://www.muslimmarriagecenter.com/site/muslim-groom-in-bangalore . It is pretty easy to put on and comfortable, but I never wear it except for costume purposes because people would think I was insane. I cannot think of any labor-related reason why people don't wear outfits like that one anymore.
People certainly wear clothes like that in India, and presumably in other countries too, for special occasions like weddings. I think this must be culture-specific, with American/Western influence slowly making it spread to the east - the image of the Chinese high-status man in a Western suit made me think not of how Chinese men's tastes must have simplified a lot, but of how businessmen in Asia today feel the need to dress in Western clothing, perhaps to appeal to Western business partners (along with colonial influences, etc.).
Perhaps this gives more strength to the Protestantism/Catholicism hypothesis, as something that applies to the West more than the East?
iirc there was also a gender aspect to how Western clothes got so plain. In the industrial era it came to be viewed as foppish and unmanly for men to prettify themselves, so for a long time in the nineteenth century you had this situation where women were still heavily ornamented while men were walking around in plain black all the time. The in the twentieth century, women took on more masculine-looking clothing as a way to reject Victorian sex roles.
Just why ornamentation came to be viewed as unmanly is another issue, but I suspect it had something to do with the shift in power from the aristocrats to the business class.
This type of thing always raises causation problems: was it really the one random guy who changed the course of western dress for 200+ years, or was the western world just ready for that message at that moment? Personally I think that if it were just Brummel, his fad would have passed and someone else with a different style would have caught the fashionable world's fancy. But YMMV.
I mean he was the most influential guy for that period of English fashion. So he probably did something. Not random! there are multiple elements of course and he didn’t do this particular thing but he certainly had an influence on something
Oh, absolutely he had an influence. But he was a random guy in the sense that he didn't start out as anyone special -- just a middle-class dude with a strong personality. He wasn't in a position to force anyone to do anything, and he died penniless and insane. So the fact that after that, men's clothing didn't snap back to looking more like it did before (as women's clothing largely did) can't really be ascribed to him.
Men's clothing simplified in the Victorian era when England was at the height of its political, military, scientific and industrial power. I know that by mid-century, men's formal wear was getting darker and simpler. Maybe the English decided that they ruled the world, so they didn't need fancy clothes to show off, just the Union Jack a regiment and a battleship or two. I'm guessing Queen Victoria's widow's weeds after Prince Albert died cemented the style.
People copy the rich and powerful. It's the idea of cargo cults and sympathetic magic. When Olga of Kiev converted from paganism to Christianity, she issued commemorative coinage with Allah Akbar in Arabic impressed on it. Why a Muslim religious slogan? Because Islam ruled the Mediterranean in her day. When Japan opened to the west, its leaders adopted Western garb just as their armies adopted Western rifles and cannon and its industries adopted Western technology and processes.
When there is a "forward" power in the world, it becomes culturally powerful and people and nations tend to copy it. That's why modern men's clothing all around the world was borrowed from the Victorians and later the Americans. When China was a rising power in the East, nations like Japan and Korea adopted its symbols, methods and writing. It was similar with Greece and later Rome in the West.
If you want to do the Victorian theory, the short version of it goes, George IV was a flamboyant embarrassment. The new queen's policy of modesty was intentionally reactionary. The rest was mimetic desire.
I'm from Canada, and now live in the UK, but lived in India for a bit in-between. I *loved* getting dressed up formally for weddings etc whilst I lived there - I have never before or since felt so aesthetically beautiful.
Nah. There's a considerable difference between signalling that you are dressing differently but have put effort in (generally more acceptable) and signalling laziness (even if you'd actually never normally wear such an outfit).
I believe the invention of the electric washing machine was a *huge* revolution in domestic life, and ended up causing similarly large changes in how people dress. Women still have some fancy clothing that isn't machine washable, but not that much.
For guys machine-washability is almost everything. But a lot of women's clothing is not machine washable, either because of delicacy (eg attached rhinestones) or because of the fabric (ie requires dry cleaning).
I think at least part of what's going on is one has to disaggregate what clothes "do".
One job is "show off", and, as I pointed out for St Johns, that mostly now requires subtlety rather than showiness. Creating a garment that *looks* fancy is easy; creating a garment that *has* to be expensive because it involves constructions that few (and very expensive) machines can perform, or is obligate human-manufactured, is now how you show off.
Alternatively the job of the garment is "protect from weather" or "do exercise" or suchlike, and for those we now have vastly superior technology (eg gortex for cold, spandex for many purposes) BUT a side effect of that is that we now want to optimize for functionality.
