A comparative reflection of aesthetic values between Spain and the United States
My goal in this project is to reflect on the use of aesthetics and contemplative art in Spain and how they are valued culturally. I saw that this affected me quite personally so I will be talking about it from a personal point of view, as well as critically thinking about how art and aesthetics developed in Spain and how it is different than the mindset with which it is viewed in the U.S.
For my vuelta project, I decided to research on contemplative art and aesthetics as they are valued in Spanish culture. I was drawn to this research because of the comparisons and differences that I can see based on my previous knowledge and experiences of these things in the United States and the Americas. I am especially interested in the effects that valuing art and aesthetic has in philosophical, social, and cultural movements throughout Spanish history.
During our study abroad trip to Spain, I was deeply impressed by the priority that is placed on aesthetic pleasure. Walking throughout Madrid, the contemporary capital of Spain, where I expected to see skyscrapers, parking lots, and an excess amount of concrete buildings, instead I found carefully maintained trees, parks, and gardens. Between grocery marts, tobacco shops, and dumpsters, I found small clean plazas lined with benches, bushes, and trees. This was a pattern I could see throughout the entire country. In areas where I expected construction scaffolding, I found intricate pattern-work outlining historic buildings. Where I expected drab city colors and uniformed paint jobs, I found faded reds, bright yellows, fresh blues, and calm whites. Most surprisingly, where I expected blocky, shiny, public art erected between benches for the sake of using space, I found sculptures of nude bodies, regal animals, or legendary figures.
My focus on this drew out my curiosity on the subject even more. I started to look toward my expectations as part of the equation. In our daily walks throughout our hosting cities of Madrid, Sevilla, and Barcelona, I couldn’t help but feel taken aback by my own exposure to sheer beauty and my inability to process what I felt. Why was I drawn to the simple fact that I was stumbling into flowering gardens during my city walks? Was the priority of aesthetics in Spain calling out to me because it was forward and overwhelming? Or were my expectations flawed by my South Florida experiences of blocked city streets and abundant uses of concrete?
During my time in Spain I discovered that the European view of aesthetics and art was much different than that in North America. Instead of being measured by its value in profit or numbers as would be the focus in the United States, the value of spending on urban landscaping and gardening in Spain is measured by what it brings to the people. It is seen as innately important to the wellbeing of the cities’ citizens that they be surrounded by beautiful things. Using an empty plot of land to create a garden or tree-lined plaza in a U.S. city might not be a popular option among those who can decide what to do with the plot.
Philosophical movements and the value of Aesthetic
This contrast between both countries in the value given to aesthetics and intangible profit provides a lot of insight about the influences that can be attributed to the development of each country. Some of the largest influencers in defining what is valuable, beautiful, etc. are the philosophical movements that were pertinent at the time: Enlightenment in the \United States and Romanticism in Spain.
The 18th century is known as the age of Enlightenment, a philosophical movement that would greatly influence the course of history. The ideas highlighted in the Enlightenment movement argue that humans could use reasoning to discover and explore truths about different aspects of life, such as religion and politics. Writers of the enlightenment such as Jean-Jacques Rousseau, David Hume, and Immanuel Kant, discussed and reflected on the importance of religious tolerance, freedom, skepticism, and improvement.
Apart from being the era of Early Enlightenment it also marks a very definitive era of development for the United States. It was in the late 1700s that the young American nation was fighting for its independence, and the fight was directly influenced by the Enlightenment rationale. Thomas Jefferson, an Enlightenment scholar himself, wrote up the declaration of independence in line with the popular philosophical movement, founding the new country upon the Enlightenment ideal that society should be defined as a contract between those who govern and those who are governed.
The effect of the Enlightenment as the basis of the American society is reflected in the popular mindset of many of its citizens. This mindset is brought about through efforts of tolerance, scientific reason, political correctness, and the common “pursuit of happiness.” However, because there is a constant push toward bettering the future, there is little focus on the pleasures of the current moment. Although Early Enlightenment thinkers praise the laws of nature, there is little appreciation for the natural world and for what it is in the present.
This is contrasted by the popular countermovement to Enlightenment that was more prominent in Spain in the 19th century: Romanticism. Romanticism is considered a reaction against the Enlightenment movement’s praise of materialism and rationalism. While the Enlightenment thinkers focused on how the world could be improved for the benefit of humanity, Romanticism was oriented toward the individual person and a praise of the emotional. It rejected the popular ideals of order, balance and rationality in favor of irrational, subjective, and transcendental aspects of life. Because of this, the movement was associated with a profound appreciation for beauty, nature, emotion, and the spirit.
