On Roger Scruton’s Beauty (2009), ch. 5-9, featuring Mark, Wes, Dylan, and Seth. The latter half of the book completes the survey of types of beauty that we discussed last episode by considering issues in our appreciation of artworks, and then develops a moral and political argument for why relativism about taste, i.e. the “democracy of tastes” that says that all aesthetic judgments are equally valid, is bad for us.
Scruton’s positive goal is to convince us that the narrow sense of beauty as enrapturing appeal (think of the Apollonian for Nietzsche: classical beauty as we find it in classical music and Renaissance art) is morally uplifting in a way that modern art and popular art are not. In fact, he diagnoses in the latter a “flight from beauty” that is one and the same with our flight from responsibility to what our ancestral cultures have developed, and so this book is actually an aspect of Scruton’s famed conservatism.
The conservative argument is essentially that there’s a natural yet hard-fought accumulation of wisdom over time in culture, and for us to rebel against that wholesale is immature and dangerous. Scruton is particularly concerned about how the rejection of traditional sexual mores has led to a dehumanized take on sexuality, which in art shows up as pornographic images. Society has forgotten or actively rejected Kant’s insistence on aesthetic distance, of the appreciation of beauty being fundamentally different than wanting to experience something that feeds desires and fantasies.
But the argument is not merely sexual; it has to do with “bad taste” on the whole dominating culture, whether that be in the realm of jokes or architecture or a million other little things that populate our minds and our environments. Scruton is advocating for a more careful curation of ourselves: self-respect and respect for others, with the consensus-building tendency that all artistic judgment is supposed to contain according to thinkers like Hume (whose aesthetics we’ll consider next episode, but the account is essentially the same has his moral theory).
The main dilemma about taste that Scruton’s been dealing with in this book is that taste is neither a matter of grasping an objective feature of beautiful objects, e.g. symmetry (in our next episode, we’ll see that Francis Hutcheson defines beauty as “uniformity amidst variety”), nor is it just a matter of how individual organisms react to a stimuli, i.e. purely subjective and idiosyncratic. The recognition of beauty is a rational matter even though it is also an experience that happens to us each individually. It is an experience that is available to all of us (to varying extents) and it is a central part of the good life. It challenges us to find meaning, to examine our own lives and emotions, and it “offers a place of refreshment of which we will never tire” (p. 196). In the same place (the conclusion of the book), Scruton states, “for a free being, there is right feeling, right experience, and right enjoyment just as much as right action.”
This is very much against the pluralism about art that we saw in Danto and Goodman, and Scruton has his own take on 20th century art history such that the best experimental artists in the early 20th century like T.S. Eliot and Arnold Schoenberg (who invented 12-tone music) were not rejecting beauty in the name of innovatively expressing new viewpoints, but were using innovation in a reactionary way to re-attain beauty that had been lost to kitsch and cliché in art that had become hopelessly derivative and cheaply sentimental by the late 19th century.
This suggests that even though beauty is supposed to be accessible to all and obviously good, there’s a reason why the “low road” that Scruton is warning against is easier and more seductive. Clearly seeing true beauty takes education about artforms and how to perceive them, and some of this education and practice has to do with achieving distance from one’s immediate desires, “getting over yourself” to apprehend beautiful forms and such even if these don’t touch on your personal fantasies or gratify needs like being soothed, being aroused, or getting energy out. In fact, part of the ethic whose loss Scruton is bemoaning involves personal sacrifice. According to Wes’ psychoanalytic take (which you can hear more about in his (sub)Text episode on Freud’s Mourning and Melancholia), even though such sacrificial art may not be the most immediately pleasant, it serves a vital function in maturation and so is in line with our overall good. The point is that authentic feeling, authentic relationship to a profound work of art, involves yourself in a way that has a cost. This is a similar cost to what Socrates asked for when he demanded that we all self-interrogate, and Scruton thinks that modern audiences are not willing to pay this cost. Instead, people desire to desecrate, to deflate the demands of maturity so that it no longer seems an indictment of our “improvised lives.”
Wes refers to our past treatment of Game of Thrones as an example of mere wish fulfillment in popular entertainment that should be opposed to the use of imagination that good art enables. Another touchstone was our episode covering Aristotle on tragedy. Here’s an article about the Jewish, tragic origin of Bambi.