Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Perfection and the Platonic "ideal" in art and science

The Museum of Fine Arts in Boston is featuring an exhibit of drawings by Michelangelo. The drawings provide a great look into the mind of this 15th century Renaissance Scientist-Artist. I learned a lot from the drawings and the notes that accompany them. One new piece of information was that Michelangelo was deeply involved in architectural projects of his day. In his architectural drawings Michelangelo tried to achieve a kind of perfection through proportion, line, and balance, ideas that were formulated in Western thought by the ancient Greeks.

I vaguely remembered that Renaissance architecture was concerned with these kinds of questions and I've seen many buildings of that era that reflect the kind of vision Michelangelo was seeking. But the exhibit introduced me to a further insight. Until I saw this exhibit I hadn't understood how closely scientific and artistic inquiry were during the Renaissance. In a sense, architecture was (and is) a place where science and art unite. During the Renaissance and for many of the ensuing centuries, art, science, and architecture continued under the influence of Ancient Greek thought, a striving for "perfection."

When we teach our undergraduates about the development of scientific thought we stress the conceptual importance of Plato and Aristotle. Their world vision was one that valued "perfection" or the "ideal" as a kind of goal. Perfection, however it was expressed, was a reflection of the ideal world On High. Scientists who observed the natural world from the Renaissance onward struggled to understand natural form and process in terms of Platonic ideals. This teleological approach, which embraced a religious framework reflecting Aristotelian thought, prevented an understanding of the evolutionary process until well after Darwin.

Strange to think about all of this after visiting Sri Lanka and observing a culture that recognizes a different sort of "perfection." Also strange to think about Michelangelo's struggle to make "perfect" or "ideal" buildings based on geometrical proportionality when our own approach to the built environment is so much different. Or is it?

We still strive for expressions of the ideal, even though we have deconstructed or rejected so many of the old ones. It is still difficult for most of us to wrap our heads around evolution. To do so, we have to come to grips with the fact that evolution is a random process, untethered by any goal except for survival and reproduction. Our built environments, epitomized by starchitectural excess, strive for an ephemeral sweet spot of aestheic-high capitalism. And our cyberworld is modeled on perhaps unreachable goals of speed and connectivity. Somehow in the West the Platonic ideal is welded into our thought and practice. We express our will to control differently from Michelangelo but we speak the same language.

1 comment:

  1. This last image (above) reminds me of the cross section of a tree and its rings