Gardens and Parks
In Spain, we can see the values of Romanticism clearly portrayed in the culture’s mindset toward art and beauty. There is a full, public appreciation of nature and emotion that remains faithful to the movement of 200 years ago. One way that this appreciation is practiced in public projects that keep the people in contact with beauty.
The main examples I found of these types of public works were the El Retiro Park in Madrid and in the Maria Luisa Park in Sevilla. These are both beautiful, large public gardens spanning tens of city blocks. In Sevilla, the Maria Luisa Park is like a jungle with hundreds of birds resting among the diverse and numerous trees and ponds spread throughout the park. There are fountains and benches and bridges scattered within the grounds for people to sit in silence or converse with a partner. In El Retiro park in Madrid, green lawns stretch across the park where people can be seen playing, sleeping, kissing, and eating under large, leafy trees. In the center of the park, a perfectly kept rose garden with hundreds of flowers of orange, pink, and red. A short walk from that is a lake, Estanque grande del Retiro, where people can enjoy short ferry rides or rent a boat to row across to each side.
My first instinct in each of these inspiring parks was to ask, “so how can they profit from this?” But obviously, a public work is just that. Public. It is payed for and maintained by the government to allow access to everyone and anyone who desires to stroll its interior. In cities like Miami, we have no such thing. There are parks, public landscaping works, grassy fields, playing areas, but nothing like these gardens and parks that you could walk through for hours without noticing. Instead, in the U.S. the mindset is more often focused on profit. Land that could be used for parks or gardens instead goes to parking garages or large skyscrapers that can be sold as office space, possibly a sign of the Enlightenment values taken to a certain extreme. In urban U.S., there is a constant need to make everything bigger, taller, more efficient, less wasteful. But there is less and less often a movement towards the beautiful and inexplicable.
The Human Body
In the U.S., the quest for complete political correctness has hushed much public appreciation for the beauty of the human body. There has been a blurred line that differentiates the obscene and the sensual, and it seems that the majority of the time in popular culture, both are grouped into one category. Walking around the most popular U.S. cities will immediately reveal that nudity is not an accepted area of exploration for public art.
Art in the States is more commonly defined as part of the abstract and modern movements. Instead of mimicking a classic and representational focus, artists whose works are featured on the streets of U.S. cities highlight different aspects of art that are not commonly explored. For example, works in Miami often become famous for their interactivity. This is a blatant aversion from traditional values, including aesthetics. Public art in Miami especially strays from classic forms of creation, but even in cities with less praise for abstract art, the public appreciation of the naked body is lacking. Although this is something that is not necessary, it is certainly removed from the Romanticism that still finds itself in Spanish public art.
In Spanish cities, this is completely replaced by a public and popular embracing of the human body as beautiful. In squares, parks, and other public areas, I was always surprised to be the only one glancing confusedly at a nude sculpture of a human body. Others around me either walked past without noticing, or stared appreciatively at the bright white statues in contemplation. Growing up studying about the ancient Greeks’ respect for the human body and analyzing sensual works of art, I can’t say I was completely taken by surprise.
The nude statues and paintings projected in public areas throughout Spanish cities weren’t the thing that surprised me; instead, what caught me off guard was the response to them. It was almost completely silent, as if the street had suddenly taken the identity of an art museum. Lavapies for example, a neighborhood in Madrid encompassing locations such as the Museum of Reina Sofia, is one example of contemporary appreciations of beauty and the human body. It is an artistic location with many works featured especially in the form of wall art. Here, I found a respected mural of a group of colored women facing the audience with their bare backs. Though the piece was informal, painted onto the side of a corner store, it was still respected in that it was not even really given much attention. There was no graffiti over it; no lewd comments sprayed around or onto it; no sign covering anything in an attempt to censor the work. It just stood as it was, even without having the esteem usually associated with a statue or sculpture, and people passed by it with the greatest sense of normality. To me, this in itself was a surprising reception of that kind of art.
While the Spain and the Americas share many influencing ties with one another, during my journey throughout Spain I felt that one of the stark differences between this country and the U.S. was the way in which beauty is valued and appreciated. Each country has its own culture and priorities that set them apart from each other; however, philosophical movements play a big role in their development. In the U.S., the Enlightenment era played a crucial role in shaping the new nation. In Spain, on the other hand, Romanticism swept the land in the 19th century. Romanticism contributed to Spain its strong characteristics of defining beauty.
Today, Spanish culture cultivates a strong appreciation for nature, beauty, and aesthetics. We can see this quite clearly in the care and priority that they give relevant public works, including parks, gardens, public artworks, etc.
Duignan, B. (2019, March 29 Published). Enlightenment. Retrieved from https://www.britannica.com/event/Enlightenment-European-history
Encyclopaedia Britannica. (2019, January 21 Published). Romanticism. Retrieved from https://www.britannica.com/art/Romanticism