This is going to be the first book from Roger Scruton that I’m going to tackle. It’s a roughly 200 page philosophical inquiry on the nature of beauty, its history in art, and the modern tendency to desecrate it. Although this is a book with a lot of advanced references, it’s something that would be great to give to a child probably around ages 8-12 who has a precocious interest in art.
There’s also a companion documentary that Scruton produced for the BBC, which I’ll probably cover in a separate post.
American conservatives tend to focus more on ideology than aesthetics, and that surrenders the artistic realm entirely to the narrative of the modernists and post-modernists. If you take almost any Art History course in America, for example, you will learn to disdain beauty as a relic of the past, and learn a narrative diametrically opposed to the sensibility which Scruton offers in this short text on aesthetics.
As a quick note, you might want to buy the print edition instead of the Kindle one. This contains many reproductions of famous paintings, and unless you’ve memorized all of them already or have a computer handy to look them up, you might prefer the hardcover.
The pleasure in beauty is [contemplative], feeding upon the presented form of its object, and constantly renewing itself from that source.
My pleasure in beauty is therefore like a gift offered to the object, which is in turn a gift offered to me. In this respect it resembles the pleasure that people experience in the company of their friends.
Beauty is often matched with a sense of the sacred. Sacred places must be defended against desecration:
Sacred things are removed, held apart and untouchable — or touchable only after purifying rites. They owe these features to the presence, in them, of a supernatural power — a spirit which has claimed them as its own. In seeing places, buildings, and artefacts as sacred we project on to the material world the experience that we receive from each other, when embodiment becomes a ‘real presence’, and we perceive the other as forbidden to us and untouchable. Human beauty places the transcendental subject before our eyes and within our grasp. It affects us as sacred things affect us, as something that can be more easily profaned than possessed.
On the same page he transitions into the historic veneration of virginity among Christians and a variety of other cultures:
The sense of prohibition does not extend only to children. Indeed… it is integral to mature sexual feeling. It underlies the deep respect for virginity that we encounter, not only in classical and Biblical texts, but in literatures of almost all the articulate religions. There are no greater tributes to human beauty than the medieval and Renaissance images of the Holy Virgin: a woman whose sexual maturity is expressed in motherhood and who yet remains untouchable, barely distinguishable, as an object of veneration, from the child in her arms.
When modern people devalue virginity as something useless or to be held in contempt, it also undoes much of our proper conception of what beauty is. The marriage ritual, for example, becomes vulgar and materialistic when the bride has been around the block several times or has been living in sin with the groom. It loses all of its aesthetic relevance, and no amount of money that the bride’s family spends on open sushi bars can change that fundamental disruption.
Scruton also addresses the Dadaists at length:
The argument is eagerly embraced, because it seems to emancipate people from the burden of culture, telling them that all these venerable masterpieces can be ignored with impunity, that TV soaps are ‘as good as’ Shakespeare and Radiohead the equal of Brahms, since nothing is better than anything and all claims to aesthetic value are void. The argument therefore chimes with the fashionable forms of cultural relativism, and defines the point from which university courses in aesthetics tend to begin — and as often as not the point at which they end.
In Democracy, also, people are discouraged from criticizing one another’s tastes, even though the disharmonious aesthetic sensibility of any one community member can disrupt that sense of the rest. Whether it’s an unmowed lawn, an ugly pink flamingo, or a bad paint job, the aesthetic choices of individuals and groups have an impact on everyone else. People often inflict their private tastes on the public realm.
Much of modern art is a project of the desecration of the sacred and the beautiful. Scruton writes that
Desecration is a kind of defence against the sacred, an attempt to destroy its claims. In the presence of sacred things our lives are judged and in order to escape that judgment we destroy the thing that seems to accuse us.