If the only thing you can wear, no matter what you are doing, is some uncomfortable poorly-fitting woolen thing, maybe you try to compensate via decoration. But if the garment can be improved along functionality dimensions, that begins to be where you put much of your effort, both as manufacturer and as consumer.
And so women might buy $15 amusing sneakers with rhinestones on them, in the expectation that they are for wearing on weekends while doing errands, and will last a year then fall apart; but if they are hikers they will also buy serious walking boots which are optimized to the heck for walking -- and with no fripperies like rhinestones.
As I've said, I think we also have this with private homes.
Busy decoration is cheap (we all have that grandmother or aunt whose house is overflowing with knicknacks and collectibles) and is no signal of anything.
Meanwhile those who have owned a home for a while realize the joy of optimizing the home for functionality. Busy decorations built into a wall are nothing but a magnet for dust and form a space that cannot be modified as desires change. Whereas a turntable in the garage, or a heated pool, or very quiet variable speed AC system, continue to delight day after day, decade after decade.
In a way this is the triumph of Le Corbusier "a house is a machine for living" but (when you look at it) optimized along the dimensions people care about.
ie I don't think there's a question here of "why do the commoners choose the clothes and homes they do"; it's almost ALL in
- why do the artists and architects reward and judge as they do?, plus
- why do (some fraction of) the rest of us accept this in (some) architecture as we do?
If the explanation were "creating a garment that *has* to be expensive because it involves constructions that few (and very expensive) machines can perform, or is obligate human-manufactured, is now how you show off," then rich people would walk around in garments crocheted from fine silk thread, since crochet is easily distinguishable from any other form of cloth-making, and has not yet been automated. Nalbinding would be an even more extreme version of this and would have the advantage of making the garment more durable instead of less. But as far as I can see, crochet and nalbinding have essentially zero presence in high fashion or even business suits. A Brooks Brothers suit might cost US$1500 but it's machine-woven and machine-sewn.
Crochet and suchlike have to straddle the line of "looks like it cost a fortune (at least to those you care about impressing)" versus "looks like it was a christmas present from your granny with too much time on her hands".
I don't think anyone has really figured out to to resolve that tension. The two items I linked to above are, I think, attractive in their own rights and original enough not to be confused with someone's homemade christmas present, but even they have a strong whiff of arts-and-crafts about them.
If the objective were "creating a garment that *has* to be expensive because it involves constructions that few (and very expensive) machines can perform, or is obligate human-manufactured, is now how you show off," then "looks like it was a christmas present from your granny with too much time on her hands" would be a plus, not a minus, at least up to a point. However, the raffia garment linked here is not even in the same ballpark. It might have required 10-100 hours of work from an expert, which is obviously not enough for conspicuous-consumption purposes, which is why it costs less than US$400.
That's why I specified "crocheted *from fine silk thread*." A crocheted garment that required 4000 hours to produce would be at the upper end of the "christmas present from your granny" spectrum, while one that required 64000 hours to produce would clearly exceed the productive capacities of any individual granny.
The fact that we don't see anything like this going on in high fashion makes it clear that something other than conspicuous consumption is motivating the behavior.
Well there are multiple levels of activity going on. I'm interested in the level of activity/interaction/showing off of what might be considered upper middle class or professionals, so garments that cost up to low thousands of dollars and that are, at least approximately, "normal", garments you would not be amazed to see in an office, at church, or on the street.
You're interested in activity at a vastly more expensive level, and that's fine, but that's also a different game.
it seems that people who want to show off (at least to show off for the rubes) do so via expensive materials - gold wire, pearls, diamonds, swarovski crystal.
I'm sure there is a separate market for showing off to the non-rubes, where use of expensive materials just to scream "I am rich" is the mark of the parvenu, but now we're getting into really subtle territory. At this point is the message you want to send "I am rich" or is the message "I have good Taste with a capital T"?
I expect you probably can demonstrate Taste via very difficult to construct garments of the form you suggest, but is their difficulty of construction more obvious than the fact that they don't *immediately* look exquisite?
You can probably achieve this once or twice as a stunt ("this silk was crocheted by blind Burmese refugee nuns I met on the Thai border, and I immediately fell in love with their simple but elegant aesthetics") but not as a long term strategy?
I see! Yes, when you said, 'creating a garment that *has* to be expensive because it involves constructions that few (and very expensive) machines can perform, or is obligate human-manufactured, is now how you show off,' I thought you were talking about how trendsetters decide what to wear, now how professionals or upper-middle-class people decide what to wear; I unthinkingly assumed they were just copying the trendsetters. I was also assuming that the trendsetters were in fact wearing haute couture, but now I realize the trendsetters might or might not be people like Janelle Monae and Scarlett Johansson; what Xi Jinping wears is probably a stronger influence on many people's clothing than Janelle Monae.
