Friday, April 9, 2010

Roger Scruton - Why Beauty Matters

Last year, philosopher Roger Scruton's did a televised essay for BBC Two entitled "Why Beauty Matters." In the program, Scruton lays waste to contemporary and modern art and architecture and the value system behind it. He argues that humans need beauty, that modern art is not beautiful and that a hasty return to classic aesthetic values is necessary if we are to save Western Civilization from perishing in a spiritual desert of ugliness.

In his documentary, Scruton uses extreme examples of shocking conceptual art, such as Sarah Lucas, Tracey Emin and Gilbert and George, to prove that modern art is ugly. He then goes on to blame their prominence in the art world on (among other things) democracy, popular culture and modernism (this seems faintly ridiculous, because, while there are a number of words one might choose to describe the work of Emin and her contemporaries, "popular" is not among them).

Scruton takes no prisoners in his critique of the aesthetic values of the modern world. And while he heaps plenty of contempt on contemporary art, he saves his most devastating critique for modern architecture, which he labels as "the greatest crime against beauty that the world has yet seen." He sneers at the phrase "form follows function," arguing that buildings created with an emphasis on utility soon become useless. He supports this statement with a walking tour of the graffiti covered modernist architecture. Scruton grew up near Reading, which once was "a charming Victorian town with terraced streets and Gothic churches." According to Scruton's account, the once-beautiful city was effectively defaced by the addition of some ugly modern buildings in the 1960s. He goes on to point to an abandoned building and remarks that it has been left empty because it is "damned ugly." I realize he is trying to prove a point, but isn't possible that there are some economic factors involved here as well?

I received an interesting email from my grandfather the other day showing photos of Hiroshima today (a vibrant, bustling city filled with optimistic modern architecture) and comparing them to pictures of Detroit, with its dilapidated turn-of-the-century architecture. Below is an image from a new book entitled The Ruins of Detroit, by Yves Marchand and Romain Meffre. You can see how this photo captures the disintegration of the once beautiful Lee Plaza Hotel. How would Scruton account for this?

Detroit Devastation,Yves Marchand,Romain

Of course, contrary to Scruton’s assertions, traditional architecture cannot prevent a building from eventually falling prey to the harsh realities of an economic collapse.

Most conceptual art is not beautiful, and I completely understand Scruton's disappointment with it. The shock value has worn off, and most of it has become rather dull.  However, I feel he is mistaken in pointing to popular culture as the bogeyman in all of this. Democracy and popular culture are not the enemies of true art. Ludditism is. 

Hear me out. Critics and philosophers like Scruton feel threatened by the modern age, because their opinion no longer carries the weight it once did. Today, people look to numerous sources for critical input. In the past, you might have gone to traditional media, like the newspaper, to find out what people were saying about an art show. Nowadays you might be just as likely to discuss art via blogs, online forums and social networks like Facebook and Twitter.

Similarly, just as we now have multiple avenues from which to access critical discourse, we also have more access to art and images than at any time in human history. For centuries, the only art you probably would have ever seen (aside from the handcrafted objects in your home), would have been at your place of worship (and over the last few centuries, in newsprint and on public buildings).

As a result of the explosion of access to art, contemporary artists like Damien Hirst are likewise threatened by the digital age. Face it, not many people are willing to pay to see flies swarming around a cow’s head, as in Hirst’s work A Thousand Years. Consequently, conceptual artists rely heavily on critics, wealthy patrons and government funding in order to stay afloat. And they are very much dependent on the shock value of their work, because it attracts much needed press and keeps warm bodies heading to the galleries, if only out of morbid curiosity.

I believe the reason groups like the Young British Artists are compelled to create shocking art is that they are stuck in the past and committed to an unholy alliance with art critics. This marriage was created for the purpose of telling the public what they should and shouldn’t like, and as a means of artificially preserving the notion of elite tastes. But today, due to (among other things) the rise of technology, capitalism and social networks, the public today has little need for close-minded critics and self-marginalizing art. As a result, all that is left for critics is to praise the most counterintuitive art possible, in the hopes of preserving the scarcity of what can be considered “high art” (and thereby increasing its value). Honestly, how would you know that “A Light Going on and Off” was art, unless an Art Critic told you? You probably wouldn’t, so it’s a great way for outmoded tastemakers to hang onto their jobs.

