It’s difficult to pronounce on things of beauty when you know philosophy has so much trouble with aesthetic judgements. A whole extended family within the tribe devote themselves to what common factors perceptions of beauty draw on and how personally fallible we are when we try to call this beautiful and that ugly. Still I don’t think pundit Simon Jenkins, who has a tendency to simplify when it comes to matters artistic, should be allowed to get away with ‘money talks and beauty is silent’ as a gloss on the coalition’s support for windfarms. As so often, what is supposed to be an argument is mainly rhetoric of the kind, ‘I hate Cameron so let me tell you why you should too.’ Unsullied nature and a sullen dislike of the power of big money are part of my nature, yet I suspect Jenkin’s argument in The Guardian (6 June 2013) of an opportunist faux leftishness and such an animus against wind turbines that it leaves the argument for beauty unexamined. certainly something goes unexamined. I always think of Simon Jenkins when I catch a glimpse of The Shard, from various parts of London, to which he so vehemently objected. I guess he hates tall thin structures, for a start.
Some years ago, sailing out of Copenhagen, the beauty of the Danish capital’s offshore windfarms assailed me. I don’t take photographs but here’s someone else’s image:
Talking about beauty I mean in the first instance that this was an experience of harmony. The sight of those windmills waving their bone-white balletic arms, against the background of grey sea and grey sky, brought up a well of positive emotion. Probing that emotion (the way aesthetic experience invites), I found it was the sense of making wise use of the planet, of getting being-here on earth right, at least from an ecological point of view, and of doing it stylishly, that moved me. The means was so simple that the ancients might have thought of it. The Low Lands of Europe, the central Spanish plain and many other familiar places used to be dotted with their characteristic windmills. We love these windmills of the past now. Witness the excellent restoration of the windmill in Brixton, south London, that used to lie neglected just off the traffic-clogged main road south, and was only known to locals.
This prizewinning project both preserves the local heritage and keeps a once functional form of beauty before our eyes. Look at the interior:
So let me stay with the beauty question of the latest turbines.
I had another earth-moving experience seeing them silhouetted against the enormous fir trees of the Black Forest, southwest Germany, a couple of years ago. No fuss there about money taking precedent over beauty. Moreover to me it was clear that those sleek turbines both harmonized and contrasted so strikingly with nature’s trees that you could hardly get a finer tribute to human engineering skills learning something, as always, from nature’s proportions, at the same time as fulfilling specific human needs in living sustainably on earth. We’re in it together, nature and us, and it’ sometimes when we get a symbolic or emblematic presentation of that cooperation, that the experience becomes moving in a direction philosophers include in the aesthetic. Kant said, and I don’t think he can be faulted in this, that there is a sense of wholeness involved in judging something beautiful, whether within it, as the sum of its parts, or in the way an object in an enviromnent, or dissimilar things linked together, can add up to an unexpectedly moving whole.
I’m not talking here about the functionality of windfarms, nor the politics. A written ministerial statement on 6 June in the House of Commons, setting out the findings of a government inquiry, found that two-thirds of UK citizens had no objections to windfarms. Most objections came on the basis of how they might affect communities, and the response was to give communities more control over local choices, and, above all, to increase their direct benefits, in terms of revenue, from the siting of windfarms in their areas. That sounds all very fair to me. It’s pseudo-leftish of Jenkins to attack the landowners who have made, no doubt, a great deal of money from offering up their land for use. Usually it’s property-owners (on the same side, politically, as the landowners, no?) who object to wind-farms in their back gardens. Now they’ll have their say.
But, you know, if your beautiful country home has lost a lot of its market value because of scaremongering about the effects of windfarms on health (another rhetorically-loaded weapon of the anti-camp), do get in touch because I might be able to buy you out. We all have things we do and don’t want at the end of the garden. No shopping malls or motorways for me, but I’d happily have a train or a twenty-first century update on the windmills of La Mancha.
I suspect those who find windfarms ugly are either just using “ugly” to mean “not in my back yard”, or, to take them more seriously, they are just not Modernists in art, so it is difficult for them to see beauty in functional structures. Most Brits are not Modernists, nor were they when the movement was at its height 80 years ago. Modernism’s pure white structures, which endorse the doctrine of ‘form follows function’ (itself never as simple as its opponents believe), you either love or late. Modernism derived a new beauty out of a vision of social progress, premised on a rational analysis of human needs, and supplemented by the power of new materials, concrete and glass, to create simple buildings with gorgeous access to light and space inside and out. The essential feature of Modernism for me is that it really belongs to the Enlightenment: to a belief that there is a rational way to live. The Enlightenment has taken a huge amount of stick in the last twenty years or so, as allcomers have jumped on a bandwaggon of complicated Enlightenment-haters (mostly among complicated Continental philosophers they would normally have nothing to do with.) The truth is that Modernism helped once to reinvent the Enlightenment, in the early years of the twentieth century, and is still at work in the twenty-first, helping us renegotiate our relationship with nature, which generously and ultimately mysteriously grants us the means to live on earth. (A sense of mystery is not an Enlightenment-conditioned response, I admit, for my attitude is not determined by a single school of thought, but it does mean I have no desire to subject nature to ‘reason’.)
Simon Jenkins and no doubt many others find the sheer size of wind turbines blights the landscape. But there’s something that wind turbines have in common with public art, and I wonder if the anti-turbiners are as averse to that. On the obvious affinity first: I mean, have you noticed the similarity between Anthony Gormley’s Angel of the North, at 20 metres tall (‘the height of a five-storey building or four double-decker buses’), with a fixed wing span, and the average windfarm, at 100 metres, a creature far more alive, with its blades rotating for all our well-being? I admit wind turbines can be huge, and that is a cause for concern, but everything depends on the site. Likewise with public art. A few years ago a huge table and chair appeared on Hampstead Heath in north London. Many people loved it, but I like my nature unspoilt: read, in this case, a place where human needs don’t predominate, and an open place, open for private thought and not crammed with someone else’s ideas.
Public art has interesting roots in a tradition beginning with the French Revolution, but gets its real impetus from Bolshevism.
It’s a way of speaking to the people on a grand scale, outside and beyond the scope of museums and galleries.
It’s a kind of Enlightenment released from the learnedness of Diderot’s Encyclopedia and taken outdoors. It possesses the symbolism of a drama frozen for the moment, and it means we’re all in this being-here together, this working with the planet so that humanity, with all its gifts and hopes, has somewhere to build and to dwell.
For me the spirit of this public art is close to what I find (mostly more) beautiful about windfarms. (In the case of the Orbit tower, it’s also higher.)
Kant was a German Enlightenment philosopher whose attention to aesthetic matters was subtle and deep. His definition of how and when we feel things to be beautiful rests on the harmoniousness we feel our moral freedom to make the world in our own, human image, seems to coincide with the physical necessity that finally curbs our dreams. Moral freedom includes our capacity to design and make things distinct from what is given in nature, while physical necessity entails being a body among other bodies, a matter in which our freedom is limited. My claim is that what Kant identified as aesthetic quality is all there in the wind turbine, an ingenious, thoughtful and beautiful way out of some of the huge problems that beset us, as free, moral creatures, in our quest for physical survival. It’s a wonderful symbol of what we still can be: enlightened.