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This is random and not productive to the overall conversation, but where does the phrase "Whither [X]?" originate from? My boss used it recently and I didn't get it and felt bad about myself.

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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

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> 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

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Nice, the most reactionary post on this blog in a while, and yet it probably won't anger anyone.

I'd say the apocalypse did happen - we know it better as WWI, WWII, the New Deal/progressive governance, and the rise of the Soviet Union and the Third World.

What does the 20th century look like to you?

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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".

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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."

I'm not sure it explains modern painting though.

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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!

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Scruton on why beauty matters: https://vimeo.com/128428182

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"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.

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It's plenty clear to me that lower classes embrace ugliness as well. Rap music and everything related to hip hop culture being the prime example. Altogether, there seems to be a diminished capacity for feeling disgust.

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Your point about academics getting caught in loops of talking to each other is interesting. For a while in the field of international relations it's been "low status" to do work that engages with things happening in the policy world. This has in part led to the scholars who engage with politicians being somewhat more crackpot-y than we'd like.

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Seems like at least some of this can be traced to the popularization (among some elites) of utilitarianism and more analytical, "scientific" approaches to things?

You can certainly see that with architecture, which, in addition to being aesthetically pleasing, now also have to be energy efficient, cost effective, not fall over in an earthquake, etc.

And per Wikipedia, the modern men's suit was popularized by Beau Brummel, who was apparently inspired by military designs. As to why military outfits became simpler around Brummel's time, that's pretty well known. Officers dressed more extravagantly than other soldiers are more likely to be shot by snipers.

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For government buildings in the West and in Communist/Post-Communist regimes, egalitarianism seems as good a reason as any for the drawdown in splendor (brutalism's popularity in the former Soviet Union surely mattered a bunch as well). People like the aesthetics of old buildings, but the people who lived when they were raised may have been significantly more lukewarm towards the occupants themselves. To the extent that mass revolution/execution of elites is a more live possibility now (post-French/Russian Revolutions, etc.), the overt celebration of elite status/exclusion in government may be a provocation whose risk is not worth the reward. As is stated, there are always other ways to signal status.

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This is the equivalent of some anti-vaxxer writing an article about how we used to make great scientific discoveries but not any more because now scientists have to do statistics and show error bars to pass peer review, and hasn’t anyone considered all the ways in which humans are irrational so really scientists are just as biased as the rest of us and 80% of people agree that street smarts are better than book smarts, rationalists must just be playing status games they learned in the school system, which overvalues symbolic intelligence instead of teaching people to be practical and get work done in the real world. We need a renaissance of good manly realistic scientific thinking about things we can see and touch not nonsense alphabet soup protein sequencing whatever

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How much of this preference for older styles is just selection bias at work?

Any building from before the modern period that has survived until today is probably not at all a normal building. I would expect the greatest architectural works of their respective ages, the best exemplars of their architectural styles, to be highly overrepresented in this sample.

If you're comparing a selection of the prettiest buildings of the last thousand years to moderately liked buildings today, it's perhaps not that strange that preferences heavily skewer one way. Everyone has heard of Milan cathedral, but I had no idea what their university was called or what it looked like before reading this.

If you compare Milan Cathedral to the Sydney opera house or Fallingwater instead, you might get different answers.

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Fascist regimes love classical styles because it allows them to portray themselves as the natural inheritors of those traditions. Plain architecture signals function over form.

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In contrast to old elites, modern commoners and elites both tend to dislike what might vaguely be called dignity, stuffiness, or artifice, seeing it as inauthentic. That's why we have both pop music and "Three Dancing Figures". It also explains Brutalism - if a building has a "bad" purpose (as judged by the popular culture of elites), e.g. offices, it should look bad - trying to make it look more pleasant would be covering up the badness within. This may be related to the change from a culture where people were expected to look up to their betters (and where those betters acknowledge themselves as such) to one of greater egalitarianism, where elites try to pretend not to exist.

Anyway, depending on your tastes, good art survives in TCG card art, and among obscure artists on the Internet (some of them with a loyal Patreon following). I'm not sure what this suggests. Maybe there's a golden mean of audience size, where if it's too small, the art becomes low-effort and idiosyncratic, and if it's too big, the artist appeals to the lowest common denominator.

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I thought this was largely the result of cost. Before things were mass produced, individual artisans worked on every element. The expense of ornateness relative to the expense of non-ornateness was modest, because the people involved already had the capability to make things ornate.

Today buildings are produced using strategies that are designed to save money. The people involved do not have the skills (or time or resources) to make individual elements ornate. Even at the architectural level, it is far easier to build a big box than a complicated structure in which each element is slightly or completely different than the others.

There is a simple way to confirm this. Get a quote for a building in the style of Milan Cathedral, and a building in the style of Bocconi University but with equal usable square footage. I'd expect the cathedral to be spectacularly more expensive, even if you were ordering 100 of each and thus able to carefully optimize for building each type of structure.

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"My impression is that the more demographic and developed a country"

Is that supposed to be democratic?

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Perhaps Glass is not quite the best example of what you mean, John Cage might be better https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CsioM3GaAAY

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Opportunity cost (and maybe cost disease, if we ever figure out what the actual causes of it are). When the opportunity cost of labor, or even for semi-skilled labor, is "menial drudgery in a field", the rich can build outrageous receiving rooms and wear labor-intensive textiles. When, as in most of the developed world (and indeed by comparison to the past, most of the developing world), laborers have loads of other alternative pursuits competing for their efforts, making the opportunity cost in "other stuff that could have been made with that same labor" much higher. To some extent capital can substitute for labor, but only to an extent -- carving and especially laying intricate stone or creating a delicate and elaborate costume still takes quite a bit of labor, even with the machinery currently available to aid in this. And the time taken to produce a lot (though not all) of the high end abstract art seems, to this definitely-not-an-artist observer, to likely be far less than the time required to paint something in the style of the Old Masters.

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On the subject of modern architecture, did you know that Edinburgh has a hotel shaped like a gigantic turd? It even has a twitter account: https://twitter.com/TurdHotel

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I wanted to say that maybe the "traditional style" of architecture is actually really hard to pull off and modern architects just aren't good enough at their craft to create something like that, but... this seems unlikely given that there is still some breathtakingly beautiful contemporary art that I sometimes stumble upon, so the skill seems to be there, just maybe the top people in the field don't have it?

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It's because in older times, elites had fewer ways to propagandize the masses. Their architecture wasn't JUST architecture, it needed to send a subliminal message to people. Their clothing wasn't JUST clothing - it was designed to have an emotional impact as well.

Nowadays, the vast majority of all propaganda gets spread through media (typically social media) so the old ways of manipulating perceptions have become a lost art. Sad!

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The shift from wealth-signaling to taste-signaling began with Matthew Arnold, as I explained a few years ago:


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Personally, I like the left in all 4 images. However, if somebody built that now, using new processes and materials to avoid it costing a fortune, I'd think it was tacky or even trashy.

My impression is that the recent past was very fancy and ornate so trying to emulate that style when it's unavoidably temporally disconnected from us is just icky.

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I blame the rise of ideas like "right-wing authoritarianism" and "the authoritarian personality" and the like. Having a love of order and harmony is nowadays considered (at best) a mark of inflexibility and incapability of dealing with the unexpected, and (at worst) outright fascist. But most beautiful works of art (defined so as to include architecture, clothing, music, etc., as well as paintings and sculptures) get their beauty precisely from the ordered and harmonious arrangements of their parts. It's no wonder that a society which pathologises the qualities required of great art should be incapable of producing any great art itself.

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I can't help but put some blame on the pervasive socialism and concomitant opposition to everything that is "bourgeoise" in academic architecture, art, literature, etc.

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I still lean toward a mass culture explanation.

Architecture is hard to explain through it, I agree, bit fashion? Yes, powerful people dress in nice tailored suits, but check out drag race, where fashion is an EVENT. Like, a kiddie pool in the curve of a dress? A dress made out of cameras?

That is the fashion I love. And so many people talk about it who have a casual interest in fashion.

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There are some attitudes which are common both in the past and in today; in 1532 Thomas Cromwell started buying up land and property to enlarge his house, which he needed to do both as a result of his increasing status and with the expansion of his household that went along with it.

His neighbours weren't too happy with how he went about it:

"Without pausing to seek permission, Cromwell proceeded to move the fences of his neighbours’ gardens back by twenty-two feet, and offered neither warning nor compensation. ‘This house [i.e. Cromwell’s] being finished, and having some reasonable plot of ground left for a Garden, he caused the pales of the Gardens adioyning to the north parte thereof on a sodain to be taken downe, 22 feet to be measured forth right into the north of every man’s ground, a line there to bee drawen, a trench to bee cast, a foundation laid, and a highe bricke wall to bee builded.’ Even more audaciously, he put the house of Thomas Stow (father of the antiquarian, John) on rollers and moved it, and then started to build a new house for himself on the land that had been thus vacated."

I have no idea why modern taste is as it is, some people honestly do love that concrete Brutalist architecture. Part of it, I suppose, is that classical architecture became over-done, as well as being carried out by second, third and no rate at all builders because your town needs a new courthouse, okay we can slap some Dorinthionic columns out front because that's what you do for buildings like this.

Rococo style went over the top; some German churches ended up looking like chocolate boxes:


Making copies of copies of copies of Neo-Classical architecture became wearisome, trite and lowest common denominator. Eventually a reaction was bound to set in, with more austere and restrained styles. Young architects got all excited over theories of stripping off the excess, and when that became the popular and award-winning style, then the modern era of concrete and glass boxes was born.

Then it became the rich who could afford to be Minimalist, you need a lot of money to be able to afford acres of empty space with perhaps one tastefully subdued couch taking up part of the room (as all the rest of your possessions are stored elsewhere).

