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Beauty and Desecration (...rescue art from the modern intoxication with ugliness)
City Journal ^ | Spring 2009 | Roger Scruton

Posted on 06/15/2009 7:31:30 AM PDT by AreaMan

City Journal Home.

Roger Scruton
Beauty and Desecration

We must rescue art from the modern intoxication with ugliness.
Spring 2009

At any time between 1750 and 1930, if you had asked an educated person to describe the goal of poetry, art, or music, “beauty” would have been the answer. And if you had asked what the point of that was, you would have learned that beauty is a value, as important in its way as truth and goodness, and indeed hardly distinguishable from them. Philosophers of the Enlightenment saw beauty as a way in which lasting moral and spiritual values acquire sensuous form. And no Romantic painter, musician, or writer would have denied that beauty was the final purpose of his art.

At some time during the aftermath of modernism, beauty ceased to receive those tributes. Art increasingly aimed to disturb, subvert, or transgress moral certainties, and it was not beauty but originality—however achieved and at whatever moral cost—that won the prizes. Indeed, there arose a widespread suspicion of beauty as next in line to kitsch—something too sweet and inoffensive for the serious modern artist to pursue. In a seminal essay—“Avant-Garde and Kitsch,” published in Partisan Review in 1939—critic Clement Greenberg starkly contrasted the avant-garde of his day with the figurative painting that competed with it, dismissing the latter (not just Norman Rockwell, but greats like Edward Hopper) as derivative and without lasting significance. The avant-garde, for Greenberg, promoted the disturbing and the provocative over the soothing and the decorative, and that was why we should admire it.

The value of abstract art, Greenberg claimed, lay not in beauty but in expression. This emphasis on expression was a legacy of the Romantic movement; but now it was joined by the conviction that the artist is outside bourgeois society, defined in opposition to it, so that artistic self-expression is at the same time a transgression of ordinary moral norms. We find this posture overtly adopted in the art of Austria and Germany between the wars—for example, in the paintings and drawings of Georg Grosz, in Alban Berg’s opera Lulu (a loving portrait of a woman whose only discernible goal is moral chaos), and in the seedy novels of Heinrich Mann. And the cult of transgression is a leading theme of the postwar literature of France—from the writings of Georges Bataille, Jean Genet, and Jean-Paul Sartre to the bleak emptiness of the nouveau roman.

Of course, there were great artists who tried to rescue beauty from the perceived disruption of modern society—as T. S. Eliot tried to recompose, in Four Quartets, the fragments he had grieved over in The Waste Land. And there were others, particularly in America, who refused to see the sordid and the transgressive as the truth of the modern world. For artists like Hopper, Samuel Barber, and Wallace Stevens, ostentatious transgression was mere sentimentality, a cheap way to stimulate an audience, and a betrayal of the sacred task of art, which is to magnify life as it is and to reveal its beauty—as Stevens reveals the beauty of “An Ordinary Evening in New Haven” and Barber that of Knoxville: Summer of 1915. But somehow those great life-affirmers lost their position at the forefront of modern culture. So far as the critics and the wider culture were concerned, the pursuit of beauty was at the margins of the artistic enterprise. Qualities like disruptiveness and immorality, which previously signified aesthetic failure, became marks of success; while the pursuit of beauty became a retreat from the real task of artistic creation. This process has been so normalized as to become a critical orthodoxy, prompting the philosopher Arthur Danto to argue recently that beauty is both deceptive as a goal and in some way antipathetic to the mission of modern art. Art has acquired another status and another social role.

The great proof of this change is in the productions of opera, which give the denizens of postmodern culture an unparalleled opportunity to take revenge on the art of the past and to hide its beauty behind an obscene and sordid mask. We all assume that this will happen with Wagner, who “asked for it” by believing too strongly in the redemptive role of art. But it now regularly happens to the innocent purveyors of beauty, just as soon as a postmodernist producer gets his hands on one of their works.

An example that particularly struck me was a 2004 production of Mozart’s Die Entführung aus dem Serail at the Komische Oper Berlin (see “The Abduction of Opera,” Summer 2007). Die Entführung tells the story of Konstanze—shipwrecked, separated from her fiancé Belmonte, and taken to serve in the harem of the Pasha Selim. After various intrigues, Belmonte rescues her, helped by the clemency of the Pasha—who, respecting Konstanze’s chastity and the couple’s faithful love, declines to take her by force. This implausible plot permits Mozart to express his Enlightenment conviction that charity is a universal virtue, as real in the Muslim empire of the Turks as in the Christian empire of the enlightened Joseph II. Even if Mozart’s innocent vision is without much historical basis, his belief in the reality of disinterested love is everywhere expressed and endorsed by the music. Die Entführung advances a moral idea, and its melodies share the beauty of that idea and persuasively present it to the listener.

In his production of Die Entführung, the Catalan stage director Calixto Bieito set the opera in a Berlin brothel, with Selim as pimp and Konstanze one of the prostitutes. Even during the most tender music, copulating couples littered the stage, and every opportunity for violence, with or without a sexual climax, was taken. At one point, a prostitute is gratuitously tortured, and her nipples bloodily and realistically severed before she is killed. The words and the music speak of love and compassion, but their message is drowned out by the scenes of desecration, murder, and narcissistic sex.

That is an example of something familiar in every aspect of our contemporary culture. It is not merely that artists, directors, musicians, and others connected with the arts are in flight from beauty. Wherever beauty lies in wait for us, there arises a desire to preempt its appeal, to smother it with scenes of destruction. Hence the many works of contemporary art that rely on shocks administered to our failing faith in human nature—such as the crucifix pickled in urine by Andres Serrano. Hence the scenes of cannibalism, dismemberment, and meaningless pain with which contemporary cinema abounds, with directors like Quentin Tarantino having little else in their emotional repertories. Hence the invasion of pop music by rap, whose words and rhythms speak of unremitting violence, and which rejects melody, harmony, and every other device that might make a bridge to the old world of song. And hence the music video, which has become an art form in itself and is often devoted to concentrating into the time span of a pop song some startling new account of moral chaos.