It's interesting to note that Xi's suit in this photo isn't very Maoish, but if you google "Xi Jinping suit" you'll find lots of photos of him in a Mao-style suit and very few in a sports coat and tie like this. Mao's suits have even less ornamentation, more closely resembling a welding jacket. I suspect he was not looking to Prada and Versace for sartorial guidance, at least not intentionally. And "I am rich" was the message he most wanted to suppress.
You say, "it seems that people who want to show off (at least to show off for the rubes) do so via expensive materials - gold wire, pearls, diamonds, swarovski crystal," but Swarovski "crystals" are cut glass; accounts conflict on whether they're lead glass, soda-lime glass, or something else, but in terms of materials, they're just rhinestones, or broken wine decanters. Very few materials are cheaper. I suspect that being designed by Oscar de la Renta accounts for a significant part of the cost of the dresses you linked to (assuming the listicle is basically correct, which may not be a good assumption); the "golden wire dress" priced at US$245k only weighs 1.1 kg, which would be only US$62k of gold. (The "designer" listed in that case, Ginza Tanaka, turns out to be the name of the Tokyo retail outlet of a 130-year-old precious-metals-processing firm.)
Anyway, I think it's clear that neither people in high fashion nor upper-middle-class people are optimizing their garments to be as hard as possible to manufacture in order to flaunt their wealth; nobody seems to be even crocheting, much less checking zippers for automation tabs: https://www.bunniestudios.com/blog/?p=4364
I did wear a Muslim shirt at work one time (I work in IT), quand people did think I was crazy. They thought it looked ugly and told me as such. To my Muslim relatives, this was on the contrary a very niece piece of clothing. The difference in appreciation was striking.
Haute couture / art fashion is extremely ornamented - in fact, the more common criticism of art fashion is that it's /too/ over the top. Some high status people do wear such ridiculously over-ornamented art clothing, as eg the Met Gala red carpet demonstrates, but the types of people you've chosen as emblematic of high-status aren't them. The average political leader or business person just doesn't wear high fashion clothing, they wear sensible, well made, expensive but essentially normal clothing.
An off the rack suit made from spun woven plastic is all of ridiculous and nonsensible. A property structured bespoke suit made out of the right foundations and the right weight of wool or linen always looks good ("it makes fat men stout, and skinny men imposing"), plus pockets, all the useful pockets.
And very very rich men and powerful statemen like them because the jacket foundation can be thin armor plate.
I think that if you look at how much less there was to do or read or whatnot, how many fewer things there were to buy or invest in, etc, then you see that the opportunity costs of the time and labor that go into good poetry and good statues are much higher today than they were say 500 years ago or even 150 years ago.
The common denominator between all of these examples is that they're labor-intensive and labor becomes more expensive over time. We're materially more wealthy than earlier civilizations for mass-producible goods, but not for hand-made, for Baumol effect reasons.
Ornate clothing could be mass-produced. A formal suit in an interesting color could certainly be mass-produced. Ornaments on buildings could be mass-produced, unless you insist on each ornament being unique.
Yes, and Menard's sells a white plastic Federalist doorway. Federalism for Dummies, a brick box with some white kinda-Greek pillars and a doorframe stuck on, works great for one through maybe three story buildings. Smart people can make a real Federalist Style work a little beyond that, but you look at the White House and it's stretching things. If the damn thing was twice as tall everyone would laugh. What can you do with a twenty-floor skyscraper? It's too far off the human scale. You might as well just make it a glass box, the Yale Box if you can afford it, and shrug.
I like arching walkways though. Maybe something could be done.
Poetry on the other hand got swamped by all the students taking and retaking Bonehead English over and over. No really good poetry can be taught to people who just can't read well, so they might as well do whatever fad is 'teachable'. And once women started getting real jobs outside teaching, the quality of teachers tanked.
Ornate clothing IS mass produced. We just don't think of it as "ornate" for cultural reasons. For example quite a lot of outdoors-wear has a billion stringy tie-pulls, pockets, hoods, hoods that roll up into more pockets, layers of unobtanium to keep you cool in summer and warm in winter, etc. We don't perceive this as ornate-ness because it is justified with practical value, but if you took it back to the 11th century they'd assume it was some symbolic artistic display of wealth.
Another example: t-shirts often have very ornate and unique designs on them. We don't think of t-shirts as ornate clothing because the underlying fabric is designed for practicality and mass production, but people find lots of ways to express all kinds of complex artistic sentiment with them.
Not dress clothing. Men's business suits are all dry-clean only, as are ties and sports coats. I get my dress shirts professionally pressed because I hate ironing. I realize that many adult men dress like children, but plenty of white-collar jobs still expect clothing other than wash-and-wear.
