For renowned British philosopher and writer Roger Scruton, beauty is not in the eye of the beholder. It is, in fact, an objective truth which has a significant part to play in the arts and in our everyday lives. His 2009 documentary, ‘Why Beauty Matters’, is a thought-provoking essay, which argues that the modern art of the twentieth century has turned its back on beauty, inflicting a culture of degradation and ugliness on mankind in the process. As a result, Scruton maintains that we are losing beauty and, with it, the sacred meaning of life.
For over 2,000 years, beauty was deemed to be essential to our civilisation. Many philosophers argued that our pursuit of beauty shaped the world we lived in and helped us understand our own nature as spiritual and moral creatures. Beauty, therefore, is an universal need of human beings, like truth and goodness. If we ignore such a need, Scruton maintains that we are left to wander unconsoled in a vast ‘spiritual desert’, isolated and alone.
The great artists of the past, according to Scruton, were fully aware that human lives are full of chaos and hardship. They believed that the best solution for such suffering was to make beauty the ultimate objective of art. A beautiful work of art brings consolation in sorrow and affirmation in joy. In other words, beautiful art shows us that human life has meaning and is worthwhile. Yet, at the beginning of the twentieth century, many artists had grown tired and weary of carrying out this supposedly “sacred” task. They believed that the random nature of modern life could not be redeemed or vindicated by art. Instead, art could only reflect and depict how the world really is; the here and the now with all its imperfections.
This line of thought, according to Scruton, was set in motion by the French artist Marcel Duchamp in 1917, when he submitted the scandalous work ‘Foundation’ (a urinal signed with a fictitious signature) in an exhibition for the Society of Independent Artists. Duchamp’s submission was supposed to be a satirical attack on the world of art, designed to mock its traditional methods and its condescending attitudes. However, ‘Foundation’ was also interpreted in another way; claiming that anything can be a work of art. Scruton goes on to suggest that, thanks to Duchamp’s legacy, contemporary art has been reduced to a ‘cult of ugliness’ as art no longer required any element of skill or taste. Modern art, in other words, has become just another meaningless human gesture like laughing or shouting.
For Scruton, creativity is the essential ingredient in every true piece of art. Creativity, he says, is about sharing; it is a call to others to experience the world as the artist sees it, to feel and understand the artist’s emotions. But creativity alone is not enough and the skill of the artist needed ‘to show the real in the light of the ideal and so transfigure it’. Scruton goes on to say that there are objective standards of beauty which have a firm foundation in our nature and that we need to search for them and incorporate them into our everyday lives.
In his documentary, Scruton looks at a number of philosophers’ views on beauty, including Plato and Kant’s, in order to reinforce his own impassioned case for the importance of beauty in art. For Plato, beauty is the sign of another and higher order and to see it was to cultivate true virtue. We human beings aspire to the eternal realm where we are united with the divine. Whilst we can not know this transcendental world directly, Plato believes that human beings may catch glimpses of ‘that heavenly sphere’ through the experience of beauty. Beauty, therefore, was considered by Plato to be a transcendental visitor from a higher realm and we can only ever contemplate its pure radiance and brilliance. Beauty, for Plato, is a path to a higher realm, and if we attempt to possess it or manipulate with it, we desecrate it, tainting its spiritual aura.
Kant, one of the key philosophers of the Enlightenment era, claims that the experience of beauty comes when we take an disinterested attitude towards things; when we put our own interests to one side and look upon things, not in order to use them for our own ends or to satisfy some animal appetite, but to simply engage with them and endorse them for what they are. For Kant, experiences of beauty connects human beings with the ultimate question of existence, raising them to a higher level of spirituality, and delivering them from the banality of mundane experience.
So, it seems that when we examine the history of the idea of beauty, philosophers and artists had good reasons to identify the beautiful with the sacred, and to see that the need for beauty is something deep and inherent within our nature. Contemporary artists, however, look upon this notion of sacred beauty with contempt, seeing it as a mere leftover of an old fashioned way of living which has no real connection to our modern surroundings. They feel the need rebel against the traditional pursuit of beauty and they do so by treating and depicting human life in demeaning ways. For Scruton, this willful desecration by today’s artists is an denial of love and shows this postmodern era of art is an unfeeling and cruel one. As a result, our spiritual needs which are so essential to our wellbeing remain unfulfilled.
As contemporary art turned its back on beauty in its own self-indulgent pursuit of originality, Scruton argues it has become a slave to our consumer culture, feeding our animalistic addictions and appetites and wallowing in self disgust. By creating a ‘cult of ugliness’, modern art fails to satisfy any of our spiritual needs and thus leads us into a ‘spiritual desert’. The only way out of this, according to Scruton, is to reinstate beauty to its rightful position as the ultimate objective of art and at the heart of our culture.