That still doesn't explain the Three Dancing Figures, but public art is reliably terrible now it's all selected by committee instead of a pope holding a public competition because "I have a treasury stuffed full of money and I want to show off my education, taste, and claim on continuity of Roman history, so build me a magnificent big fountain AND MAKE SURE IT IS SUFFICIENTLY DRAMATIC":

"In 1629, Pope Urban VIII, finding the earlier fountain insufficiently dramatic, asked Gian Lorenzo Bernini to sketch possible renovations, but the project was abandoned when the pope died. ...Competitions had become popular during the Baroque era to design buildings, fountains, as well as the Spanish Steps. In 1730, Pope Clement XII organized a contest in which Nicola Salvi initially lost to Alessandro Galilei – but due to the outcry in Rome over a Florentine having won, Salvi was awarded the commission anyway. Work began in 1732."

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You missed form over function. Rich people dumped fancy clothes because they're not very functional in modern settings (aka, climate controlled ones); modern architecture might not please everyone's aesthetics, but it's easy to live with.

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This might be a rather long comment, but I think it's worthwhile to go into some of the points in this post. I happen to be writing a series of articles about architecture, evolution and why modernism has failed in the domain of beauty, which I will start posting soon (still building a backlog).

First of all, because Scott requested it (and for everyone else), I'd recommend reading the book Cognitive Architecture written by Ann Sussman. For my series (which will probably become a book) I've read many books and this one was by far the most informative. In Cognitive Architecture, Sussman explains how our aesthetic preferences were shaped by evolution and what consequences this has for our experience of architecture. She does this by compiling much cutting-edge neurological and psychological research with respect to aesthetics and draws from evolutionary psychology as well. It's very rigorous and a pleasure to read. And that's great because (in my humble opinion) most architectural books are full of bogus and not worth reading. Another book that I'd recommend is From Bauhaus to Our House written by Tom Wolfe. It's a great little book about modernism.

I'm numbering my remarks about this post so that it becomes easier to respond to them. Otherwise the discussion may become chaotic.

1. On the modernist turn as a change from flaunting wealth to hiding it: The degree in which wealth was signalled is not quantifiable and thereby it becomes very difficult to observe a correlation between this and historical events. That said, much evidence does exist to the contrary, such as the many 19th-century Rothschild palaces across Europe and the many lavish townhouses built in this era. This would falsify the purported French Revolution's effect on conspicuous consumption. Moreover, despite the economic crises the world has had to endure, the market for modern means of conspicuous consumption, such as superyachts and supercars, has not disappeared or shrunk significantly.

2. There's a difference between sobriety and ugliness. Amsterdam, historically a protestant city, used to be the richest city in the world from the early 1600s until about the mid-1700s. Nonetheless, although it is not as lavish as Paris, Venice or other Catholic cities, it is not found to be ugly by the millions of tourists that visit it every year. Architectural beauty lies in symmetry, good proportions and ornament, which are mostly independent of prosperity. Even though protestant architecture contains less ornament, it does not violate symmetry or the evolved proportions of classical architecture. Whereas modernist architecture does.

I would therefore not seek an explanation of modernism's ugliness in protestantism. It is also not the case that Catholicism has made way for protestantism, as the hundreds of millions of catholics across the globe attest to.

3. On the concept of new timeless aesthetic truths: Although modern architects love to assert so, there exist no new timeless aesthetic truths. As Sussman wrote in Cognitive Architecture, the experience of beauty is a result of our evolutionary history. It is a feature of our brains that conferred an evolutionary advantage to our ancestors. New aesthetic truths cannot have formed because aesthetics is inherently innate, more or less universal for our species and a matter of evolutionary psychology.

4. We should not rule out the possibility of corruption or failing political systems being behind much modern public art. When politicians' success does not depend on the quality of public art, why would concern themselves with it?

In my series, I provide an explanation for the ugliness of modern architecture. From findings in neurology, (evolutionary) psychology and empirical data we can derive timeless principles for beautiful architecture. It is exactly these that modernism has dismissed (which is what has made modernism unique.

To everyone interested in this topic, feel free to subscribe to medium.com/@casualrealism or send me an email at gijs.kerpestein@hotmail.com and I'll send you my current backlog. To those that can wait: I'll start posting is in a couple weeks.

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A possible pieces of the puzzle, specifically about corporate buildings: A traditional building looks nice but it's a bit old-fashioned. A plain cuboid is ugly but modern. Corporations very much want to signal that they are modern, and absolutely not that they are old-fashioned.

A possible piece of the puzzle when it comes to modern buildings that are unique in some way: Individualism among architects. The most famous architects want to signal their own "unique" "artistic" "vision". A traditionalist building may look nice, but it usually isn't particularly unusual and striking. Building an eyesore that looks like a walkie-talkie and scorches the street as a concave mirror (20 Fenchurch Street) will make you more famous.

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I don't dispute your point, but your references are a little out of date.

Turns out, the most powerful entities of out time are indeed "chasing after the Taj Mahal."

Case in point : Microsoft's new India offic - https://news.microsoft.com/en-in/features/inspired-by-the-taj-mahal-microsofts-newest-office-is-a-workspace-of-art/

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I've thought about this and my half-baked idea is that it's the rise of the middle/professional classes and the fall of the aristocracies.

For most of history you had basically two groups: the wealthy and the poor. The middle classes existed but they were a small part of society. Aristocracies were usually less than 1% of society. Power was also much more concentrated: the king was the highest political, cultural, financial (insofar as they had any concept of it), and religious authority. At least within the national borders. The capital was like DC, Hollywood, New York, and Rome all combined.

In between you had a few merchants and artisans mostly in cities. These people could get fabulously wealthy. But most of them were merely "much wealthier than peasants, much less wealthy than aristocrats." How did these aristocrats people make their money? By taxing the peasants. Or collecting rents that were pretty indistinguishable from taxes. This means that the aristocrats are highly, highly interested in appearing awesome to the peasants. As in literally awesome, inspiring awe. You want to tell them that God and your blood and the entire order of the universe puts you above them and requires them to give you stuff. Well, God's appointed representative would be pretty awesome right?

How do you awe the peasants? They're poor. They, like most people, want to not be poor. So simply having and displaying very nice things they can't have will impress them. Looking clean, well fed, and dressing in fancy clothes. Having a well bred wife and then cheating on her with a hotter woman. Some merchants could do this too (and sumptuary laws other times prevented it) but it wasn't really a problem. There wasn't enough of them to be a serious challenge.

Starting in the 19th century these land rents became an inferior source of wealth to industrial production. This meant that the merchants and middle class became wealthier and wealthier. Suddenly business owners were wealthier than aristocrats. And they had no need to overawe the peasants. The lower classes worked for them because they paid them.

In a literal sense the flow of money for aristocrats is peasant to aristocrat. The peasant works, the aristocrat taxes. But in industrial economies the flow of money is from company owners to workers. Your boss gives you a paycheck every two weeks (or whatever). So your boss doesn't really care if you find them awesome. You'll do what they say because they pay you and can threaten to just stop doing that. This is the case in capitalism and communism. The remaining aristocrats, the politicians and bureaucrats, legitimized themselves through theoretically egalitarian ideologies meant to appeal to these classes. Kings used to play act at being gods. Presidents play act at being professionals.

This meant art and clothes lost their function as ways to create the cultural capital necessary for extraction. They instead became about signaling between elites rather than between elites and non-elites. This caused a weird spiral into more and more esoteric forms of art. If the average person doesn't like the art that doesn't matter. Art would have to be impressively bad for you to see it and say, "Wow, my boss's painting is so terrible I'm going to quit my job!" What matters for art now is whether it can help you get one over on your wealthy friends.

As evidence: look at people whose power still relies on appearing awesome to their supporters. People who make their money by being famous among a broad swathe of common people. Rappers, megachurch pastors, Trump even back when he was a Democrat. That's where you'll find grand architecture that would rival Versailles and the hot concubines and all that. And for much the same reason the aristocrats used to have it. They still rely on the common person finding them awesome in a way the political and business elites don't.

And looking like that takes a lot of effort. Those clothes are often uncomfortable. Those fancy looking houses are often not all that good a place to actually live. (If you ever go on a tour of Versailles you get a first hand look at how damn uncomfortable it was.) Money is finite and can be used to do something more productive than building a huge status symbol. If you don't need to do it, then why not just have something comfortable and easy? If it becomes the norm to do something uncomfortable you might go with the flow. But because it's uncomfortable to the people both producing and consuming the trend it'll be harder for it to catch on.

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At least part of this seems to be a mix of adaption and survivorship bias? E.g. a lot of people nowadays complain about "gentrification architecture" and talk about how much they like brownstones, but you can look up old articles about how we brownstones were the new style people thought they were tacky and ugly.

And fr survivorship bias - presumably there's a lot of old stuff, but the stuff that stuck around (and is still famous) is presumably heavily selected to be whatever has timeless appeal.

This doesn't explain everything - e.g. the Chinese clothing seems separate - but the parts it doesn't explain also seem more subjective (maybe if everyone dressed like a Chinese emperor we'd quickly get bored by it?)

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Imagine that I was a billionaire and I decided to build my mansion to look like Versailles. Maybe my office park would look like the Kremlin. Would people find them beautiful, or "fake" and "tacky".

I vaguely recall a conversation I had while in grad school. The campus had a very particular style, and we were walking past a new building. The person I was walking with commented on how much she hated the new building, since it was trying to look old.

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I always thought of modern architecture as a result of optimizations. They're everywhere. Art included. Don't waste an inch, grain, electron, bit, bandwidth, energy. E.g. build buildings so cooling them during hot days will spend less energy, as well as heating them during cold days.

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Check out From Our House to Bauhaus and The Painted Word for Tom Wolfe's take.

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On clothes specifically, I wonder if gender norms play some role here too. Women's formal clothing remains relatively more "ornamented" (and varied) than men's clothing.

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I'd argue it has to do with the concept of authenticity vs. "fakeness". An architect that tried to copy those old school buildings would be seen as doing something cheesy - the buyers would be essentially buying a knock-off rather than the "real thing".

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I've thought about this many times and decided that we were going to end up testing whether people really preferred architectural ornamentation in the near future. Most of the time it architectural decoration is essentially a relatively thin veneer that could be applied over any surface. Soon (or maybe even today, not sure) 3D printing will allow anyone to copy, customize, and scale any design, frieze, relief, etc. from any point or place in history and apply it to any surface for a very modest cost. I see very little evidence of this happening so far. A construction worker building a niche into a wall is cheap. Having Michelangelo carve you a statue to put in there is very expensive. Printing a copy of that statue that's virtually indistinguishable is very cheap. It seems like if people really want decoration, they'll be able to get it.