That's a good point. But the men's dress suit also seems to have been relatively stagnant in design since the middle of the 19th century, which is earlier than all these other things Scott mentions that moved from ornate to austere.
Interesting colors can easily be mass-produced. But I believe that for buildings, that isn't exactly true. My understanding is that if you're making a building out of hand-carved stone blocks, then hand-carving them into ornate patterns isn't that much more work than hand-carving them into a flat block. But if you're making it out of drywall and a wooden or steel frame, then making that drywall or frame ornate is going to take a lot more labor than making it flat (even if both are much less than the labor involved in making flat hand-carved stone blocks).
Lace is an interesting example. For a while, it looked as though people had an insatiable and possibly innate desire for lace. After it could be mass-produced, it was used less and less, except for vestigial amounts on women's underwear. And now even that seems to have pretty much faded out. Not gone completely, but not the most common thing.
It machine washes pretty well, if you have a front loader washing machine, andor can trust everyone doing your laundry to use a washing bag. I'm seeing more and more lace again on young women, mostly on dresses they buy from or sourced from Taobao. Taoboa merchants care about what people want to buy, and care zero about what the "high fashion" industry wants to sell this season.
I think higher ratio of cost-of-labor to other costs and lower amount available of specialized artisan labor explains at least a lot of the consumer goods side (like for example making clothes with lots of sequins and patterns industrially is harder, and making a nice taylored suit is still ~hours of work by a taylor while earlier ornamental clothing was much more labor intensive). This doesn't explain poetry, but can explain statues.
We (=the First World collectively) are the richest society in the whole of human history, if people in ancient Rome or the middle ages -- or heck, even the 19th century -- could afford to build beautiful buildings, we certainly can.
Also, it's just false to suppose that nice-looking buildings have to be ornate and expensive. I've seen plenty of attractive buildings made almost entirely of plain bricks.
If the minimum wage today is 10x some sort of bare subsistence level, then someone with a given level of wealth in the past could have gotten labor 10x cheaper. But we surely have more than 10x the wealth of the past.
Maybe it's a question of relative rather than absolute prices? Whatever you were trying to do with ornamentation in the past (signal something, make yourself happier to be in a space) there are cheaper ways to do it now, since labor is the good whose price has decreased the least?
Instead of getting ornamentation on your mansion (which, if you are going to do it tastefully may actually require you to train a bunch of people or to hire out the only 2 or 3 people in the country/world that are experts in what you are looking to do, I dunno), you could start a space travel company.
There are only 3 people in the country because there is more opportunity in other fields/pursuits and because, with the set of possible goods to choose from being much more vast than in the past, people prefer computers, cars, appliances, etc to fine arts.
These 3 people are the few obsessives who became fascinated with some niche skill and also had the business/entrepreneurial ability to be able to provide for themselves. Most people don't obsess over a trade when they could instead make a much easier living or an easy enough living in some other industry.
In a hypothetical world in which we are as wealthy as we are now but in which communication is slower and markets aren't able to operate well over large geographical spaces, couldn't one imagine that there would be more people willing to try out making a space travel company? Having the most ornate mansion in the surrounding 100 miles in that counterfactual world means something, whereas having the best space travel company in the surrounding 100 miles is fairly meaningless in our world.
Architecture has run into diminishing marginal returns. Over the last 10,000 years, most of the potential good building styles have been tried, so most of what is left for an ambitious architect who wants to come up with a novel look are bad building styles.
Isn't this just Baumol's cost disease again? The productivity of factory workers went up a zillion times, while the productivity of Florentine woodworkers stayed constant because they're carving stuff by hand (and if you did find a way to mass produce it out would be considered tacky instead of fancy), and the result is that Florentine woodworkers become massively more expensive relative to a factory worker's output.
It's because back in Florence, society was mostly divided into peasants (with no money) and rich elites (with tons of money). If you wanted to make it big, financially, you had to cater to the elites.
In the modern world, society is dominated by the middle class. Catering to rich elites can still earn you some nice cash, but you will never make it rich that way. As I said above, it's the difference between making the Emperor's coronation dress for $1M, and running a T-Shirt factory that makes $1M per day. Thus, virtually all of the modern artisans are trained to optimize mass-production, not to create bespoke decorations.
Let me see if I understand you correctly - in Florence, buying power in the economy was dominated by rich elites so the things that got made and to a lesser extent the things which became popular were things that satisfied them. In now, buying power in the economy is dominated by the middle class, so the things which are made and become popular are things which satisfy them. Ornate decorations and monuments satisfy rich elites, space flight companies satisfy the middle class? That seems like it still leaves us back at the original question of why we get the kind of buildings the (current) middle class claims not to prefer doesn't it?
