This article appears in the Fall 2011 edition of the Intercollegiate Review. See the issue’s Table of Contents here.
In 1900, Henry Adams "haunted" Paris's Exposition Universelle, "aching to absorb knowledge, and helpless to find it." He came to realize that the new idols of the modern world exuded power but not beauty; that the new world would not be defined by animate spirit but rather impersonal motion; that the useful would be more admired than the sacrosanct. Human prowess was fully apparent at the Great Exposition, but the ideas which inspired men to build the great cathedrals were becoming extinct; the future would be embodied in other objects of admiration, like the steam engine. Now, more than a century after Adams plumbed the loss of sacred sensibilities that would define the modern and postmodern eras, Roger Scruton has written a book (entitled Beauty, with no subtitle) to explain why we need our sense of the sacred back.
As conservative as he is prolific, Scruton admits that beauty is grounded in experience but, nonetheless, concludes that "everything [he has] said about the experience of beauty implies that it is rationally founded." Aesthetic theory determines this rational basis, but Scruton declines to articulate any set of principles or axioms. This is perhaps just as well, since conservatives have always placed more emphasis on the concrete than the abstract.
Some of the most memorable passages in the book occur, in fact, when Scruton questions and refutes the arguments of those who attempt to turn beauty into an abstraction. In a digression on the theories of the architect Louis Sullivan, Scruton points out that Sullivan's view that beauty follows from the function it serves ultimately fails to live by its own standard, since a change of context can turn functional qualities into aesthetic ones: the factory blocks of Brooklyn, for instance, were not beautiful until they ceased to function as factories and were transformed into lofts and art studios. Scruton similarly rebuts anthropological theories of the beautiful which, rather than attempting to explain beauty, try to explain it away. He points to the fact that these theories—such as that of Ellen Dissanayake, which explains aesthetic experience as an anthropological phenomenon through which ceremonies or objects become subjectively "beautiful" to make them distinct—fail to provide an account of what it is that makes the beautiful unique. He writes, "Although the sense of beauty may be rooted in some collective need to 'make special,' beauty itself is a special kind of special, not to be confused with ritual, festival or ceremony, even if those things may sometimes possess it."
Scruton remains largely true to the point that he illustrates at the end: that our experience of beauty cannot be understood apart from what our instinct or experience suggests "looks right," whether this be (to stay close to his own examples) in high art or in something as simple as a balanced doorframe or a meticulously arranged table-set. But he does not ignore the general characteristics associated with aesthetic judgment. As he is in Scruton's works on moral philosophy, Immanuel Kant is deployed as a valuable resource. Kant's contention that aesthetic pleasure is disinterested in nature, or based upon pure reason rather than bound up in what the object of pleasure can do for the observer of it, does not provide us with any specific definition of what the beautiful is, but it does offer a criterion to determine how we can know when we are having an aesthetic experience (as opposed to some other kind of experience of admiration or attraction or pleasure).
The idea of beauty is connected with our understanding of it as sacred or unapproachable, and it is this understanding that Scruton sets out to defend. Even though beauty is not necessarily sacred (since it encompasses many things from everyday life), the beautiful nonetheless flows from the same source as does the sacred. For this reason, as materialism has colonized the modern mind, notions of the beautiful as well as notions of the sacred have gone into exile. As Scruton warns in his penultimate chapter, entitled "The Flight from Beauty," "Beauty is vanishing from our world because we live as though it did not matter; and we live that way because we have lost the habit of sacrifice and are striving always to avoid it. The false art of our time, mired in kitsch and desecration, is one sign of this." By "kitsch" Scruton means a quasi-artistic object which is meant to painlessly fulfill the aesthetic desires of the observer without requiring anything of him, analogous to individuals who seek thrills through fantasies rather than experiences.
Though, as the title indicates, the book is primarily concerned with the beautiful, this complex relationship between an individual subject and what he senses is sacred in the object is also relevant to our notions of the sublime—that is "[a] vista [which] invites another kind of judgment, in which we measure ourselves against the awesome infinity of the world, and become conscious of our finitude and frailty." The sublime occupies only two pages of one section, but it is no less fundamental to the aesthetic experience. And yet the sublime is fast becoming crowded out by the minutiae of everyday life as individuals seek pleasure without enjoyment; food without nourishment; entertainment without art; sex without love; business without vocation. The loss of beauty is merely collateral damage of individuals too preoccupied with casting their eyes about to consider casting their eyes upward.
Contemporary man has difficulty recognizing beauty not because he lacks any innate ability to feel its attractions, but because this innate ability no longer has the sense of sublime mystery that would inspire the sonnets of Spenser. This sort of high sentiment can be, in Scruton's words, "Disneyfied" in a Hallmark card, but there is no longer a higher culture to communicate about such sentiments in genuinely higher terms. Romance, among our elites, is instead discussed under the aegis of the id and the reproductive drive. But the task for a contemporary conservative aesthetician is not an easy one: eventually, he must attempt to distinguish between art that is actually worthy of contemplation and the Disneyfied "art" that is only intended for consumption. It is as easy to determine this contrast at the extremes as it is to say why Michelangelo's David is superior to a ceramic garden dwarf. But at the nearer margins of art and kitsch, where the two may sometimes seem to meet, what is to one observer vulgar will likely be to another poignant, and there will be reasonable arguments on both sides of the debate.
For the redemption of aesthetics, this question must eventually be addressed, but Scruton entrusts this responsibility to his reader after he has read his argument. As he says in his conclusion, his intention is not to address what art is, but rather to provide his reader with an ostensible notion of the qualities that characterize it. What or where the false, Disneyfied art is does not matter so much as that it is. Scruton's goal is to reconcile us with beauty properly understood; his goal is to help us realize that aesthetic experience depends not only upon what we receive from the object of contemplation but also on what we are willing to invest in it. This may tell us more about what beauty is not than about what it is. Beauty is not merely that which brings pleasure, but also that which challenges us and forces us to take risks with our emotions, with ourselves.
Scruton never implies that he expects his work to reawaken any kind of general, popular commitment to the beautiful. The flight from the sublime has far deeper implications about the state of our civilization than only its aesthetic taste. To abandon the beautiful for the merely entertaining is a product of what the historian and moral philosopher Christopher Lasch called the "culture of narcissism," but what could just as accurately be called the anti-culture of decadence (or, in Scruton's own words elsewhere, the "culture of repudiation"). This is a besetting problem within elite as well as popular culture. As Scruton points out in one of his early chapters, a large part of what defines aesthetic judgment is the fact that it is private, but elite culture has become so institutionalized, in highbrow magazines and cutting-edge university programs, that judgment is now severely compromised by fashion. A judgment which merely echoes the opinions of "leading critics" is no judgment at all.
Beauty is a good starting point for anyone dissatisfied with the current state of the arts, and it is written in hospitably straightforward prose. However, it will be much more difficult to reintegrate aesthetic judgment into a world which has already abandoned beauty. To do so will require us not only to change our minds, but also to rejuvenate our souls.