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So I’m surprised I haven’t seen anyone suggest aliens.

I vaguely remember from one of my reference texts, that when India was conquered by Alexander/Rome they had a little shift in sculpture to the Western blocky-style before they shifted back. I might be getting details a little wrong, but the point holds, that sometimes you can lose traditional art forms if someone else conquers you/has enough influence. This probably also has happened to a degree with western culture permeating other cultures.

So, maybe aliens with very bland tastes have made contact with our leaders, and we haven’t been told yet, but the elites are still picking up their styles

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a lot of the original modern, tasteless architecture was referred to as “the international style”. The old beautiful architectural styles look distinct to a region. if you were building a tech office in San Francisco and decorated it like a 1300’s Milan cathedral, it would look like you’re deliberately tying yourself to European people, culture, etc. maybe at the expense of everyone else. You’d look similarly oddly partisan if you styled it after historic yemeni, Chinese, etc styles.

Modern architecture is flavorless, neutral ground. It’s boxy styles let you refit it to adjusting purposes — most old historical buildings are pretty inflexible.

Our airports, because they’re allowed to be tied to a particular local place and purpose built without subsequent modifications intended are often very pretty modern architecture — I love DC’s DCA or Honolulu’s airport. The ugly bits are security, etc, stuff that got added on recently where there wasn’t meant to be space in the original design.

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Several disconnected thoughts:

On the subject of fashion, the Great Masculine Renunciation is certainly relevant.


I'm sure that James C. Scott would attribute this to the aesthetics of High Modernism: straight lines and right angles, even if they make people's lives worse. Many of the founders of modernist architecture, like Le Corbusier, were also heavily involved with large-scale urban planning. I think that the most egregious of Le Corbusier's buildings is the convent Sainte Marie de La Tourette. Although Le Corbusier was an atheist, he knew that the best way to make a sacred and spiritual environment is using rough concrete squares.


Trump issued an executive order banning Brutalist and Deconstructivist styles of architecture in new federal buildings, and establishing an official preference for Classicism. This was met with criticism from elites (and warnings about fascism), even though I suspect that it was popular among the public. Biden has since revoked the order.




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While I see similarities in your examples, I think there are three different stories here for 1) clothing and interiors 2) architecture and 3) art.

1) For clothing, the modern Chinese High Status Person is just sending a very different message than the ancient one. He is not claiming he is a demigod and that shows. Also, his clothes are much more comfortable and practical. If you compare a formal female dress of the Ming dynasty and some of the modern haute couture, the latter may turn out to be more extravagant and colourful. With the interiors, Bill's sitting room is also much more comfortable for the inhabitant. Cardiff Castle is beautiful, but it has single glazing windows and chimney heating. And Cardiff is not like LA in the winter.

2) For architecture, the headline theory is more or less correct: we are living in an era of a technological regress. We would not be able to build most of these landmarks even if we tried. I live near a nice Victorian bridge https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hammersmith_Bridge built in 1880s for around £80k. The standard Bank of England inflation measure gives inflation on a broad basket of about x110 from there to now, so the construction would have cost be around £9m in today money. Now, the bridge is still standing but needs repairs. It is not clear if the repairs can be done for less then £150m. The last time this city built a bridge over the same river, it was a much smaller pedestrian only bridge which cost £18m and then another £5m to repair just a few years later. The last time they tried to build a proper large bridge, they spent £60m on thinking about it, realised it will cost over a £1bn and abandoned the project.

3) and art may be a different story from clothing and architecture. Signalling novelty is an important feature of high end art. It has to become harder with time as more and more things stop being novel, so, I guess, this puts harder and harder constraints on artists.

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Baumol's Cost Disease and concepts of comparative advantage are critical in here. And you can tell, because actually we _are_ still building, or re-building, a few of these -- there was active renovation on Notre Dame (which went horribly wrong with an accidental fire), and Sagrada Familia is actively under construction. But the cost to employ skilled masons to produce that kind of ornamental stonework has gone up _drastically_ relative to the baseline of what laborers broadly earn. It used to be that if you were a lower class person with the aptitude for engineering, "mason" was probably your best career choice. And you could still choose that! But you also could be any of a dozen other flavors of engineer, and many of those choices would carry considerably less risk of bodily harm, plus many of them have the "bits versus atoms" leverage, such that your work can ultimately produce much more marginal revenue per hour of labor. The fact that the kind of person who might decide to become a mason has that kind of life choice available feeds back into what it costs to hire a mason.

If for a given pile of money, we can either build one beautiful art deco skyscraper, or twenty featureless cubes, then the people who have capital to allocate to buy office space are probably going to buy the featureless cubes.

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Forgetting individual buildings for a moment, the overall built environment feels less friendly because we took away space for greenery and humans and gave it over to dangerous, loud, polluting steel boxes being flung around at inhuman speeds.

I think they're linked - a lot harder to get people to focus on beauty of buildings when they're going to be embedded in parking lots and surrounded by highways. For all of the "bad" buildings you showed, and none of the "good" ones, there's ugly car infrastructure in the picture.

Focusing on cars has the added benefit of being something you can affect a lot better than "architectural elites should suck less." Tell your local government to replace parking spots with outdoor dining and trees! It's way better! But of course people want to complain about architecture elites, not do something that might solve some of the problem but reduce their own personal convenience.

Also this tweet thread: https://twitter.com/mtsw/status/1440914556025376773

Couple other things:

- there are some things that have gone in the opposite direction. The big one that comes to mind is food. Realistically, back in the day, people ate some staples and whatever fruit/vegetables were in season. Today it's much more accessible for the average person to go to a nice restaurant and buy food that's not just more varied, but more aesthetically pleasing in terms of its presentation, than what came before.

- for the clothes I think there's a gendered element. Clothing for women is still colorful, maybe an individual outfit is less colorful as in the past, but I bet women are able to own a lot more clothing today than in the past, where (I imagine) you might have like one really nice outfit.

- if you went back to the 1880s, what would people back then say about the receiving room in Cardiff Castle vs Bill Gates's house? They might not find it plain, but be blown away by it, and find our idea that it's worse today to be totally incomprehensible! Big ol' windows, massive fur carpet, big screen TV, climate control...and again stuff that's way more accessible for the average person.

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Tangentially, there are in fact pop versions of "So We'll Go No More a Roving" by such luminaries as Leonard Cohen (https://vimeo.com/49645021), Joan Baez (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=R8Gl7tKuag8), and Marianne Faithfull (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=soAw5BWQBvA). No garage band versions that I'm aware of, but it wouldn't shock me :).

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Isn't it a little bit of a Knoll's Law at play? You can write up the dynamics at play in FDA in your https://astralcodexten.substack.com/p/webmd-and-the-tragedy-of-legible so I would imagine something like that institutionally is at play when there's decision on architecture style of new building.

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"It’s the natural evolution of ostentation: the display of wealth precisely by concealing it." https://www.thecommononline.org/delusions-of-grandeur/

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It’s not a conspiracy, postmodernists are quite open about concepts like beauty being social constructs. So those with power define beauty in ways that advantage themselves (all the reasons that you write). I don’t think people (even the powerful) knew they could do that in the past, and instead were bound to absolute concepts of beauty, and their power to simply make the most beautiful things - things that could not be duplicated by non powerful - contrasts with the current ability to make non beautiful things beautiful - things that cannot even be recognized by the non powerful.

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This makes me wonder about the dynamics behind Trump's Feb 2020 executive order titled "Make Federal Buildings Beautiful Again" and the resistance to it:


Biden reversed it in Feb 2021:


Trump had also appointed Justin Shebow to lead the US Commission of Fine Arts, which has review authority over new construction. Shubow is against the modernist trend in architecture, stating that "our federal architecture has been dismal for decades, and has been designed in modernist styles that do not represent what ordinary Americans actually want."

Apparently, the Biden administration was very concerned with removing these ideas from the CFA. In May 2021, Biden took the unprecedented step of removing Shubow from the committee. This was the first time a commissioner had been removed by the president in the 110 year history of the committee.

This has all got me wondering if artistic sensibilities are also caught up in our widening cultural divide. Trump's own aesthetics seem more at place in an earlier, gilded age. They've long been the subject of derision by the rest of the New York elite.

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I laughed so hard at the Trevi/Three Dancing Figures comparison. As conspiracy theories go, this one ranks high on the benign/amusing scale.

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Some random thoughts:

1. There's a huge difference between well-done modern architecture and crappy modern architecture and there is just umpteen bajillion examples of crappy modern architecture for every good piece. There's a real discontinuity wherein you don't have a lot of just ok or passable examples. It's either crap or good.

2. Classical styles (at least many Western types) have easy(ish)-to-follow rules enabling common practitioners to create passable examples. Thus there is a lot more examples of stuff that is pleasant to see.

3. Speaking as someone who has been involved in designing and developing real estate: the crappy examples of modern architecture are *really cheap to build*.

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Architects tend to do what their clients want. For any real estate with equity investors, my expectation would be there are strong financial considerations for design choices. Commercial real estate will want to maximize rent/sqft and residential will want to maximize resale value based on what consumers at that price point prefer.

None of that explains the shift in tastes of the other domains.

In some sense you’re asking what makes art art or what drives aesthetics. That’s a really big question. Is there a smaller, intermediate question you could tackle to get to the bigger one?

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One of the largest causes, as stated by Frank Lloyd Wright, Ezra Pound, Monet and other important early modernists themselves was the collision with minimalist Japanese culture/Zen philosophy in the late 1800's. Frank Lloyd Wright and other early modernist architects were heavily indebted to Japanese architecture (see https://franklloydwright.org/frank-lloyd-wright-and-japan/). Minimalist poetry descended from the haiku (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/In_a_Station_of_the_Metro).