Not quite. I agree with what you said, but to corollary is that in Florence, the artisan's job was largely to produce singular items that cater to the wealthy few. The way to distinguish oneself -- and, therefore, make more money -- was to make one's designs increasingly more elaborate, to ensure that those of lesser skill could not compete with you. In our world, the only way to make money is to cater to the multitudes of the middle class. The goal is to make your design as cheap to mass-produce as possible, to push your competitors out of the business based on cost. It doesn't matter what the middle class would prefer; it matters what they're willing to settle for.
Right, but AFAIK (and I could be wrong), the typical artist would still fulfill a few big orders per year (in the case of Michelangelo&Co, one order in several decades). In general, artists were limited to what they could produce with their own hands, so the emphasis on making each piece as uniquely elaborate as possible still applied.
Mansions, business buildings, and public buildings are three separate spaces with different incentives. When it comes to mansions, you can absolutely see ornamentation side by side with (very expensive, but plain looking) special wall finishes. Look at any wealthy Los Angeles neighborhood!
In that space two issues are
- you don’t want to look TOO a different from every else bcs resale value, and the neighbors will complain (probably always true), and
- there are different things to spend money on. That mansion with fancy ornamentation has terrible insulation (temperature and sound), imperfectly straight lines (still hard to get right, especially high up) and lousy plumbing. Today I can spend that money on a three-head shower and a hot water
I'm sure there is a cost desease effect going on, which would explain why your average building is much less intricately ornamented than Sagrada Familia. Still, at the high end, there should be intricately ornamented mansions.
This stuff definitely still does exist, it's just rare. Much as I agree with Donald Trump on many things, I don't think I'd want to live in his apartment, I would genuinely prefer a simpler and cleaner approach to interior design.
Agreed, some of people who are rich enough to pay for it, actually choose to decorate their homes this way (although this particular example will strike most as extremely tacky).
Now, most heavily ornamented places (even the ones I find beautiful) tend produce in me a sensory overload effect, that makes me not want to have my house decorated that way. I wonder whether that is just a product of a culture that doesn't reward heavily ornamented places, or a more fundamental cognitive/psychological effect.
I look at that and I say "New York City". And I mean it, whenever I've stayed in a NYC hotel or visited someone in a nicer NYC condo or townhome, there is a certain heavy baroque ornateness to everything that I would see *only* in NYC.
That's true, but the forms themselves aren't too bad - it's the monomaniacal obsession on gold that ruins it. The Emirates Palace hotel in Abu Dhabi has a similar issue, at least in the public areas I got to gawk at. Lots of gold and marble, but it's so monotone it gives everything this offputting air. If they'd done more contrasting designs it might've been better. A gold and white monotone isn't it.
Many labor-intensive art forms like Persian rugs are dying because people have better opportunities now, even in a country with a basket-case economy like Iran’s wrecked by incompetence, corruption and international sanctions. Also time horizons have changed, no one is willing to wait a century for a new cathedral to be built.
But our wealth is much higher exactly because of mass production and standardization. It's not because we got physically 10x faster at carving wood with a knife. The only reason we feel richer is because there are factories churning out mostly standardized components like concrete, steel girders, large glass windows that are then quickly assembled using more standardized machines and processes.
Don't underestimate the impact of better glass. If you can't make windows bigger than a postage stamp then filling the outside walls with griffins makes sense. If you can make your walls entirely of glass then basically everyone will pick natural light over the griffins.
That's why I agree with the top of this thread: modern buildings look samey and boring because when everything is done by hand and every window is tiny due to limits in glass manufacturing, the cost of adding fiddly bits to the outside isn't that large compared to the overall cost of building. But when an entire skyscraper is expected to be built in 24 months from scratch, the architect is limited to what can be done within the toolkits society provides him with.
Don't underestimate the impact of better glass. If you can't make windows bigger than a postage stamp then filling the outside walls with griffins makes sense. If you can make your walls entirely of glass then basically everyone will pick natural light over the griffins.
New housing (one of the few types of building where architects have to actually pay attention to what average people want) aren't made entirely of glass. Not to mention, buildings made of glass are generally very expensive to keep liveable -- you need lots of heating and air-conditioning, else anybody living inside is going to freeze during the winter and roast during the summer.
Fancy housing does usually have pretty big windows. But again, if you're making a house out of hand-carved blocks, then hand-carving the blocks into an interesting pattern is not much additional work. Whereas drywall and 2x4's are extremely cheap compared to the plainest hand-carved block, and there's no easy way to make drywall and 2x4's ornate without getting back up to the hand-carved expense level.
