The joy of hating modernism

My favorite writer of all time is William Hazlitt, the British essayist of the early 19th century and contemporary of Charles Lamb and Samuel Taylor Coleridge. He was considered a “good hater” (or maybe it was “a good damner”) and in fact wrote an essay called “On the Pleasure of Hating,” in which he writes, “Nature seems (the more we look into it) made up of antipathies: without something to hate, we should lose the very spring of thought and action.”

Charles Lamb, by William Hazlitt

I imagine myself to be a professional hater of modern architecture. and pride myself on developing, in my posts, a scaffolding of denunciation that reaches peaks of hatred for it that will impress readers with my comprehension of its many, many mortal flaws. But I just received an email from the historian James Stevens Curl, author of Making Dystopia (2018), that contains a paragraph that surpasses, so far as I can recall, anything I have ever written.

Here is the email, which regards the absence of beauty in modern architecture. First he writes of an anonymous modernist architect (not the late Jan Kaplicky, whose unbuilt work is pictured above) who “boasted that he ‘does not do beautiful buildings,’ which is obvious from a perusal of his work.” Curl then writes:

Modernism in architecture is responsible for untold misery, appalling ugliness, and worldwide destruction. It is used by powerful interests to impose the will to destruction of that which is humane in architecture and town planning. It is repulsive, alien, cruel, and beyond redemption. Its theorists and apologists pump out breathtakingly ignorant guff dressed up in bogus intellectual pretensions, all resembling the mating-calls of an air-conditioner. The public should wake up, reject mass calisthenics, and refuse to believe what it is told by architectural bullies whose failures are legion. And the texts churned out in support of modernist architecture should be seen for what they are: distorted, lying travesties of real history, written with a leaden grasp of prose usually found in booklets of instruction for washing machines translated from the Japanese.

Some of this may seem, to some, a little over the top, or even psychotic. But if anything Curl’s denunciation is generosity itself, and yet hatred is often balanced by a will to beauty. Curl has that. Love of beauty clearly animates Curl’s hatred for modern architecture. Love and generosity often spring from the same breast as hatred. This may be seen in Hazlitt’s essays on painting. He was himself a fine painter, early in his career. His portrait of Charles Lamb hangs in the British Portrait Gallery. In “The Pleasure of Painting,” he writes: “There is a pleasure in painting which none but painters know. In writing, you have to contend with the world; in painting, you have only to carry on a friendly strife with Nature.” In that essay, written in 1821, Hazlitt continues:

The mind is calm, and full at the same time. The hand and eye are equally employed. In tracing the commonest object, a plant or the stump of a tree, you learn something every moment. You perceive unexpected differences, and discover likenesses where you looked for no such thing. You try to set down what you see – find out your error, and correct it. You need not play tricks, or purposely mistake: with all your pains, you are still far short of the mark. Patience grows out of the endless pursuit, and turns it into a luxury. A streak in a flower, a wrinkle in a leaf, a tinge in a cloud, a stain in an old wall or ruin grey, are seized with avidity as the spolia optima of this sort of mental warfare, and furnish out labour for another day.

Soon after, Hazlitt writes:

With every stroke of the brush, a new field of inquiry is laid open; new difficulties arise, and new triumphs are prepared over them. By comparing the imitation with the original, you see what you have done, and how much you have still to do. The test of the senses is severer than that of fancy, and an over-match even for the delusions of our self-love. One part of a picture shames another, and you determine to paint up to yourself, if you cannot come up to nature. Every object becomes lustrous from the light thrown back upon it by the mirror of art: and by the aid of the pencil we may be said to touch and handle the objects of sight. The air-wove visions that hover on the verge of existence have a bodily presence given them on the canvas: the form of beauty is changed into a substance: the dream and the glory of the universe is made “palpable to feeling as to sight.”