Impressionist art was modelled after wood block prints (https://blog.artsper.com/en/a-closer-look/influence-of-japanese-art-on-western-artists/).

So minimalist modernism in the West may actually owe more to curiosity about Japan following the Meiji Restoration than to internal factors. As the rare person who actually enjoys (some) modernist buildings and art, I think this cultural appropriation was probably a good thing.

The ugliest buildings to me nowadays are probably McMansions. They try to imitate traditional 19th century or earlier building styles, but fail heavily, partially because Baumol's cost disease means less easy access to the heavy manual labor those styles required.

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Modern menswear arose about 200 years ago, a few generations before the general elite change toward modernist tastes at the beginning of the 20th Century.

The change from wealth and power being in the hands of the aristocrats to wealth and power being in the hands of the bourgeois had consequences. Aristocrats were supposed to show off their wealth visually in how they dressed, while commercial burghers were supposed to dress sedately.

A couple of centuries ago, clotheshorse Beau Brummell introduced to English high society the massively influential dandy look in men's wear: garb in sedate bourgeois colors, especially black, but subtly superb. The Prince Regent took after his friend Brummell, and Brummell's Mr. Darcy look has been influential ever since.



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Some unrelated points:

I've heard Eric Raymond talk about men's clothing getting a lot simpler after the French Revolution.

There's some history of pleasure being mistrusted in art. I think a lot of people these days can't tell the difference between being surprised and being pleased.

I'm always a little surprised that William Blake and Emily Dickenson are considered to be classic poets. But...but.. isn't that doggerel?

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I think you've independently hit upon the thesis of 'Rudyard Kipling and Exactly Why Modern Poetry Systematically Sucks': http://sevensecularsermons.org/rudyard-kipling-and-exactly-why-modern-poetry-systematically-sucks/. As the essay puts it,

"Poetry has entered the same failure mode that architecture is also stuck in and that is also at the core of the many problems of the humanities. Participants in these fields aren’t being judged by outsiders (the public), but by other insiders. So they optimize for what other participants like, not for what the public likes.

This is a rational result of their pursuit of economic success, since by far the most likely path to long-term financial stability in these fields is a position in academia, preferably with tenure. These positions are given out based on the assessment of their peers, so that is who they optimize their work to please. This creates a dynamic that explains everything about why poetry, architecture and the humanities are in such a terrible state these days."

It's the same thing as Taleb's argument (https://twitter.com/shaarsh2/status/1324730934147588098) that fields fall to pieces when its insiders only create things for other insiders instead of the public. I personally find it a very plausible argument after seeing an online community (the Mount & Blade subreddit) degenerate into insanity as the users increasingly tailored their memes to each other instead of casual normies like me. Baffling inside jokes layered upon baffling inside jokes - none of it made any sense, because all the sensible jokes ("BANNERLORD WHEN?!" and 'release date') had already been beaten to death and the memes had turned incestous in a desperate attempt to come up with something new and shocking. People joked about rolling around in their own feces just to find some new boundary to transgress, new material to work with, and if the delays had kept coming I wouldn't be surprised if someone had eventually done it. There was simply nothing else to do but repeat the exact same jokes to each other over and over again until someone came up with something new, by any means necessary.

Work that appeals to the public - by contrast - is that same old stuff, just shown to fresh eyes every time. As Orwell put it to explain Kipling's appeal, it's "good bad poetry", and a good bad poem is "a graceful monument to the obvious". It's beautiful because you've only seen it less than a million times every day, because you're not the guys locked into a box in XKCD #915 (https://xkcd.com/915/).

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From my own reading the best theory I've seen is that we lost the language of beauty. It's a bit like trying to revive Latin. For any but the most genius artists to make beautiful things, you need centuries to build up a corpus of techniques, habits, useful misunderstandings, etc, so to raise the general level.

This level itself seems to be many things. Firstly technical, we literally don't have enough stone carvers, people don't understand the value of it, and economics compounds things in losing economies of scale.

Secondly cultural, surely you need a period of time for the taste of the audience to be both discovered and formed by art, and this in a coherent cultural context. Globalisation might kill art by removing context, as if you were to paint a painting without a canvas.

Thirdly there's freedom to follow patterns that lead towards beauty, paradoxically because we preach too much freedom. I personally suspect our lapse from making beautiful things has sewed ways of thinking that prevent any but the most extreme free thinkers from reconstituting the foundations for beauty, which is not the same skillset as an artist. I'm personally interested in rediscovering how buildings were ornamented, and managed to read an entire book that said nothing useful at all. A good example of a pattern in ornament that we'd struggle with today is that ornament isn't meant to overwhelm, it's decoration, it should develop and harmonise with building form. Today the artist is told to show their vision, but this harms them if they leave the canvas. Their idea of freedom prevents them from appreciating the nature of their restraints, and the new freedom that creates.

So I'm personally unsurprised that we're struggling to make beauty today, though it's a mystery how we got here in the first place. My best idea is high modernist mass construction undermined the economics of art long enough to break continuity of knowledge between generations, but his isn't a sufficient theory.

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There definitely exists good examples of modern architecture; a good place to see a bunch of them is walking down the High Line in NYC. (I recently traveled to Boston and then NYC, and it was really striking how much better NYC is than Boston at building interesting and pretty new buildings - in Boston, if a building is interesting it's because it's old, and the new buildings are boring and unaesthetic, but in NYC even all the new glass skyscrapers are all different shapes from each other and form a very cool-looking skyline in aggregate, and along the High Line in particular there's a bunch of stuff that actually looks quite different from each other.) It's admittedly still less ornate than many medieval cathedrals, but at least to my eye it's great to look at. (For ornateness in modern-day art I'd go to those aesthetic-Tumblr posts showcasing unreasonably detailed art in an unexpected medium. Or to Pixar movies, tbh.)

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One thing to keep in mind is that during the Age of Coal, grand old buildings got really dirty and dingy. This helped inspire a taste for new, clean steel-and-glass buildings that could be kept clean by window washers. But in 1963, DeGaulle's culture minister, novelist Andre Malraux, had the soot blasted off Notre Dame cathedral with high pressure hoses, and over the ensuing decades, appreciation for the great buildings of the past increased.

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I might be off the mark a little here, but do we (the West, broadly) even make giant expensive monuments at all anymore? It seems like spending money on anything that doesn't have a financial return has become hopelessly taboo. The person who ordered the construction of the Taj Mahal didn't think gosh, I'll be getting a great return on this investment! If you believe the stories, they weren't even thinking gosh the construction of this monument will really cement and increase my power as a ruler! He wanted to build a beautiful monument to his deceased wife, and he has the power/wealth to do so so he did.

Don't have hobbies - have side hustles! Don't spend - invest! Don't relax - work harder! I see that ethos reflected in the buildings as much as the clothes. Even the art.

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I think it is just a matter of "wasteful" things like that being viewed as gauche. Or at least, people are always of being viewed as gauche and wasteful. If you build something expensive nowadays, people will complain about what else that money could have gone to.

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Any theory of this change has to account for buildings like this one: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sheikh_Zayed_Mosque

And this one: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Swaminarayan_Akshardham_(New_Delhi)

The things that these two buildings have in common are:

- Built by very low-wage South Asian laborers (maybe the economic explanations really do matter?)

- Religious and nationalist goals (thus designed to express/elicit popular not elite sentiments?)

I'm sure there are other examples as well, but these were the first two that came to mind. Both are very very impressive IRL! In particular, the pietra dura work on the Sheikh Zayed mosque is very similar in both style and quality to that of the Taj Mahal.

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1) How many people would prefer to live or work in a modern building as opposed to a beautiful old fashioned one? Did those wonderful old buildings have air conditioning, electrical outlets, fire exits, sound proofing or elevators? What was the lighting like? How easy were they to reconfigure? I know old buildings can be retrofitted and updated, but if you want office or living space, go for office or living space and focus on the office or living part.

2) Architectural ornament is much cheaper than it used to be, so it is less important. There was a big boom in statues and curlicues in the late 19th century and into the early 20th, but a lot of it was about new techniques for sculpting forms in stone or metal. All those charming buildings in NYC's Chelsea were the result of the falling cost of cast iron fixings. Sure, adorn your office or apartment building with colonnades and six dozen statues of Audrey Munsen and see if you impress anyone.

3) Personally, I like a lot of modern architecture, particularly the kind that doesn't try to impress me with fancy this and that or, worse, to send a message. I loved the old World Trade Center because it was two god damned big boxes. A moron like me could figure it out. It wasn't trying to scream anything except "OFFICE SPACE". It was like Levittown, the bete noire of social critics, which screamed "HOUSING". People loved Building 20 at MIT because all it screamed was "LAB SPACE", no fancy message. It takes a lot of confidence in one's powers to simply dominate and conquer without a lot of fuss and pageantry. It's the tin pots who have to bang tin pots.


I'll recommend Stewart Brand's "How Buildings Learn" for an interesting take. He points out that the last thing you want is a modern building that won an award. An architectural award usually meant all sorts of problems: leaks, bad ventilation, awkward layout, power issues and so on. He says that the people who tend to get it right are the space planners. I had never even heard of space planners when I read the book, but they are the people who understand that buildings are about doing things, and, ideally, being able to learn to do new things. I like buildings that can do things.

In business, there is something called the "edifice complex". A surprising number of companies build new headquarters, usually impressive ones, just prior to collapsing. Some argue that it is cause and effect with executive attention on the new building and not on the business. Look at Boeing's new HQ in Chicago with its gold plated faucets followed by the 787 and 737-MAX disasters. People are still watching Apple with its flying saucer and rightly so.

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I think you already had a partial explanation in your Signaling/Counter Signaling essay. Within culture, there are numerous sways between opposing values.

Imagine that social technology is actually better, so trends and tastes and mores move faster. Imagine there's *lots* of room for subcultures, but they *are* properly ghettoed... until or unless they spread like wildfire through the population.

In opposition to the subcultures, it is now possible to have a very universal standard thing, and it will have to absorb all the sways.

Everything you put in the classical bucket is *very distinct*. Would any of it universalize? No. Not every child likes antipasti, or guo bao rou. But every child, indeed perhaps every honest human, likes McDonalds fries.


