What is the case for the arts?
There are some immediate answers to the question, mostly to do with finance (given by dealers), employment (by artists), theology (by the pious), tourism (by governments) , pleasure (by collectors), politics (particularly by the dictator).
But in searching for another answer, and responding to the invitation to be subjective, I want to start by looking back on the most intense aesthetic (artistic?) experiences of my life.
Immediately mathematics comes to mind, then music, then architecture. In my hopelessly failed mathematical career I at least managed to reach a moment in which my understanding of a structure gave me intense pleasure in – I think - Galois theory. I grasped a pattern of the interconnectedness of different parts of the structure. And I appreciated the inevitability and clarity of this pattern, which I happily described as beautiful: for long I considered my reaction to this beauty as aesthetic. (A later career in art history rarely yielded comparable intellectual satisfaction).
I qualify below my description of this experience as ‘aesthetic’ –even in part – and come to music and architecture. While knowing something about architecture, musically I’m in that uninformed/hopeless category of those who merely ‘know what they like’.
Two experiences – of hearing Beethoven’s Quartet Op. 135 for the first time in the 1960’s, and of entering Mies van der Rohe’s Barcelona Pavilion thirty years ago – affected me physically: the symptoms were those of a ‘panic attack’ but without the fear or anxiety. These experiences were powerful, uncomprehended and exhilarating. They were due entirely to the music and architecture: they were NOT due to something which I had eaten at lunch.
Maybe I interpreted the ‘must it be’ opening chords of the last movement of the quartet as Beethoven’s rage against his deafness; maybe, in other words, I was reacting to tragic narrative rather than to abstract sound. But why separate the two? The end of the quartet left me unable to move for some minutes.
And entering the Barcelona Pavilion I knew (because of a purely physical reaction) something I was often uncertain of as I gave rushed lectures to students of architectural history: namely that I was capable of an instinctive response caused entirely by some great architecture, and that this gave me the right to talk about it to others.
Psychiatrists and neurologists may be able to explain these physical responses, and philosophers and aestheticians may discuss the nature of their causes. But much will remain unexplainable. The architectural historian entering the Barcelona Pavilion and taking psychiatry, neurology and aesthetics into account, may in addition identify the materials of the building, its structure, the circumstances of its commission and rebuilding, and relate the work to earlier and contemporary architecture and to its intellectual and political context. But his mild ‘panic attack’ tells him that this isn’t the whole story: reason – calling on finance, employment, theology, tourism, pleasure, politics, or other relevant concerns - takes you only part of the way. After all, as Jed Perl says in Authority and freedom, ‘I want us to release art from the stranglehold of relevance’.
* * * * * *
The important irrelevance of art (‘irrelevance’ is not quite the right word) appeals to John Banville who in a review of Authority and freedom has quoted Perl approvingly ‘The idea of the work of art as an imaginative achievement to which the audience freely responds is now too often replaced by the assumption that a work of art should promote a particular idea or ideology , or perform some clearly defined civic or community service … At the heart of every encounter with a work of art there’s the enigma of the work itself, which even when designed to serve some apparently cut-and-dried purpose, only really succeeds when the artist or artists involved are driven by an imaginative imperative’ (my emphasis).
A similar argument was made in the 1970’s in David Watkin’s deeply controversial Morality and architecture. In this, setting out to champion the ‘imaginative genius of the individual’, he deplored the tendency ‘to explain architecture away as a consequence or manifestation of something else [to which the individual artist might be subject] … religion, politics, sociology, philosophy, rationalism technology, German theories of space or the spirit of the age’. Spurred on by his personal political views and by his bitter anti-Modernism Watkin gleefully harvested many a telling phrase from Pugin to Pevsner by way of Herbert Read whom he mockingly quotes as saying that ‘it seemed elementary that a belief in Marx should be accompanied by a belief in, say, Cézanne’.
* * * * * *
Perhaps Perl’s ‘irrelevance’ and Banville’s approval of it need qualification. As the dealers, artists and others of my opening paragraph know, art has many kinds of relevance, each establishing its case for the arts. But in addition there is the ’enigma of the work itself’.
There is no enigma about that structure in Galois theory. The structure is complex and difficult to discern and – when returned to – may yield further insights. But once comprehended it has, in a sense, done its job. On the other hand, the Beethoven quartet and the Barcelona Pavilion are different in that they are inexhaustible, not just in what they might ‘lead to’ in music or architecture, but in themselves. One can return again and again to them, and each time be sustained by an enigma, reflected in our inability to grasp them whole. So I would not call that moment 57 years ago (I remember precisely where I was standing) of enlightenment in Galois theory an aesthetic experience. Anyway, mathematics requires no case to be made for it.
So I base my case here on this return, again and again, to Beethoven’s quartet, to Mies van der Rohe’s pavilion, to the work of art, for the sake of its enigmatic nature, and its roots not in the intellect of its creator but in his or her unreasoned imagination. In short, to something incomprehensible, enigmatic and transcendent in the work of art. I’ll be contradicted somewhere if I claim that animals and robots are unaware of the transcendent. But for humans it matters. It establishes one of the cases for the arts.
(I am much indebted in the above to John Banville’s review of Jed Perl’s book in the New York Review of Books on 21 April. 2022, and to Fintan O’Toole’s review of Banville’s Snow and April in Spain, also in the New York Review of Books, on 24 Feb. 2022)
Thomas Ivory, architect (Gatherum series), 1973, Gifford and Craven
James Gandon: vitruvius hibernicus, 1985, A. Zwemmer
The Royal Hospital, Kilmainham, Co. Dublin, 1988, Irish Architectural Archive (Dublin)
A Bibliography of Irish Architectural History, 1989, Irish Historical Studies (Dublin) 
Public Architecture in Ireland 1680–1760, 2001, Yale University Press (new haven, London) 
Contributor to: Irish Provincial Cultures in the Long Eighteenth Century: making the middle sort, 2012, Four Courts Press (Dublin)
Contributor to: The Old Library, Trinity College Dublin, 1712–2012, 2012, Four Courts Press (Dublin) 
Contributor to: The Building Site in Eighteenth-century Ireland by Arthur Gibney, 2017, Four Courts Press (Dublin) 
Contributor to: The Architecture of Richard Morrison (1767-1849) and William Vitruvius Morrison (1794-1838), 1989, Irish Architectural Archive (Dublin) 
Databases and archives
Photographs by McParland are held in the Courtauld Institute of Art's Conway Library of art and architecture.
The Office of the Surveyor General in Ireland in the Eighteenth Century, 1995, The Architectural History Journal, Society of Architectural Historians 
Public Architecture in Ireland 1680–1760, 2002, The British journal for eighteenth-century studies, Vol 25, Part 2, 2002, 297, Voltaire Foundation
Public Architecture in Ireland 1680–1760, 2002, Studies: an Irish quarterly review of letters, philosophy, and science. Vol 91, ISSU 361, 2002, 79–82, Irish Jesuits
McParland wrote the obituary for his colleague Anne Crookshank in the Burlington Magazine in 2017.
Awards and recognition
In recognition of McParland's contributions to scholarship in Irish architecture, he was elected an Honorary Fellow of the Royal Institute of the Architects of Ireland, and made an Honorary Member of the Royal Society of Ulster Architects. He is a retired Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries of London.
5 May 2022