About David Brussat

This blog was begun in 2009 as a feature of the Providence Journal, where I was on the editorial board and wrote a weekly column of architecture criticism for three decades. Architecture Here and There fights the style wars for classical architecture and against modern architecture, no holds barred. History Press asked me to write and in August 2017 published my first book, "Lost Providence." I am now writing my second book. My freelance writing on architecture and other topics addresses issues of design and culture locally and globally. I am a member of the board of the New England chapter of the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art, which bestowed an Arthur Ross Award on me in 2002. I work from Providence, R.I., where I live with my wife Victoria, my son Billy and our cat Gato. If you would like to employ my writing and editing to improve your work, please email me at my consultancy, dbrussat@gmail.com, or call 401.351.0457. Testimonial: "Your work is so wonderful - you now enter my mind and write what I would have written." - Nikos Salingaros, mathematician at the University of Texas, architectural theorist and author of many books.
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39 Responses to The joy of hating modernism

  1. John the First says:

    Sorry for taking up so much space, but I am sure those who are able to appreciate a philosophical point of view will not resort to petty and spiteful comments.

    Modernism, most essentially, is the situation in evolution where man has evolved to such an extent that he is now starting to be capable of mastering the Earth. Man is now empowered by science and technology. This implies that foreseeing and planning is now part of his tasks and power more than ever before. Societies no longer take shape relatively spontaneously, the naive stage of evolution is relatively history.
    This also implies that there is a need for continuous debate about power, a continuous problem about what can and should be governed and planned top down,and what should be left free. A continuous challenge concerning the freedom of the individual versus the collective (and oligarchic and bureaucratic power). And a continuous challenge concerning the needs of small groups of individuals versus large collectives.
    But still being limited in knowledge, about nature, life and about man himself, mistakes of planning and shaping will happen inevitably, even aside of the destructive tendencies of man. The mistakes which were made throughout the last centuries, to ignore the human need for beauty ever more, the terror of brutal nakedness, and the lack of appreciation of the small human scale have been partly avoidable. The ugliness (by far not only architectural) does seem to fall apart roughly in two categories though: that what produced an immediate improvement of the lives of masses of people, involving near-sightedness, abuse of power and egoism, but also bringing about great improvements, and that what is produced by those who were, are and remain wholly insensitive to a wide variety of human needs. The first category could be seen as a bargain, mass products are more easily produced when the aesthetic side is neglected. So a temporary move towards ugliness appears to have been unavoidable during the age of the rapid evolution of and for the masses, but it can be corrected at a later period, which I think is now starting to happen, even among masses of men. The ugliness all around us forces a recognition, although slowly and being counteracted by the bureaucratic and oligarchic powers that be. And we also have to deal with those who are totally insensitive towards it, and those who selfishly force upon societies their own historically unprecedented extravagant distaste.

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    • Most of your thoughts above, John, seem true or plausible, but still the ability to create beautiful buildings and cities can be learned and for many centuries was learned, while the degree of ugliness we have recently seen is so manifest as to render it easy to move away from, especially as the “antidote” is so easy to locate in our world. Why we have not acted on that knowledge (and especially given that traditional architecture is obviously more sustainable), is hard to figure out.

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    • Anonymous says:

      I took the time to actually read through your comments after my admittedly vitriolic initial response, and I can’t argue with much you’ve laid out here. What I’m failing to follow, however, is the leap between “not resorting to petty and spiteful comments” and “historically unprecedented extravagant distaste.”

      I am—very truly—sorry that you cannot appreciate ‘modern’ architecture and view it as a reprehensible aesthetic that detracts from the joy of life, but I would counter that in fact modernism delivers an architecture that shows how, even in the face of becoming masters of the world but still powerless in the greater scale of the universe, man can find paths forward in an increasinfly bleak and joyless existence. Buildings may not look like they did in the past, but the architecture of the past was no different. Victorian architecture was ridiculed in the early part of the previous century due to its outlandish style, as were numerous revivals of old for being out of touch with the current age (until, of course, the interwar west shifted the paradigm entirely). Tastes change with time as man changes to overcome the issues of the current time. The issues of a world where humans’ power overtook their knowledge could not be asnwered by dilly-dallying with ornament. We had to find a way to create beautiful things through rational approaches, so that there end results (however imperfect) could be taken into account and advance our knowledge. Adding variables not only takes time, but it makes learning harder. There’s too much noise to parse. Any good traditionalist will know that it is not good enough simply to follow tradition; one must understand why the tradition exists. Otherwise it will only be a matter of time before it is forgotten or dismissed as superstition. We are at a point now where we can look at both classical and modern architecture through this lens (they are both traditions at this point) and hopefully create architecture more beautiful than anything before, at least for the weird times we are stuck living in.

