On the Post-Human Charm of Chunky Beauty


Publication History:

“On the Post-Human Charm of Chunky Beauty”, in Beauty Matters, Tallinn Architecture Biennale 2019, edited by Yael Reisner, 92-103. Tallin: Estonian Centre for Architecture, 2019

The text posted here is an earlier draft and may be different from the published version. Please ony cite from copy in print

The ancients did not have theories to discuss what we now call ‘the fine arts’. Strange as it may seem for a culture and civilization that produced Euclid’s geometry and Aristotle’s poetics, the Greeks shunned abstraction when they talked of visual beauty, resorting instead to simple and apparently rather dumb stories (sometimes also known as anecdotes, myths, topoi, or parables), meant both to conceal and convey some more profound meaning – but only to those capable of piercing the veil, to grasp or interpret the truth hidden under the misleading appearances of a fancy tale. So, where we have aesthetic principles on the modes and functions of mimesis in the visual arts, the Greeks had only stories telling how some deft craftsmen on some noted occasions managed to make stuff that looked peculiarly natural – ie, that looked as if made by nature.  We know for example that the famed Zeuxis once painted grapes that were so lifelike that birds came down to peck at them, and Apelles painted a horse so perfect that its image fooled even other horses. My cat, today, won’t be moved by any photographic picture nor even by moving pictures of other cats, let alone of dogs; but back then the arch-rival of Zeuxis, called Parrhasius, once won first prize in a painters’ contest by drawing a curtain that Zeuxis himself was tricked into attempting to pull aside (on that occasion Zeuxis admitted defeat and came in second).

The same Zeuxis also figures in another, quite different story. Having been invited to a town in what would now be southern Italy to paint a picture of a goddess, in search of inspiration he asked to see some examples of local babes. The town elders sent him a selected group of handsome young men. Zeuxis protested. He was then allowed to see some girls; but finding none of them quite to his taste, he retained five of them as models. His painting was a fusion, a blend, or an assemblage of features taken from all five, and it met with great success – hence the lasting popularity of the anecdote. From the point of view of art theory however, and even of the theory of human knowledge, this seemingly innocent tale conceals a number of major theoretical conundrums. If Zeuxis already had an idea of feminine beauty in his mind, why did he need to imitate any real-life models? And if, on the contrary, he did not have an innate idea of beauty, how could he choose among so many incomplete manifestations of the ideal? Last, assuming Zeuxis could make such a choice, how would he merge and conflate the different parts thus chosen into a new composition of his own devising?

The conflict between realism and idealism has found different solutions throughout the ages. The realist solution postulates that things must be represented as they are; the idealist solution that they must be represented as they should be. The realist portrays the individual case, the idealist the general intentions of nature. To this end, the idealist may express a ready-made, fully formed idea preinstalled in the human mind, or use some feebler declinations of some such ideas to choose among many models and achieve a creative synthesis that would flesh out (literally) his mental image, while at the same time improving upon each real-life original. The nature of such innate ideas, their provenance, and their relation to sensory experience, have concerned philosophers since the beginning of time, and they still do – so let’s forget about that for the time being. But from a more practical point of view, the technicalities of Zeuxis’s mode of artistic operation – the parsing, selection, and the reassembly of parts coming from many models – have equally invited and prompted a never-ending stream of theories and speculations. Did Zeuxis compose his new portrait by fitting together a number of discrete, recognisable parts? Could people look at his painting and tell: see, these are Emily’s eyes, Peggy’s nose, and Nancy’s lips? Or was he careful to blend all of his sources in one transfigured, truly supernatural composition, where one would say: see, there is a certain something in this portrait that reminds me of Emily, and of Peggy, and of Nancy, but it’s hard to tell what, precisely, comes from each?

Classical rhetoric had, of course, plenty of topoi and metaphors to characterise either of those modes – but only in so far as they applied specifically to the arts of discourse, ie to texts, not to images, which the ancients never deemed worthy of the same level of scrutiny. The creative writer, the good guy, is able to capture the quintessence of each literary model, then to assimilate them all and transcend the style of its sources to achieve a new and superior creation; the stupid imitator, also known as a ‘monkey’, can only cut and paste from each model and make a mosaic or a patchwork at best, which in ancient rhetoric was called a cento. Thus a good imitation of Cicero’s style, for example, would resemble Cicero’s writing in the way that a son and a father resemble each other – by having a certain something in common (in Petrarch’s words, a ‘nescio quid’). The good imitator copies from many models like bees make honey: by culling the fruit of many flowers. Honey is made of nothing but pollen, yet it does not show any trace of the pollen it’s made of. The good imitator keeps all the flavour of his sources, but none of his sources can be clearly discerned, traced or tracked in the final product of his creative endeavours. The metaphor of digestion, assimilation, and transmutation of nutrients was also often cited in this context.

