Saturday, April 3, 2010

Why Beauty Matters


A few months ago, I was made aware of a documentary/educational program that aired on BBC called "Why Beauty Matters," an hour-long discussion of the philosophy of art and beauty with philosopher Roger Scruton. I was fascinated, captivated, and wanted quite badly to track down a way to view the show. Well, thankfully, the series is on YouTube, split into 6 ten minute segments.

And what an incredible program it is! Being enthusiastic about Beauty as a philosophy and life passion, I knew I would love this program. And although Scruton sometimes seems more rambling than absolute in his argument, I agree with everything he says in the program. Once I had heard of this program months ago, I started reading up on Scruton. I requested his book (aptly titled Beauty) from the library, and looked for articles by him online. I planned to write a rave review of his work in relation to the Pre-Raphaelites on my blog.

And then I found this article.

In it, Scruton discusses the second enemy of beauty besides ugliness....kitsch. And he says in the article:

"Look back at figurative art in the Western tradition and you will observe that, prior to the 18th century, there was primitive art, naive art, routine and decorative art, but no kitsch. Just when the phenomenon first appeared is disputable: maybe Greuze shows traces of it; maybe it had even been foreshadowed in Murillo. What is certain is that, by the time of Millet and the Pre-Raphaelites, kitsch was in the driving seat."

Wait...what?? My heart plummeted. This same philosopher whose work I so enthusiastically supported thinks of the Pre-Raphaelites as kitsch? So not only is my favorite art movement dismissed by modern art critics as too sentimental, but the philosopher who advocates a return to art for art's sake and beauty being the supreme value ALSO thinks the Pre-Raphaelites aren't worth a dime??

I was quite disappointed.

But please...watch the video. I may disagree with Scruton quite passionately in his judgment of my favorite art movement, but I wholeheartedly agree with his overall message, and the program captivated me, and even brought tears to my eyes in the end.

A few quotes I loved from the program:

"All art is absolutely useless,” wrote Oscar Wilde, who intended his remark as praise. For Wilde, beauty was a value higher than usefulness. People need useless things just as much, even more than, they need things with a use. Just think of it…what is the use of love, or friendship, of worship? None whatsoever. And the same goes for beauty.” “This returns me to Oscar Wilde’s remark that all art is absolutely useless. Put usefulness first, and you lose it. Put beauty first, and what you do will be useful forever. It turns out, nothing is more useful than the useless.”

And my favorite....

“Through the pursuit of beauty, we shape the world as a home, and in doing so, we both amplify our joys, and find consolation for our sorrows. Art and music shine a light of meaning on ordinary life, and through them we are able to confront the things that trouble us, and find consolation and peace in their presence. This capacity of beauty to redeem our suffering is one reason why beauty can be seen as a substitute for religion. Why give priority to religion? Why not say that religion is a beauty substitute? Or better still, why describe the two as rivals? The sacred and the beautiful stand side by side; two doors that open up into a single space, and in that space, we find our home.”



21 comments:

Anastasia ※ アナスタシア said...

Interesting post. I haven't seen the program, but beauty is an extremely hard subject to discuss, especially in today's world where most people have very little understanding of the word.

Well, this man's philosophy seems a bit suspect, if he claims one thing is beautiful and one thing is kitsch, it should not be a surprise if he argued his points well. I recommend you to read the basics of the aesthetic canon, such as John Ruskin and Arthur Schopenhauer. There you might find a much more enlightened definition of beauty!

There are many philosophers who state that ugliness doesn't even exist! Trust me, there are plenty of aesthetic writers out there, this man seems too modern and bitter for your refined tastes. Check out the classics first, they stand the test of time.

Von said...

The problem with critics whoever they are and whatever their philosophy, is that they try to impose personal taste on us all.They make value judgments which are of no use to me and if you're wise will be on no use to you either.Nothing is better or worse than anything else, it just is.

Valerie Meachum said...

Millais can verge on kitsch in his more commercial phase -- he came in for criticism for it from his own friends, after all. If you put, say, Bubble or Cherry Ripe in your illustration at the top of this post, it might not seem so bizarre.

