17 September 2020

The aesthetic beauty of machines

The aesthetic beauty of machines

Today we accept that there can be no meaning or sense of something without some context. Unfortunately, in the 20th Century (even before maybe) we got accustomed to seeing things outside their contexts. Museums are full of artefacts, objects and trinkets divorced from the people and context of their makers and their first users intended them to be. Sure many times we have a good idea about the function of these things, but can we project as 21st beings our feelings about these objects onto the original people who first used these objects? Is our feeling about these objects the same as those original first time users and makers?

The idea that art is for art’s sake is maybe a romantic view of art inherited from a society with excess wealth. Indeed for many centuries art was used as a status of wealth and aesthetic has always been a component of these objects that convey the message: social status. Let’s face it even animals do it: bigger feathers, colourful coat, bigger horns and so on.

In other words beauty and functionality are not strangers in history. The question for us is whether beauty has any scope in twenty first century machinery that surrounds our life? Indeed 21st century machinery is our life and from experience we know our machines today are all about functionality.

Before moving one it is worth mentioned here the discipline and science of Ergonomics or as the Americans call the discipline Human Factors. The idea of ergonomics is to make things safer, comfortable, efficient or whatever it is that humans experience when using the machines or “things” themselves. This must surely be a good thing but we know that sometimes the human-machine interface fails. Computers are an instant of this failure and the problem is always one of communication. Despite the hype, computers are still analogical creatures in the sense that:1) they need to be told what to do or say and 2) they can only do one thing at a time.

An email-client might tell you that your email provider has prevented your client from accessing your account. And some email providers might eventually tell you that someone tried to hack your account and the provider blocked your account. But between point A of the crisis and point Z learning you have to change the password, a few hours of anxiety might have already passed by.

I, therefore, argue that something might be aesthetically pleasing, but functionally useless. However, is functionality a guarantee of something aesthetically pleasing? My immediate answer is that functionality has an aesthetic value of its own: something similar to a book or a story. It is not just the book cover that gives us some pleasure when we read a good book, but mainly the plot and the language that gives us the pleasure when reading a book. Yet some authors seem to go out of their way to antagonise the reader with the language they use.

For those familiar with car and aeroplane design over the years we can see the evolution from a metal based aesthetic (will this break off?) to the composite based design (is it strong enough, is it efficient, is it safer etc?). And the aesthetics of these machines has also evolved with the machines. At face value, modern machines exploit the aerodynamic features of a car or plane on the outside and the strength of the machines added by new materials technology.

Indeed the functionality of modern cars and planes is much better than past machines: safer, faster, comfort, distance, environment friendly, reduced noise pollution and so on. For today’s 21st century consumers the latest car model or aircraft type might seem pretty, comfortable and just looks safe and we know it is safe, but is the experience the same as a car or plane from 40 years ago? I would argue that today’s machines although they are marvels of technology some might have lost some aspects of the experience of past machines.

No modern car or plane today, would replicate the experience and exhilaration (agreed for some people it is terror and fear) of say driving at full blast a Mini Minor (116 Km/h early production) or a Fiat 500 (105 Km/h), or taking off in a Hawker Siddeley Trident or a DC-9.

And this brings me to my point about machines, functionality and aesthetics; I am assuming a painting in the Prado is no less a machine than say the latest car from Germany. It is not enough to appreciate the functionality of a machine, nor to appreciate the beauty of a machine what brings functionality and aesthetic together into one singular experience is the connoisseur characteristics we have in us. We can enjoy at the beauty of functionality of a machine, and we can enjoy the beauty of design but only a connoisseur can bring the two experience.

Of course, we cannot be connoisseurs of everything, but at least we all have the capacity to recognise and enjoy beauty and enjoy it when something works. It will be a sad day if someone never experiences the joy of beauty.

Best and take care

telephone/WhatsApp: 606081813
Email: philomadrid@gmail.com

PhiloMadrid on Skype 6:30pm Sunday 20th September: The aesthetic beauty of machines

No comments: