On the 12th of January, the world lost a great philosopher, public intellectual, and a rare voice championing the importance of beauty.
Roger Scruton dedicated himself to nurturing beauty and “re-enchanting the world.” In his documentary “Why Beauty Matters”, Scruton argues that beauty is a universal human need that elevates us and gives meaning to life. He sees beauty as a value, as important as truth or goodness, that can offer “consolation in sorrow and affirmation in joy”, therefore showing human life to be worthwhile.
According to Scruton, beauty is being lost in our modern world, particularly in the fields of art and architecture. I grew up in London and was often confused by much of modern art and new architecture. In life and in art I have chosen to see the beauty in things, locating myself in Florence, where I am surrounded by beauty, and understand the impact it can have on the everyday.
Scruton’s disdain for modern art begins with Marcel Duchamp’s urinal. Originally a satirical piece designed to mock the world of art and the snobberies that go with it, it has come to mean that anything can be art and anyone can be an artist. A “cult of ugliness” was created where originality is placed above beauty and the idea became more important than the artwork itself. He argues that art became a joke, endorsed by critics, doing away with a need for skill, taste or creativity.
This resonated with me in particular and brought to mind my Foundation Course at The Chelsea College of Art in London over 10 years ago. I was excited to finally be at art school, only to be discouraged from painting and drawing by the tutors and told that it was old fashioned and no longer relevant. I was encouraged instead to make art using found objects. I made sculptures out of plastic cutlery and developed an aptitude for bullshit during the group presentations. Everything was phallic or nostalgic. These words gave me praise from the tutors.
Scruton meets the artist Michael Craig-Martin and asks him about how Duchamp’s urinal first made him feel. Martin is best known for his work “An Oak Tree” which is a glass of water on a shelf, with text beside it explaining why it is an oak tree. Martin argues that Duchamp captures the imagination and that art is an art because we think of it as such.
When I first saw “An Oak Tree” I was confused and felt perhaps I didn’t have the intellect to understand it. When I’d later question it at art school, the response was always “You just don’t get it,” which became a common defense. To me, it was reminiscent of Hans Christian Andersen’s short tale “The Emperor’s New Clothes”, about two weavers who promise an emperor a new suit of clothes that they say is invisible to those who are unfit for their positions, stupid or incompetent. In reality, they make no clothes at all.
Scruton argues that the consumerist culture has been the catalyst for this change in modern art. We are always being sold something, through advertisements that feed our appetite for stuff, adverts try to be brash and outrageous to catch our attention. Art mimics advertising as artists attempt to create brands, the product that they sell is themselves. The more shocking and outrageous the artwork, the more attention it receives. Scruton is particularly disturbed by Piero Manzoni’s artwork “Artist’s Shit” which consists of 90 tin cans filled with the artist’s excrement.
A common argument for modern art is that it is reflecting modern life in all of its disorder and ugliness. Scruton suggests that great art has always shown the real in the light of the ideal and that in doing so it is transfigured.
A great painting does not necessarily have a beautiful subject matter, but it is made beautiful through the artist’s interpretation of it. Rembrandt shows this with his portraits of crinkly old women and men or the compassion and kindness of which Velazquez paints the dwarfs in the Spanish court. Modern art often takes the literal subject matter and misses the creative act. Scruton expresses this point using the comparison of Tracey Emin’s artwork ‘My Bed’ and a painting by Delacroix of the artist’s bed.
The subject matters are the same. The unmade beds in all of their sordid disdain. Delacroix brings beauty to a thing that lacks it through the considered artistry of his interpretation and by doing so, places a blessing on his own emotional chaos. Emin shares the ugliness that the bed shows by using the literal bed. According to Emin, it is art because she says that it is so.
Philosophers argued that through the pursuit of beauty, we shape the world as our home. Traditional architecture places beauty before utility, with ornate decorative details and proportions that satisfy our need for harmony. It reminds us that we have more than just practical needs but moral and spiritual needs too. Oscar Wilde said “All art is absolutely useless,” intended as praise by placing art above utility and on a level with love, friendship, and worship. These are not necessarily useful but are needed.
We have all experienced the feeling when we see something beautiful. To be transported by beauty, from the ordinary world to, as Scruton calls it, “the illuminated sphere of contemplation.” It is as if we feel the presence of a higher world. Since the beginning of western civilization, poets and philosophers have seen the experience of beauty as a calling to the divine.
Plato described beauty as a cosmic force flowing through us in the form of sexual desire. He separated the divine from sexuality through the distinction between love and lust. To lust is to take for oneself, whereas to love is to give. Platonic love removes lust and invites us to engage with it spiritually and not physically.
“Beauty is a visitor from another world. We can do nothing with it save contemplate its pure radiance.” – Plato
Art and beauty were traditionally aligned in religious works of art. Science impacted religion and created a spiritual vacuum. People began to look to nature for beauty, and there was a shift from religious works of art to paintings of landscapes and human life.
In today’s world of art and architecture, beauty is looked upon as a thing of the past with disdain. Scruton’s vision of beauty gives meaning to the world and saves us from meaningless routines to take us to a place of higher contemplation. He encourages us not to take revenge on reality by expressing its ugliness, but to return to where the real and the ideal may still exist in harmony “consoling our sorrows and amplifying our joys.”
When you train any of your senses you are privy to a heightened world. The artist sees beauty everywhere and they are able to draw that beauty out to show to others. I find the most beauty in nature, and nature the best catalyst for creativity. The Tonalist painter George Inness advised artists to paint their emotional response to their subject, so that the viewer may hope to feel it too. This is at the core of my artistic pursuit. To express my love of the natural world, and to share that beauty with others.
Six years ago, I was awarded the Alpine fellowship based on my essay on my ‘Aesthetic vision in Art’. The prize was to spend three weeks in Switzerland painting and discussing art. Roger Scruton lectured to us about the importance of beauty and was very much in support of the resurgence of representational art. He was a kind and witty man, who smiled when I described my life as an artist in Florence.
Wonderful essay and tribute. Thank you.