Those phenomena record a habit of desecration in which life is not celebrated by art but targeted by it. Artists can now make their reputations by constructing an original frame in which to display the human face and throw dung at it. What do we make of this, and how do we find our way back to the thing so many people long for, which is the vision of beauty? It may sound a little sentimental to speak of a “vision of beauty.” But what I mean is not some saccharine, Christmas-card image of human life but rather the elementary ways in which ideals and decencies enter our ordinary world and make themselves known, as love and charity make themselves known in Mozart’s music. There is a great hunger for beauty in our world, a hunger that our popular art fails to recognize and our serious art often defies.

I used the word “desecration” to describe the attitude conveyed by Bieito’s production of Die Entführung and by Serrano’s lame efforts at meaning something. What exactly does this word imply? It is connected, etymologically and semantically, with sacrilege, and therefore with the ideas of sanctity and the sacred. To desecrate is to spoil what might otherwise be set apart in the sphere of sacred things. We can desecrate a church, a graveyard, a tomb; and also a holy image, a holy book, or a holy ceremony. We can desecrate a corpse, a cherished image, even a living human being—insofar as these things contain (as they do) a portent of some original sanctity. The fear of desecration is a vital element in all religions. Indeed, that is what the word religio originally meant: a cult or ceremony designed to protect some sacred place from sacrilege.

In the eighteenth century, when organized religion and ceremonial kingship were losing their authority, when the democratic spirit was questioning inherited institutions, and when the idea was abroad that it was not God but man who made laws for the human world, the idea of the sacred suffered an eclipse. To the thinkers of the Enlightenment, it seemed little more than a superstition to believe that artifacts, buildings, places, and ceremonies could possess a sacred character, when all these things were the products of human design. The idea that the divine reveals itself in our world, and seeks our worship, seemed both implausible in itself and incompatible with science.

At the same time, philosophers like Shaftesbury, Burke, Adam Smith, and Kant recognized that we do not look on the world only with the eyes of science. Another attitude exists—one not of scientific inquiry but of disinterested contemplation—that we direct toward our world in search of its meaning. When we take this attitude, we set our interests aside; we are no longer occupied with the goals and projects that propel us through time; we are no longer engaged in explaining things or enhancing our power. We are letting the world present itself and taking comfort in its presentation. This is the origin of the experience of beauty. There may be no way of accounting for that experience as part of our ordinary search for power and knowledge. It may be impossible to assimilate it to the day-to-day uses of our faculties. But it is an experience that self-evidently exists, and it is of the greatest value to those who receive it.

When does this experience occur, and what does it mean? Here is an example: suppose you are walking home in the rain, your thoughts occupied with your work. The streets and the houses pass by unnoticed; the people, too, pass you by; nothing invades your thinking save your interests and anxieties. Then suddenly the sun emerges from the clouds, and a ray of sunlight alights on an old stone wall beside the road and trembles there. You glance up at the sky where the clouds are parting, and a bird bursts into song in a garden behind the wall. Your heart fills with joy, and your selfish thoughts are scattered. The world stands before you, and you are content simply to look at it and let it be.

Maybe such experiences are rarer now than they were in the eighteenth century, when the poets and philosophers lighted upon them as a new avenue to religion. The haste and disorder of modern life, the alienating forms of modern architecture, the noise and spoliation of modern industry—these things have made the pure encounter with beauty a rarer, more fragile, and more unpredictable thing for us. Still, we all know what it is to find ourselves suddenly transported, by the things we see, from the ordinary world of our appetites to the illuminated sphere of contemplation. It happens often during childhood, though it is seldom interpreted then. It happens during adolescence, when it lends itself to our erotic longings. And it happens in a subdued way in adult life, secretly shaping our life projects, holding out to us an image of harmony that we pursue through holidays, through home-building, and through our private dreams.

Here is another example: it is a special occasion, when the family unites for a ceremonial dinner. You set the table with a clean embroidered cloth, arranging plates, glasses, bread in a basket, and some carafes of water and wine. You do this lovingly, delighting in the appearance, striving for an effect of cleanliness, simplicity, symmetry, and warmth. The table has become a symbol of homecoming, of the extended arms of the universal mother, inviting her children in. And all this abundance of meaning and good cheer is somehow contained in the appearance of the table. This, too, is an experience of beauty, one that we encounter, in some version or other, every day. We are needy creatures, and our greatest need is for home—the place where we are, where we find protection and love. We achieve this home through representations of our own belonging, not alone but in conjunction with others. All our attempts to make our surroundings look right—through decorating, arranging, creating—are attempts to extend a welcome to ourselves and to those whom we love.

This second example suggests that our human need for beauty is not simply a redundant addition to the list of human appetites. It 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 an objective 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.

Look at any picture by one of the great landscape painters—Poussin, Guardi, Turner, Corot, Cézanne—and you will see that idea of beauty celebrated and fixed in images. The art of landscape painting, as it arose in the seventeenth century and endured into our time, is devoted to moralizing nature and showing the place of human freedom in the scheme of things. It is not that landscape painters turn a blind eye to suffering, or to the vastness and threateningness of the universe of which we occupy so small a corner. Far from it. Landscape painters show us death and decay in the very heart of things: the light on their hills is a fading light; the stucco walls of Guardi’s houses are patched and crumbling. But their images point to the joy that lies incipient in decay and to the eternal implied in the transient. They are images of home.