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I still think it is primarily about cost.

You've added this to the original essay, but say it doesn't explain why this trend is seen across all media, but I don't think that's right.

What modern production method does NOT favor the absence of non-repeating and detailed decoration? Almost everything has gone from being made by hand to some form of mass production, and once you do that the cost of adding decorations that are not mass produced becomes much much greater compared to the cost of a mass produced item.

Look at the clothes worn by the most powerful man in China. Using the same quality material, of course the one full of ornate and non-repeating decorations costs far more to make than a mono-color suit.

And I think its important to acknowledge that the cost factor is often HUGE. This is not just the matter of paying slightly more. We are talking about a taking an item with a primarily functional purpose, and increasing its cost ten fold. That fundamentally changes the nature of the purchase, from functional to artistic. Such purchases are not fungible. They are fundamentally different.

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"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."

My immediate gut reaction to this was "there's no way that's true" - am I more out of touch than I think? I can't imagine most normal people find the overwhelming sweetness of the sugary soda pleasant, and although a cultivated appreciation for "fine wine" is rare, I think most people enjoy wine in general.

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I'm surprised this post makes next to no mention of the old SSC post about a cellular automata model of fashion. Seems like that model [moving very slowly] could explain a lot of the observations here.

Scott does hint at related ideas in this current post but doesn't quite pull out the old model, which I would have liked to see - curious how he thinks it helps or doesn't.

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So, is it just me or is the Tartaria conspiracy theory… blatantly obviously correct? Like, our modern society has all the trappings of that sort of “twilight of the gods” fiction. We have technology which we still use despite being unable to produce it (nuclear power, skyscrapers, space travel), a culture of pessimism and trying to hold on to what we have over producing anything new, a decadent and onanistic upper class, a drugged-into-complacency lower class. Like, there’s nuttiness which I don’t accept, but this seems so abundantly obviously true-in-substance that I feel like it just barely counts as a “conspiracy theory”. Just scratch out the references to "Tartarian Empire" and replace it with "Interwar America" and it seems like a fairly accurate description of history.

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One of the more interesting Scott posts since moving to ACX. I'd put it in third place after `Book Review: Arabian nights' and `A modest proposal'

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In Las Vegas, Macao etc. there are multiple casinos that, at least partially, adopt the more classical architecture style.

E.g. -


But as far as I can tell people mostly think they are a bit naff. Not 100% sure why.

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I’ll take survivorship bias for $1000, Alex.

The other issue I had explained to me involves the Queen Anne style Victorian. A generation before that kind of detail would have been ruinously expensive. But with new technology they were able to mass produce all those wooden details. For a while poorer (but obviously not poor) people used that to build houses that were above their station. And then the rich had to go in the opposite direction and go much simpler.

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It seems to me that we do discover new timeless aesthetic truths. Perspective (lines converging at a point) in visual art, for instance. My own area is fiction, so I can give some examples there. "Free indirect style" -- the thing where the narrator says something but you know it's actually what the protagonist is thinking -- was invented by Jane Austen, Flaubert or Goethe, depending on who you listen to. There wasn't always such a thing as fiction set in the future. Even the novel itself, long form stories in chapters where the audience understands that it's imaginary, was invented at some definite historical moment (separately by Murasaki Shikibu and Cervantes, maybe?) For a 20th century example, I'd suggest deliberate "defamiliarization", like in dada or surrealism. Stream-of-consciousness (in novels, at least) is also a modern invention.

Some of these may seem like mere technical innovations, but once they're out in the world, they don't go away. Once you've seen a painting with well-executed perspective, earlier paintings are always going to look kind of childish. Painting without perspective is now a definite choice, which has a different meaning now than it did before perspective's invention, whether anybody likes it or not.

I don't think it explains all of the phenomena of aesthetic modernism. But it seems quite likely to me that architecture and fashion discovered new timeless aesthetic truths, and now there's no going back to the way things were. That definitely happened to fiction. If you write like George Eliot or Tolstoy now, it means something because you're not writing like David Foster Wallace or Virginia Woolf or Donald Barthelme. (I'm thinking of Zadie Smith, Amor Towles, Kristin Hannah, etc.)

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That picture of Google's current headquarters catches it at a bad angle, and you should see the replacement they're building: https://www.cnbc.com/2021/06/24/thomas-heatherwick-on-designing-googles-new-headquarters.html

Also, why choose Google when you could choose Apple? https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Apple_Park

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If you judge by the sales figures, what people want isn't poems that rhyme. What people want is *Rupi Kaur*.

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Could survival/selection bias be impacting our perception here?

As a statistical matter, the vast majority of classical buildings, clothes, poetry, and visual art are gone and/or forgotten. I have no idea to what degree my perception of "normal" classical buildings aligns with "how buildings were built in this time" vs "the buildings that are most memorable from that time" vs "what happened to survive". Ditto for most artistic fields.

To flip it around: maybe the superhero movies will be the key thing remembered from our era, and some still survive as iconic and eventually be "high" art the same way opera transformed over time. I mean, I hope not... But it doesn't seem implausible.

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Try Google Images for "Epic Campus"

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"if you talk to yourself too much, you risk becoming completely self-referential, falling into loops of weird internal status-signaling": this is more or less where Tom Wolfe places the blame for modern architecture in From Bauhaus To Our House. Architects realized they could live in artists' compounds, which he describes this an exciting innovation in architecture, which could suddenly be about pure expressions of social and political taste. He claims the star architects of the day we busy theorizing at each other, disconnected from the rest of society, and fell into weird signalling loops.

It's an entertaining and opinionated book, but I think it leaves out the massive need for postwar rebuilding in Europe, which made the spare, "non-bourgeois" international style appealing on a practical level.

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One example strikes me as odd: The pyramids. Yes, they're large, but they're nothing more than an orderly stone dump. We could build them right now with much more usable space and, in turn, people from back then would probably be way more impressed to see us building a large cube with straight walls. It's just that this was the best they could do.

Compare that to Bill Gates entrance: The TV alone is technology that people would dream about just a century ago. He does not need to build something large to show off, he can do so extremely understated - which in itself is just another power statement.

Overall, it's possible that the way you need to show off simply moved. Anyone can build a garden full of great statues now, you simply no longer get bragging rights for that.

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As others have noted, you are to a degree replicating Tom Wolfe's "From Bauhaus to Our House," which postulated a sort of conspiracy whereby modern architects - the kind who design buildings that look like the boxes that other buildings came in, as some wit put it - have bamboozled clients into ordering buildings that the clients hate, that everybody hates, but that they're somehow persuaded are what they ought to have.

There's a book by John Carey, "The Intellectuals and the Masses," postulating that modernist literature, and modernist art in general, was invented around 1900 by elitist intellectuals trying to keep on top of the newly educated masses by creating something those masses still couldn't understand. And Carey was an English professor at Oxford.

Whether these conspiracies are the explanation or not, it's true that all the arts took a turn towards this stark and ugly style in the early to mid 20C. The kindest explanation I've seen is that it was an understandable overreaction to the opulent excesses of the late 19C.

But what interests me is the recent - last 40 years or so - reaction against this. Mid-20C artists who refused to accept the prevailing styles, and who were mocked and ignored by critics at the time, are being rediscovered and feted. (In classical music, the prime example is Jean Sibelius: admired in the 1920s and 30s, between about 1940-70 he was despised and belittled by the critical establishment, but now he's considered one of the greats.) And newer artists, who come out of the modernist movement but rebel against its strictures, and consequently are scorned by it, achieve notable popularity. (In classical music, the minimalists like Philip Glass and Steve Reich; also check out the popular reception of Henryk Gorecki's "Symphony of Sorrowful Songs" against the slam it's gotten from critics like Jim Sveja.)

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Why is this written like it's trying to understand some alien civilization or obscure natural phenomenon? Modern artists and architects are nothing if not verbose about their thought processes, and their writings are easy to find. For instance, the essay "Ornament and Crime" by modernist architect Adolf Loos is famous enough to have its own Wikipedia page https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ornament_and_Crime . Robert Hughes' /The Shock of the New/ is a very accessible overview of modern art and the forces that drove it. You can observe directly how modern artists thought, not try to infer some underlying cause (although I guess there is room for both approaches).

This might clear up some mystery. Eg you say: "Partly because art is nice and we should want more beautiful things or at least try to understand where our beautiful things come from."

Modern artists by and large did not view their job as producing beautiful or nice things. They viewed their work as trying to respond to a world that was industrializing and otherwise changing. The world was becoming less beautiful, less organic, and more mechanical, alienating, and horrific, and the art had to change to match.

Maybe this was a bad way to think (it was very much linked to leftist politics) and the world would be better off if the artists had focused on beauty and niceness, but that's not what happened.

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Why are Google headquarters' buildings non-descript?

One of Parkinson's Laws is "a perfection of planned layout is achieved only by institutions on the point of collapse… Perfection of planning is a symptom of decay. During a period of exciting discovery or progress there is not time to plan the perfect headquarters. The time for that comes later, when all the important work has been done."

I doubt if Apple is about to collapse, but its recent $5 billion headquarters building sure looks like Apple's glory days died with Steve Jobs.

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One point you didn't address anywhere was usability - did any of these architectural or stylistic changes have *practical* benefits? Like, big glass-walled skyscrapers let in lots of natural light, which is something people like to have. Vaulted, gothic ceilings are nice for churches, but in other settings they're kind of a waste of space and more expensive to heat and cool. Courtly dress made with ten billion layers of fabric is hot as hell and hard to move around in - would *you* want to wear one on formal occasions?

I expect this would affect public buildings the most, because elected officials would have to answer questions about whether it's really worth X million dollars to make the local library look like a Renaissance cathedral.

(Although I've also read that architecture is not actually that big a part of the building's cost - the town of Columbus, Indiana actually has an endowment from some millionaire for the purpose of getting famous architects to design public buildings... although it's modernist architecture, because that's what the millionaire liked. Some people just like that style, I guess.)