We see this especially in how modern Western women tend to behave. Scruton says that pornography inherently degrades its subjects, and makes a persuasive argument to that end. And as anyone who is familiar with today’s girls can tell you, most of them enjoy making pornography of themselves to both attract admirers and devalue their own charms. Obesity, slovenly dress, piercings, and tattoos can also be seen as willful desecrations of the body, which was once held to be more sacred than it is now.
Kitsch is a mould that settles over the entire works of a living culture, when people prefer the sensuous trappings of belief to the thing truly believed in. It is not only Christian civilization that has undergone kitschification in recent times.
It is no accident that the arrival of kitsch on the stage of history coincided with the hitherto unimaginable horrors of trench warfare, of the holocaust and the Gulag — all of them fulfilling the prophecy that kitsch proclaims, which is the transformation of the human being into a doll, which in one moment we cover with kisses, and in the next moment tear to shreds.
That is why art matters. Without the conscious pursuit of beauty we risk falling into a world of addictive pleasures and routine desecration, a world in which the worthwhileness of human life is no longer clearly perceivable.
The internet, of course, has been an enormous engine that has elevated kitsch of the most degraded sort to a higher position than its early promoters could have ever imagined.
Scruton closes the book by saying that
…Beauty is vanishing from our world because we live as though it did not matter; and we live that way because we have lost the habit of sacrifice and are striving always to avoid it. The false art of our time, mired in kitsch and desecration, is one sign of this.
Kitsch is of course the art form beloved of our contemporary taste-makers. It’s almost impossible to find anything which isn’t kitsch, and people who endeavor to avoid it find themselves marginalized and mocked.
So we have made a world in which very little is true or sacred, and anything that is holy is under continuous mockery and attack. Much of this sensibility comes from the pervasive influence of postmodernism emanating from every computer, television, newspaper, magazine, and radio in the land. People develop addictions to pleasurable fantasies available on tap, to the neglect of reality, which becomes uglier and more profane by the hour. People feel the urge to debase themselves and to debase the people around them, to use them as objects, rather than respecting them as subjects.
Modern people are attempting to escape from the burden of culture:
Culture emerges from our attempt to settle on standards that will command the consent of people generally, while raising their aspirations towards the goals that make people admirable and lovable. Culture therefore represents an investment over many generations, and imposes enormous and by no means clearly articulated obligations — in particular, the obligation to be other and better than we are, in all the ways that others might appreciate. Manners, morals, religious precepts and ordinary decencies train us in this, and they form the central core of any culture. But they are necessarily concerned with what is common and easily taught.
So we see most people, even and perhaps especially in the political and mercantile elite, who try to scoot out from their obligations to maintain culture. Not all do this, but most do more damage by dumping enormous amounts of money into postmodern vulgarity, accelerating the destruction of our cultural heritage rather than shoring it up. The embrace of ugliness, bad manners, and mass-production culture destroys the ability of people to cooperate both within a country and between countries. It also depletes our sense of moral standards.
People have become frightened away from judging one another. It’s considered pious to progress to say that you “don’t judge,” especially about such aesthetic details as unkempt hair, dirty clothing, obesity, and elastic waistbands. People avoid the feeling of shame that would come if they acknowledged the proper hierarchy of aesthetics. In democracy, it’s difficult to maintain that, because of all the proclamations about equality.
It would also be interesting to throw this book at Objectivists and see what they have to say — predictably, they hate it. Some quick searching shows that there have been some shots exchanged between the Randians and Scruton.
In general, secularists have a compulsion to desecrate the sacred, so they tend to have stunted aesthetic sensibilities as a consequence. This book’s theoretical explanation of beauty helps to explain why this must necessarily be the case.
Thanks for this review. I ought to read this book, but I only saw the BBC Documentary. It kind of epitomized everything I find silly about modern conservatism.
I’ll try to explain in a semi-systematic manner, based on what’s in the doc and what’s in your review.