Not surprisingly, the idea of beauty has puzzled philosophers. The experience of beauty is so vivid, so immediate, so personal, that it seems hardly to belong to the natural order as science observes it. Yet beauty shines on us from ordinary things. Is it a feature of the world, or a figment of the imagination? Is it telling us something real and true that requires just this experience to be recognized? Or is it merely a heightened moment of sensation, of no significance beyond the delight of the person who experiences it? These questions are of great urgency for us, since we live at a time when beauty is in eclipse: a dark shadow of mockery and alienation has crept across the once-shining surface of our world, like the shadow of the Earth across the moon. Where we look for beauty, we too often find darkness and desecration.

The current habit of desecrating beauty suggests that people are as aware as they ever were of the presence of sacred things. Desecration is a kind of defense against the sacred, an attempt to destroy its claims. In the presence of sacred things, our lives are judged, and to escape that judgment, we destroy the thing that seems to accuse us.

Christians have inherited from Saint Augustine and from Plato the vision of this transient world as an icon of another and changeless order. They understand the sacred as a revelation in the here and now of the eternal sense of our being. But the experience of the sacred is not confined to Christians. It is, according to many philosophers and anthropologists, a human universal. For the most part, transitory purposes organize our lives: the day-to-day concerns of economic reasoning, the small-scale pursuit of power and comfort, the need for leisure and pleasure. Little of this is memorable or moving to us. Every now and then, however, 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, especially the death of someone loved. We look with awe on the human body from which the life has fled. This is no longer a person but the “mortal remains” of a person. And this thought fills us with a sense of the uncanny. We are reluctant to touch the dead body; we see it as, in some way, not properly a part of our world, almost a visitor from some other sphere.

This experience, a paradigm of our encounter with the sacred, demands from us a kind of ceremonial recognition. The dead body is the object of rituals and acts of purification, designed not just to send its former occupant happily into the hereafter—for these practices are engaged in even by those who have no belief in the hereafter—but in order to overcome the eeriness, the supernatural quality, of the dead human form. The body is being reclaimed for this world by the rituals that acknowledge that it also stands apart from it. The rituals, to put it another way, consecrate the body, and so purify it of its miasma. By the same token, the body can be desecrated—and this is surely one of the primary acts of desecration, one to which people have been given from time immemorial, as when Achilles dragged Hector’s body in triumph around the walls of Troy.

The presence of a transcendental claim startles us out of our day-to-day preoccupations on other occasions, too. In particular, there is the experience of falling in love. This, too, is a human universal, and it is an experience of the strangest kind. The face and body of the beloved are imbued with the intensest life. But in one crucial respect, they are like the body of someone dead: they seem not to belong in the empirical world. The beloved looks on the lover as Beatrice looked on Dante, from a point outside the flow of temporal things. The beloved object demands that we cherish it, that we approach it with almost ritualistic reverence. And there radiates from those eyes and limbs and words a kind of fullness of spirit that makes everything anew.

Poets have expended thousands of words on this experience, which no words seem entirely to capture. It has fueled the sense of the sacred down the ages, reminding people as diverse as Plato and Calvino, Virgil and Baudelaire, that sexual desire is not the simple appetite that we witness in animals but the raw material of a longing that has no easy or worldly satisfaction, demanding of us nothing less than a change of life.

Many of the uglinesses cultivated in our world today refer back to the two experiences that I have singled out. The body in the throes of death; the body in the throes of sex—these things easily fascinate us. They fascinate us by desecrating the human form, by showing the human body as a mere object among objects, the human spirit as eclipsed and ineffectual, and the human being as overcome by external forces, rather than as a free subject bound by the moral law. And it is on these things that the art of our time seems to concentrate, offering us not only sexual pornography but a pornography of violence that reduces the human being to a lump of suffering flesh made pitiful, helpless, and disgusting.

All of us have a desire to flee from the demands of responsible existence, in which we treat one another as worthy of reverence and respect. All of us are tempted by the idea of flesh and by the desire to remake the human being as pure flesh—an automaton, obedient to mechanical desires. To yield to this temptation, however, we must first remove the chief obstacle to it: the consecrated nature of the human form. We must sully the experiences—such as death and sex—that otherwise call us away from temptations, toward the higher life of sacrifice. This willful desecration is also a denial of love—an attempt to remake the world as though love were no longer a part of it. And that, surely, is the most important characteristic of the postmodern culture: it is a loveless culture, determined to portray the human world as unlovable. The modern stage director who ransacks the works of Mozart is trying to tear the love from the heart of them, so as to confirm his own vision of the world as a place where only pleasure and pain are real.

That suggests a simple remedy, which is to resist temptation. Instead of desecrating the human form, we should learn again to revere it. For there is absolutely nothing to gain from the insults hurled at beauty by those—like Calixto Bieito—who cannot bear to look it in the face. Yes, we can neutralize the high ideals of Mozart by pushing his music into the background so that it becomes the mere accompaniment to an inhuman carnival of sex and death. But what do we learn from this? What do we gain, in terms of emotional, spiritual, intellectual, or moral development? Nothing, save anxiety. We should take a lesson from this kind of desecration: in attempting to show us that our human ideals are worthless, it shows itself to be worthless. And when something shows itself to be worthless, it is time to throw it away.

It is therefore plain that the culture of transgression achieves nothing save the loss that it revels in: the loss of beauty as a value and a goal. But why is beauty a value? It is an ancient view that truth, goodness, and beauty cannot, in the end, conflict. Maybe the degeneration of beauty into kitsch comes precisely from the postmodern loss of truthfulness, and with it the loss of moral direction. That is the message of such early modernists as Eliot, Barber, and Stevens, and it is a message that we need to listen to.

