The democratic beauty of Central Park
John Schwenkler January 3, 2013 - 1:40pm
In a brief interview, the philosopher Joshua Cohen reflects on the beauty of Central Park, noting how "the park provides an experience of beauty and is also ... driven by a remarkable intellectual idea: the democratic idea of an experience of beauty for the people". As an example of the park's beauty he highlights the ceiling of the Bethesda Terrace, shown above (you may click the image to view a larger version that shows much more detail; and see here for more images of the terrace):
In the foyer of the Bethesda Terrace theres a fantastic ceiling made with more than 15000 tiles. Theyre encaustic tiles which means that the color and geometric design on the surface goes all they way through: it is not a glaze but multi-coloured clay. The ceiling was designed by British architect, Jacob Wrey Mould, based on his two-year-long study of the Alhambra. So this public park in New York City includes a structure with a ceiling based on one of the most beautiful works of architecture in the world. In Central Park, the Terrace serves as an architectural platform for the experience of natural beauty.
Cohen also remarks on the idea that genuine beauty can be appreciated only by an aristocratic elite:
[Park designer Frederick Law] Olmsted had spent the 1850s working as a journalist, writing about slavery and aristocracy. He thought that the conflict between North and South in the United States was part of a global fight between democratic and aristocratic models of society. Theres an aristocratic criticism of democracy that goes all the way back to Plato, that when you try to do things for everyone you end up with lowest common denominator crap. Olmsted saw building Central Park as a way of proving the aristocrats wrong. It was built by a democratic society for a democratic societyfor the peopleand was incredibly beautiful. His bet was that people would be drawn to it.
About the Author
I am Assistant Professor in the Department of Philosophy at Florida State University.