Idealism is expressed in the gadgets we use, in the places where we live and work, and in the media we see in our daily lives. The urge to put our ideas (our ideals) into visual or tangible form has been a driving force of creation throughout human history. It is part of us. It grows from our individual and collective experiences and insights, as well as our needs, wants, and dreams. But what do we mean by idealism?
Idealism encourages imagination and attempts to realize a mental conception of beauty, a standard of perfection. The idea of beauty is what matters. Beauty is found in the idea the form represents. From an idealistic perspective, all objects and experiences are representations of the mind.
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The Ancient Ideal of Beauty
Since ancient times, the Western ideal of human beauty was defined by the art of the Greeks and Romans.
EditSpear Bearer (Doryphorus). Roman copy of ancient Greek original by Polykleitos The Venus de’ Medici
The statue known as the Spear Bearer or the Doryphorus (above left) is a Roman copy of ancient Greek original. Its sculptor, Polykleitos of Argos, wrote a treatise on the perfect proportions of the human form and created this statue as an example. Polykleitos envisioned the human body as a harmonious set of divinely inspired ratios. By studying numerous models and measuring the key ratios such as the size of the head to the size of the body, he arrived at what he thought were the ideal proportions for a human. Typical of Classical art, the figure is in the prime of life, and blemish-free. It is not a portrait of an individual but rather a vision of the ideal.
The Venus de’Medici (above right) is a Roman copy of a fourth-century BCE Greek original by Praxitiles, the best-known sculptor of his time. Its refined profile and modest pose are features of the Greek idealization of human figures. Although nude goddesses were unknown in early periods of Greek art, this figure came to represent a feminine ideal, and has strongly influenced many artworks since that time, down to the feminists of the twentieth century who rebelled against it.
Idealism in Contemporary Design
What about art in our own times? Is the notion of idealism and beauty still relevant today?
Are contemporary artists and designers concerned with idealistic beauty, with the underlying idea the form represents? And if so, where do we get our visions of the ideal today? From art, design, media, or some other realm?
Idealism is not confined to the traditional fine arts, such as painting and sculpture. “Objects of all kinds, from ancient carefully crafted flint knives to today’s personal digital devices, have been conceived to delight the eye as well as to serve more obviously useful functions. Well-designed utilitarian objects and spaces, from spoons to cities, bring pleasure and efficiency into our daily lives. Artists transform objects for daily use by either designing them in new ways or by embellishing them; sometimes both.” (Artforms, p. 20)
Idealism in Product/Industrial Design
EditMacbook Pro, designed by Apple Corporation
Everyday objects such as the Macbook Pro (above) express the idealism of our technological age.
Apple founder and CEO Steve Jobs revolutionized the way we think with computers (Links to an external site.). He fused idealism with digital technology. For Jobs, the Mac was the tool of liberation, and he demanded perfection, originality, and human-centered design (Links to an external site.) in every detail of Apple products. Jobs once stated that “by building affordable personal computers and putting one on every desk, in every hand, I’m giving people power. They don’t have to go through the high priests of mainframe – they can access information themselves. They can steal fire from the mountain. And this is going to inspire far more change than any nonprofit.”
Idealism in Architecture/Environmental Design
The Oculus, New York City, Designed by Santiago Calatrava
The Oculus, a transportation hub designed by Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava, expresses an idealistic vision of American resilience. It reminds us that, even in the face of devastation, there is hope.
Located mere feet from the September 11th Memorial and Museum in downtown Manhattan, and a regular destination for visitors to Ground Zero, it takes the shape of a bird, specifically a phoenix, in mid-flight. The symbolism is immediate and you can’t help but feel the power of the idea that underpins the form. The angle of the windows is particularly placed so that every year on the anniversary of the attacks, the sun shines directly through the skylight and illuminates the main hall at 10:28 a.m. (the time of the collapse of the second tower).