Vienna is undoubtedly among the most beautiful cities of the world. It is a city adorned with some of the finest art and architecture. The imperial palaces, Gothic cathedral, and numerous Baroque churches leave an impression on everyone who has the opportunity to walk her streets. One will also remember the city’s many beautiful fountains. Like in Rome and many other great cities, people cannot help but congregate around these fountains. There is something about the mixture of architectural elements, carefully sculpted statues, and flowing water that makes for the perfect centerpiece for a public square.
In recent days, Vienna unveiled its newest fountain. With the mayor of the city and the president of Austria in attendance, the fountain was introduced as a monument to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the city’s water system. Could there be a more fitting way to commemorate such a system than with a fountain? It seems not. There’s just one problem: the style of the fountain is completely unbefitting to the city of Vienna.
Rather than being classical, Romanesque, Gothic, or Baroque in style—and therefore cohesive with the long-standing fine art and architecture of the city—the new fountain would be best described as grotesque. Only costing the taxpayers of Vienna 1.8 million euros, the concrete public piece is composed of 33 of the most unnatural looking figures sitting or lying in a ring. Unlike Vienna’s other fountains, this one is utterly uninspiring.
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Beautiful fountains have decorated public spaces throughout history and across continents—from ancient Rome to Kansas City. We have often opted for a great fountain to augment the beauty of a piazza before a church or even to be the focal point of a grand park. We did so because the importance of beauty in the public square was something we all understood. But in this postmodern moment, as the case of the new Viennese fountain and numerous other similar cases demonstrate, we have lost sight of that importance.
Many of us yearn for the days before Duchamp’s Fountain, but the decline in art and architecture began long before Marcel’s antics. When Alexis de Tocqueville arrived for the first time in New York in 1831, he was surprised to see from his boat what he perceived to be classical structures built out of white marble. Upon landing and investigating, he soon discovered that these buildings were not really made of marble but of white-washed bricks and painted wooden columns. This was disappointing, but cheap superficiality was to be expected in a modern democratic age, he thought.
In Democracy in America, having recounted this story, Tocqueville proceeds to reflect on the state of the fine arts in the modern era. According to the Frenchman, even the neoclassical art of the 18th century was shallow compared to the great art of old. Tocqueville laments that while artists such as Jacques-Louis David certainly prove themselves to be excellent anatomists and talented painters, they merely reproduce nature, whereas the Renaissance masters such as Raphael do much more than reproduce nature—they surpass nature and help us to glimpse the divine.
Thus, for Tocqueville, even the art and architecture of his day, which we laud in our day, leave something to be desired. Considering his disapproval of faux marble columns and what he considers to be superficial neoclassicism, one can only imagine what Tocqueville would have to say about Vienna’s newest fountain, which not only fails to surpass nature but even fails to portray anything beautiful about nature. Rather, it degrades nature, and in doing so it is uninspiring, even demoralizing.
Some contend that politics is downstream from culture, and others argue the opposite. What cannot be denied is that culture and political life certainly impact each other. This point flows throughout Tocqueville’s and many other political philosophers’ works. Considering the case of art in the public square, it is clear that good regimes will adorn their cities with beautiful things and that beautiful public spaces are conducive to good political life, whereas ugly spaces are not. This is because man has a fundamental inclination to that which is beautiful.
Unnatural ugliness, of course, does not satisfy man’s desire for beauty. In fact, it demoralizes and deters him. Man also happens to be a social and political animal. Therefore, he is meant to partake in life with others, much of which naturally occurs in the public square.
But when the public square is ugly, man is deterred from it. When, on the other hand, the public square is beautiful, man is drawn into it and thereby encouraged to act in accordance with his social and political nature. Aesthetics do matter, and they affect us more than we might think. As Roger Scruton would say, beauty matters. If we want to promote a healthy public-spiritedness, we need to make the public square beautiful.
Fortunately, despite the dispiriting art and architecture which have descended upon our cities in recent years, man’s fundamental desire for beauty has not been blotted out of his heart. People still desire what is beautiful, which is why they travel across the world to visit spectacular buildings and to observe great sculptures and paintings. Better yet, people are making beautiful art and architecture again, as we see on the campuses of Thomas Aquinas College, Christendom College, and Hillsdale College.
It seems as though many are ready to move past this disappointing moment in art and architecture. This is good news, but there is still much work to be done, especially in our public spaces. Let us, then, not stop at our schools and churches; let us forge on to preserve and to restore beauty in the public square and thus avoid such tragedies as that which has befallen Vienna.