By contrast, Worringer noted, realistic art, which had dominated aesthetics in the Ancient Greek and Roman eras and held sway in
Jacques-Louis David - Oath of the Horatii (1785)
The most compelling aspect of Worringer’s theory — a point as readily applicable to architecture as it is to painting — was his explanation of why a society might transfer its loyalty from the one aesthetic mode to the other. The determinant lay, he believed, in those values which the society in question was lacking, for it would love in art whatever it did not possess in sufficient supply within itself. Abstract art, infused as it was with harmony, stillness and rhythm, would appeal chiefly to societies yearning for calm societies in which law and order were fraying, ideologies were shifting, and a sense of physical danger was compounded by moral and spiritual confusion. Against such a turbulent background (the sort of atmosphere to be found in many of the metropolises of twentieth-century America or in New Guinean villages enervated by generations of internecine strife), inhabitants would experience what Worringer termed ‘an immense need for tranquillity’, and so would turn to the abstract, to patterned baskets or the minimalist galleries of Lower Manhattan.
Kasimir Malevich - Black Circle (1913)
But in societies which had achieved high standards of internal and external order, so that life therein had come to seem predictable and overly secure, an opposing hunger would emerge: citizens would long what its advocates lack as about what they like. We can understand a seventeenth-century elite’s taste for gilded walls by simultaneously remembering the context in which this form of decoration developed its appeal: one where violence and disease were constant threats, even for the wealthy — fertile soil from which to begin appreciating the corrective promises offered by angels holding aloft garlands of flowers and ribbons.
We shouldn’t believe that the modern age, which often prides itself on rejecting signs of gentility and leaves walls unplastered and bare, is any less deficient. It is merely lacking different things. An absence of politesse is no longer the prevailing dread. In most Western cities, at least, the worst of the slums have been replaced by clean, well-charted streets. Life in much of the developed world has become rule-bound and materially abundant, punctilious and routine, to the extent that longings now run in another direction: towards the natural and unftissy, the rough and authentic — longings that bourgeois households may rely on unrendered walls and breeze blocks to help them to assuage.