Popular art, in the form of modern industrial design and commercial art, is one of the greatest threats to groups like the Young British Artists. And this is a good thing. As human beings, we are hard-wired to appreciate symmetry, bright, attractive colors and pleasant lines. And industrial designers and the corporations behind them are eager to offer us what we want. Computer aided design and modern production techniques have made beautiful, useful objects more accessible than ever before. All we need to do as consumers is to demand a more beautiful world.

For centuries, critics have felt they are intercessors for the people, giving them access to beauty. But technology has changed this dynamic forever. The people are no longer required to worship beauty through the intercessory magic of the artist and intellectual. We are living in a new era, where works by talented (and commercially successful) artists like Dale Chihuly are widely available and wildly popular. Chihuly’s public installations give the people exactly what they want: beautiful objects that invite contemplation and pure enjoyment.  

Dale Chihuly,Glass

Finally, I would like to say that Scruton's aim is admirable, and I respect what he is attempting to do in the film. Nevertheless, I take exception to his implied assertion that modern=ugly. Admittedly, examples of ugly modern and contemporary art abound. But the existence of ugly art does not mean artists need to return to traditional art or architecture. Artists today need to embrace democracy and the digital age and chart a new way forward. 

Many thanks to Grace at The Beautiful Necessity introducing me to Scruton’s essay!

For more of the fabulous photos by Marchand and Meffre, please visit their website

Photo of installation of Dale Chihuly's work courtesy Wikimedia Commons.  


Lorenzo — Alchemist's Pillow said...

Hi, Margaret. You make a lot of fine points in this essay and I will have to reread it it to digest them all. We all have similar complaints about what is loosely termed "modern" art and architecture, and much of what Scruton says is true, but I do think he takes it too far, is too extreme. He argues as if there is nothing in modern art or archictecture of any value and seems to assume all art and architecture of past ages was far superior. I am sure we could find many exceptions on both fronts.

Last year I read Scruton's book "Beauty" and very much enjoyed his discussion of the centraily of aesthetics and of beauty as a basic human value and its importance for our culture. Here, however, he seems to mix in elitist anti-democratic arguments into his reasoning as to how we got into this aesthetic mess. I think you take a much more balanced view.

And I appreciate all the effort that went into this piece. After I reread it, I'll get to work on the videos. The one you link to is only the first of six!

Margaret said...

Hi Lorenzo,

Thank you for your comment! I'm so glad that you enjoyed the post and I really appreciate the time you took to give such a well thought out reply.

I haven't read Scruton's "Beauty" yet, but it's on order from the Library! I'm sure his discussion of aesthetics is a fascinating read. I've loved his writing for years, ever since I first came across his "Very Short Introduction to Kant" back in University.

The second video - where he attacks modern architecture - was a real disappointment for me. I think he gets carried away creating an artificial dichotomy between the beautiful and useful and uses democracy as a scapegoat for the problems of the modern world. I'm sure the argument in his book is much more sophisticated. But I suppose he can be forgiven for making the film so inflammatory - it certainly sparks debate!


Fete et Fleur said...

I love Dale Chihuly. I had the great fortune to see his exhibit at the de Young museum in SF. It was incredible!

I'm going to watch these videos with my hubby. I just finished watching the first one, and it stuck a chord with me. I have to admit there have been times when I've been at modern art exhibits and have been disgusted at the offerings. I've thought the same thing about The Emperor's New Clothes, but then you have someone like Dale Chihuly, and it gives hope.


Anastasia ※ アナスタシア said...

I think you have some excellent points, but also one of the driving factors of contemporary art is the "art market", in other words, are as commodity. Orson Welles' documentary "F For Fake" is an excellent work on aesthetics and the problems of modern art. Highly recommend it.

Lorenzo — Alchemist's Pillow said...