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      • Architecture used to try to fit in, Anon., and now they rarely do, leaving most cities and towns with an aesthetic of cacophony, which is almost ugly by definition. As for ornament, neurophysiological research establishes that it is rooted in mankind’s earliest instincts: long ago we dilly-dallied with detail at our peril; today we do it for joy, and buildings without it are recognized by almost all sentient humans as second-rate at best.

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        • Anonymous says:

          I am not against ornament, but let’s ask Abel about mankind’s earliest instincts.

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        • John the First says:

          Those who have conquered write history they say, this means that democratic man writes history, in the form of his own propaganda.
          The well known Greek democracy produced the sophists, the sophists also tried to destroy tradition and instinct by means of intellectual sophism comparable to the modernists and progressives of today, they where masters in rhetorics, better than our contemporary modernists who become ever more low level creed parrots, unlike the first modernists. Modernists are the modern sophists which a democracy produces. That the sophist did not attack architecture in ancient Greece (but all other traditions) is due to the fact that for one, they had no reason and means to build structures for masses (the democracy was very small, the economy was small), secondly, they did not have the science and technology to accomplish the extravagant ego projects of today. This is why Aristotle thought, that if you must have a democracy, it should be governed by a small amount of healthy men with a love of the country and tradition. Men who do not have the leisure time and means to derail, and so derail society. In fact more or less like the philosophy of some of the founding fathers of the US.
          The public does not consist of sophists of course, the public has no intellect by means of which they can become influenced and so derail, ordinary men of the street have the luck to be what they are, not being impressible by the latest sophist fashions.

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      • John the First says:

        The remark ‘not resorting to petty and spiteful comments’ wasn’t addressed at you.

        and “historically unprecedented extravagant distaste.”

        Is a well suited characterization. It is a part of criticism which is always necessary in the area of taste, and this might be harsh.

        “find paths forward in an increasinfly bleak and joyless existence”,

        In my view modernism finds paths towards an increasingly bleak and joyless existence. And where it does not, it tries to compensate with vulgar dehumanizing pimping glamour. In the latter case it appears to break out of the bleakness by means of glamorous overpowering and hollow exhibitionism (both examples discussed below exhibit these pornographic traits). These are everything but rational, they are irrational, especially the Sydney Opera House is extremely irrational. Your concept of what is rational is in lack of sophistication and still confused through lack of knowledge, and probably formed on the basis of modernist propaganda.

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        • Anonymous says:

          Ok so when I do use the second person and sayean things about people or ideas, it’s juvenile, but when you do it, it’s a “well suited characterization.”

          Thank you for explaining my education level to me. I am sorry for having tried to engage with you since clearly your intellect and sophistication is miles beyond my own. Unfortunately the propaganda that grasps my feeble brain is not the neoclassical canon, which in my ignorance I believe could also be classified as propaganda, or at the very least be peddled as it. I am sorry for having wasted both our times.

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  2. John the First says:

    “Modernism in architecture is responsible for untold misery, appalling ugliness, and worldwide destruction.”

    David Brussat, was a modernist when he posted an April’s Fool article accompanied with the distasteful ‘imagery’ of the most primitive and ugly of beings. In our modern world such imagery, enlargements of what should not be enlarged, to make visible that what should remain hidden happens constantly. We have a pornographic culture of throwing everything out nakedly in the open, in a thousand of ways, about a thousand of things which should remain hidden, whether visual or non visual. No wonder bad taste flourishes everywhere.

    Modernism is distasteful nakedness coupled, an ever wrong choice and style of treatment of subject, which is why Oscar Wilde considered all forms of modernism wrong. Goethe had acquired such a sensitivity for visual ugliness that he took pains to avoid it, lest he be haunted by it in his dreams, and destroy his fine taste. Both sensitive men would be in continuous disgust had they lived in our times.