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Agree with others that the pursuit of novelty is what’s driving a lot of this. When you’re completely immersed in any pursuit what you crave more than anything is the new. And it’s how you show skill. It’s not too different from science — replicating a study to confirm a result is considered less impressive than finding something new, even if the result you’re confirming is more scientifically important. This comment isn’t going to help my case against the people who say this is all about class signaling, but when I spent several months in Europe my attitude towards neoclassical and neogothic churches went from admiration to indifference to resentment. I’m just not going to feel anything towards the 36th of anything I see.

Maybe this helps explain a little why the elite-masses taste disparity seems widest with architecture, at least in the US. Those famous neoclassical / neogothic buildings are pretty rare here and are associated with Europe, so they seem novel and exotic as well as beautiful.

Generally I don’t think the elite-masses taste disparity in art is a social problem though. It’s not as though the “traditional,” more popular stuff is scarce or not around anymore, and people can go seek out what they like. With buildings and public art though, I’m very sympathetic, because 1) these are capital-intensive projects and 2) they are imposed on the local community.

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The "beauty is just too easy" argument is very consistent with what modern artists would say e.g. in manifestos. I often think of what Kandinsky proclaimed: "We can't paint anymore the naked asses of Venuses, or the green meat of the gardens".

You could maybe charitably consider the following: the beauty of the ass of a Venus is a solved problem. The beauty of a naked piece of concrete is far from a solved problem. Yet, it might be quite an important problem, as the naked pieces of concrete are not going away, and can't really be hidden.

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1) What about photography as a cause? Ornate things don't photograph as well (particularly fashion). The unforgiving lens favors clean lines.

2) Cars? We see things at a higher speed and from farther away. A clean, geometric building looks striking from afar. Ornate details are only appreciated slow and up close.

3) Maintenance? It's really hard to keep ornate stuff clean and in good repair.

4) Clean designs make quality of components and labor a lot more obvious. In Bill Gate's living room, any damage or flaws would be readily apparent. A solid suit leaves nowhere to hide for poor fit, bad tailoring, cheap fabric, or hasty machine stitching. On the other hand, the riotous design of an ornate cathedral can hide a lot of flaws (cracks, lumpy walls, stone carvings or painted figures that look good in a group but individually are kind of amateurish).

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An interesting and thought-provoking article, as always. But all I can think about is Scott not enjoying fine wine. How is that possible? Obviously it is. But for a cerebral aesthete interested in hedonic experiences… how? Scott, please give it another try. There is as much cultural, social, historical, and various other -als in wine as there are in food or art. And if Scott, or really any of you, are in Seattle I am happy to give a quick tour of the wine world.

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I might be committing Typical Mind Fallacy (TMF) here, but I don't find this phenomenon mysterious, because I like the modern stuff more than the older stuff.

Look at the high status Chinese dress, 1700s, and the high status Chinese dress 2000s. You win some eccentric lottery, and you get to have one of these two dresses for free. Which do you pick? The 1700s is kind of cool to look at if I were to display it in a museum or something (I don't own a museum), but if I'm picking something I might actually wear some time, I'd pick the 2000s one.

Look at the Milan Cathedral and the Luigi Bocconi University. "Winning" either of these in a lottery would probably be a maintenance nightmare, so let's say instead you got a job at a company that has offices in two buildings, and you get to choose which building you'll have to spend 8 hours a day in, 5 days a week. Which one do you pick? I'd pick the University one.

Look at the Receiving Room in Cardiff's Castle, and the receiving room in Bill Gate's mansion. You won a lottery which involves an interior decorator and architect and whoever else is necessary to give you your dream house, as long as your dream house is one of two options. Which do you pick? I'd pick the one that looks like Bill Gate's mansion.

The only one where my thought experiment fails is with the statues example. I have to admit, if I won a free statue to display in my yard (I don't own a yard, but hypothetically), I'd pick the Trevi Fountain one.

So am I TMFing and I'm the only one who would pick the modern choice most of the time? Or would most people pick the modern one, and therefore it's no longer mysterious why people who are rich enough to actually have the choice, also pick the modern one?

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In terms of music, there are trends in which I suspect we're becoming more accessible and broadly "nice-sounding", especially as the lines between art music, jazz, film scores, video game music, etc. blur. Caroline Shaw comes to mind, she won the 2013 music Pulitzer but her compositions are relatively accessible. Another factor is rejection of minimalism, where some composers are embracing noise, like in field recordings or sound art, and others are moving back to new romantic compositions.

In addition, the old stuff is just boring now, to compose (not to appreciate). It's a lot easier to go and pretend to be Vivaldi, but it's what composition students do to learn. Pushing the field forward requires trying new things, and sometimes they'll sound great and sometimes they'll sound weird, but the important part is the new.

And for the record, I much prefer Glass to Mozart.

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The Filter of Time is also a factor. Good things are valued, and therefore resources are expended in maintaining them. Bad things are not maintained and decay.

There are any number of terrible buildings, artworks, and other artefacts which have been allowed to disappear because no-one thought them worth keeping.

We see this in fields with a long history including art, music, and architecture. Things that are old are almost universally respected as being good.

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To throw another datapoint in there: whatever general theory of austerity is developed, it also needs to explain the turn away from contrasting spices in Renaissance Europe. See: https://www.npr.org/sections/thesalt/2015/03/26/394339284/how-snobbery-helped-take-the-spice-out-of-european-cooking . It's notable that in the case of food, it seems obvious that the elites have more or less completely turned average opinion to their way of thinking for a large chunk of the world.

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I think the World Wars theory has a lot of merit. When something is strongly governed by taste, the politics associated with taste matter immensely. Both Post-World War I and Post-World War II there was a lot of wonderful experiments with modernism and postmodernism and so on. Some great, some less so, much not of interest to non-specialists. But traditional art and architecture at the same time became associated with a politics was considered quite distasteful, a politics that was considered the cause of these wars.

Consider one of the most excellent homes in Saint Louis as Exhibit A: https://www.stlmag.com/design/a-decades-long-renovation-returns-a-midwestern-palazzo-to-it/

Or Donald Trump's Penthouse Exhibit B:


Penance must be done, and those are not doing artistic and architectural penance symbolize the return of the barbarian in man.

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As someone who likes brutalist (and deconstructionist) architecture quite a lot, and enjoys listening to modern atonal music, I would say *different* (but not *better*) aesthetic truths.

One of the things in my adult life that I would say maps to a religious experience was seeing a concert by the Japanese electronic/noise composer Ryoji Ikeda. You can see some excerpts at https://youtube.com/watch?v=qzvZIV0u7vk . (The experience of being in the front row, with earplugs in, feeling the noise pound on you is a lot more intense than watching someone's mobile phone footage, to be fair.)

I think some people might describe this and other atonal/noise music as ‘sublime’, but that's a little too high falutin' for me. So I'd say that it's enjoyable in a way that running around in a thunderstorm, with the lightning flashing, feeling the air shake as the thunder rolls nearby, fighting as the wind tries to push you around is enjoyable. I think brutalist buildings are enjoyable in a similar way. A way that feels a little more energetic and excited, something more bracing than soothing.

Romantic symphonies can be bracing and antagonistic, too. I'd guess that they're as beloved as they are because they ‘top out’ the ratio of accepting/welcoming to bracing/antagonistic that most people like. I strongly suspect, just from personal experience, that a trained ear has something to do with it. Studying music in an academic context made me like noisy, atonal, difficult music a lot more. Not just high-class stuff, but also decidedly low class stuff like death metal. (Heck, I like Billy Joel and Sweet which are about as low-class and hated by critics as you can get.) The atonality and noise feel more structured. (Then again I also had a wonderful, near rapturous time finding the music in the noises from an MRI machine. Perhaps I'm just good at liking things and/or aesthetics is as much weird artistic pareidolia as it is anything else. I have a low-grade suspicion that people who might rate themselves highly on the knurd-to-always-tripping-a-little axis would also be more likely to enjoy unpopular forms of art.)

There's also probably some societal level of where the ‘ceiling’ of acceptably difficult art is that goes up over time as formerly unpopular techniques become popular, at least if there's any truth to the story of The Rite of Spring's initial reception. A societal version of the ‘trained ear’.

I think the novelty seeking that others have mentioned also plays a strong role. I kind of like the ‘walkie talkie’ building in London not because of any real aesthetic chord but because when I first saw it, I hadn't seen anything like it before. The way it was curved made it look like some building from another world that didn't quite belong in this one bursting out of our reality and inflating itself into a proper building and having not quite finished yet.

(There is also the unfortunate institutional dark side of this where things that are very well known are thought to be 'played out' and met with contempt as mere copies. Hopefully one day this will stop happening.)

Basically, I think the status/signaling arguments are mostly all-wet (all-damp?) with the exception of the dark-side of institutional novelty seeking as mentioned above, and that the people who end up in institutional positions related to the arts have gone through arts education which likely involves both self-selection and acculturation to sincerely liking antagonistic/bracing or unpopular art and wanting to see more of and support it.

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Are we just overemphasizing Gothic and Baroque styles? Truly “classical” architecture is not THAT ornate - it mostly relies on simple repeated forms. A Greek temple is just a rectangle with rows of columns. The Colosseum had some ornamentation to be sure - but fundamentally it’s a very practical oval constructed of arches and columns that needed to be that way to hold the thing up Egypt? Lots of fancy paintings and monumental statues, but the “architecture” was mostly simple shapes (the most famous of course being literally just giant triangles clad in smooth white stone). Japanese classic architecture positively values relatively simple shapes and clean interiors.

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I think you're overthinking the issue way too much. The answer is mass production, and its corollary, manufacturing flexibility -- neither of which existed back during the Renaissance.

Sure, if you make an elaborate outfit for the Emperor, you might earn a million dollars. But if you manage to re-tool your disposable T-Shirt factory to make each shirt 0.5% cheaper to manufacture, you could earn an extra million *per day*.

Our technology and population density are now at the point where mass production is pretty much the only manufacturing that makes sense. Thus, if you want to be the kind of weirdo who wants to build a new Taj Mahal, or perhaps his own space program, then you need to be a rich weirdo indeed. And the rich weirdoes nowadays tend to go for space programs rather than Taj Mahals (which is not a bad thing at all, IMO).

