Why beauty matters
A while back I caught a late-night re-run of a film by wine-loving philosopher Roger Scruton on BBC entitled Why Beauty Matters. 'In the 20th Century beauty stopped being important,' claimed Scruton. 'It was originality that won the prizes...we are losing beauty, and there is a danger that with it we will lose the meaning of life.'
Now I'm not sure whether I'm allowed to like Scruton, but I really liked his programme, and I've been thinking about it ever since. It was brilliantly put together and bravely argued, and it challenged some of my own thinking. [Unfortunately, it is no longer available on the BBC iPlayer, but he comments on it here on his own blog.]
I scribbled down some of Scruton's lines. 'Beauty has been central to our civilization for over 2000 years...through the pursuit of beauty we shape the world...we are spiritual beings...beauty matters...if we ignore this need we find ourselves in a spiritual desert...there is a path out of this that leads to home....beauty is a remedy for chaos and suffering... it shows human life to be worthwhile...many modern artists have become weary of this sacred task.'
He uses the example of Marcel Duchamp, who in 1917 unveiled a signed urinal as a satirical gesture. 'I want to get rid of it [art]', Duchamp said at the time. Then there's Piero Manzini's can of shit, and Carl Andre's pile of bricks. Scruton suggests that this cult of ugliness reflects the assertion that since the world is disturbing, art should be disturbing.
'The goal of the artist is to show the real in the light of the ideal, and so transfigure it,' claims Scruton. He then turns to architecture. 'Beauty is assailed by the cult of ugliness in art, and the cult of utility in every day life: architecture brings these together.' Sullivan's doctrine of 'form follows function' is used to justify the crime of modern architecture, suggests Scruton.
'If you consider only utility, the things you build will soon be useless...put beauty first, and what you do will be beautiful forever...ornaments liberate us from the tryanny of the useful.' He cites Plato's assertion that beauty is the sign of another and higher order. 'A transcendental God at the heart of art.' Interesting stuff, but I'm sure it's quite controversial, with it.