To mount a full riposte to the habit of desecration, we need to rediscover the affirmation and the truth to life without which artistic beauty cannot be realized. This is no easy task. If we look at the true apostles of beauty in our time—I think of composers like Henri Dutilleux and Olivier Messiaen, of poets like Derek Walcott and Charles Tomlinson, of prose writers like Italo Calvino and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn—we are immediately struck by the immense hard work, the studious isolation, and the attention to detail that characterizes their craft. In art, beauty has to be won, but the work becomes harder as the sheer noise of desecration—amplified now by the Internet—drowns out the quiet voices murmuring in the heart of things.

One response is to look for beauty in its other and more everyday forms—the beauty of settled streets and cheerful faces, of natural objects and genial landscapes. It is possible to throw dirt on these things, too, and it is the mark of a second-rate artist to take such a path to our attention—the via negativa of desecration. But it is also possible to return to ordinary things in the spirit of Wallace Stevens and Samuel Barber—to show that we are at home with them and that they magnify and vindicate our life. Such is the overgrown path that the early modernists once cleared for us—the via positiva of beauty. There is no reason yet to think that we must abandon it.

Roger Scruton, a philosopher, is the author of many books, most recently Beauty.


TOPICS: Culture/Society; Miscellaneous; Philosophy
KEYWORDS: arts; culture; philosophy

1 posted on 06/15/2009 7:31:30 AM PDT by AreaMan
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To: AreaMan

Thank you for posting this. As an artist, my wife is constantly battling the cult of “Expression” in the art world, but is starting to gain some ground among those who would rather have beauty in their homes than some maniac’s tortured “expression”.

This year’s Boardwalk Art Show in Virginia Beach, which has traditionally been a money maker for her, has decided they want to focus on the academic, disturbing, navel-gazing type of work that she most definitely does not do, so there will be a lot of artists sitting on the Boardwalk selling nothing, while the artists who do sell have been cut out of the show by its effete little cadre of judges whose agenda they don’t share.


2 posted on 06/15/2009 7:40:56 AM PDT by SlowBoat407 (Achtung. preparen zie fur die obamahopenchangen.)
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To: SlowBoat407

Sounds like your wife has a tough row to hoe.


3 posted on 06/15/2009 7:43:51 AM PDT by AreaMan
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To: SlowBoat407
some maniac’s tortured “expression”.

Beethoven? Mussorgsky?
4 posted on 06/15/2009 7:43:53 AM PDT by Borges
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To: AreaMan

I don’t need to read the whole article to commend it highly. The last time I visited the Philadelphia Museum of Art, I found the experience profoundly depressing. From Rodin, yes, Rodin with his contorted agonized forms, onward in time, our culture has stopped producing beauty.

I still go to art museums, but I stick to the sections where even the Western religious art is still clearly iconography, the Dutch renaissance and impressionist sections, and the East Asian collections.

The high point of my depressing visit to the Philadelphia Museum of Art was finding a beautiful cloisonee box from Japan dated 2003. As a rebellion against our culture’s embrace of ugliness from that day on I took up ikebana (Japanese style flower arranging). (And no remarks about it not being manly—many samurai in the Edo period did ikebana as a reminder of the beauty and fleetingness of life in this world.)


5 posted on 06/15/2009 7:45:00 AM PDT by The_Reader_David (And when they behead your own people in the wars which are to come, then you will know. . .)
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To: AreaMan

Haven’t had time to digest all of this interesting article but this in particular stood out: “Desecration is a kind of defense against the sacred, an attempt to destroy its claims. In the presence of sacred things, our lives are judged, and to escape that judgment, we destroy the thing that seems to accuse us.” Compare that to Romans 1:18-32, especially verses 21-23 & 32.


6 posted on 06/15/2009 7:52:16 AM PDT by JoyjoyfromNJ (Psalm 121)
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To: Borges
Beethoven? Mussorgsky?

They gave their work form and beauty. One of the most powerful aspects of art is its source in the artists' need to express themselves. I would rather see their aspirations and ideals (not to mention their mastery of the their medium) brought forth than their desire to destroy, which is what much of the modern art world aspires to - the destruction of art.

7 posted on 06/15/2009 7:53:15 AM PDT by SlowBoat407 (Achtung. preparen zie fur die obamahopenchangen.)
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To: AreaMan
Excellent article, duly bookmarked. Thanks for posting!

Desecration is a kind of defense against the sacred, an attempt to destroy its claims.

I'd go further: desecration and desecrative art is always an attack against the sacred, not a defense. It is always prompted by evil.

Desecration of beauty is an expression of power (or the desire for such power) and as such is intimately political. Witness the diabolical rape fantasies wished upon Palin and her daughters: upon Carrie Prejean, and the rabid verbal assaults on every famous Conservative woman who happens to be beautiful and right.

Attacking beauty and holiness and seeking not only their defeat but their degradation is an integral part of the Left's war against humanity. Their breath stinks of hell.

8 posted on 06/15/2009 7:53:43 AM PDT by agere_contra
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To: SlowBoat407
Form maybe but Beauty? Many of their contemporaries would disagree with you. Especially with Mussorgsky who's music was considered crude and ugly by many well into the 20th century.
9 posted on 06/15/2009 7:55:23 AM PDT by Borges
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To: Borges

This is just a verbal similitude. The common picture of those two excellent composers is as driven, tortured geniuses.

But there is a bottomless gulf between artists who are tortured by their need to express beauty, and the ‘artists’ who seek to express torture.


10 posted on 06/15/2009 7:58:00 AM PDT by agere_contra
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To: agere_contra; Borges

What agere said...