    To prevent the elixir called hate to energize us so that we turn sour, provided that we are equipped with a healthy love of ourselves, we should ask ourselves regularly: when am I a modernist?

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  3. John the First says:

    The proposal for the new national library on the first image, appears just like the Sydney Opera House to be inspired by the morphology of insects or creatures living deep down low in the darkness of the sea, coupled with a primitive infantile taste of colours. Can you sink lower than to be inspired by the shapes of cold blooded insects and sea creatures? The modernist evolution appears a backward evolution, even crawling back into the sea.

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  4. Bobby Buildings says:

    Wow your an awful writer with with boring and uninspired ideas. Modernism bad! Traditional good! Thanks man your really adding to the conversation.

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  5. Anne Fairfax says:

    Thank you again for your thoughtful essays.

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  6. gunst01 says:

    also an international crisis in arcitectural style

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  7. LazyReader says:

    Who says Modernism has to be Ugly….

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    • Both of those buildings are ugly, Lazy. Yes, they are famous, but in each case they would be out of context with and detrimental to the typical streetscapes of the city or town they are in or near, and thus would be seen as ugly by most people. Yes, they have certain symmetries, but they are not beautiful. They do not stroke the normal human being’s instinct for what belongs.

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      • Anonymous says:

        That’s so wild because I find both of them incredibly beautiful. Am I not a human? Sure, they would be detrimental to typical streetscapes, but that is because they are both designed as objects—one as a house in the woods, the other as an icon in the harbor. Palladio’s urban villas and country villas are totally different in how they respond to their contexts, so clearly Villa Rotunda must be ugly too since it would not accommodate the city (to be fair, it has certain symmetries, but perhaps is not all that beautiful).
        Even then, I am confused by your flagrant use of most people as I have never met a soul who didn’t think the Sydney Opera House was lovely who wasn’t being a provacateur like yourself. You may not like modernism, but rejecting something with hatred is taking a page right from their book. At least you have found a joy in your hatred, however morbid that may be.

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        • Johannes says:

          The Sydney Opera House, a set of things looking like parts of an insect, or parts of boats chaotically sticking out halfway from the ground. Sheer vulgar architectural glamour ‘objects’ pimped by a self declared modern elite, fooling the confused. It surely fits Australia, a country trying as much as it can to become a modern dystopia in many ways.

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          • Anonymous says:

            Insects can be incredibly beautiful. Have you ever watched a praying mantis? Or a spider weave a web?

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      • Anonymous says:

        Who made you the spokesperson for what normal people find beautiful? Both of those buildings are widely beloved, not just by architects. Open your eyes and recognize true beauty where it exists. Stop shilling for classicist supremacy! It’s lazy and idiotic.

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        • Studies and polls, Anonymous, have affirmed that two-thirds or three-quarters of the public prefers traditional to modern architecture. So far as I know, zero studies posit the opposite. Anecdotal evidence confirms these tendencies even more strongly. I myself have questioned whether many who claim to like modern architecture really do – at least for aesthetic reasons, aside from careerism or a yen to be seen as “cutting edge.”

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          • LazyReader says:

            Polls in Islamic world say majoritybthink homosexuals should be stoned…..
            Popular doesn’t mean right.

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          • Anonymous says:

            If beauty is objective, it doesn’t matter what most people think! And preference for one thing does not mean people hate the other thing. Set aside your hatred and embrace objective beauty, Dave!

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        • John the First says:

          Those buildings are only ‘loved’ by the pretentious, after a great deal of media brain-washing and manipulation. The pretentious are those trying to be hip and avant-garde, having no self acquired taste they depend on elite propaganda, they are riding on the bandwagon of empty glamour, they flow with a tendentious flow. Ask the first ordinary man on the street, the man without pretence, without ambition to belong to and follow a pretentious clique, without any theory and creeds having obfuscated and derailed his mind, still in possession of his own simple mind. He will not use words like ‘true beauty’ and whatever tendentious sophisticated sophist theories and creeds, he will tell you in even more plain words, directly from his heart. Nobody is his spokesperson, he doesn’t read architecture blogs, your line of aesthetics is especially in need of spokepersons, the more sophist, the better, which then created the need of spokepersons on the other side. If anything is lazy, it is the final tendency of your arguments.

