Boo to Beauty

Roger Scruton, “Beauty and Desecration,” City Journal 19.2 (Spring 2009)
“We must rescue art from the modern intoxication with ugliness.”

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. . . .
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.

Beauty is what artists and philosophers since the Renaissance say art aims at. But artists and philosophers, like most other human beings, often say and do very different things. Donatello’s “David” is “beautiful”; his “Mary Magdalene” very much not (unless you extend the definition of beauty to include the beauty of suffering, or something of that ilk, which move would make Grosz’s grotesques beautiful too).

To be obsessed with beauty, to see beauty as truth—and somehow transcendental, is to side with Plato against Aristotle, who sees beauty as form, and to ignore other aims for art, like catharsis in Aristotle’s reading of tragedy or ecstasy in Longinus’s reading of the literary sublime – rather more “earthly” notions. Scruton, the (early modern) lover of beauty, is as reductive as the (late modern) lovers of ugliness. Surely art does a lot of stuff—unless you want to subsume a whole lot of stuff under “beauty,” as I think Scruton does (or “truth,” as Heidegger does).

See Clement Greenberg, “Avant-Garde and Kitsch” (1939) or Vilem Flusser, “Taking Up Residence in Homelessless,” a.k.a. “The Challenge of the Migrant” (1985; 1993; 2003).

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