Beauty and Desecration

Guardi What was the first experience of beauty you remember?

When a friend asked me the question years ago, my first answer was “I grew up in Alabama. We didn’t have any beauty!.” But that would be wrong. Even in the small town South, beauty (in the form of music for me) made its mark.

According to Roger Scruton, later generations may have quite a different answer. In an earlier time Scruton would have been described as an iconoclast: a rebel, a radical, a dissenter from the established order. But as he smashes icons in the name of the most traditional of ideas in his role as professor of philosophy in Oxford and Washington, today he is a mere conservative, albeit an erudite, eloquent one. In the spring 2009 edition of City Journal he tackles modern art in his essay “Beauty and Desecration”.

“At any time between 1750 and 1930, if you had asked an educated person to describe the goal of poetry, art, or music, “beauty” would have been the answer. And if you had asked what the point of that was, you would have learned that beauty is a value, as important in its way as truth and goodness, and indeed hardly distinguishable from them… At some time during the aftermath of modernism, beauty ceased to receive those tributes. Art increasingly aimed to disturb, subvert, or transgress moral certainties, and it was not beauty but originality—however achieved and at whatever moral cost—that won the prizes.”

What has been the result of these changes? According to Scruton, the “desecration” of art.

“What exactly does this word imply? It is connected, etymologically and semantically, with sacrilege, and therefore with the ideas of sanctity and the sacred. To desecrate is to spoil what might otherwise be set apart in the sphere of sacred things. We can desecrate a church, a graveyard, a tomb; and also a holy image, a holy book, or a holy ceremony. We can desecrate a corpse, a cherished image, even a living human being—insofar as these things contain (as they do) a portent of some original sanctity. The fear of desecration is a vital element in all religions. Indeed, that is what the word religio originally meant: a cult or ceremony designed to protect some sacred place from sacrilege.”

Scruton’s essay isn’t an argument for censorship, rather it is a plea to nurture our moral and intellectual sensibilities with beauty.

“[Beauty] is not something that we could lack and still be fulfilled as people. It is a need arising from our metaphysical condition as free individuals, seeking our place in an objective world. We can wander through this world, alienated, resentful, full of suspicion and distrust. Or we can find our home here, coming to rest in harmony with others and with ourselves. The experience of beauty guides us along this second path: it tells us that we are at home in the world, that the world is already ordered in our perceptions as a place fit for the lives of beings like us.”

In Romans 1 Paul argues that our moral sensibilities point us to God. Scruton argues that the experience of beauty should, too.

“The experience of beauty is so vivid, so immediate, so personal, that it seems hardly to belong to the natural order as science observes it. Yet beauty shines on us from ordinary things. Is it a feature of the world, or a figment of the imagination? Is it telling us something real and true that requires just this experience to be recognized? Or is it merely a heightened moment of sensation, of no significance beyond the delight of the person who experiences it?”

I heartily recommend “Beauty and Desecration” to you. And if you find it interesting, you might also check out Christian Wiman’s essay “Gazing into the Abyss”, too.