Why Beauty Matters

the search for beauty, cont.

I think we are loosing beauty, and there is a danger that with it, we will loose the meaning of life.

In this post I will present you for Roger Scruton’s view on beauty. It is not because I agree with what he says, but because he is one of relative few –  from inside the intellectual-establishment – daring to advocate a fundamental critique of contemporary art.

You can watch Scruton’s documentary for the BBC here:

Why Beauty Matters

I have just recently started my more serious-minded research into beauty in contemporary art. I do not agree with the view that we are loosing beauty; too many new works demonstrate too much beauty for me to share Scruton’s pessimism. But his negative view on the contemporary art scene does not mean that his understanding of beauty should be dismissed. Rather it should be discussed.

Scruton’s short presentations of Shaftesbury & Kant are unusually clear, and can help us understand the meaning of beauty, also today. I do agree with the proposition that we have to be much more conscious on the value of beauty. We have to be willing to cultivate it, without fear of being labelled sentimental or naive.

Here are some questions to consider:

  • What is beauty?
  • Does it exist?
  • We live in a utilitarian culture, in a society where value = money. But what’s the use of love, friendship and imagination in a world where money is the scale? And what is the use of beauty in such a civilization?

From the beginning of western civilization poets and philosophers have seen the experience of beauty as calling us to the divine. Through beauty we are brought into the presence of the sacred. Art saved us from the meaningless routines of ordinary life. But then (in 1917, to be more precise), art turned it’s back on beauty.

In the opinion of Roger Scruton, contemporary art is just another part of consumer culture, wallowing in self-discust.

  • Is it true, as Scruton suggests, that we live in a loveless culture, determined to portray the world as unlovable?

I see the Jake and Dinos Chapman exhibition: Come and See, at Serpentine Sackler Gallery, as an excellent example of what worries Scruton in contemporary art. I went to visit the exhibition when last in London. I found it deeply disturbing, but would not – as Scruton might – call it a fake work of art.

(ps: it’s interesting to notice that the critics are not too happy about the exhibition…are we witnessing the beginning of the end of this kind of art?)


17 thoughts on “Why Beauty Matters

  1. Regarding: loveless representations of loveless culture. I think the error has been the notion that humans are free, independent actors, synonymous with their egos. A powerful notion, but we are also seeing the consequences of it. A representation of individuals formed by various social, constructed and natural environments (and independent reaction to them) would be closer to both biological and social experience (and brain development as we approach, go through, and come out of the fire of puberty). Asking for an independent concept of beauty from individuals shaped by a huge variety of environments, especially by rather sterile cities or institutionalized states only made human by the marvellous dedication and energy of humans within them, is not going to arrive at such a concept. It is a classic tragic flaw. Maybe this is why Goethe’s generation looked to classical models, to get out of their own heads?

  2. Well, what is “pretty” is often confused with what is beautiful and that is unfortunate. It confuses the function of beauty.

    Art is not comforting, nor is beauty, because both have a profound effect when realized.

  3. Can we conflate a loveless culture and the losing of beauty? Does either really exist? Love may have become privatised like so much else in highly urbanised, technological societies. But love continues nonetheless. And beauty too – in new forms perhaps, and unexpected places.

    Has anyone ever been able to nail an ‘essential beauty’? The number of factors at play is simply too great. Notions of beauty fluctuate constantly; within cultures and time, fashion and education, and from necessity. There may be forms and colours and combinations thereof which are more pleasing to the eye than others; the golden mean recurs frequently as a ratio; and certain subject matter may touch emotions more profoundly, such as mother and child depictions.

    If it is not exactly a construct, beauty is very much down to acculturation. Harmony is sometimes taken to be beauty and what is initially shocking may later be valued as beauty. Art which can appear repellent to some people may have a place and a function. Not all of it, all of the time; but we can value now the art which Hitler labelled ‘degenerate’; we can appreciate its profound nature and social commentary, even if we find it not to be beautiful. Then there is repellent art which has nothing to say and so too with ‘beautiful’ (pretty Rio?) art.

    What an individual finds beautiful another may find ugly, jarring; it may have a ‘function’ for one but not for another. I may find beautiful a painting of flowers by my sister which is unaccomplished; because my experience of it is freighted with love. Thank goodness not everything is instrumental in this world.

    1. A good way of putting it might be that beauty is a relational term, like wilderness: a cultural boundary, like a string around a field in which a horse stays, bound to the will of the woman who lays out the string.

      1. But, tell me; can beauty, and by this I don’t mean a personal sense of niceness – but something transcendental, like BEAUTY, be a goal?