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          • Anonymous says:

            Brilliant coping mechanism you have developed here.

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          • John the First says:

            “Brilliant coping mechanism”

            Anon, when official psychology hit the streets, it was added to the arsenal as a rhetorical strategy in the battle of the new sophists.

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          • Anonymous says:

            I think hatred for modernism must be learned. No normal person hates modernism, even if they may have a preference for other things. Stop being snobbish and learn to embrace beauty in whatever diverse forms it can take!

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          • Anonymous says:

            I always find it odd how the anti-modernists can never find any other explanation for why people might like modernism except the old “brainwashing”, “trying to seem cool”, and “mentally ill” trio. It’s always bad faith assumptions! Have you ever considered that some of us truly, actually do like modern stuff – in addition to traditional stuff! They both can be good! They both can be dreadfully bad! Most traditional stuff being built today is terrible, but that doesn’t make it all bad. There’s a lot of bad modern stuff, but only a blind fool without any taste whatsoever would say that all modern stuff is bad. Open your eyes!

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    • John the First says:

      Théophile Gautier, when writing about the industrialism of his times compared it to a body without skin, where everything is out in the open, the bones, the flesh, the muscles. He advocated to adorn these structures, so that they would become beautiful. Modernism is as such, a brutal nakedness.
      To give an example from Belgium.
      The twentieth century Belgians, semi-barbarians as they were have wrecked a great deal of their country by means of suck naked brutalism, not only in terms of the architecture of buildings, but also in terms of their public infrastructure, roads and bridges. What you can see though is that the newer generations are revolting against this. For instance, there is a charming river here, flowing towards the city Ghent. The old Belgians used to be obsessed with cars, building ugly roads and bridges everywhere, but they are now up to the newer generations. There is a need for another bridge over this river, the still powerful old clique wants to build it old style, brutal nakedness, but the (wealthy) inhabitants of the area have taken recourse to a landscape architect who advised a tunnel under the river, which with modern equipment can be easily made, even without great additional expenses. The design would be as such that the road would be hidden, and so the lovely landscape around the river would remain intact. There are also a thousand other initiatives, for instance in places where there is lots of naked stone, to adorn these, beautify these with plants and flowers. 20th century mass man, his leaders and power cliques will become slowly extinct, but a lot of work has to be done to overcome them. But we shouldn’t waste to much energy on focussing on them and their ugliness.

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    • John the First says:

      The Sydney Opera House is LSD style glamour-trash architecture, meant to overwhelm people, rather then to impress while maintaining individuality. What are these shapes actually inspired by, some kind of shells of insects?
      The Fallingwater by Frank Lloyd Wright is like caveman empowered by technology built a house in the woods. The title should be ”The Rape of Nature by Exhibitionist Cavemen’.
      Perhaps the above is too much poetry for what is mere ugliness and vain pretentiousness.

      For those who like these structures, i’s say it is never too late to shake off adopted pretentiousness and tendentiousness, one might still be able to acquire taste.

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      • Anonymous says:

        I would ask how I could acquire tastes, but it’s clear from your comments and attitude that you don’t have any.

        I’m sorry that the palate you suckled as a child was never able to mature beyond its infancy, and that you mistake this lack of development to mean you have a more sophisticated sense than those who have taken the time to acquire all the variety of tastes life has to offer.

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        • John the First says:

          There are many varieties of taste which ‘life has to offer’ which you better avoid, like everything which rots, and everything which is poisonous. Moreover, appreciating everything comes down to appreciating nothing. So one becomes victim of a stretch which is tendentiously too wide, even infantile, all pretence, it stretches so far that there is no substance, no individuality, no perceiving and judging subject left. While taste is acquired from individual character, critically appreciating the character of something else, by necessity limited. Moreover, the stretch ‘acquire all the variety of tastes life has to offer’ is a falsehood, one is not even able to acquire a judgment of any worth about everything you are able to meet.