All these topoi in defence of the creative value and valour of trans-figural imitation flared up, after a centuries’ long slumber, during the Renaissance, when the imitation of the classics – particularly of Cicero’s Latin – became a vital concern for several generation of humanists, while at the same time the practice of cut-and-paste imitation unexpectedly acquired a new role and unprecedented importance. Books, always rare and expensive, were made cheap and ubiquitous by print. All of a sudden, every scholar could keep any Cicero he needed handy on his desktop to consult and use at will. Printed indexes, thesauri, and the alphabetical or thematic sorting of content made information retrieval easier than ever before. As a result, citing and quoting, cutting and pasting (sometimes literally) from such easily available sources became pervasive and even fashionable. Early in the 16th century the elegant humanist Erasmus even wrote a perfidious – and, at the time, hugely popular – pamphlet against the new fad of cut-and-paste imitation. He called the cut-and-paste imitator ‘the sick guy’ (Nosoponus), and he ridiculed him as an uninspired, cretinous fool. To no avail: the practice of cut-and-paste imitation kept spreading, and soon some even started to theorise it. Prominent among these, the Neo-Platonist polymath Giulio Camillo (also known at the time for his talents as a lion tamer) built his mysterious Memory Theatre as a mechanical tool meant to facilitate the disassembly and re-composition of Cicero’s writings.

An early visionary of the mechanisation of knowledge – and of the arts – Camillo also explained to his friend and acolyte Sebastiano Serlio how to apply the same method to architectural design. And Serlio was quick to adopt the new technology of printed images to translate Camillo’s method from text to visuals. What in Camillo’s theory was a way to create texts out of cut-and-paste citations of existing texts, became for Serlio a way to create drawings out of cut-and-paste citations of existing drawings. Published in Venice as of 1537, and soon thereafter in France, Serlio’s treatise was designed to provide an encyclopaedia of ready-made architectural drawings in a user-friendly, printed format. Those drawings were offered to the reader as a catalogue of parts, all immediately available for recycling, reuse and citation in new and inevitably chunky architectural compositions. As in Camillo’s ‘rhetoric of citations’, Serlio’s compositions were not meant to hide the provenance of their sources – indeed, quite the opposite: the mechanical, aggregational nature of their design was emphatically displayed, to be seen by each and all; each fragment, component, or chunk clearly identified as such: virtual spolia in a sense, used as if between quotation marks (which by the way were being invented as a typographical convention around that time).

The resulting chunkiness of Serlio’s mannerist style contributed to Serlio’s notoriously bad reputation from the start – at the time, nobody noticed that Serlio’s chunkiness was in fact a deliberate aesthetic choice and possibly even an ideological option (only in more recent times Tafuri and others have related Serlio’s oddly pre-mechanical style to his Evangelical, crypto-protestant, possibly Nicodemite proclivities). Some of the same chunkiness, indeed at times even more extreme, in Michelangelo’s late architectural work was, and is to this day, way less harshly received. Mannerist chunkiness was for long common and popular in Northern Europe, where it was disseminated via pattern-books in print, often directly derived from Serlio’s treatise. Generally speaking, and with five centuries of hindsight, it is not surprising that the early-modern rise of mechanical media for the recording and transmission of text and images may have favoured a method of textual and visual composition based on the mechanical assembly and reassembly of ready-made, mechanically reproducible fragments or citations. Cut and pasted chunks are likely to look chunky, no matter how they are cut from the old and pasted anew.

The history of the industrial revolution, and of the cultural technologies it has spawned for the last two centuries or so, further validates some general technological justification of chunky art. When items of mechanical mass-production become the ingredients of visual or sculptural compositions, the results are bound to be chunky. The lexicon and etymology of modernist art theory itself betray and suggest the mechanical nature of some chunky modes of image-making (‘as found’, ‘objet trouvé’, ‘ready-made’). With the rise of photographic images the actual mechanical practices of collage, cut-and-paste, and montage became in a sense ubiquitous tropes, critical emblems, symbols and metaphors of modernism itself. Yet in architectural theory, bizarrely, collage and citation also migrated in full from modernism to post-modernism, and to this day cut-and-paste compositions are seen as inherent in post-modern architectural design as much as in modernist art theory. And even more bizarrely, the aesthetics of cut-and-paste aggregations then further migrated from post-modernist design to architectural deconstructivism (from Colin Rowe to Peter Eisenman, in a sense) so that, until recently chunkiness was so common and pervasive in architectural modernism, post-modernism, and deconstructivism alike, as to be conceptually almost irrelevant – in a phenomenon sometimes known as semantic inflation, signs become less noticeable and less meaningful when they are ubiquitous.