11 posted on 06/15/2009 8:01:56 AM PDT by SlowBoat407 (Achtung. preparen zie fur die obamahopenchangen.)
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To: agere_contra; SlowBoat407

The point is that what was beautiful to them was often ugly to everyone else. One contemporary called a late Beethoven string quartet an ‘uncorrected horror’.


12 posted on 06/15/2009 8:04:31 AM PDT by Borges
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To: SlowBoat407

One of the planks of the Communist Goals for America is to replace art with that which is ugly.

“Our plan is to promote ugliness, repulsive, meaningless art.”


13 posted on 06/15/2009 8:06:44 AM PDT by MrB (Go Galt now, save Bowman for later)
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To: AreaMan

To me it’s just another example of liberals taking over the language. They aren’t capable of creating, recognizing or enjoying anything beautiful and considering it art. So they take what they like and call it art. Liberalism is indeed a mental illness. Somehow they can manipulate their minds to make something totally unacceptable to them acceptable by simply changing what they call it. No change to the thing itself, just rename it to a more pleasant name and VIOLA, it’s a good thing now, even though it’s exactly the same bad thing in reality that it was before. Wow, wish I could do that!


14 posted on 06/15/2009 8:20:49 AM PDT by jwparkerjr (God Bless America!)
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To: MrB

Any art remotely like that described in the article was banned in Communist countries. Too ‘individual’.


15 posted on 06/15/2009 8:24:55 AM PDT by Borges
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To: Borges

I think the idea behind the Communist Goals for America

was to destroy America and institute communism,

not about what they’d do once America was communist.


16 posted on 06/15/2009 8:26:36 AM PDT by MrB (Go Galt now, save Bowman for later)
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To: MrB

Stalinist propaganda in the mid 20th century was critical of American art for exactly the same reasons that the article is.


17 posted on 06/15/2009 8:28:33 AM PDT by Borges
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To: Borges
The point is that what was beautiful to them was often ugly to everyone else. One contemporary called a late Beethoven string quartet an ‘uncorrected horror’.

Whereas today, artists set out to create ugliness for its own sake, with the goal of undermining, not adding to, the concepts of beauty. The code words for these works are "challenging", "groundbreaking", and "thought-provoking". I do not fault someone who is trying to create something beautiful and botches it because they're still learning how to turn their ideas into forms, nor do I fault those whose concept of beauty may be different from mine.

I am absolutely opposed, however, to those whose goal is to create ugliness, despair and misery knowing full well that's what they are doing, and then challenging people to call it what it really is. The result is that people who are afraid of being considered "ignorant" will proclaim that the work is "important" and pretend they understand the artist. These are the useful idiots in the art world, and we are surrounded by them in the panels judging local art shows where people like my wife just want to sell their work and don't give two cents for what the judges think.

18 posted on 06/15/2009 8:28:53 AM PDT by SlowBoat407 (Achtung. preparen zie fur die obamahopenchangen.)
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To: AreaMan
At any time between 1750 and 1930, if you had asked an educated person to describe the goal of poetry, art, or music, “beauty” would have been the answer.

And thus begins the construction of a whopper of a strawman.

To begin with -- why start with that time period? Why does the author ignore the tremendous body of art prior to that period, including the works of Shakespeare, Renaissance painting and sculpture, and the music of the likes of Bach and Telemann?

Second, one really has to wonder whether the author is quite serious when he states that beauty was ever actually the "goal" of art. Look at the paintings of Hieronymus Bosch, for example; or some of the deliberately ugly characters in any number of paintings before and during the author's chosen time period.

Was Bach's or Beethoven's goal really nothing more solid than "beauty?" Highly doubtful -- Bach's religious music, for example, had far more than beauty in mind.

And Shakespeare -- was his goal really nothing more than "beauty," of phrasing, perhaps? Or does Shakespeare endure because of something a bit more solid, such as his amazing ability to draw out those quintessential aspects of humanity that we can still recognize today?

There was certainly great attention to technique and artistic talent ... but it is far easier to argue that "telling the story" was a great deal more important to the artists than "beauty" was.

We can certainly acknowledge the ugliness of much of modern art. But it's the ugliness of narcissism, within a decadent culture that feeds -- and feeds on -- narcissism.

The ugliness of modern art is a cultural thing. We say we value "freedom," and today's artists are certainly "free." Unfortunately, like so much of modern "freedom," it is a freedom without responsibility. Modern artists are not held accountable; indeed, they're rewarded for their "fearlessness."

19 posted on 06/15/2009 8:29:58 AM PDT by r9etb
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To: SlowBoat407

Art is judged by what the result is not what the artist ‘intended’. To take two examples, Schoenberg’s atonal music is beautiful if you’re on his wavelength. So is Pollack’s work.


20 posted on 06/15/2009 8:34:51 AM PDT by Borges
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To: SlowBoat407
They gave their work form and beauty.

But was that their "goal?" Doubtful.

21 posted on 06/15/2009 8:36:17 AM PDT by r9etb
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To: Borges
Art is judged by what the result is not what the artist ‘intended’.

LOL! Not even close to true. Look at poetry, for example. Are you really going to suggest that poetry shouldn't be judged by the author's intent?

22 posted on 06/15/2009 8:37:49 AM PDT by r9etb
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To: r9etb
Well Beethoven certainly intended to give his work formal qualities. But easily appreciated surface ‘beauty’ is something both of those men scoffed at.
23 posted on 06/15/2009 8:38:08 AM PDT by Borges
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To: r9etb
A lot of times a poem can mean the exact opposite of what the poet intended. Do you really think the 200 interpretations of Hamlet were all intended by Shakespeare? Do you think Milton intended ‘Paradise Lost’ to be read as a glamorization of Satan? That's how it's read today.
24 posted on 06/15/2009 8:39:40 AM PDT by Borges
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To: Borges
Sorry this reply is a bit all over the place, but I am unused to discussing Art and artistic memes. You will see that I haven't reached a coherent synthesis of my ideas yet.