1. Scruton’s criticisms against the desecration of ‘beauty’ only work as a buttress to the more important argument against the lack of metaphysical objectivism — unwavering belief in a transcendental entity or set of cosmic principles. But this lack is something inherent to Western development — the scientific method is an expression of the vast, perpetual uncertainty that we both have and need to advance as a civilization. If Scruton wants beauty, as he understands it, to return, this would involve a wholesale ransacking of exactly what separates the West from all other civilizations. If he wants metaphysical objectivism and thus rigidity, I can totally sympathize, but the question of beauty is a red herring.
2. Scruton’s analysis of what constitutes beauty is reminiscent of Kant’s argument for absolute objective principles of aesthetics. Ironically, this is a modern perspective and fails to grasp how the early moderns, medievals and late classical cultures actually conceived of what is aesthetically appealing, even though Scruton exalts them. He has one foot in the door, so to speak. I’d actually go ahead and argue that some of the postmodernist art and lit critics who reject this stuff actually have the better footing upon which to be more historically honest.
3. Scruton makes use of the erroneous, pre-rational belief held by the common people that tawdriness was only a minor, if not altogether absent feature of the Western art tradition. In fact, it has always been there and even more pervasive than what he himself considers beauty. I suggest reading The Fabliaux (ed. Howard Bloch), a recent translation of Occitan French poetry. It’s the dirtiest stuff ever, and it is completely consonant with Christian morality (see DW Robertson’s ‘Preface to Chaucer’ for further discussion on why this is possible). Furthermore, it was swept under the rug in the modern era — the “Official Poetry” to represent France became The Song of Roland, while all other countries played hot potato, trying to rid themselves of the shame of having produced such vile fabliaux. At some point, cultural conservatives — especially Anglo-Saxon ones — are going to have to reconcile themselves to this uncomfortable fact. Our canon is a modern one and it betrays modern prejudices that can only create cleavage from between now and then.
3a. To further elucidate this point: In the BBC doc, Scruton shows us some literary demonstrations of beauty according to neoplatonic theories of love: Pearl, Faerie Queene, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Chaucer’s Knight’s Tale, and John Donne. I’m very familiar with all of these works. He would do well to explain that Sir Gawain and the Green Knight was actually a gentle, tongue-in-cheek spoof of courtly love values, The Faerie Queene is highly drenched in irony and wit (see especially book 3, which borrows heavily from the fabliau tradition), and John Donne often would mockingly and jokingly use neoplatonism to justify getting laid, and he also wrote numerous poems on the value of banging multiple women. In fact the whole meta-drama that Donne so brilliantly crafted was justifying carnal lust through his neoplatonism — we never know if he’s being a foppish proto-dandy, or if he’s really serious. We can go ahead and apply what Donne so cleverly executes as latent in the earlier Petrarch-influenced poets. Protestantism allowed the British sonnet writers to “have their cake and eat it too” — in other words, when Sir Philip Sidney writes Astrophil and Stella, he can get married to the object of his desire at the end of the poem, thus shattering everything Plato wrote about in Phaedrus. Barnabe Barnes’s sonnet sequence does one better and the protagonist actually uses black magic to knock out and rape the object of his desire! Does Scruton really not realize any of this? What he champions as great examples of Platonic love were already rooted in a departure away from such values. Although some examples are more genuine than others, you can’t really expect any of this stuff to be pristine. If you like his list of books for his reasons, I’d say you just don’t get it. I like them because with the exceptions of Knight’s Tale and Pearl, they’re characteristically British — they’re aloof, filled with irony, highly clever, and often iconoclastic (see Shakespeare sonnet 130 — totally genius). If Scruton doesn’t like those qualities and only wants “Beauty,” he’d do best to ignore everything since Chaucer.
