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.