I was thinking about this recently with respect to "Clickspring"'s playing-card press: https://youtu.be/3PwAQZNLy0I. Evidently it took him six months to make, using a lot of modern machinery and high artisan skill. So if he had commissioned another artisan to make it for him, rather than making it himself, he might have had to pay US$50k. Which seems pretty expensive, but still within a Bill-Gates-mansion kind of budget.
And accountability! If you're a dictator king or a servant of God himself then spending a century building a giant cathedral by effectively "taxing" the peasants is no big deal. You can do what you want, you're the king!
If you're a functionary in a democratic government then your options are much more limited. If you blow half your budget on stone sculptures put so high up hardly anyone can see them then heads will roll.
I think we can afford to build as many beautiful buildings as the people of antiquity or the medieval period did, and we probably do. It's just that we can *also* afford ten times as many plain buildings. Whereas for them, a plain building would cost nearly as much as a beautiful one, so they just didn't bother.
As someone who recently had a small house built, and who thinks that old fashioned architecture looks nice, I feel compelled to point out that something as simple as a brick wall is massively more expensive than standard construction techniques - neither bricks nor bricklayers are cheap, and not all bricklayers are good at their job.
(I actually wanted a stone wall for one of the walls, but got told that was impossible at any price due to overly restrictive building regulations; and that stone was terrible for thermal insulation, besides)
Yeah, as a small-time developer my biggest obstacles to ornament are not matters of taste, but of cost and availability: Adding any kind of intricate ornamentation to the homes I build would add *enormous* cost - far out of proportion to any marginal increase in value - and there simple are not many craftsmen who can do it. Bit of a chicken and egg situation - if no one is building highly ornamented architecture, no one will learn how to do it, then you can't find anyone to do it, so no one builds it...
Have you read the Master and His Emissary by Iain McGilchrist? He ambitiously (some would say over-ambitiously) takes this question on, as well many others, by examining brain hemisphere differences. His thesis is basically that left hemisphere dominance has caused an increasing reliance on the abstract (vs the experienced) , the right-angle (vs the "organic" shape), the interchangeable (versus the unique), etc. in art, communication, relationships, work, etc.
I’m not going to do it justice since I’m on mobile right now, but he has an interesting background: English Literature PhD at Oxford, before moving to neuroscience, brain imaging at Johns Hopkins, clinical practice at a London psychiatric hospital. So he brings a pretty unique (unique to me at least) approach to neuroscience, philosophy, and the arts.
Even if his literal claim about brain lateralization is weak, it’s an incredibly useful metaphor by which to view the world (and don’t get that guy started on metaphors), so it’s worth checking out.
You and McGhilcrist would agree on this point. I haven't read the entire book, but the introduction and first two chapters rattle through a litany of popular misconceptions regarding left brain / right brain differences, arguing most of them are false. I will say, I'm not fully onboard with all his conclusions, but some of the insights he draws from reviewing studies of stroke victims who suffer damage to only one half of their brain seem compelling.
IMO you’d be disabused of that notion if you read some other books or articles about other claimed and contradictory brain lateralization ideas and note that the claims have similarly supporting studies. One of the big things I’ve seen from this blog is "science is an idiot sometimes" - even Real Science regularly gets things badly wrong, and more so in softer areas like neuroscience and psych - and that pop science books will just either openly lie or terribly misrepresent evidence and ideas to prove a point.
I’d absolutely bet a grand that a 3/4ths majority of his brain lateralization ideas are entirely and completely wrong. Even if he claims "the popular ones are wrong but my new ones are correct". And "even if it’s literally wrong it’s still a good metaphor" is IMO suspect to the point of actively harmful in the context of neuroscience
I’m not trying to be combative here, I genuinely want to know so that I understand where you’re coming from: have you read the book?
I agree that making literal claims about the brain that turn out to be metaphorical can be harmful for neuroscience. My claim is that those are useful metaphors for philosophy and ways of coming to terms with the world. And if that’s the case, if our phenomenology aligns with these deep metaphors he develops, then - regardless of how you think the brain relates to the mind - there must be some neurological basis to these ways of coming to terms with the world.
every single time I have heard of a "claim made about the brain" that’s used to inform or explain that isn’t literally true, it’s metaphorical implications end up being between laughable and ridiculous, and most aren’t literally true. And already in this thread the other guy who liked it used it to make some false and seriously misleading claims. The enlightenment and rationalism and industrialism and technics blah blah have seriously shaped everything we do nowadays! The world clearly has more of that or something. But trying to intermediate that with "brain region" seems to me actively harmful. I haven’t read the book, but I’ve gone into a lot of different other claims about hemispheric division to be rather confident that it only detracts from the existing wide ranging debate about the enlightenment and machines and such
> And if that’s the case, if our phenomenology aligns with these deep metaphors he develops, then - regardless of how you think the brain relates to the mind - there must be some neurological basis to these ways of coming to terms with the world.
