Creativity, Beauty, and Morality

Creativity, Beauty, and Morality are the three standards by which every work of art – including architecture – should be evaluated. 

To understand and apply these standards, however, we must also understand a basic premise of art: nothing is created from nothing. Every seemingly original work has a context and is derived from some preceding work(s), either as an extension or a rejection. Artists and architects do not create something from nothing (as Picasso supposedly said, “mediocre artists borrow from others, great artists steal!). An Einsteinian concept of a universe where total energy remains constant can be applied to art. Sometimes literally and sometimes metaphorically, artists and architects rearrange and re-express qualities of an existing universe with fresh objects and expressions. Creativity can be characterized as connecting the same old dots in unforeseen and interesting patterns. This in no way diminishes the achievements of artists and architects, rather, it reinforces the idea that the potential for art is everywhere among us at all times, waiting to be extracted by the artist’s fresh vision of existing parts. 

Creativity is a function of Destruction

There can be no creation without destruction whether applied to buildings, trees, ozone, ideas, values, preconceptions, potential, or bank accounts. Every built structure “destroys” the myriad other structures that could have been built on the same site. Since creation is a new arrangement of existing parts, the old arrangement must make way for the new. The creative process is necessarily one of erasing and redrawing patterns, tearing down and rebuilding ideas. 

When evaluating the creativity of a project, look at its shadow. What has been erased or disrupted by the current work? What is the cost of this disruption? Is the value of what is created greater than the value of what is lost?

Beauty is a function of Order

Beauty is finding the inherent order within a set of elements. It might be an obvious static order such as a geometric pattern or an evolving dynamic order like a trigonometric function.

Order only has to reference itself to be successful. Does the work establish an internal logic and follow it?

Order can also reference external sources, but must still respect its own internal rules about how to treat the reference. Is the order derived from historical precedent, from other disciplines, from nature, from theory, or from something else? Order can be regular like a steady drum beat or asynchronous like a jazz ensemble, but it must be intentional. Intention is the hallmark of an internal order system.

A work can be creative and beautiful in a single act by destroying a preconception of a previous order and replacing it with a new order. Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao is one example of creating a magnificent  cultural destination by replacing the formal preconception of building form with its own order while destroying the cultural preconception of its gritty riverfront site in northern Spain.

Morality is a function of Net Gain

There is no absolute scale that can be applied, but work of art should offer a net gain over what was destroyed in its making in order to be considered “good” or “moral.”. Fundamentally, we ask of a work, “Is it worth it?” A new building may be both original and beautiful, but is it better than the previous landmark that it replaced – or the trees and the view? Is the new work worth the loss of old traditions, patterns, communities, and ideas that link present day society to its past? Is it worth the cost?  Remember that when something is new, something else is lost. The answer to the question, “Is it worth it?” is always subjective and everchanging, but it must be ‘yes,’ for a work to pass from a willful or gratuitous expression to the sublime designation of a work of art.

Creation Without Beauty = Anarchy

When the thing created brings no order,it is simply destruction and often a political act.

Side note: Sometimes simple destruction is necessary to clear away obstacles to future expressions of beauty. For example, the music of the Sex Pistols might be considered simply destructive (it was intentionally and provocatively not beautiful), but it paved the way for a new genre of more refined music from REM, Elvis Costello, The Police, etc…

Beauty Without Destruction = Banality

It is usually just the blind and uninformed application of old rules to new situations. Nothing is invented, nothing is disturbed. It is characterized by timidity and conformity. Worse: it is BORING!

Morality Without Both Destruction AND Beauty = Impossible

Morality can only be measured as the balance between beauty and its prerequisite destruction. Without both, the equation is missing a variable and incomplete.  We cannot take a position on the artistic morality of a work because information is missing. A pure act of destruction (i.e. creation without beauty) may be judged as morally good or bad as a political act, but cannot be judged artistically without an intrinsic sense of order and beauty.