Since this guy mentioned him specifically, my hunch is that he's made some BIG unwarranted assumptions and failed to check out what the PR were actually about. Sloppy, but easier to comprehend.

Grace said...

I actually really LOVE Scruton's philosophy overall, I'm just surprised he dismissed the PRB so handily. But trying to make sense of the world around us in ways not only scientific but philosophical is part of the human experience, I think, and I wouldn't ever want people to stop trying even if I disagree with some of their findings. :)


Valerie, I definitely think he lumped works like "Bubbles" in with the rest of the Brotherhood far too quickly...you're right. I wish he had given artists like EBJ a chance....to me, his art is the epitome of expressing beauty in the human experience.

Rima said...

Very interesting indeed :)
I saw this programme when it was on and also found it moving and true. I agree wholeheartedly with Scruton's ideas.
As for his opinion on the Pre Raphaelites, hm, it is hard to say.. but I do think some ancient sense of beauty in art was lost with the coming of the enlightenment. That's not to say that there weren't incredible artists after that point of course, but perhaps he is alluding to a certain change in the way of seeing things?

Margaret said...

Thank you for the link. I can't wait to watch. I love Roger Scruton, though I don't always agree with him. I first ran across him when I took Kant back in University, and he can be a bit of a blowhard, like most academics! We all have our foibles ;).

Margaret said...

Thanks so much for this fascinating post, Grace! I had a somewhat similar response after I saw Scruton's documentary. Fascinating stuff! It definitely took me a while to digest (I knew I disagreed with him, but I wasn't exactly sure why at first!).

I didn't address this in my post, but I thought it was amusing that he referred to the subject of kitsch, since the modern use of the word originates with Clement Greenberg, whom I'm pretty sure Scruton positively detests. Hmmm.

Grace said...

Margaret, what didn't you agree with in Scruton's documentary?

Grace said...

Rima, your blog was what first made me aware of this documentary. Thanks so much! :)

Robert H said...

Don't worry over much about Scruton's apparent conflation of the Pre-Raphaelites with kitsch. Note he also includes Millet. Two possibilities arise, as both the PRB and Millet were roughly contemporary.

1) He is using them as a chronological marker without considering the works themselves to be kitsch. I'm being charitable with Scruton in including this because I don't believe it was his intent.

2) He does indeed believe the PRB and Millet were kitschy, at which time he lays himself open for serious scrutiny and eventual harsh judgment. Focusing on Millet, Millet oeuvre is best noted for for images of peasants working themselves to exhaustion to provide the meager amount of food that allows themselves to stay barely alive (while undoubtedly making some member of the bourgeoisie wealthy). He is painting the sordid truth of the French peasantry in the midst of their bone-breaking labors. It is not beautiful, nor is it meant to be. It is not kitsch; in fact, it is the antithesis of kitsch. These peasants are not some wide-eyed waifs sitting on rooftops painted by the Keanes, nor are they the garden gnomes that haunt our present consciousness; those images ARE kitsch, and the world be done with them.

Robert H said...

Part (I hope) II of a long-winded affair... Sorry for the verbosity.

Scruton has some personal, smug, elitist agenda that seems either ill thought out or is cynically contemptuous of his audience. In the BBC program, which I manfully sat through I sense a man totally enamored with his oh so highly refined sensibilities. Recall the number of times it is he who appears to be the center of the program (p.s. he played the Pergolesi ineptly). Be that as it may, on the far side of the man's obvious narcissism in places he blatantly errs in his focus, which ties back to the Millet. In the midst of discussing beauty v. contemporary art he shows an image of Goya's, if I recall one of the Horrors of War, and then shows a modern adaptation of the same image, of which he obviously is simultaneously contemptuous and disgusted. I'll allow him that: I don't much care for a majority of contemporary art. HOWEVER... Goya's image is not beautiful. To claim it so is to cosy up to the perpetrators of atrocity, to condone the massacre of innocents. The image is everything Scruton condemns in the contemporary thrust of art to portray the ugly. And yet he appears to use it as an icon of beauty. Millet and Goya are focusing on the same desperate, horrid aspects of life, looking at it in such a way as the viewer will have a visceral response. They are painting or etching unvarnished truth.