          The point of view that the one who has criticism is stuck in development is the one which I have only ever heard from people who’s very own taste is very limited. One of such examples is that upon my denouncing of pop music I am being accused of having a limited taste, while the accuser himself, on all occasions knows nothing but the Western pop music of two or three decades, while being a music lover my appreciation of music extends towards a four centuries of music, denouncing only a few decades. Making it useless to go into discussion with such a person.
          Obviously it is the most generalized prejudice handled, enabling someone to without any further effort denounce an opinion. A cheapity by means of which people are putting a feather in their own who knows where, and of those who are equality in lack of taste of good arguments.

          What is in lack of good taste and sophistication of argument already starts with too much of the ‘you’ word in your prose, which is to be avoided because it is like pointing a finger in the face of another, which implies a lack of argument being in need of some other force, besides the force of a tendentious creed and cheap abuse of psychology which is mistakenly though of as being sophisticated.

          All tendentious creed and no substance should be the title of the comment, nothing to taste but that what is abstract creed.

          So, new to those handling tendentious creeds and cheap psychology, which they parrot around by sheer ‘sophisticated’ thoughtlessness: the man of self acquired taste is always limited, as taste is acquired on the basis of his developed character. The ultimate example is the real artist, who’s taste is based upon his individual genius, even the more limited in extent, but the more developed in depth and perfection.
          Men of genius who have produced much of culture often denounced the works of other geniuses. I’d imagine that a modern with his pretence of abstract creeds comes and announces himself to be superiorly above that… like a baby without a sufficiently developed self, suckling on and trying out everything.

          The master reveals himself in limitation. And so the apprentice needs to practice limitation.

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          • Anonymous says:

            A number of times here fingers are pointed in the face of the original author without having to resort to the second person. Equating a rhetoric technique with a stylistic writing choice prevents a deeper understanding of what is really going on, but that is common amongst dismissers of modern architecture since equating aesthetics with meaningfulness is the name of the whole game.

            Not all tastes can and should be acquired—the example of poisonous food is good here (and certainly nicer than the common internet go-to, Nazism), though reports are that those who have eaten the deadliest mushrooms and lived say they are the tastiest—but acknowledging this makes the point about liking everything and liking nothing a moot point. Besides, is the person who loves everything in their life really the same as the person who hates everything in life, or the person who feels neutrally toward everything?

            Finally, the bit about pop music is a cute anecdote, but one should not take solace in this line of thinking. A real music lover would know how to appreciate (not necessarily like it, because personal taste is ultimately subjective and changes over the course of one’s life) any and all music, not just the few centuries they have become familiar with. Denouncing a form of music means denouncing music, means that the denounced is not actually a fan of music, but a gatekeeper as to what is and isn’t music. A foodie may not like Indian food, but surely no one who claims to love food would actively denounce it as a form of cuisine.

            The master does reveal themselves through how they manage limitations. The apprentice studies under the master so they might do the same. The both should be aware of their own limitations, and not project them onto others.

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          • Anonymous says:

            I am also fascinated about the argument on the ultimate judge of taste being the artist, the man of genius who can denounce other works of genius. What was the issue with the modernists again?

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          • John the First says:

            Anon,
            The example about pop music is actually essentially an example about people resorting to the most lazy (and popular) accusation, and since these people often are limited themselves, as the easiness and the popularity of the argument is the sign of self indulgent limitation, there is nothing to do against their claim. Thus the man with the lazy argument indulging in self-contentment has just robbed himself of his own development by means of his own method.

            “Denouncing a form of music means denouncing music, means that the denounced is not actually a fan of music, but a gatekeeper as to what is and isn’t music. ”

            Someone who denounces something, something in the area of aesthetics or morals, is therefor not a fan of aesthetics or dedicated to morality. And he is a gatekeeper, but not a lover.

            How many sophisms can you produce?

            Like

  8. LazyReader says:

    were czech not swiss

    Like

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