I'm back again to tell you that I actually did see the whole video documentary (all 6 parts). I only planned on seeing number 1, the one you linked to, but they were so good that I gladly made the time to watch them all. It still doesn't alter my view that he is too extreme and speaks as if there is nothing of worth in modern art and architecture.

I agree with you about being disappointed with his discussion of architecture. I wonder what he thinks of Frank Gehry's Guggenheim Museum building in Bilbao? Did Kandinsky do anything of beauty?

Scruton, however, is always worth reading and listening to. The beauty he celebrates, where he does find it, always moves me. I just think it is not totally absent from recent and current artistic productions.

The problems has probably more to do with the concept of art as a vehicle for shock value and visual witticims, which I agree is completely overdone and in most cases is eminently forgettable. It is also a modern phenomenon, at least the way it has been embraced by so many museums, galleries and critics, but that does not mean it is the only trend in art.

The book is not so extreme and makes many points I agree with. For example, on the subject of Duchamp's urinal he says it was a joke "quite a good one the first time round, corny by the time of Any Warhol's Brillo boxes and downright stupid today". The truth is I agree with him here on all three.

The book is a nice read and short enough to fit in a long afternoon. Enjoy ...

Margaret said...

- Nancy: I spent a lot of time in Chihuly's hometown of Tacoma, Washington, growing up, so I was able to see his glasswork everywhere. I think the Pacific Northwest has more glassblowers than Venice now, as a result of his work!

- Anastasia: I saw "F is for Fake" a few years ago and enjoyed it. Orson Welles is always so much fun, anyway! But I'm still not sure that the art market has as much influence as it once did.

- Lorenzo: I'm glad you had a chance to see the documentary! I am in complete agreement with Scruton about the tired nature of attempts to shock the public with art. It's boring and lazy (Hirst actually hires assistants to put together his exhibits and isn't all that involved, arguing that it's the "idea" that makes the art - which I guess must make him a really pure conceptual artist).

I was the most disappointed with Scruton's views of modern architecture. He's so hung up on the importance of ornament that he can't appreciate clean lines(he must hate Mies van der Rohe). I tend to think he wouldn't be a great fan of the Gehry's Guggenheim in Bilbao, but I hope I'm wrong.

Author said...

I do agree with you that Chihuly's work is beautiful, but also acknowledge that a significant portion of his work is executed by assistants and are indeed - unsigned. Which raises the question - down the road - will the unsigned ones become less valuable than the signed ones.... will they be reduced to the 'in the school of' auction description and priced accordingly. Should they be? Same with Damien Hirst. Food for thought.

Margaret said...

Thank you for your comment, Author. You raise an interesting point. I don't think there's any doubt that a work executed by Dale Chihuly himself would be most valuable (he has not been able to blow glass since an accident in 1979).

Although both Damien Hirst and Dale Chihuly do not physically create their artworks themselves, I do think there is an important difference. Chihuly is much more intimately involved in the creative process, and for that reason, his work should be valued accordingly.

Hirst has a much more "hands off" approach, and I think many of "his" works do not deserve the high prices they command. That, however, I freely admit, is a value judgement, and he is absolutely free to charge whatever prices the market will bear. I do find it amusing, though, that Hirst is able to pass himself off as a member of the counterculture. He's a very astute businessman (or has an astute business manager in his employ - or both).

So, to answer your question: I think Hirst, along with the rest of the conceptual artists, is right to call our attention to the importance of artistic vision. But vision is not all there is to good art. The work done by Chihuly and his team is beautiful and life-affirming, and he (and his team) deserve recognition for bringing the vision to life.

As for the future value of these items (I see that you are an art appraiser) it's a tough call. A Picasso sold a few weeks ago for over $100 million USD, and works by Rembrandt and Raphael have commanded similar (if somewhat lower) prices. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and as I said earlier, so long as we live in a capitalist system, people can pay whatever they like - or are willing - to pay.

Vivian said...

Wow! Tell us what you really think!
I think art is in the heart of the beholder. When you see someone standing in front of an art piece with a far away look ... they are interacting and that is what art is all about!