In his book-length treatise (itself entitled Beauty) on aesthetics and the abiding need to cultivate an appreciation for beauty in human life, and in which he also asks some fundamental questions about what beauty is, the relationship between judgement and taste and the complex interrelationship between subjectivity and objectivity, Roger Scruton concludes his assessment by considering the modern repudiation of the bulk of human thinking on these matters in favour of a drastically revisionist, basically nihilistic (in its foundational assumptions, even if these are not explicitly acknowledged) attitude towards the question of beauty and approach towards much of modern art.
In the concluding chapter of his book, The Flight From Beauty, Scruton draws together the conclusions of the careful analyses he has laid out in the preceding chapters, and uses them to counter the modern view, which has become increasingly influential over the decades (in artistic and academic circles anyway, if not perhaps gaining quite as much currency amongst the general populace), that not only is there no such thing as beauty, but that it is the task of the artist (in whatever sphere) to actively deconstruct preconceived ideas about what it is beautiful and to profane what has been commonly held to be aesthetically pleasing, sublime, or even sacred.
Scruton begins this task by considering the argument often advanced by modern artists in order to justify their deconstructive projects, namely that the great artists of the past broke down barriers and challenged the preconceptions of their day (e.g.; Manet in painting; Stravinsky in music). This is all very true, and Scruton acknowledges it as such, but highlights the one-sidedness of the modern artist’s apology (ignoring the fact that contemporaries of the barrier-breakers were doing things that were just as original by using conventional forms – Edward Hopper and Sibelius are cited as examples here) and the extent to which they miss the real point of the innovators they cite as support for their own project:
‘Moreover, there is another, and truer, history of the modern artist which is the story told by the great modernists themselves. It is the history told by T. S. Eliot, in his essays and in Four Quartets, by Ezra Pound in the Cantos, by Schoenberg in his critical writings and in Moses und Aron, and by Pfitzner in Palestrina. And it sees the goal of the modern artist not as a break from tradition, but as a recapturing of tradition, in circumstances for which the artistic legacy has made little or no provision…
…The effort of the modern artist is to express realities which have not been encountered before, and which are especially hard to encompass. But this cannot be done, except by bringing the spiritual capital of our culture to bear on the present moment and to show it as it truly is. For Eliot and his colleagues, therefore, there could be no truly modern art which was not at the same time a search for orthodoxy: an attempt to capture the nature of the modern experience, by setting it in relation to the certainties of a live tradition.’
Beauty (2009), pp.170-171, Oxford University Press.
However, contrary to this attempt by many of those at the vanguard of modernity in the arts to use the traditions of our cultural heritage precisely in order to renew the present, and to restore a stale artistic atmosphere, bringing the beautiful back to the fore, there was also then, and has increasingly been the case since, a movement characterised by rejection and disruption. To use ecclesiastical parlance, Eliot et al represented a hermeneutic of continuity, whereas the spirit that eventually won the day and went on to influence the art world in subsequent decades was and is based on a hermeneutic of rupture. For Scruton, this latter hermeneutic is founded on a desire to escape Beauty, and to tear up the limitations of tradition purely for the sake of that escape:
‘It is not merely that artists, directors, musicians and others connected with the arts are in flight from beauty. There is a desire to spoil beauty, in acts of aesthetic iconoclasm. Wherever beauty lies in wait for us, the desire to pre-empt its appeal can intervene, ensuring that its still small voice will not be heard behind the scenes of desecration. For beauty makes a claim on us: it is a call to renounce our narcissism and look with reverence on the world…
…Our need for beauty is not something that we could lack and still be fulfilled as people. It is a need arising from our metaphysical condition, as free individuals, seeking our place in a shared and alienated world. We can wander through this world, alienated, resentful, full of suspicion and distrust. Or we can find our home here, coming to rest in harmony with others and with ourselves. The experience of beauty guides us along this second path: it tells us that we are at home in the world, that the world is already ordered in our perceptions as a place fit for the lives of beings like us. But – and this is again one of the messages of the early modernists – beings like us become at home in the world only by acknowledging our “fallen” condition, as Eliot acknowledged it in The Waste Land. Hence the experience of beauty also points us beyond this world, to a “kingdom of ends” in which our immortal longings and our desire for perfection are finally answered.’
What Scruton outlines above is what has been the common intuition of mankind from Plato all the way up to (at least) Kant – that the aesthetic impulse is also inherently religious. It is surely not accidental therefore, that the flight from beauty has appeared within our culture at the very time that attacks upon God and religion have gained pace; it suits those with an agenda of discontinuity and deconstruction to wipe away those feelings of appreciation for the Beautiful that are so basic to human experience because they know that such appreciation involves a disinterested contemplation that will lead us away from ourselves and out towards God. An attack on, or a flight from, beauty, is also an attack on and a flight from the sacred, and much of modern art could properly find its coherence (something so often lacking in this oeuvre) under the term desecration.