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Also don’t forget Coco Chanel and the sun tan. Prior to the industrial revolution the peasants were brown having toiled in the fields all summer. The rich were pasty white having been inside all year.

With the industrial revolution, the poor disappeared into factories and became as pale as the rich. So one summer Coco Chanel was hanging out in the south of France and said - “To hell with it - I’m not going to hide under a parasol.” And she came back to Paris with a golden glow and the rich said, “Ah yes, the poor toil inside now. We shall frolic outside and display our status with a tan.”

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You're essentially asking why art has become mass produced and standardised in an industrial era of economic mass production. As you can imagine, many Marxists have already commented on this at length. I would recommend reading something like Walter Benjamin's "The Work of Art in The Age of Mechanical Production"


For a popular TV reformulation of some of the same ideas you might try John Berger's "Ways Of Seeing"


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Our elite lack taste.

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Let's consider the dichotomy via the lens of the world's increasing 'complexity' as time goes on (see Adam Curtis' HyperNormalisation for my usage of 'complexity').

Consider the stereotypical 'simpler' past, where one's day to day life could be deeply mundane, banal, and prosaic. Your life, beliefs, and flow of information closely resembles those of your parents and grandparents. Could we imagine that the artist, as well as the patron and consumer of that art, would be motivated to create the ornate, the elegant, the lavish, all in contrast with the banality of drabness of their environment?

The world can now seem very complicated - dynamic, intricate, complex. Truth is fleeting and reality itself is in near-constant flux. I could imagine how the architect, the designer, and the artist could, inversely, be motivated to create art that is simple - and that those titans of industry who influence their creation would appreciate the same.

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I think the world has become more sophisticated or cerebral in past 100 years or so. Society has become more accustomed to and expects abstraction in everyday life. This applies primarily to the more educated elites. We appreciate subtly more. Look how much better TV has gotten! Baroque style is too didactic compared to minimalism. Most monks of any tradition prefer simpler architecture because they spend so much time in abstract contemplation and a loud overbearing style of architecture is considered a distraction.

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It's all class warfare. An attempt to exclude and degrade. Tom Wolfe wrote some really perceptive pieces about it. inter alia: "The Painted Word" and "From Bauhaus to Our House".

My basic rule of thumb is that everything the urban elites, do, like, and argue for is valued to the extent that it humiliates, impoverishes, and demoralizes the lower classes.

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Couldn’t we define this discussion as complexity vs simplicity? In olden times your life was simple. You got up, you worked in the mud and then maybe you got to eat, and that’s really about it. You didn’t have much choice in what you did every day and then one day you just died. You needed art in olden times to add complexity. You needed volute columns on your buildings and fancy trills in your fugues. If art is escapism you were escaping your mudworld to an ornate world. Complexity wasn’t aspirational, it was just something you could look at to help you get through your boring ass life.

In now times things are really complex. You wake up and have two hundred emails waiting for you and tps reports and there are 74 different brands of multivitamin, so you gotta worry that the one you bought won’t be as good as all the others and you’ll die from a combo of fomo and choice-overload. You need to escape that complexity and that’s why you might value a rothko over a rembrandt. If you work in the mud you’re lucky and probably have some business where you sell handmade bricks to millionaires in Aspen for 40x the factory brick price. If you make handmade bricks everyday maybe you like rembrandt more than rothko.

Maybe the complexity vs simplicity thing isn’t because tastemakers make it that way, maybe we just flipped that coin in the last 140 years or so because we need a dose of simplicity to get through the daily grind.

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I want to put forward a theory for which I have little evidence but had not seen discussed: deliberately forging a new identity. Most of those aesthetics are rooted in one specific culture, often with religious overtones. As organized religion and nationalism declined throughout the 20th Century, culture sought a new identity. The people with the money for new buildings abandoned principles, like ornateness and symmetry, to be something new: somewhat organic but obviously artificial with precision only attainable through the scientific minded e.g. an Apple store.

Since then, it's become subtly associated with wealth, globalism, and multi-culturalism, as both Western and Eastern cultures have adopted this meme, forsaking traditional architecture to forge some idea of a modern world as easily as they abandoned their traditional clothing for blue jeans and t-shirts. Going retro in aesthetics could be like deciding to become deeply religious and going to church: plenty of people do it, but it's shunned in pop culture as being on the "wrong side of history".

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I think the signalling taste theory is obviously correct and is supported by a number of different factors (also see every other blog post and tweet Robin Hanson has ever made). Moreover, note that the signalling theory is the only theory which explains why there isn't a socially accepted explanation of the phenomenons mentioned in the piece. Was any other theory (excepting the fun sci-fi conspiracy...and the split theory insofar as the mechanism is just the need to signal status) true and it wasn't already obvious someone would have built an academic career

proving it. Taste questions are relatively easy to test in labs, have little trouble with IRB issues and supplement the massive datasets we have about consumer choices, auction prices not to mention all the historical material assembled by art history departments.

Only the signalling taste theory implies that we can't have common knowledge of the explanation....to advance the correct account is itself to signal you aren't high status while representing an attack on those who are (you would be showing elites to be laughably gullable idiotsand/or engaged in the kind of flaunting we despise).

Importantly, this also explains why high status art isn't merely weird but also often daunting, theory laden or viscerally unappealing to the uninitated. I mean it's notable that the less approachable the work itself is the lower the minimum amount of theory one seems to need for one's appreciation to be deemed classy/good. For instance, just reading Shakespeare for love of the dialog or even the sex jokes draws admiration but if it's watching mass market TV shows you only draw admiration if you can explain how it's ironic in a particular hard to absorb theoretical vocab.

In short, the trick only works if the only people who can claim to have the necessary expertise in that piece of art and associated theoretical framework are those who have convinced themselves it's objectively better. On most of the other theories you would expect to find cases where it turns out that actually certain random pieces of mass market art were exceptional in ways that didn't require theoretical overhead to appreciate. On this theory it makes perfect sense because the only ppl who can claim to have the expertise to evaluate the worth of the art have invested so much into appreciating that art that they won't admit it's nothing special (memetic evo ensures that ithe art is sufficiently unapproachable that anyone who might say it's nothing special won't invest the time to dodge the accusation of ignorance about it)

And this is all stop fact we have evidence that people are quiet good at tricking/plaveboing themselves into believing they like something for its own first-order properties (see various wine substitution experiments) so we should start with a relatively high probability this kind of effect exists in any area where there are similar incentives for signalling wealh/status.

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Maybe the builders want use to feel sad? We as the masses might not want to feel sad, but the elites benefit from a sad demoralised populace. Much better to have waves of suicides and depressed people than to have active bright people who want to rebel against a do-nothing leech class of elites. These hideous inhuman ugly modern buildings with some of the fancy ones looking deformed are upsetting and demoralising. That's the exact kind of feeling you want in a fake democracy!

The turn towards a lot of this mind bogglingly terrrrrrible buildings was around the time mass propaganda was invented in the 1930's-1950's when TV, film, and radio met psychology. Rather than you feeling impressed by your government's awesome stuff....if you just feel bad when you go outside, that'll also keep the population under control.

You'll notice outside of the autistic silicon valley rich, many wealthy people still have quite elaborate and ornate homes. Look at shows like 'Cribs' showcasing rapper and celebrity homes....Even if they want to hide some of their wealth on the outside to some degree, that's not the case on the inside of their homes.

One of the benefits of Covid is that I don't have to go outside as much which means I don't have to look at those ugly buildings. The 'brutalist' architecture from the soviets was an inspiration. Drab concrete buildings with flat faces...how could you NOT feel like shit looking at them? I get literally nauseous and upset around these buildings and will always want to go to some Tuscan village or Swiss mountain retreat (I'd imagine, I've never been, but I know what they look like) as an ideal with zero desire to sit in some concrete box apartment surrounded by skyscrapers. Even the rich people go to places like Davos or have their film festival Sundance in a beautiful location with human appropriate buildings.

I'm being a bit specious here and probably feeding more into the Tartarian idea than detracting from it....but as the wise connoisseur of conspiracy theories knows, these are metaphors and are overstated to make a grain of truth much more exciting and meme-like to transmit better.

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There are some interesting side details to this. 1) civil engineers *hate* the fancy parts of new architecture frequently. Turns out that if something looks impossible, it’s often at least very hard. 2) building code, building science, even availability of materials and construction crews familiar with particular techniques are often huge constraints on this sort of thing. LEED gold certification is a big deal for any entity capable of affording a classical style massive building, and in many ways it actively insists on not doing the things that make classical buildings last. Watch just about anything by Joe Lstiburek where he discusses wall and window efficiency and issues, and marvel at how poorly we build buildings these days. 3) good luck getting the permits in a typical city to build something like the Art Deco Detroit Train Station — it’s massively too big for its neighborhood these days and all the “in character for the area” crap isn’t going to be easy for the cool old giant buildings. I don’t have great evidence that this is the case, but I have a feeling that selling a small group of “elite” people like a planning board on the exciting new thing is easier than an Art Deco style fancy building. 4) cost to do a lot of the old style things has skyrocketed, so going cheap or justifying new expensive on environmental grounds is the new way of the world.

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I would be interested to see if any people in the ratsphere are going to become "patrons of the arts". I'm sure there are some people with artistic talent in the comments here, and they would benefit from matching with wealthy connoisseurs who are willing to pay for the commission. We could create world-famous art that will resonate with people for centuries to come.

In totally unrelated news, I have made a new Instagram page for my lingerie and swimwear photography, check it out: https://www.instagram.com/see_elegance

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I mean, I don't think the modern pictures look *uglier*, to me, so much as they look *less detailed*. That seems like the biggest shift wrt architecture, and the explanation that springs to mind is that - basically - the fine details used to be made by the individual whims of a hundred bored masons, and with industrial processes instead of manual labor, there's a whole lot less brainpower and time involved in designing a given volume. I dunno, maybe that's not how it ever worked, but anyway.