3b. Furthermore, what he sees as the beauty of the platonic love tradition still lives on despite secularization. What do you think indie rock is? It’s a bunch of dudes whining about how they can’t bang the girl they like, and they never sexually objectify her. I didn’t bother to see that movie Her, but it strikes me as a premise along the same lines. Internet feminists love this sort of stuff. So these things have not gone away, and in fact, they’re still highly lauded critically and promoted by the so-called Cathedral. They are guaranteed to be considered mature and impressive. So no, beauty has not gone away in this platonic sense, it has merely become transliterated. But these cultural items are secularized, generalized, and not directly indebted to either Christianity or Plato — and if that’s Scruton’s whole problem, then see #1 in my list.
The book is more in-depth than the movie, but I’m unsure how much you will be shifted by it. There’s certainly more about Kant in the book than in the film. I have a post about the film scheduled for Saturday.
I don’t think it’s correct to characterize his position as that there was no ugliness in premodern times. It’s more that we rejected the idea of beauty and instead began venerating ugliness. His definition is also metaphysical rather than mathematical (nothing about golden rules). He also tries to make it compatible with rationalism, but it is a bit half-hearted in doing so, and I don’t blame him for making it a half-hearted effort.
Scruton would disagree about indie rock being love — you would have to flip to his view on what distinguishes fantasy from beautiful art. He would liken indie music to romance novels, twee films, and pornography.
You are more familiar with the literature that he references than I am, though.
Simon Fortescue says
“People have become frightened away from judging one another. It’s considered pious to progress to say that you “don’t judge,” especially about such aesthetic details as unkempt hair, dirty clothing, obesity, and elastic waistbands.”
This absolutely screams “defect/defect” to me.
Great review, as always Henry.
This is the particular part in the book where Scruton tears into democratic culture.
It is a lot like that. Healthy culture involves a lot of cooperate/cooperate. Breaking away from it takes that pattern of defection. At first, they gain the benefits of not having to uphold the culture, but then they begin to suffer from being cut off from it. If enough people defect from it, everyone loses.
Jean Bouvery says
I’ve seen the documentary, which I liked, but I find Scruton to be too milksoppish to really merit much attention. Most of his books are written in a remarkably boring way. I remember coming across a review of his first book ‘The Meaning of Conservatism’ in the Spectator from the late seventies, which pointed out how stodgy and leaden his prose is – something which is true for most of his ouvre and hasn’t diminished with time.
He’s unwilling to deal with race and shies away from discussing anything really important. I sympathise with his prose poems about the glorious common law, the genius of England &c. but this does not reflect England today.
I haven’t really found his books difficult or boring. This one is pretty easy to get through. It might be hard if it’s someone’s first encounter with art history.
I would just assume that most of the people who have ever written for the Spectator are socialists with an interest in suppressing competitors.
I can’t answer for Scruton, having not seen the BBC documentary or read the book. But Izak, in his comment, makes the point that much of medieval art was sexual and rather tawdry in nature, and that somehow Scruton doesn’t account for it.
Is this to excuse the vulgarity common to todays cultural outpouring? It is common for moderns to try to excuse modern vulgarity by pointing out that medievals wrote about sex. Even the Victorians did, heaven forfend!
I don’t think this is as shocking a revelation as Izak thinks it is. After all, the post on beauty has a picture of a nekkid woman (the Venus of Urbino). That picture is beautiful. Compare that to the works of Carroll Dunham (Lena Dunham’s father). It is painting after painting of crude drawings of female backsides with oversized anuses and prominent genitalia. They are ugly. Deliberately so.
As to Donne, I will quote a portion of “To His Mistress Going To Bed”
COME, madam, come, all rest my powers defy ;
Until I labour, I in labour lie.
The foe ofttimes, having the foe in sight,
Is tired with standing, though he never fight.
Off with that girdle, like heaven’s zone glittering,
But a far fairer world encompassing.
Unpin that spangled breast-plate, which you wear,
That th’ eyes of busy fools may be stopp’d there.
Unlace yourself, for that harmonious chime
Tells me from you that now it is bed-time.
