By ROGER SCRUTON, The Sunday Times
When the study of beauty first attracted the attention of modern philosophers, it was at the beginning of the 18th century and during the height of the scientific revolution. For philosophers of the Enlightenment nature was not the plaything of an unknowable God, but an open book, whose meaning can be clearly read by science. Nature had been demystified, to become the home of mankind, and it is thus that the great 18th-century painters portrayed it. Art could be beautiful, as nature was beautiful. But it was beautiful because it imitated nature, which was the source of beauty in all its forms.
The Romantic movement emphasized the creative artist rather than the natural world as the origin of beauty. According to the Romantics, it was by encountering ideas and feelings crystallized in works of art that we could obtain the oneness with the scheme of things which the Enlightenment philosophers had looked for in the works of nature. The self-expression of the artist was endowed with the authority of revelation. Originality rather than convention became the criterion of artistic success, and the individual transgression attained a value as great as any obedience to social norms.
In our time this Romantic conception of the artist has been taken to such extremes that we no longer know whether art and beauty have much to do with one another. It is not just that arbitrary objects (Brillo boxes, pickled sharks, piles of bricks) are now regularly presented as artworks. Among the artworks that we are called upon to admire are acts of desecration, such as Andres Serrano’s crucifix in urine and Tracey Emin’s unmade bed, or gestures of violence against art itself, such as the sarcastic postmodernist productions of the romantic operas.
And because critics made fools of themselves in the mid-19th century, by preferring the salon art of Bouguereau to the innovative visions of Manet, few critics today will venture an adverse judgment of anything that presents itself as an original gesture, however offensive or banal. Hence the continuing scandal of the Turner Prize – which is not a scandal at all, since nobody in a position to say so has pointed out that the Emperor has no clothes.
Many people conclude that art is not what it was once cracked up to be, that it is not about the beautiful, the sublime and the transcendent, but that it is a skill like any other and that the greatest part of the skill is self-advertisement. Find a way of drawing attention to yourself, whether with words or images or noises; get the right connections, the right agent and the right kind of subsidy, and you too can be an artist. Of course, talent is important. But it is a talent for attracting attention, rather than for seeking and finding the eye of God. Just look at what Christo achieved, simply by wrapping buildings, and even sections of the Australian coastline, in plastic sheets! It took talent of a quite special kind to get someone else to pay for such a prank, and then to be paid again for doing it.
Today people are a little more cynical than they were when such nonsense began. But this is not because they have lost the interest in beauty or the need to encounter it in their daily lives. They have lost faith in art as a way of supplying that need. This loss is a painful one, for the reason that it is difficult now to return to the 18th-century love of nature in order to enjoy what was promised by art, namely redemption from the trivial and a face-to-face encounter with the truth. Nature, too, is not what it was once cracked up to be. It has lost its former status as the open book in which we could read ourselves.
The nature poets of the 18th and 19th centuries could walk the country lanes of England and see only the smiling face of an ordered world, whose laws were known and whose aspect was in harmony with the human bid for a more than worldly significance. Those conflicts that they sensed in themselves – between freedom and causality, between sacred and profane, between exultation and ordinariness – they found resolved in nature, where, as Wordsworth put it: “Our souls have sight of that immortal sea/ Which brought us hither.”
I don’t think that we can look on nature now in quite that way. It is not just that the country lanes of England display more food wrappers and plastic bottles than wildflowers, though this is a significant fact. It is that nature no longer has a face. As science and technology have advanced, the face has been scraped away, to reveal the bare structure – the cosmic skeleton – beneath it. Even the most devoted hikers and ramblers know that the smiles they receive from the landscape have their origin in themselves, and that the smiles are ever fainter, as the “eye of the beholder” becomes clouded by cynicism and science. Of course, we are still sensitive to natural beauty. But it appears before us as a fragile and threatened thing, and not as the great immovable fact that once it was.
Yet the need for beauty remains. We see this in all the areas where people make choices concerning the way things look, or feel or sound. As soon as appearances are chosen not just for their agreeableness but also for their meaning we enter the realm of aesthetic judgment, as this was understood by the Enlightenment. That is why there is even today an “aesthetics of everyday life”.
People may have given up on art, and they may be skeptical towards natural beauty. But they still design their own lives, searching for agreement and for a shared sense of what matters and why.
This search for aesthetic order is not just a luxury; it is essential to life in society. It is one way in which we send out signals of humility, and show that we are not just animals foraging for our needs but civilized beings who wish to live at peace with our neighbors. That is why we adopt dress codes; it is why we are guided by taste in our language, in our gestures and in our ways of looking at other people and inviting them into our lives.
That is also why the current battles over architecture and public space are so important. They are not battles about economics or administrative convenience. They are about beauty: in other words, about the creation of meaningful appearances. We need to live in a world that welcomes us, as nature welcomed Wordsworth and John Clare. The habit of desecration that we have witnessed in the world of art has also afflicted the built environment, with the facetious projects of the “starchitects” – I think of Rogers, Libeskind, Foster and Koolhaas – designed not for the city but against it.
Beauty is not popular among professional architects, just as the pursuit of beauty is not popular among visual artists: it suggests costly sacrifices, and a scaling down of pretensions for the sake of people whom they don’t need to know. But the controversy over modern architecture remains real and important: for it reflects the need of ordinary people that appearances be respected, so that the place where they find themselves can also be shared as a home.
It is, to my way of thinking, the most vivid proof we have that beauty still matters.
(Reference: The Sunday Times)