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How do you make beauty the subject of public policy?

Jules Lubbock regretted Modernism’s rejection of Classicism’s rules for making the beautiful city, writes Paul Finch

My favourite quote about beauty is by John Constable: ‘There is nothing ugly; I never saw an ugly thing in my life: for let the form of an object be what it may - light, shade, and perspective will always make it beautiful.’

This sprang to mind at the Royal Academy last week, where the subject of beauty was discussed by the All-Party Parliamentary Design and Innovation Group, which includes both peers like Richard Rogers and Janet Whitaker, and MPs like Nick Raynsford.

The purpose of the group is to promote ideas and policies which will help to make life better, so it is a practical organisation. On the face of it, ‘beauty’ would not normally be regarded as a subject that ministers would wish to engage with. Or, rather, that civil servants would wish their ministers to engage with. As Nick Raynsford noted, they see it as their duty to prevent their charges from falling into elephant traps; and making comments about what is or is not beautiful might be regarded as high-risk.

One politician who has discussed beauty without getting into trouble is the Conservative cabinet minister Oliver Letwin. When he was shadow environment secretary in 2005 he argued that politics should be conducted ‘as if beauty matters’, and that it should be a guiding principle behind green policy. He argued against the ‘environmental injustice’ of the better-off being able to ‘buy themselves out of ugliness’, and in favour of combating ‘vandalism and decrepit buildings’.

There were echoes of this, cited by Royal Academy adviser Jeremy Melvin, in a book by Harvard academic Elaine Scarry, On Beauty and Being Just. She argues that beauty evokes emotions that have a direct relationship with social justice: beauty invites us to feel empathy (protective towards the beautiful); to share our experience (drawing/photographing/singing something beautiful); it ‘decentres’ us, by making us aware of something valuable beyond ourselves, thereby providing the basis for positive social relations.

Research conducted by CABE bore this out, its former chief executive, Richard Simmons, recalled. When people began discussing the idea of beauty in groups, they realised that their own generally unexpressed feelings had much in common with others. However, in terms of the built environment, the most that might be hoped for, judging by the tone of the general discussion, was the creation of the well-designed as a matter of course. That would probably require educational priority for the teaching of design, and more participation by those of artistic disposition in deciding the future of the city. This latter view came from Antony Gormley, who worried that cities are now becoming no more than investment opportunities, while Jules Lubbock made distinctions between the beautiful and the sublime; he regretted Modernism’s rejection of Classicism’s rules for making the beautiful city.

As ever, any initiative will be political, though not necessarily party political. Panellist Sam Jacob reminded us that the city is the ultimate expression of democracy, and that we owe it to everyone to make the city as beautiful, if that is the right word, as possible.

The RA’s president, painter and sculptor Christopher Le Brun, flew the flag for ‘high art’, describing artists and architects, slightly tongue-in-cheek, as ‘working at the coal face of beauty’. It was right for this to happen, and right for the issue to be debated at the RA.

The All-Party Parliamentary Group is planning more of these open discussions; this one set a good precedent and as a subject would surely be worthy of further debate, with more explicit proposals on the table. The problem has at least been identified.

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