On my way through life I find beauty in the strangest of places and vistas. Not so with Mr. Scruton, who says:  “I think we are losing beauty and with it there is the danger of losing the meaning of life.”

 – we are living through the ‘uglification’ of our world – the randomization of our cities, the pornification of sexual love, the spoliation of the natural world, and the pollution of everything by consumerism and appetite.

– Roger Scruton

British philosopher, writer, and composer 

I’m not especially pro pornification, spoliation or pollution, but this doesn’t mean that there cannot be incredible beauty to be found in the uglier sides of the world. Beauty can be found – everywhere, even in … ugliness?!

Dam #6, Three Gorges Dam Project, Yangtze River, 2005 © Edward Burtynsky

To me this picture of ugliness is incredible beautiful.

Maybe we have to sharpen our focus, and try to draw nearer to the really impossible question:

What exactly is beauty? 

For Scruton, beauty is not in the eye of the beholder, it is an objective truth: In the 20th century, he says, beauty stopped being important, art increasingly aimed to disturb and break moral taboos, it was not beauty but originality however achieved. Are we happy with the direction art is taking? Away from seeking “higher virtues” such as beauty and craftmanship, and instead, towards novelty for novelty’s sake, provoking emotional response under the guise of socio-political discourse?

Through the pursuit of beauty, suggests Scruton, we shape the world as our own and come to understand our nature as spiritual beings. But art has turned its back on beauty and now we are surrounded by ugliness.

A problem for me, with Scruton’s argumentation, is that he ends up defining art as something very close to decorum – and we end up with beauty being just another form of etiquette, actually, as I see it, not very spiritual nor true (two important notions of beauty in a classical view). To me Scruton’s ideal sounds like a historical museum, nice to visit, but not made for life.

Ah! The complexity of things –

There might actually be a kind of spirituality in Burtynsky’s images of destruction, pollution and spoliation, a beauty as beautiful as the sensual beauty of say …  Venus?

4 Comments Add yours

  1. Jeff says:

    You’re not quoting him there, and you don’t give any references, but I thought you might find An Intelligent Person’s Guide To Modern Culture a useful read for getting the fullness of his argumentation.
    Far from an definition of art as etiquette, he refers to it as something rooted in religious sentiment, and by this, he doesn’t mean organised religion/s, but rather the foundation of community through abstract values that elevate us from the mundanities of everyday life. One of his main complaints about contemporary culture is that it commodofies the banal and everyday. Porno is one example of this. Eroticism, he claims, is something that requires imagination, and that this act in turn requires that we look upon a desired other as a whole person. Porn, like prostitution, by contrast, depersonalises, turns the other into a saleable object whose personhood is made irrelevant.
    Not that I’m endorsing his narrow views of art, but his concerns are with how people connect with each other, and how community is founded. Actually, an interesting accompaniment to reading his work is to read Heidegger’s essay on the origin of the work of art. I haven’t noticed Scruton make any reference to it, which is peculiar, given the focus on the coming together of a people and the appeal in this to ancient Greek culture.

    1. Sigrun says:

      Thank you, Jeff!
      I’m reading “Beauty”, the only other work by Scruton I know is his book on architecture, which I read as a student, 25 years ago. My intention is absolutely not to ridicule Scruton’s view. There are aspects in his thinking I very much agree with. But it’s difficult to think about, or at least to try to define, beauty. It’s like the more you go into it, the more mysterious it gets.
      Thank you again for opening up and widening the Scruton reference-list.

  2. I think Dave Hickey would disagree with Scruton, even though in theory it would seem they agree (they both defend beauty). But I haven’t read Scruton–yet–so I could be way off base. What do you think?

    1. Sigrun says:

      I have not read enough of Scruton to know, I think my critique of him is too harsh, I have to go deeper into his ideas to know. But I will keep your question in mind!

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