This seems a bit different from most artforms, where a high culture vs. pop culture split basically describes things. Modern art was never meant to appeal to the masses, and it doesn't, but that's a matter of choice and there's artists that make representational art where it's profitable. Though with poetry - abandoning meter may have killed poetry as a popular medium, but to some extent there's also the part where poetry was always an oral medium first. With audio recording becoming more common, maybe the switch to song lyrics was always going to happen.

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Here's one take:

I was surprised growing up to hear the word "common" used as a derogatory term by adults. All the examples you provided were considered uncommon in the eras that are were found. Similarly, photography destroyed photorealistic painting since it made photorealism too common.

More than half of my Facebook friends have gone to Paris and been to the Lourve, or even visited Rome and seen the Vatican. Now those places are considered common to visit, probably because travel is one of the things that has become increasingly relatively cheap over the past forty years.

Art with lots of spectacle is common now because it's easy to produce, like sugar water. But at one point, it was hard to make sugar water, and those were delicacies worth fighting wars over.

Sometimes supposedly tasteful-looking things are too common, and then provenance becomes more important. Look at Oscar runway dresses: it's more important who made them than whether they're objectively pleasing to the eye, or even subjectively classy or tasteful.

One-of-a-kind will always be the most valued thing in society, despite what category of things people select in a survey.

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I personally favor the selection bias hypothesis (meaning that building, art and clothing style images survived because people liked and preserved them whereas all of those buildings/art/clothing styles not in the top 3% of beauty were lost). But another hypothesis is that people grow to like certain styles more over time especially with buildings. The Eiffel Tower was famously panned by critics when it was built and the beautiful Brooklyn brownstones people are fighting to preserve were considered ugly when they were built in the 20's

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I'm not convinced by any cost disease explanations. Yes, producing ornate beauty via hiring dozens of stonemasons or embroiderers is prohibitively expensive, but as Scott points out, ornate beauty can be mass-produced now (okay, I know nothing of construction or architecture but it can't be actually impossible to decorate a building with e.g. laser cutting)

And look at these. OK, it's painting not architecture, but these are beautiful buildings. It's not prohibitively expensive or even currently unfashionable to create something like this. Why isn't there a lot more of this in our urban environments?


I think a huge part of what has happened is that the ornate has become associated with femininity, and therefore with low status. This is very obvious in the context of fashion, and almost equally obvious in the context of architecture. In music too; pure pop music has been seen as feminine and denigrated for that reason.

I don't know when the association of the ornate with femininity began - it's clearly not a cultural or historical universal, although it seems to have been exported worldwide by now. French Revolution?

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Is this a case of Evenly Spaced Rectangular Grids?

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A (small) piece of evidence and a thought:

1) I've been tangentially involved in the process by which a moderate-sized evangelical megachurch went about building itself a new sanctuary twice at two different churches in two different states. As I recall, while there was initially some interest in trying to build some intensely beautiful space to glorify God, in both cases the faction that wanted the least expensive way to accomplish the functional goals (in terms of space and multi-use and etc.) ended up winning the argument (as good stewards we need to spend the extra on missions always ended up being the prevailing view).

2) My understanding is that, as other commenters have shared, there has been a substantial turn in the aesthetic world (so art, music, fashion, architecture) post-WW1 against beauty and beauty-like things (niceness, gentleness, etc.) generally. I think in some ways its more interesting to ask why some fields (cooking or film) escaped that trend.

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I'd add that I think establishing as a truth and studying this phenomenon is super important for epistemic hygiene.

It may [1] not matter too much that, for speakers of modern English that we make them read Shakespeare at school. But it is really helpful to recognize the pattern that identifies this sort of status signalling dressed up as factual claims, eg, help us realize continental philosophy is bullshit mixed with amature armchair psych/politics pretending to be an academic discipline).

For instance the following features of a practice should be epistemic red flags.

1) Only those who have invested deeply in the enterprise (eg studied Shakespeare in depth or read a bunch of impenetrable books) are able to really appreciate the 'genius'. There aren't byte sized pieces that can be appreciated with what you learn in a few hours.

2) Hermeneutic readings. Plausibly this is just an instance of 1 but nothing ever bottoms out cleanly ensuring there is no place to start criticism from without investing an amount of time few skeptics would.

3) Subject is sucpiciously hagiographic and has few to no really important contributions credited to people who dont do much else. Higgs postulated his particle, Goodman introduced Grue and Zorn proved his lemma but the casual investigator isn't likely to hear about any other contributions from them. OTOH looking at continental philosophy or lots of signalling sort of art one you tend to either be hero worshipped as a genius or not get mentioned at all to casual investigator.

4) Unusual concern with the original works. What this means may vary (physical objects for art...the original words for novels). Contrast with math and sciences where originals are quickly digested and improved upon so no one reads the Principia to learn calculus or anything else.

Relatedly a reluctance to admit that seminal works/authors could contain really dumb mistakes. When wrong it's for complex or systemic reasons never just that they didn't think of it.

5) Skeptics are derided as luddittes or otherwise suspiciously class or wealth adjacent insults rather than being directly confronted as to why they don't accept specific claims or arguments.

6) Which criticisms or concerns are seen as requiring addressing depends heavily on context (who said it and to what end) and can't be predicted from content of criticism. Imagine cutting up discussion of the subject to remove context (was it an art Prof who asked it or a 13 year old...was it a conservative anti-affirmitive action activist or a dedicated proponent of Asian Americans etc).

7). Unreasonable correlation between who society judges positively and negatively and who is taught/read/viewed. Millikan remains in the textbooks for his oil drop experiment despite his eugenic connections.

Also Implausibly much continuity or too little in what is seen as worthy of teaching/consuming.


yes a number of these are just general good epistemic hygiene and other flags may be present in some perfectly legitimate subjects but recognizing the features needed to both perform the necessary status signalling and protect it from being dismissed as empty signalling can help.

[1]: Tho if you add up all the millions of person hours suffering through shit and subsequent induced dislike of reading it might.

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Why do you need plastic, when you can make the world out of amber?

Recent, related(though I also think the author underrates building costs): https://classicalfuturist.com/article/lets-build-cities-of-marble/

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This sounds like a fantastic excuse to convince you to review McGilchrist's "The Master and His Emissary", where he attributes this kind of societal shift to hemispheric dominance in people's brains shifting over time. It has the singular distinction of evoking violent disagreement from me on every premise but coming to conclusions I agree with. I still don't know how that happened.

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> They want poems to rhyme so bad. But we won’t give it to them

That's ok. We already have them. We probably have enough poems that I could read new one every day, never repeat them, never read anything that was written after 1980, live a long happy life, and still die without having read a significant part of them. Unlike many other modern fads, bad poetry is extremely easy to ignore.

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What part of this is just filtering? Don’t we just hang on to the best old stuff? Maybe they built lots of ugly stuff in the old days too, but we never see it?

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I’ve often wondered if art and architecture were ugly because broadly appealing taste is actually just hard. Not sure how you’d show this, but it does seem to be measurably easier to be edgy then good. This would partially explain that rich people preferring novelty / rarity over tasteful because they likely don’t have enough taste themselves to achieve it, or their peers to have enough to appreciate the effort.

Another example is why doesn’t good software get cloned more effectively? I’d guess that part is funding, part is software engineering skill, and part is taste and all are pretty rare. So if skilled product teams can’t copy well, how many artists are out there making sistine chapel level art? Probably very few. Curious your thoughts!

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Can't we just go with "Western civilization has peaked and is declining"?

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Steven Pinker devoted a chapter ("The Arts") of The Blank Slate to this question. He comes down pretty strongly in support of the idea that the elites do this stuff *because* people don't like it. (As presented above, "Maybe elites are specifically trying to signal not being commoners, by choosing the opposite of commoners’ aesthetic preferences?")

> Modernism certainly proceeded *as if* human nature had changed. All the tricks that artists had used for millennia to please the human palate were cast aside. In painting, realistic depictions gave way to freakish distortions of shape and color and then to abstract grids, shapes, dribbles, splashes, and, in the $200,000 painting featured in the recent comedy *Art*, a blank white canvas. In literature, omniscient narration, structured plots, the orderly introduction of characters, and general readability were replaced by a stream of consciousness, events presented out of order, baffling characters and causal sequences, subjective and disjointed narration, and difficult prose. In poetry, the use of rhyme, meter, verse structure, and clarity were frequently abandoned. In music, conventional rhythm and melody were set aside in favor of atonal, serial, dissonant, and twelve-tone compositions. In architecture, ornamentation, human scale, garden space, and traditional craftsmanship went out the window (or would have if the windows could have been opened), and buildings were "machines for living" made of industrial materials in boxy shapes.

> Why did the artistic elite spearhead a movement that called for such masochism? In part it was touted as a reaction to the complacency of the Victorian era and to the naive bourgeois belief in certain knowledge, inevitable progress, and the justice of the social order. Weird and disturbing art was supposed to remind people that the world was a weird and disturbing place.

> But modernism wanted to do more than just afflict the comfortable. Its glorification of pure form and its disdain for easy beauty and bourgeois pleasure had an explicit rationale and a political and spiritual agenda.

> [......]

> Modernist and postmodernist critics fail to acknowledge another feature of human nature that drives the arts: the hunger for status, especially their *own* hunger for status.

> The problem is that whenever people seek rare things, entrepreneurs make them less rare, and whenever a dazzling performance is imitated, it can become commonplace. The result is the perennial turnover of styles in the arts.

> In twentieth-century art, the search for the new thing became desperate because of the economies of mass production and the affluence of the middle class. As cameras, art reproductions, radios, records, magazines, movies, and paperbacks became affordable, ordinary people could buy art by the carload. It is hard to distinguish oneself as a good artist or discerning connoisseur if people are up to their ears in the stuff, much of it of reasonable artistic merit. The problem for artists is not that popular culture is so bad but that it is so good, at least some of the time. Art could no longer confer prestige by the rarity or excellence of the works themselves, so it had to confer it by the rarity of the powers of appreciation.

> [O]nly a special elite of initiates could get the point of the new workds of art. And with beautiful things spewing out of printing presses and record plants, distinctive works need not be beautiful. Indeed, they had better not be, because now any