This is not to say of course that the beautiful cannot be found in the profane – far from it, as the profane is very often our collective starting point, and the material with which the artist works. But he works with the things of this world ultimately in order so that they may be transfigured, and that even the darkest parts of our existence receive dignity by their inclusion in that wider reaching out to the luminous glory of eternal things. Such, as Scruton goes on to write, is life in general, and the desecrators are thus fighting a battle against reality itself, or at least against the essential content of human experience:
‘According to many philosophers and anthropologists, however, the experience of the sacred is a universal feature of the human condition, and therefore not easily avoided. For the most part of our lives are organised by transitory purposes. But few of these purposes are memorable or moving to us. Every now and then we are jolted out of our complacency, and feel ourselves to be in the presence of something vastly more significant than our present interests and desires. We sense the reality of something precious and mysterious, which reaches out to us with a claim that is in some way not of this world. This happens in the presence of death, and especially the death of someone loved. We look with awe on the human body from which life has fled…
…The human form is sacred for us because it bears the stamp of our embodiment. The wilful desecration of the human form, either through the pornography of sex or the pornography of death and violence, has become, for many people, a kind of compulsion. And this desecration, which spoils the experience of freedom, is also a denial of love. It is an attempt to remake the world as though love were no longer a part of it. And that, surely, is what is the most important characteristic of the postmodern culture…it is a loveless culture, which is afraid of beauty because it is disturbed by love.’
The connection Scruton makes here, between the desecration now so common in the arts and the denial of love, is also essentially theological in nature. When we say there is no such thing as beauty, or that it should be destroyed because it makes claims on us and places burdens on our freedom, it is because we reject the claims of the Other – God. When we do this it is but a short step to rejecting the otherness of all others, and almost an inevitability that we begin to treat our fellow human beings as objects to be used; this is of course in absolute contradiction to the conditions of love, which must recognise the other as other, as another subject with dignity in their own right, an end in themselves, not a means for satisfying one or more of our desires.
The rejection of the claims that beauty makes upon us, and of the claims of God’s love on us, is born out of a desire to be free of any impingement upon our absolute freedom to live without values of any kind, as these are always a restriction on the untrammelled will to sate desire. Thus the flight from beauty is based upon an inherent hedonism in modern thought, which itself is deeply connected to nihilism (though it is difficult to say which has priority over the other). One could argue that it is impossible to live like this sustainably, but the artists who embrace such a vision are, despite their recommendation of it, actually performing something of a public service in displaying its terrible, love-denying conclusions for all to see:
‘…because the democratic attitude is invariably in conflict with itself – it being impossible to live as though there are no aesthetic values, while living a real life among human beings – aesthetic judgement begins to be experienced as an affliction. It imposes an intolerable burden, something that we must live up to, a world of ideals and aspirations that is in sharp conflict with the tawdriness of our impoverished lives. It is perched like an owl on our shoulders, while we try to hide our pet rodents in our clothes. The temptation is to turn on it and shoo it away. The desire to desecrate is a desire to turn aesthetic judgement against itself, so that it no longer seems like a judgement of us…
…The paradox, however, is that the relentless pursuit of artistic innovation leads to a cult of nihilism. The attempt to defend beauty from pre-modernist kitsch has exposed it to postmodernist desecration. We seem to be caught between two forms of sacrilege, the one dealing in sugary dreams, the other in savage fantasies. Both are forms of falsehood, ways of reducing and demeaning our humanity. Both involve a retreat from the higher life, and a rejection of its principal sign, which is beauty.’
ibid, pp.184, 192.
Scruton mentions kitsch as an alternate extreme to desecration, and the concept of kitsch is a good point from which to conclude my summary of his thoughts here. Kitsch is the flipside of desecration in the sense that it is also anti-love – it is essentially heartless, producing commodities to be consumed by people who subsist on varieties of sentimentality and self-indulgence instead of real heartfelt emotion and the sacrificial conversion of the will towards Goodness and Truth. While desecration tries to smash the limitations of objectivity and tradition, in the knowledge that contemplation of true beauty will lead us back to God, kitsch simply ignores the transcendent altogether, plugging us into a cold and decadent cycle of addictive materialism.
The alternative to both of these is the contemplation of the Beautiful, which draws us out of ourselves, leading us to sacrifice our self-importance and mundane attachments and to accept the truth that disinterested love is at the heart of reality – that whatever is contingent or compromised in this life can be redeemed in the light of what the habits of contemplation and of virtue help us to recognise. Beauty, and a proper appreciation of it, can lead us to see the possibility of transfiguration in all things, and that this is only a possibility because reality is grounded in something radically Other than us, something that is inconceivably more glorious than the intimations we have received in this life could lead us to imagine. Beauty is therefore of great importance indeed, and it is about time we started living as if it mattered again, instead of hiding from its brilliance.