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Why Beauty Matters


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#41 J.A.A. Purves

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Posted 18 November 2010 - 12:06 PM

Still a loaded and not so simple a question. There could very well be something wrong with you if you dislike or fail to appreciate anything. So what?

Since you are more read on Scruton than I am at this point, how would you compare Susan Sontag's essay "An argument about beauty" to what you have read of Scruton so far?

(an excerpt):
"Beauty defines itself as the antithesis of the ugly. Obviously, you can’t say something is beautiful if you’re not willing to say something is ugly. But there are more and more taboos about calling something, anything, ugly. (For an explanation, look first not at the rise of so-called political correctness, but at the evolving ideology of consumerism, then at the complicity between these two.) The point is to find what is beautiful in what has not hitherto been regarded as beautiful (or: the beautiful in the ugly)."

Hey Joe,

Well alright, I agree the question is loaded. That's why I asked it. So there could be something wrong with me? But I'm willing to make statements a little more straightforward than that. I say there is something wrong with me if I don't like listening to Bach, or if I don't like looking at Peter Paul Rubens, or if I don't like reading Shakespeare. Not only that, but I'd say there is something wrong with me if I "appreciate" or claim that I see the beauty in something that is clearly not beautiful.

I'll read Sontag's whole essay asap, but as far as that one excerpt goes - well, I would completely reject the idea that "beauty defines itself as the antithesis of ugly." This is because I believe beauty, like truth and goodness, is an objective good. Something that comes from and was created by God. Just as C.S. Lewis argued that evil cannot create for itself ex nihilo, that all evil is only good twisted. I'd think that beauty is what God intended, and all true ugliness is only beauty defaced. Of course, some people use the adjectives "beautiful" and "ugly" in a subjective manner. But that doesn't mean that "beauty" as a noun is not something objectively real, that was intended by God to appeal to the soul of every human being.

#42 jfutral

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Posted 18 November 2010 - 12:26 PM

Hey Joe,

Well alright, I agree the question is loaded. That's why I asked it. So there could be something wrong with me? But I'm willing to make statements a little more straightforward than that. I say there is something wrong with me if I don't like listening to Bach, or if I don't like looking at Peter Paul Rubens, or if I don't like reading Shakespeare. Not only that, but I'd say there is something wrong with me if I "appreciate" or claim that I see the beauty in something that is clearly not beautiful.


Boy am I in trouble then. Bach is my least favourite classic music to the point I do not enjoy listening to Bach. Rubens is also one of my least favourite painters to the point I do not enjoy his work in the slightest. And I abhor reading Shakespeare. I enjoyed lighting Julius Caesar when Jomandi Theatre produced the play set in the nation of Islam. I guess that means there is something wrong with me. But again, I ask, so what?

Joe

(edit to add: One thing I haven't touched on because I am holding out hope that my suspicions are unfounded. Does Scruton dare venture beyond this Western view, seemingly bordering on colonialism, of art and beauty? Does he allow that what other cultures find beautiful may differ? For instance he derides the bejeweled skull (which I thought was lovely), yet many cultures decorate and decorate with skulls for a variety of reasons. What of architecture beyond Western influences? I only keep seeing him and reading you use Western art as somehow the exemplar of art/beauty. In many ways Modern minimalism existed long before Modernity in other cultures.)

Edited by jfutral, 18 November 2010 - 02:27 PM.


#43 jfutral

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Posted 20 November 2010 - 01:33 PM

Scruton is quite the interesting fellow to research. Here are a couple articles on a debate from 2009 in which he participated:

'Britain has become indifferent to beauty'

The last paragraph pretty well sums it up for me:

"...in despair at their negativism, cynicism and defeatism, I asked Starkey and Scruton: "Why is it I like what you like (which is to say: medieval, renaissance and Victorian), but why you are so limited and snitty and crabby you see no value in what I like?"

and this editorial from the Guardian/Observer:

Beauty is our antidote to cynicism

Joe

#44 J.A.A. Purves

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Posted 23 November 2010 - 06:52 PM

I haven't read over this entire thread yet but I am both looking forward to it and feeling rather anxious about it. However, I am leaning in the direction of changing the title to "Why understanding individual perspectives about beauty matters."