Off with that happy busk, which I envy,
That still can be, and still can stand so nigh.
Your gown going off such beauteous state reveals,
As when from flowery meads th’ hill’s shadow steals.
Off with your wiry coronet, and show
The hairy diadems which on you do grow.
Ribald stuff. Those dead old white dudes sure did like sex. Now compare to a typical rap lyric, from Ying Yang’s “Wait, (the Whisper Song)”
Ay bitch! wait til you see my dick
Wait til you see my dick
Ay bitch! wait til you see my dick
Imma beat dat pussy up
Ay bitch! wait til you see my dick
Wait you see my dick
Ay bitch! wait til you see my dick
Imma beat dat pussy up
Like B-AM, B-AM, B-AM, B-AM, B-AM, B-AM, B-AM, B-AM, B-AM, B-AM, B-AM, B-AM, B-AM, B-AM, B-AM, B-AM
Beat da pussy up, Beat da pussy up, Beat da pussy up, Beat da pussy up, Beat da pussy up, Beat da pussy up, Beat da pussy
Up, Beat da pussy up
I rest my case.
In the book itself, Scruton compares the different Venuses changing over time, particularly in terms of lasciviousness.
Hi! Izak here.
I’m not sure what case it is you’re resting, Augustina! Nor am I sure that I made any of the arguments you think I made.
Are you saying that talent has diminished? I’d agree on that one. Without a doubt, rap has gotten pretty dumb, see Lil B as a case in point — although I’ll still take Kool Keith’s “Sex Style” album over the entire output of, say, Alfred Lord Tennyson any day. Or are you saying that things have gotten more degenerate? Well, perhaps this is true to some extent, but I don’t think ideology has a whole lot to do with it.
Anyhow you should go ahead and check out “The Piece of Shit,” it’s a pretty great 12th century French poem about a husband who eats some poop. Not as good as “The Knight Who Made Cunts Talk,” “The Cunt Made with a Spade,” “The Cunt Blessed by a Bishop,” or — my personal favorite — “Trial By Cunt.”
My point isn’t terribly shocking, and I’m also not saying that Scruton thinks otherwise. However, his whole argument rhetorically rests upon the superstition that things were ever “clean” at one point. He might not believe it, but his target readers sure do. Even your writing seems to indicate it. Lookit. If medieval villagers had access to cheap and lightweight DV cameras, they’d be making porn, the merchants and upper-laity would be financing it, and the nobles would be watching it. Sorry, but it’s true. Not saying it’s a good thing, in fact I think human sexuality is basically horrible. I’d prefer it if we could reproduce as single-celled paramecia, personally. But that’s just how it goes.
It’s sort of funny, because my mother, who taught comparative literature at a certain prestigious institution, would tend to use the same sort of line on her students to humanize the arts. I’ve been wanting to bring it up since you first started using this line.
I would suggest again that you read the book rather than trying to judge it from the film (it’s a short, fast read, really more like a pamphlet). It’s not that he says that bawdy or ugly art didn’t exist in the past. What matters more is what prominence and status the works have. Today, we accord high status to the equivalent of old bawdy pornography. Also, the degeneration of the arts in the last days of the Roman empire informed a lot of the critiques of those Romans by the future Christian thinkers.
The existence of ugly art and ugly art in history is not an argument against the elevation of beautiful art to a respected position.
I’ll read the book, for sure, since he goes into Kant there (I only suspected he was taking from Kant, so it’s nice to know that he actually discusses the guy in depth).