You are correct about the late works, but Beethoven didn't write his 'uncorrected horrors' as a way of destroying beauty or expressing blasphemy. They had a form, they adhered to an artistic ideal which we can recognize and honor.

Some useful distinctions can be made here. Not all beauty is 'elegant', not all beauty and art is what pops into our mind when we hear the word beauty (which for me is 'Summer Glau', but never mind me!).

Frogs, elephants, spiders, mushrooms, goggle-eyed fish from the deepest parts of the sea - these have a beauty, these have a form. Grotesque beings given their form by God are beautiful. And grotesque art created by an artist in sympathy with the Creator is an honorable sub-creation: it expresses something true and beautiful about creation, its energy, its power.

But (to carry on with the example) a frog mushed into roadkill either in reality or on a canvas - this is never beauty - this is a betrayal of form, this is an attack upon form. A crushed amphibian named "Concept Frog" and displayed at the Tate would be an attack upon beauty of a sort we instantly recognize.

Now, Beethoven wrote some stuff with a difficult or ugly form. A better example for our purposes might be Browning. Every poem written by Robert Browning used a difficult or grotesque form: he used many unique meters and forms to express what he wanted to say. His poems are energetic and follow weird leaping meters, they have ugly-in-the-sense-of-grotesque-forms, in the same sense that a frog or a fish or a spider can be ugly.

But his poems aren't works of hate or evil, they are not attacks upon reality, nor do they utter frantic blasphemies.

Whereas: a counter example from one of Browning's contemporaries. The pictures of Aubrey Beardsley used as the illustrations for Morte d'Arthur are examples of evilly-inspired depictions of the human form. Beardsley's pictures have no nobility, his lords and ladies are not merely weird and alien, but they depict a betrayal of the human form. They are repellent, evil dolls.

Truly hope this is helpful.

25 posted on 06/15/2009 8:45:51 AM PDT by agere_contra
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To: agere_contra
A lot of people, myself included, find Beardsley beautiful. People said the same thing about his contemporary Gustav Mahler who is now a staple of the repertoire. Modernism, like that of Picasso and Joyce (both still called ugly by some) was all about fragmentation and trying to order a chaotic world.
26 posted on 06/15/2009 8:50:17 AM PDT by Borges
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To: AreaMan

SGT. HARTMAN says: “Your so ugly you could be a modern art(expression) masterpiece!”


27 posted on 06/15/2009 8:57:47 AM PDT by LeonardFMason
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To: SlowBoat407

Excellent post from you.

I think we need a word or phrase to distinguish ‘evil’ ugliness from the true and honorable grotesqueries of the real world. Can’t think of one.

Continuing with my meandering: art can be beautiful and yet depict horrid things: Tolkien’s illustrators (all those orcs!) and Bosch’s apocalyptic scenes illustrate evil in the same way that a good horror film (Aliens) does. The monsters have a ‘good form’: even when they’re ‘evil’ they’re good!

Whereas bad horror films, bad horror comics, bad art might show horrible things in a ‘bad’ way, using bad form. For instance - despite quoting ‘Aliens’ above - I think Giger is a bad artist. His intense and disturbing concept art of “The Alien” were IMO greatly improved for film.

In the same way 90% of all the early art for Warhammer 40K, 90% of the later art for 2000 AD etc were IMO unviewable tripe. Nasty violent pr0n, some of it, and horrible to look at.

Ok, my eclectic judgments on the comics and RPG games of my youth can be put to one side. But discerning the difference between good and bad form, good and bad art is IMO something we all do instinctively: we really can be proud of “knowing what we like”. We carry a touchstone for good art inside us.

Whereas bad art revolts our internal touchstone. That’s why it can only be ‘interpreted, explained, truly understood’ by a self-appointed and well-remunerated Priesthood - that sounds like what your Wife is battling against.


28 posted on 06/15/2009 9:09:45 AM PDT by agere_contra
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To: AreaMan

There was a small sidewalk art show the other weekend in my hometown. I easily picked the winners of the show by simply locating the most vapid, ugly, intellectually vacant work there.

I was dead-bang-on, too.

Art has become a mockery of itself. And, artists have become the equivalent of a traveling carnival freak show. There’s nothing very intellectual or important about displaying conjoined twins to the masses. That’s just trying to make a buck off the unusual.


29 posted on 06/15/2009 9:20:02 AM PDT by delphirogatio (I may not be a lion, but I am a lion's cub, and I have a lion's heart)
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To: Borges
A lot of people, myself included, find Beardsley beautiful. People said the same thing about his contemporary Gustav Mahler who is now a staple of the repertoire. Modernism, like that of Picasso and Joyce (both still called ugly by some) was all about fragmentation and trying to order a chaotic world.

Thank you Borges. My internal touchstone is - not repelled - but I guess disinterested by the majority of the work of each of those artists. Likely it is something to do with the fragmentation of form. I like my artists to present Art, not jigsaws :0)

I don't believe any of those explorative artists - with the exception of Beardsley - are desecrators in the sense of this article. There is a middle ground here, populated by technicians who aren't doing stuff that happens to touch me.

But I will insist that it is (at best) a poor or misdirected artist who needs interpreters, who needs a Priesthood. And as for our modern rabble of excrement artists and the like: IMO they are actively seeking evil.

30 posted on 06/15/2009 9:29:56 AM PDT by agere_contra
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To: Borges
Art is judged by what the result is not what the artist ‘intended’. To take two examples, Schoenberg’s atonal music is beautiful if you’re on his wavelength. So is Pollack’s work.