  4. And thank you for this discourse on beauty, or should that be Beauties? Beauty is often intangible – ungraspable as water, now you see it, now you don’t – so that one will probably never arrive at a totally still point, an absolute understanding, if one keeps an open mind.

    That piece of string may in fact be elastic and that horse will nudge and push and stretch it. Our relationship with it will change as what we thought of as constants mutate and the world changes and our experience expands. Again, if one keeps an open mind.

    Does transcendental beauty as commonly experienced in nature or music – spiritual, infinite – exist on a different plane from sensual – mundane, contingent – beauty as found in architecture or a beautifully-proportioned car?

    If we question what is heralded as beauty within our own cultures, if we immerse ourselves in the accepted beauties of other cultures and avoid conflating morality with beauty, perhaps new beauties will reveal themselves to us.

    And good old ‘ugliness’ is always needed as it provides us by default with our experience of ‘beauty’.

  5. As you know, the discussion of beauty interests me, too, these days…though I have been distracted from it of late…
    The idea of a relationship with beauty seems definitely worthy of exploration. Somehow that concept of relationship (a being-with) shifts the exploration from “mere” aesthetics.

    1. I’m afraid a lot of people believe beauty is irrelevant in contemporary art. And I think it’s important to bring the quality of beauty back into art, and into life. So in this respect I agree with Scruton. But at the same time his conservatism frightens me – I do not believe everything was better in the old days (i.e. the times when there were no female artists around, and it would have been impossible for me to be a critic).

      So there is no solution going back, but we have to move closer to beauty … if we only knew what it was, and where to find it –

      1. One thing that has helped me gain clarity with these issues in the literary world is the realization that various modernist and post-modernist genres (imagism, surrealism, vizpo, langpo, flare, sound poetry, performance poetry, and the new quasi-scientific-imagism-concept fusions, for example) are all separate art forms. They all achieve a thing called poetry, but not by unity. Each uses a different language, and the art of getting poetry out of that remains art, and it’s there, I think, that beauty lies. In visual and spatial art, which is even farther down the road of intellectualization of a primary lyricism, I think the same principle holds. There is beauty in the Three Gorges Dam and beauty in a rose, but they’re inherent in the attitude of attention given to them, and the way it releases that quality from the canvas, the process, or in terms of representations of physical objects, objects themselves, under view. Things can be ugly or beautiful, depending on the particularity of the process they are drawn through. The Three Gorges Dam can be brutally ugly or beautiful, not because beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but that objects have a quantum quality, and representations are not just representations of physicality. They are also representations of consciousness and, well, the quality called art or artfulness. After a couple centuries, more or less, of separating art and artfulness (or craft), perhaps it’s time to reconsider that and see where that distinction went wrong. You might find that part of the beauty mystery is bound up with the prejudice written right into the categories of art. Best, Harold

  6. The strange thing is, that if I was to say something about the beauty of “Dam #6, Three Gorges Dam Project”, by Edward Burtynsky, if I would try to tell you why I see this as an utterly beautiful image, I would have to go to music. I would have to talk about rhythm, sound, interplay and composition. Strange, isn’t it – that to talk about something beyond words, I’ll have to seek help in a kind of expression which is even more difficult to convey in verbal language.

  7. I’m a little Johnny-come-lately concerning a comment but I wanted to tell you that I really enjoyed this post and have watched the video several times. I didn’t post a comment because for me, this is one of those posts that you walk around with, think on, let sink in, as a creator (see what has merit). But what I’ve arrived at isn’t in one straight line or anything I can leave in a comment which promises to be short. I wills ay though, I see his points on consumerism to some extent and our emerging commitment to disturbing content. But then I think anything that is repetitive will begin to draw a yawn. Perhaps why Madonna changed up her routine so much (the music reference).

    I also think beauty is somewhat subjective. My idea of beauty may not be yours and vice versa. But the function of the artist is to present his experience in such a way – concerning beauty – that the viewer can experience a similar pleasure. Correct?

    Also humans are complicated, what soothes one person isn’t necessarily what soothes another. Tying into the concept of beauty, being invited to an idea of it that produces a different reference can cause stress IMO.

    Still, thank-you for this brilliant post. I am enjoying thinking about this and even enjoyed the commenters here. Be well. xo

  8. Thank you so much for commenting – and no, it’s not late; I am in the middle of this, and guess I will continue to be for a while. The thing is that I, like you, do not find a simple solution, or stable ground to stand on. “What is beauty?”, is an unanswerable question, but still we all (most of us) agree that it – IT??? – matters, and many of us will be willing to say it even is extremely important to us, that it (beauty) gives meaning to our lives.

    I definitively will have to rummage around in this dimly lit space for a while – trying to figure out something, anything …

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