jamie goode's wine blog: Why beauty matters

Friday, December 11, 2009

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.


At 11:17 PM, Anonymous James Phillips said...

This is why Richard Wright winning the Turner Prize is so interesting. Martin Creed summer it up best when he described the Turner show as 'nice.' Wright's work is beautiful and is, unlike a lot of the previous shortlisted Turner Prize artists, loved by the public. Amongst all the criticism about the prize being very esoteric, Wright's win is quite symbolic; both 'beautiful', loved by the public and has no market value all have resonance in the current climate. Maybe the prize will go back to being the 'nation's' prize. I suspect it will just encourage watered down work. Ho hum.

At 12:19 AM, Blogger Dan McGrew said...

If you're going to mention 'urinals as art' then I feel compelled to offer the following.


At 7:06 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

ehh. cognitively post :)

At 1:04 PM, Anonymous Steve said...

I was surprised at how shallow Scruton's views were. He seemed to me to suggest that art's sole function is to be aesthetically pleasing to Roger Scruton. I suppose he gets enough ugliness when he's riding to hounds, watching them rip apart once attractive foxes.
His equally forthright and easily dismissed views on music are amusingly critiqued in Philip Ball's forthcoming 'The Music Instinct', an interesting, partially successful attempt to explain why we (i.e. humanity) like what we like, and which accepts that cheap music has its own potency (as someone- Noel Coward?- famously said more succinctly than me)
Give me Jonathan Meades any day. He's a real eye opener, even when he's quite mad.

At 9:18 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I do think he makes a valid point, as a counterblast to the orthodoxy of groundbreaking originality.

At 9:29 PM, Anonymous Oswaldo Costa said...

Conservatives hate Duchamp.

At 8:07 AM, Anonymous Bert said...

"Beauty will save the world", said Russian writer Dosto´evski. I've always been impressed with this sentence.
I feel we're connected to an unknown part of this world through the beauty of visible things or of music. It's I think some sort of essential food that builds our present and next life.
Also, I may look optimistic but there's an inherent power in beauty that is able to defeat the dark forces oh humanity, that's why the Taliban and the islamists hate music and beauty.

At 2:08 PM, Blogger Natasha Hughes said...

I thought Waldemar Januszczak's companion programme, which offered a more positive view of modern art, provided an interesting counterpoint to Scruton's argument. After watching both, I'm not quite sure which side of the divide I sympathise with most. I did feel, though, that Scruton's argument would not have been so convincing had he not chosen some of the ugliest instances of modern art possible.

At 10:39 PM, Anonymous Brigitte Armenier said...

According to Schiller, "it is only through beauty that human beings make their way to freedom." The tragedy of modern art lies in the fact that it has mistaken outer freedom (or so called "originality") for inner freedom, raising the former to the level of a religion and losing the latter. Modern agriculture tells no other story. And the tragedy in this case appears all the more harrowing since beauty is actually a language of forms which finds its kingdom in plants.

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At 5:06 PM, Blogger James Nicholls said...

Have you read Scruton's book on wine and philosophy?

I thought Zadie Smith made a pretty good effort to rescue the idea of beauty from the post-structuralist malaise in 'On Beauty'..

At 6:11 PM, Anonymous Socrates said...

Do some people associate Scruton with right wing ideology?

This debate is as much about power as aesthetics. Elitist groups still cling to the idea of beauty as something only they are qualified to comment on. Perhaps Jamie wants to be 'in with' the powerful because they offer access to commodities (football matches, 'fine' wines and maybe even foxes to chase)he now values. There is no beauty in this.

I think Bert (who commented on this post) is not as sophisticated as Jamie and Roger but his views ('islamists hate music') are not unconnected to the impoverished idea that work by Duschamp or Olaf is ugly and worthless.

Is it ok to diagree with your world view Jamie? you are putting it out there...

At 6:13 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Did you get tickets to the hunt? Presumably the 'plus one' will be your labradoodlehound.

Toot toot, Tally Ho!


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