On Grace

architecture art dance form and function web design

A similar thing happens in architecture. Architects, from my limited understanding, need to have a good grasp of engineering principles. They must also have a good eye for aesthetics, but they are limited by their understanding of how to engineer their designs; if you can’t figure out a way to securely attach that glass balcony, you can’t build it, no matter how gorgeous it will look. Much like web design, in which mastery of the code can enable a freeing of your creative genius on the page, architecture relies on a strong foundation of engineering knowledge to make the blueprints a reality.

Really this connection between the technical and the artistic is present in a number of areas. Despite my disclaimer above, painting does require some technical knowledge of paints, papers, brush strokes, and color. A painter’s ideas may be too advanced for his shaky hand to execute or his untrained eye to envision on the page, and like architecture, he must first gain sufficient mastery of the engineering of the painting in order to actualize his idea. For every art form, there is an underlying technical aspect. Some are more complex than others, but in order to realize your artistic idea, you have to gain an understanding of your technical limitations.

In some cases, the technical exists before the art. Web design and architecture are good examples of this. Web pages used to be purely informational, and it wasn’t until some people gained a sufficient mastery of HTML and other coding languages that they were able to manipulate the medium with such intuitive ease as to create art. People used to design buildings purely for structural requirements, until they got so good at building sturdy structures they could intuitively maintain the structure while adding some artistic sense. I imagine painting went through a similar transformation. My understanding is that cave paintings were originally practical means of conveying information, or served religious purposes. Obviously, the line is blurry here, but at some point, somebody started painting for the sake of aesthetic enjoyment, but only when it became easy enough that they could focus on the creativity and not the technical elements.

New Art Forms

I wonder how many other art forms are out there waiting to be discovered. Even social media is being turned into art (check out this article). In that same article is mentioned the idea that shopping has become an American art form. It certainly meets the critera. There are people who have so mastered the technical requirements of shopping that they can perform feats of deal hunting and product acquisition the likes of which are beyond the comprehension of your average human, who are able to express creativity in their consumption, who go ‘shopping’ with their friends as if it were an activity completely divorced from the ideas of actually buying things.

Even most forms of science have been used to create art (I know, I’m treading on shaky ground using ‘art’ so loosely, but bear with me). Mathematics has given us beautiful fractals which are presented for the sake of visual and mental stimulation, completely divorced from their original function, whatever it was. Even some martial arts, the ultimate practical endeavor, have been turned into non-useful art forms that border on dance.

I’m curious as to whether there are any pure arts, things that, from their very inception, were never intended to fill a practice purpose in life. Music and dance seem to be two possibilities. Music has features that make it very distinct from language for communication, and it is difficult to come up with ways to use music for functional reasons not better served by other fields. Even in the case of music, however, there was an underlying technical development, which is spoken language. Both are based on a similar structure, and it makes sense that humans would have become so comfortable with the technical aspects of semantic structure that they would start experimenting very early on. If we are going to continue looking for how the technical gives rise to the artistic, dance can be said to arise from a mastery of basic human motor skills, but maybe that is taking things too far.

Or maybe not. A dancer needs to have an intimate understanding of biomechanics and kinesthetics in order to excel in his or her craft. This understanding comes from internal awareness, rather than conscious manipulation, but just because it is a muscle memory doesn’t make it any less learned. Raising a hand with perfect awareness and control can itself become an artistic gesture.

Form and Function

I personally do not believe that art can be separated from its foundations in technical understanding, and also that practical and technical endeavors performed with great care and presence become beautiful in an artistic way. Form and function are intertwined. To my eye, a beautiful car is one that performs its function as perfectly as possible, not one with a beautiful paint job. A car is a mode of transportation, just as a dance is a mode of movement. In both cases, the car that transports efficiently (even to an excess of efficiency, in the case of sports cars) is beautiful, and the dancer that moves without wasted effort, in the lines and paths he or she intends, is beautiful. The appearance of a sports car is wedded to its function; it has those curves for a reason.

In web design and architecture, beauty is achieved not only in the external presentation, but also in the underlying structure used to achieve that presentation. Code that is clunky and performs unnecessary routines as the result of its creator’s lack of understanding detracts from the beauty of the page and often impacts its performance. A building that has to rely on supports to realize its intended appearance is similarly handicapped. A building that incorporates its structure into its appearance is graceful, as in the case of flying buttresses on Gothic cathedrals. Just as a dancer must still get from point A to point B, a building must still have some kind of support. It is partially how the dancer makes the transition, or how the building supports itself, and partially how the transition contributes to the intended flourish, or how the support contributes to the architectural end, that determines the artistic success of dancers and buildings. That is grace.

Image source: Paul H Photography on Flickr