If Scruton wants to live in a fairy land where bad things do not happen he has the right, twit-like though that may be. Goya and Millet were aware that the upper 10% of the population lived comfortably through the exploitation of the rest (and no, I'm not a Marxist). Peasants worked 14 hour days 6 days a week, and then were required to go to church on Sunday. Half the children born in the middle of the 19th century were dead before the age of 18. Pastel putti floating above beautiful gardens while maidens lolled about was not the world of the vast majority, who had no access to the world of beauty Scruton clamors for.

Briefly, because I already am overlong, much of what Scruton appreciates led directly to that which he reviles, not as a rejection of his avowed principle but as a direct and logical consequence of their central thesis: art for art's sake. He repeatedly quotes Wilde. Wilde was in the vanguard of bringing about the collapse of what he, Wilde, most loved. The irony and short-sightedness, to say nothing of the total ignorance of the evolution of the contemporary ethos, is astounding.

As for the PRB... I could write reams about the sheer folly of considering them kitsch. I am baffled as to why Scruton appears to hold them as exemplars of such abased sentiment, though I sense in the end insidious proclivities might arise were one to delve into the matter. Be that as it may, it was the PRB, leading to William Morris, the Arts and Crafts movement, and eventually Art Nouveau, which provided this tired world with its last taste of the endeavors of men and women who were devoted to the concept of beauty while considering the state of their fellow man. In the end, Scruton attempts to chop down the tree on which he is perched. Accept the value that he presents, but be skeptical of the man.

Grace said...

Robert, Your reply is VERY well said. No response to it yet, as I'm still pondering. But I wondered if you would mind my posting your thoughts on the matter as a separate blog entry?

Robert H said...

Grace, that would be fine with me. If you want I can clean it up, expand it, etc. Regardless, I am honored by the consideration. I'm currently having some difficulty logging in so hopefully this message won't be a repeat...

Janie H Church said...

Is this the guy you are talking about? The vid is down now. Thanks.

Janie H Church said...

try again. LOL!

http://rogerscruton.wordpress.com/

Grace said...

That's the one! Sorry to hear the video is down now. I was thrilled it was ever put up...I had resigned myself to never being able to watch it. He has a book out where he discusses the same principles.

Grace said...

Hi Robert!

No need to clean up unless you want...I love what you wrote as-is, and hope to repost it this week. Sorry for the delay!

Grace

Robert H said...

Grace, I'd kill the " (p.s. he played the Pergolesi ineptly)" in the fourth paragraph; it's somewhat of an ad hominem attack, which might be okay for the comments section of a blog but could be distracting in an article

Grace said...

Oh! Yes, I can definitely do that when I repost it :)

Goetz Kluge said...

I am a German who didn't know a thing about Pre-Raphaelites. I learned to know them because of my interest in Henry Holiday's illustrations to Lewis Carroll's The Hunting of The Snark. Holidays was associated with the Pre-Raphaelites. His stained glass windows looked to me like Kitsch. So did the paintings of the Pre-raphaelites. Holidays slightly darkish illustrations showed me, that there something else then "beauty" was boiling in the kitchen of the Pre-Raphaelites.

But then I stumbled into a surprise. Do you see, how Holiday converted Mary in Millais' "Christ in the House of his parents" into the "Baker".

And Millais again played with a very religio-political 16th century painting. If Millais' painting is Kitsch, then it is subversive Kitsch. To me, what looks like pathetic realism, just seems to be the masterful and successful tuning of artists into the perception range of the beholders of their work. That style of expression was very suitable to what was possible (and not possible) in the victorian era and under the influence of struggles within anglicanism. Millais' painting faced strong criticism, probably because people "smelled", that there is more behind this painting. They were right, but didn't really get it. Look at this comparison, and you'll get the idea.

Pre-Raphaelism is not only beautiful. It is explosive: I think, the Pre-Raphaelite painters constructed traps. And beautiful realism was the bait. I never will underestimate Kitsch again.

Grace said...

Goetz, sorry for my delayed reply, but thank you so much for sharing your thoughts on this! It's fascinating to see another artist who borrowed from the Pre-Raphaelites. I always thought that their compositions were timeless, and I am entertained every time I see proof of that. :)