Both must be taken into account, unless you subscribe to some post-modernist view that the only thing that counts is the viewers' response. I've had many an experience where an otherwise appealing work has been soured by knowing what the artist originally intended with it.(a number of songs from the 60's and 70's come to mind. Likewise, I can overlook some technical deficiencies if I know the artist was seeking beauty.

I have no desire to be on the same wavelength as Jackson Pollack, for example, so I will never find his work remotely appealing.

31 posted on 06/15/2009 9:49:05 AM PDT by SlowBoat407 (Achtung. preparen zie fur die obamahopenchangen.)
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To: delphirogatio
I easily picked the winners of the show by simply locating the most vapid, ugly, intellectually vacant work there.

I once astounded my wife by picking a cigarette taped to a photograph of an ashtray to win a prize, and sure enough, it did. I used the same criteria that you did. It's become predictable and sad.

32 posted on 06/15/2009 9:51:42 AM PDT by SlowBoat407 (Achtung. preparen zie fur die obamahopenchangen.)
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To: SlowBoat407

Do you supposed to art world would keel over if they actually realized all their efforts at being imaginative are simply predictably ugly?


33 posted on 06/15/2009 9:55:27 AM PDT by delphirogatio (I may not be a lion, but I am a lion's cub, and I have a lion's heart)
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To: SlowBoat407

The mere recreation of reality in art is idiotic. A camera does a far better job. Anyone can paint a naturalistic scene or still life or portrait, it’s a matter of training, so what’s the challenge there, same old same old.

Artists are explorers. Look at the Florentine Renaissance- they discovered the optical laws of perspective and from that came architectural and industrial blueprints and machine tool reproduction, ie., the Industrial Revolution. Discovery.

Works of art should be experiments in finding a new technique, a new way of seeing or hearing, a new way of communicating, a new way of understanding. Otherwise what’s the point- therapy for boredom, a hobby?

I don’t understand why conservatives have a hard time with contemporary art. They’d certainly applaud the R & D work of industry, the inventiveness of human genius, a more efficient manner of getting from point A to point B or from idea A to idea B. The problem for conservatives is that they have ALLOWED art to become hijacked by political hacks and flunkies because they lost the R & D edge in that realm. They forgot how to experiment and, by default, the commies took it over lock, stock and trigger- movies, music, poetry, painting, prose, sculpture, you name it, it’s a leftist playground.

My take is that conservatives fell into the trap of assuming that culture was “high culture”, something that the wealthy patronized to grace their self-exaulted status while the proletariat had to settle for country and western laments about hard living. They allowed culture to become brahminized, remote, rare instead of understanding that culture is the glue that gives a society its cohesiveness and pride as well as its means of disseminating ideas; it’s communication apparat.

So either continue to sing a cowboy’s lament over the loss of control of the cultural matrix or learn how to strip politics and ideology from contemporary art ideas and experiment American society into a new aesthetic paradigm.
Ball’s in your court.


34 posted on 06/15/2009 10:09:33 AM PDT by Yollopoliuhqui (consciousness is a heads up display)
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To: AreaMan
Thanks very much for posting this - big Scruton fan here. Great way to start the week.

One big question he's trying to address is: why is art the way it is these days and have we actually lost anything, or is it simply different? Along the way one has to address some pretty basic statements about human perception.

The difficulty with naming "expression" as the fundamental value in art is that it requires an object, that is, something that is being expressed. Beauty? Well, the art I prefer approaches that, but what beauty is, probably needs to be considered. Truth? (Keats' "Beauty is truth; truth, beauty" risks the status of platitude by now but it's worth considering). It is a strange thing (to me, at least) to hear a classical musician describe the upshot of a perfect composition as "true," and yet I know what he's talking about. The expositional nature of this is perhaps easier to perceive in music than, say, in a painting or sculpture but it seems to be there as well. In literature it's so evident that it's almost cant.

This is not a truth as expressed after any rules of formal logic (necessarily) but one of direct apprehension, that moment Scruton describes here:

Not surprisingly, the idea of beauty has puzzled philosophers. The experience of beauty is so vivid, so immediate, so personal, that it seems hardly to belong to the natural order as science observes it.

Robert Pirsig likened it to a Zen moment of pure apprehension and tried to neutralize the term by rephrasing it as "quality." That seems to be where Scruton is coming from as well:

Poets have expended thousands of words on this experience, which no words seem entirely to capture.

That's Zen all right. And yes, it's hard to explain. But when I'm walking down a row of paintings and one of them - not one I'd describe as particularly "pretty" - seems to jump off the wall and grab me and start shaking, that's the direct apprehension of something: beauty or truth, internal consistency, something. It last happened with a Picasso - I know diddly about expressionism and was too ignorant to recognize it as his, but the thing was just good. If it had been signed "Schnitzelfritz" it still would have been undeniable.

"Undeniable" - that word just came out. Truth, I guess.

And yet Mozart done in a pastiche of copulating bodies may well be a reach for some sort of truth but it strikes me as a false proposition. I suppose others' mileage may vary. But I suspect it may not be that at all, it's something else, and Scruton's invocation of "transgression" leads me to suspect that it's simply an intention to evoke a strong emotional reaction of some sort. Any sort, not just the sort reserved for a direct apprehension of whatever symmetry I'm trying to describe here. (Unsuccessfully. That's Zen too.)

Other emotions such as anger and hostility, perhaps revulsion as well, seem easier to evoke because these do not require the structure, the internal consistency, that a "true" proposition does. An artist after a cheap thrill may well throw turds on a canvas, and there is, actually, an underlying proposition there that mocks both artist and audience, but one suspects that the truth thereby illuminated is one with the medium. John Cage's notorious four minutes thirty-three seconds of silence made the same sort of meta-statement, in my humble opinion, and risked insulting the audience not for failing to understand it, but for understanding it perfectly. (Cage was also an exponent of Zen and perhaps that is what he was after, but it simply isn't that easy.)