no? What’s the neurological basis in water for vortices or fish swimming? What’s the neurological basis in a computer CPU for being able to run Quake or a black hole code? There isn’t necessarily a "detail process" and an "abstract process", or a detail region and an abstract reason - just like water doesn’t have a "vortex part" and a "laminar part" somewhere within each molecule or in the individual particles equations
So, actually you should read the book, because you and McGilchrist would see eye to eye on this stuff. I, too, have read too many pop-science neuro books to be familiar with all of the reductionist simplifications and pitfalls. But as I said at the outset, the Master and His Emissary is very different.
I'll take the bet, happily: he's enormously erudite and serious. Reading 'The Master & His Emissary' on a Kindle is slowed by checking the (thousands) of references linked. It feels like the most demanding sustained reading work I've done pretty much since the harder stuff (e.g. 2 and a half D perception, etc.) I occasionallly had to read at Oxford ('Experimental Psychology, Philosophy & Statistics'). The new book is even more weighty. He's more than earned the right to be considered seriously.
Ignoring the correctness of the brain bit, I'm very bad at noticing those details which I don't consider relevant. I also prefer all the modern examples to the older ones, other than the statues which just look dumb.
Those two tendencies (not easily noticing what isn’t considered relevant - really a narrowing of what "is relevant" - and a tendency toward the modern/post-modern aesthetic) fit completely into his thesis of left-hemisphere dominance (which can be a short hand for a series of phenomenological and cognitive traits that correlate to one another, if you want to set aside the brain stuff. Though the brain stuff is reasonably persuasive.)
This book was discussed hereabouts before, tangent to the Julian Jaynes book. That got me to read it. I thought it was poorly written - too difficult to understand and very repetitive. With a better editor it could have been 1/3 the length and easier to read. The content struck me as plausible, it agrees with my perception of my consciousness. But beware of typical mind fallacy.
I like all of the modern pictures more, except maybe the last one. I really, really do. Completely instinctively. So much so that I'm finding it impossible to wrap my head around the idea that I'm in a small minority, or that people might think I'm faking it for status. I have no artistic/humanities background of any kind. So...just...what? I'm so confused.
I prefer modern buildings too. Guess I'm part of that 30%. Shining towers of glass rising into the sky, gleaming in the sun. Elevators that pairs every trip to your cubicle with a breathtaking view. Floods of natural light during the day, beacons of light (=warmth, safety, progress) during the night. Oh, and preferably with a nice water feature at the bottom to cool everyone off in summer, please.
That said, the sort of modern buildings that are just plain concrete boxes with no attempt to even hide the seams - puke. Only public sector buildings seem to go in for that though. You wouldn't catch Goldman Sachs building something like the Milan university.
BTW the image of the Google HQ is misleading. I've worked there. The HQ is a sprawling campus where most of the buildings were bought from other companies with more normal levels of wealth, but the centrepiece of the HQ is a public park surrounded by the old SGI buildings, and it looks like this:
Could you specify which company you are talking about? I presume google, but Alphabet is not the most valuable company in the world. Apple is, currently, ,and there HQ would not be characterized as a construction site for a Toys r Us
And so much easier to get lost in. I've visited that building. My host got lost walking back from the entry desk to her own desk.
That's not the only time I've had that experience. I've visited the Menlo Park Facebook campus designed by Frank Gehry, and my host got lost walking from his desk to the receiving desk, and then got lost again walking to our assigned conference room.
And then there is the Frank Gehry pile of glass trash that is the MIT Stata Center. I was at a tech meetup programming unconference there, and we eventually had to keep three volunteers running to find the people who kept getting lost just walking back from the washrooms. Which was to be expected, because despite having turn by turn directions, a MIT CS grad student got lost trying to guide us to our meeting space, despite that being the building she spent most of her time in.
I agree. Hospitals, even huge sprawling ones (I think of my experience doing daywalks around the interlinked buildings of the Mayo Clinic complex) generally don't have the "get lost in" problem.
As a counterpoint to my experiences in the Google, Facebook, and MIT complexes, Amazon building that the company built for itself also have the "you don't get lost in them" nature. If you gave me the location code of an arbitrary desk or conference room in a building built by the company, I would instantly know which airport to fly to, and then once inside the building probably could walk to the desk with my glasses off.
Boring economic answer: labor is massively more expensive.