Until recently, as I just said. Because this is no longer the case. Indeed, the reason that I am writing this piece right now is that chunkiness today is again on the rise – in practice as much as in theory. It is early June 2019, and I am just back from a number of end-of-term juries and vivas in schools of architecture in various countries, and for the last two weeks I was hardly once in a room where chunkiness was not shown or discussed – often both. There are various deep reasons for that, which I shall keep for another day. Other reasons however are patently evident, and can be put on the table right away. Streamlining, or aerodynamics, was the one visual feature of modernity that was distinctly never chunky. Airplanes cannot be chunky – they would not fly if they were. Until the 1990s, streamlining was mostly limited to the design of vehicles that need to reduce drag when moving: trains, cars, planes, and the hull of ships. Then digital streamlining came (also known today as parametricism) – and spliny smoothness ruled the world for a while. At the same time, not coincidentially, image-editing software based on the same mathematical tools (splines and NURBS) favoured the fusion and blending of figural parts; in technology as in visual culture, collaging in the late 1990s meant seamless merging. Some today see digital streamlining and parametric spline-modelling as timeless expressions of digitally intelligent design – wrongly, in my opinion. But for those who see computation as a tool that makes everything smooth, chunkiness is a powerful visual antidote. It is a reminder of the good old times when computation did not yet exist; and as there are people who never like new technologies, some who did not like industrial modernity 40 years ago now look back at the age of mechanical machine-making with tender feelings of loss and nostalgia – because they like today’s digital technologies even less. This kind of romantic fascination we all feel for things we have lost and we know will never come back is common and human and there is nothing surprising in that – even though I personally find no reason to cherish the catastrophic failing of late-modern technologies at the time of their final demise.

But then there is another, quite different story. Chunkiness today is also the almost inevitable result of the expert combination of advanced computing, Big Data technologies, Artificial Intelligence, robotic and automation. This kind of chunkiness is not nostalgic – it is technologically driven and forward-looking. We are not dealing with semantic inflation this time around, nor with polysemy; just with plain and simple ambiguity. Chunkiness today means two very different things to two very different groups of people. Stay tuned. 

Bibliographical note

Sources for the stories of Zeuxis and friends are in Pliny, Naturalis Historia, XXXV, 64; Cicero, De Inventione, II,1; and elsewhere. The expression ‘rhetoric of citations’ comes from Marc Fumaroli, L’age de l’éloquence. Rhétorique et ‘res litteraria’ de la Renaissance au seuil de l’époque classique (Geneva: Droz, 1980), 98. On Renaissance citationism see Carpo, Alberti, Raffaello, Serlio e Camillo: Metodo e ordini nella teoria architettonica dei primi moderni (Geneva: Droz, 1993), 29-41; on Camillo’s method and Serlio’s adaptation of it, ibidem, 121-130, with further bibliography. Erasmus’s Dialogus cui titulus Ciceronianus sive de optimo genere dicendi was first printed by Froben in Basle in 1528. The first instalment of Serlio’s treatise, Regole generali di architetura…, was printed by Marcolini in Venice in 1537; successive parts of Serlio’s treatise were published in Paris as of 1545, then elsewhere. Camillo’s Idea del theatro was printed by Torrentino in Florence in 1550; his Trattato dell’imitazione in Venice in 1544. Camillo’s theoretical text Idea dell’eloquenza, which includes a discussion of Zeuxis’s topos, was discovered and published by Lina Bolzoni only in 1983 and 1984. On digital streamlining, spline-modelling and parametricism see Carpo, The Second Digital Turn (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2017), passim; on computational discretism and big data, ibidem and also Carpo, ‘Breaking the Curve. Big Data and Digital Design,’ Artforum 52,6 (2014): 168-173; on robotic automation and chunkiness, see Carpo, Introduction, in M. Claypool, M. Jimenez Garcia, G. Retsin, V. Soler, Robotic Building. Architecture in the Age of Automation (Munich: Detail, forthcoming in the fall of 2019).




Beauty Matters


“On the Post-Human Charm of Chunky Beauty”, in Beauty Matters, Tallinn Architecture Biennale 2019, edited by Yael Reisner, 92-103. Tallin: Estonian Centre for Architecture, 2019