Art is creative long before it is beautiful. And yet, such art is true and great, perhaps truer and greater than when it becomes beautiful. — Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (trnsl. John Gearey)
Last weekend Chris and I traveled to Strasbourg, France to meet his little sister Monica who has been studying in Toulouse this semester. There I was fascinated to re-encounter many of the cultural elements that I associate strongly with Germany, half-timbered houses, Flammkuchen, and Brezeln, here with French names and a place in French history.
That the city has changed hands repeatedly throughout its history is obvious. A short walk from the charming neighborhood known as “le petit France” brought us to the Strasbourg Cathedral, the subject of Goethe’s famous essay “On German Architecture,” (1772) which, with its defense of Gothic design, sparked a debate about German national style that lasted well into the nineteenth century. Goethe, the super-celeb of German lit, urged his country to reclaim this style as its own and cease modeling its buildings on the Greek tradition that was the trend throughout Europe, particularly in Italy and France.
Nationalist overtones aside, Goethe’s essay on the Strasbourg cathedral is one of my favorite pieces on aesthetics. It’s not that I’m so head-over-heels for Gothic architecture, but (ok, not surprisingly) I find something liberating about Goethe’s stance against the academic precepts of his time. Having been educated to believe in the supremacy of classical architecture with its geometrical clarity, Goethe writes that he first went to the cathedral expecting it to be primitive, disorderly, unnatural, cobbled together, and overwrought. Nonetheless, he found himself transfixed by its myriad of painstaking details collectively unified in the crescendo of its incomprehensible presence.
Drawn into an imaginary exchange with its long-deceased architect, Goethe describes himself returning to the structure at all hours of the day to watch it transform with the undulations of light and shadow. As he observed its lines fade and solidify in the shifts from dusk to dawn and back again he experienced a blissful cognitive struggle to take in the architectural elements that seemed as multiple and yet as harmonious as those found in nature.
Goethe’s essay encourages us to let ourselves be inspired by art and architecture even in cases where it doesn’t live up to what we might call (or maybe hope to call) our aesthetic standards. He suggests that we are better off following our own instincts about what is meaningful to us than by accepting what convention might tell us is good. Consider it. You may not have to feel guilty about your guilty pleasures at all. In them there is a need of yours being fulfilled, a question of importance being asked, even if not so smoothly or eloquently. In fact, Goethe insists that art is bound to get messy and disorderly in precisely those moments when it moves forward to encompass greater truths about our existence. In first allowing ourselves to be moved we not only take part in the joy of living, but clear the way for meaningful contemplation and understanding. I am grateful for the reminder to both create and appreciate boldly!