All of the highly ornate clothing and buildings require a lot of labor to both create and maintain You can't actually dress yourself in the elaborate formal attire of previous eras and the intricate details of classical architecture requires a lot of painstaking labor to create and maintain. Some people are wealthy enough to afford an army of servants now but the number of such people is relatively few so the style is less elaborate. I think it was Agatha Christie who said "I never thought I would be so rich that I could afford a car or so poor that I couldn't afford a servant."
Yeah, sculpture doesn't really fit in, but I think it would explain somewhat why billionaires don't build elaborate mansions (or at least mansions that don't look particularly elaborate from the outside). It looks too weird and out of place to build something like the Cardiff Castle now even if you could afford it. At some point in the past there were a lot of people who could afford to build a castle so rich people competed to build the most ornate, magnificent castle possible. But now there are many fewer people who can afford that so it would seem weird to do it.
One other thing that occurred to me reading your response is that I think simple is not an accurate description. They are less ornate to look at but much fancier inside. Maybe part of it is that when it is not possible to differentiate the interior of a house (with appliances and computers and other technologically sophisticated gadgetry) you pour your money into ornate decorations.
Plenty of informal clothes (t-shirts etc.) have fairly elaborate patterns (not to mention bedsheets, curtains, and other fabric items), so I don't think it's cost that prevents formal clothing from being patterned as well.
And as I said in reply to another comment, beautiful buildings don't have to be elaborate and ornate. Many old buildings are beautiful because of the harmony and symmetry of their parts, not because they're festooned in sculptures.
Look at something like St Johns dresses or suits. These are gorgeous, expensive, and technically very sophisticated (in ways you only appreciate if you know something about textiles).
But the cost is being spent on subtle displays of difficulty, not in your face ornamentation. That’s the question. And I think, in fashion, the answer is simple — you need to know a lot to know just why it’s so difficult to make such a dress.
Or to put it differently, it’s easy to fake rhinestones; it’s not easy to fake a full print design (wider than the average machine) or a flared knit… There’s a proof of work there.
I would like to find more things that are straightforwardly pleasing to an unsophisticated consumer. Are there any good sources of content recommendations that filter based on the judgment of thoughtful but not high-status individuals? Especially interested in the cases where the content is also undervalued by the market, and e.g. you can buy cheap art that also looks fantastic.
This problem seems mostly solved in music, where there are tons of ways to discover new things and explore popular content. But in art, clothing, furniture, poetry, architecture, etc., it seems much harder. Would love recommendations!
"Beside ... St. Peter’s Basilica ... dwell savages in mud huts."
I think that an unexamined possibility here is that 99% of humanity was living in mud huts when St. Peter's Basilica was built, and that they don't exist any more, so we only remember the buildings of the richest members of those societies. Maybe we have successfully reduced inequality, to the point where those buildings are no longer worth it to build, but now no one lives in mud huts. (note that e.g. Brutalism is explicitly about this; the building of non-ornate civic buildings is to signal that the building serves the public, not the ruling class.) Obviously this doesn't explain everything, but it's worth considering as a factor.
"I think that an unexamined possibility here is that 99% of humanity was living in mud huts when St. Peter's Basilica was built, and that they don't exist any more, so we only remember the buildings of the richest members of those societies."
I'm guessing you must be an American, because in Europe, there are plenty of quaint, non-elite historic streets, picturesque villages, old cottages, and the like, which are widely considered beautiful in their own right.
"Brutalism is explicitly about this; the building of non-ornate civic buildings is to signal that the building serves the public, not the ruling class."
Except, of course, that it's the ruling class which supports brutalism, whereas the public consistently prefers traditional buildings by an overwhelming margin. So in reality, brutalism is about pretending to serve the public whilst actually forcing them to submit to elite desires -- like 99% of modern politics and culture, in other words.
Even in Europe, the beautiful house of the past that survived were owned by wealthy people (poor people's house tend to degrade quicker and were not maintained enough to survive even 50 year). And those house of rich merchant/farmer looks more a Google HQ than a mini Versaille.
The Romans didn't live in mud huts, and their descendants didn't either. St. Peters was built by a rising power. Western Europe was emerging from its post-Roman setbacks and the increasingly wealthy popes wanted to show off by building something impressive. They even moved an Egyptian obelisk into the middle of it. The Vatican has preserved the various proposals for moving it including the winning entry by Fontana. Getting it from Egypt to Rome was no big deal for a Roman emperor, but it took serious engineering funded by a wealthy pope to move it a few hundred feet. By the time NYC got its obelisk, it was all steam power and rail. Nowadays, it would be a pain in the ass because it wouldn't fit in a 40' container so breakbulk rates would apply.