Again, I mostly read/study medieval work, so what you’re saying still flies past me. There were debates about poets in general, not really debates like the one Scruton wants to engage between “beautiful poetry” and “ugly poetry.” It was usually either all good or all harmful — people were mostly concerned about it being lies or collectively a bad influence or whatever. Chretien de Troyes also openly felt guilty about writing Lancelot, which can be misread as promoting adultery, but it was his wealthy noble patron who financed it. People in high places often held bawdy and/or satirical stuff in high regard just as they held the more solemn stuff, like Boethius and Saint Augustine-influenced material, in high regard. It is true that some people did complain about obscenity — for instance, Christine de Pisan complained about when people would read the highly bawdy Romance of the Rose (esp. the continuation by Jean de Meun) aloud in the courts. But her complaint was answered with, “If women get embarrassed hearing about the sins of other women, they only reveal their own guilt.”
Part of the disagreement between my radically relativist stance on art and Scruton’s Kantian universalist prescription for it is that we both expect art to do very, very different things. It helps to understand that “art” is an anachronistic concept which muddies up the whole problem. In traditional societies, literature was not seen as a vehicle through which to produce philosophy. Literature was not seen as a way to create new morals. Literature was not supposed to be a sovereign world in which one might engage. These principles all extend to visual art as well. In something like The Canterbury Tales, you had plenty of crass material right next to solemn material, and this was largely fine because no one would see the whole work as trying to extend an insular and novel set of morals. You were meant to use the Bible as your sovereign source of morality and say, “Ah, that Miller is behaving badly” or “The Wife of Bath really doesn’t get the bible, she should reread it” or whatever according to what scriptures say. If a poem communicated great Boethian philosophical ideas or whatever, you didn’t salute the art for doing that, as if the art itself was responsible for providing the material – you would appreciate its poetry and skill but ultimately defer to Boethius as the true source. And of course, the ultimate vision of beauty (as Scruton seems to define it) would be in the bible, while everything else would be secondary and of limited importance.
And again, this is why my point #1 above is the most important point.
Perhaps I should go ahead and start my own blog in which to discuss these issues, since I have a lot to say on this subject.
I think you will disagree less with Scruton than you think that you do now. He does address these issues, particularly in reference to the “Canterbury Tales.”
I haven’t finished listening to the Bowden lecture, but I also don’t see the contrast between the views of the two men.
On the other hand, with respect to relativism, yes, I can see why you would disagree. I would encourage you to write more about these topics, because it’d be interesting.
Kate Minter says
I take my cues on beauty from Keats:
“A thing of beauty is a joy for ever:
Its loveliness increases; it will never
Pass into nothingness; but still will keep
A bower quiet for us, and a sleep
Full of sweet dreams, and health, and quiet breathing.”
That which is beautiful is one thing; that which remains beautiful is another; that which becomes more beautiful is ideal.
(psst: if you want to see a thing of beauty, check out Branagh’s Cinderella)
The subject matter doesn’t determine whether a work of poetry or art or music is beautiful. John Donne was given as an example of someone who wrote on a profane topic. So I quoted portions of one of his poems and compared it to a modern rap song on the same subject.
I thought it was obvious that the work by Donne was beautiful and the rap song was ugly. The rap song was brutal, crude, ugly, degrading and dehumanizing. The paintings by Dunham are also crude, brutal, ugly, degrading and dehumanizing. There is no appreciation at all in either example of the beauty of the female body. In the rap song and with Dunham, females are reduced to ugly holes for others to pleasure themselves in.
So it’s just a popular rap song. But there is an entire subculture out there saturated in this sort of stuff. And there are record labels and promoters who decided to push this stuff. Do you think that black culture, which gave us jazz, can’t produce artists who can make beautiful works of music? They aren’t getting the promotion. So its enforced ugliness, all the time. And I believe that is has a profound effect on the people who are immersed in it.
Were there similarly crude, vulgar, brutal and ugly works hundreds of years ago? Certainly. But there were also great cathedrals erected, beautiful sculptures placed in public places, hymns and masses written that were beautiful.
All we get today is ugly. People who go to art school are told to make their works uglier. People with money fund and promote ugliness, and ignore art that tries for beauty. Modern buildings are nearly always ugly. Modern sculpture that is placed in public places is ugly. Modern music is ugly more often than not.