But strong emotions - anger, hostility, revulsion - require quite a bit less work than crafting that one true proposition, and so perhaps there is an element of artistic laziness at work here. Perhaps dilution as well - we live in a time when art, especially music, is, after one fashion or another, so omnipresent as to be nearly inescapable. One used to have to make one's own, but sheet music sales started to tank when that evil fellow named Edison invented that tool of the devil, the gramophone. There are occasions - elevator rides come to mind - when one prays in vain for a few moments of blissful peace.

The market used to be the control over all this, and in a sense it still is, but in fact nowadays more people have more money than any Renaissance city ever held and hence there seems less of a strict control than there used to be - artists seldom starve these days (only the good ones). Deadly to that is the call for government subsidization of the arts, for the good of society ostensibly although it seems to result mostly in the good of bad art. One could fill a very slim portfolio with "Great Art Of The Soviet Union," in a country so steeped in artistic history that the vacuum should be horrifying.

I hold onto hope, however. I saw a young feller in a music store the other day, purple hair and enough metal in his face to set off a mine detector, and when the opening statement of Mozart's Clarinet Concerto piped through the store he just smiled and whispered to his girlfriend, "that's good." Well, it is.

35 posted on 06/15/2009 10:29:38 AM PDT by Billthedrill
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To: Yollopoliuhqui
The mere recreation of reality in art is idiotic. A camera does a far better job. Anyone can paint a naturalistic scene or still life or portrait, it’s a matter of training, so what’s the challenge there, same old same old.

The recreation of reality is the beginning of art. It's a matter of understanding the basics so one can then bend them to one's own aspirations. Do not discount the talent that it takes to see and to transfer an image to canvas or stone or clay. I suspect from your statement that you've probably mastered it, but some of us will never know that joy.

Explorers, yes. Discoverers, yes. Innovators, absolutely. But the idea of exploring, discovering, and innovating ways of dragging down the human spirit and imposing a decrepit, painful, and bleak world view is the goal of many of the modern artists, and it is their work I find hideous and without any redeeming value.

I have no problem with abstract works, and I find many of them fascinating and even beautiful. But as I have stated before, I reject any efforts to undermine the value of what has come before simply by painting a mustache on the Mona Lisa (as Dada proclaims) or by spreading animal parts on a canvas just because it has not been done before.

Understand: it is a stated goal of Marxist and "revolutionary" proponents to undermine concepts of art so they can clear the way for their own ideas. It is part of their effort to "capture the culture". We see it being played out every day in all aspects of the art world.

36 posted on 06/15/2009 10:40:21 AM PDT by SlowBoat407 (Achtung. preparen zie fur die obamahopenchangen.)
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To: Yollopoliuhqui
I don’t understand why conservatives have a hard time with contemporary art.

There may, in fact, be an unreasoned, knee-jerk aspect to it for some, perhaps many, conservatives.

However, I think that it would be accurate to say that conservatives aren't opposed to contemporary are per se; indeed, many of us appreciate a good deal of it.

Speaking for myself, however, I part ways with contemporary art when it primarily evokes an awareness of the artist's narcissism, or the main point is destruction (in fact, the two seem often to appear together).

Art should to a large degree be meant for other people. It needn't be beautiful, but it should have some aspect of on person communicating with others.

When it devolves to the point of an artist doing little more than stridently demanding that I pay attention to him.... At that point, IMO, it ceases to be "art."

37 posted on 06/15/2009 10:53:56 AM PDT by r9etb
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To: SlowBoat407
The artist's intention is irrelevant unless it can be justified by examples from the work itself. In any case its the content of the work that matters. Art has all sorts of contingencies. If you write a short story about you and your family having dinner you're bound to reveal all sorts of things about yourself and your family that you had no intention of revealing.

I used to berate Pollack until saw other people try to do the same thing. He clearly knew what he was doing and did it better than his imitators.
38 posted on 06/15/2009 10:57:58 AM PDT by Borges
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To: SlowBoat407
"it is a stated goal of Marxist and "revolutionary" proponents to undermine concepts of art so they can clear the way for their own ideas."

As I stated earlier, the aspects of Western Art which can even remotely be seen as avant garde were severely criticized in Communist countries as signs of the Decadent West.
39 posted on 06/15/2009 11:12:35 AM PDT by Borges
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To: Borges

Pollack humbled me. I figured his stuff was dribblings - I was sure of it - until I saw one that really was undeniable. Ended up eating a lot of crow, too, and deserved it. You never know.


40 posted on 06/15/2009 11:32:22 AM PDT by Billthedrill
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To: agere_contra

“But I will insist that it is (at best) a poor or misdirected artist who needs interpreters, who needs a Priesthood.”

But you do need a language if there is communication.


41 posted on 06/16/2009 11:59:41 PM PDT by Blind Eye Jones
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To: AreaMan
If, in the 19th century, God left the picture and all that was left was his footprint -- thanks to science and Nietzsche -- then, to recapture the sublime, to represent what can't be represented (God), you would have to be shocked. This is what modern arts attempts to do: shock you. But not shook you as in fill in what God may have been by looking at his footprint, doing the detective work by looking at the clues. (We do the same with the concept of infinity, another sublime trace or clue that represents something that can't be represented in its totality.) No not that... Modern art shocks you by dipping Jesus in urine and throwing shit at religious art. Monkeys throw shit better than we do and this is not how to retrieve God and/or beauty.
42 posted on 06/17/2009 12:25:29 AM PDT by Blind Eye Jones
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