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Are Standards Of Artistic Beauty Universal?
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February 12, 2009, 10:00 PM
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This is a big question raised by Denis Dutton`s book The Art Instinct, so I`m going to focus just on one small field where I actually kind of know what I`m talking about: golf course architecture. Specifically, are golf courses naturally attractive to a sizable fraction of the male population around the globe? Since they are hugely expensive to build, their sheer existence testifies to that proposition.

The answer is: time will tell. However, I wouldn`t be surprised if the look of golf courses proved universally popular by the end of this century. Golf courses, which originated in Scotland, first became popular in the Anglosphere about a century ago. They have since become wildly popular in East Asia (the LPGA tour is now dominated by South Koreans, and you frequently read about Chinese peasants protesting that corrupt local officials have stolen their land to build golf courses), and almost as popular in Western Europe. The oil sheikdoms have built golf courses in the Persian Gulf.

On the other hand, golf has yet to prove terribly popular in Russia, South Asia, black Africa (north of South Africa), or Latin America. I see that mostly as a matter of time and money, but I could be wrong.

By the way, there are two main styles of golf courses: the original links, which emerged out of crumpled, treeless Scottish sand dunes otherwise useful only for grazing sheep, and the sleeker inland American-style courses with tree-lined fairways and lakes.

My impression is that the original style is a bit of an acquired taste. Generally, golfers don`t come to appreciate the look of golf courses built on sand dunes until they`ve some experience with the game. In contrast, the American-style golf course look is frequently imitated for non-golf purposes, such as corporate campuses and rich men`s estates.

And then there`s the issue, as Dennis Mangan raises in the comments, of changing tastes over time in landscape, from the "beautiful" to the "sublime." From my golf course architecture article:

The distinction Edmund Burke made in 1757 between the "sublime" and the "beautiful" applies to golf courses. The beautiful is some pleasing place conducive to human habitat — meadows, valleys, slow moving streams, grassland intermingled with copses of trees, the whole English country estate shtick. The sublime is nature so magnificent that it induces the feeling of terror because it could kill you, such as by you falling off a mountain or into a gorge.

Beautiful landscapes are most suited for building golf courses, since a golf course needs close to 100 acres of land level enough for a golf ball to come to rest upon. But golfers get a thrill out of the mock sublime, where you are in danger of losing not your life, but your mis-hit golf ball into a water hazard or ravine. One reason that Pebble Beach on the Monterey Peninsula is so legendary is because it combines sublime sea cliffs with beautiful (and thus functional for golf) rolling plains (My father, though, almost walked off the cliff in the middle of the eighth fairway at Pebble Beach and into the wave-carved chasm, which probably would have satisfied Burke`s theoretical rigor.)