Here I go...

So ... has the anxiety passed?

#45 J.A.A. Purves

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Posted 23 November 2010 - 07:27 PM

Boy am I in trouble then. Bach is my least favourite classic music to the point I do not enjoy listening to Bach. Rubens is also one of my least favourite painters to the point I do not enjoy his work in the slightest. And I abhor reading Shakespeare. I enjoyed lighting Julius Caesar when Jomandi Theatre produced the play set in the nation of Islam. I guess that means there is something wrong with me. But again, I ask, so what?

(edit to add: One thing I haven't touched on because I am holding out hope that my suspicions are unfounded. Does Scruton dare venture beyond this Western view, seemingly bordering on colonialism, of art and beauty? Does he allow that what other cultures find beautiful may differ? For instance he derides the bejeweled skull (which I thought was lovely), yet many cultures decorate and decorate with skulls for a variety of reasons. What of architecture beyond Western influences? I only keep seeing him and reading you use Western art as somehow the exemplar of art/beauty. In many ways Modern minimalism existed long before Modernity in other cultures.)

I don't believe we can just discount his arguments because he discusses mostly "Western" examples of art. Of course, he (and we) know more about the art of Europe and the West because we are from the West. I don't see how his arguments are distinctively Western or "colonial" when pretty much ALL the "alleged" works of art he is criticizing are all Western (all from America or Europe). Scruton isn't arguing for the superiority of European art over, oh say, African or Eastern art. He's mostly arguing the superiority of older art over the modern (99% because of the difference in philosophy that is behind the two). He is also arguing that Christian theology drastically affects what you believe and appreciate about t beautiful.

On page 64, he wrote -

It is true that the word 'aesthetic' came into its present use in the eighteenth century; but its purpose was to denote a human universal. The questions I have been discussing in this book were discussed in other terms by Plato and Aristotle, by the Sanskrit writer Bharata two centuries later, by Confucius in the Analects and by a long tradition of Christian thinkers from Augustine and Boethius, through Aquinas to the present day. The distinctions between means and ends, between instrumental and contemplative attitudes, and between use and meaning are all indispensable to practical reasoning, and associated with no particular social order. And although the vision of nature as an object of contemplation may have achieved special prominence in eighteenth-centure Europe, it is by no means unique to that place and time, as we know from Chinese tapestry, Japanese woodcuts, and the poems of the Confucians and of Basho.

As far as there being something wrong with you if you don't like Bach, Rubens or Shakespeare, it's not necessarily something morally wrong with you. But I can distinctly remember a time in my life where I didn't like classical music when I was younger - and THAT meant something was wrong with me (my education, my lack of culture, my lack of broadmindedness, etc). There was also a time when I thought Shakespeare to be dreadfully dull - a time when part of my soul was asleep and I was a cultural barbarian. So yes, if you cannot enjoy listening to Bach or if you abhor Shakespeare, then you are in trouble.

Scruton is quite the interesting fellow to research. Here are a couple articles on a debate from 2009 in which he participated:

'Britain has become indifferent to beauty'

The last paragraph pretty well sums it up for me:

"...in despair at their negativism, cynicism and defeatism, I asked Starkey and Scruton: "Why is it I like what you like (which is to say: medieval, renaissance and Victorian), but why you are so limited and snitty and crabby you see no value in what I like?"

Looks like the entire debate is available here at IntelligenceSquared. You have to become a member to watch it though. That last paragraph was written by Stephen Bayley who was in the debate against Scruton. Unfortunately, he doesn't give Scruton's answer. But of course, anyone trying to argue that beauty has any objective worth, and that therefore it is something to value over other things that are not beautiful, is going to be easily accused of intolerance. It's an old debate trick to accuse the advocate stuck with the position of advocating limits of not being broad-minded enough. But I think it was Chesterton who would argue that it's the very limits that make any definitions, work, progress, thought, or meaning possible. If everything can be art, or if anything can be beautiful, then the words "art" and "beauty" are about as meaningless as they could be. When Scruton argues that our modern day culture is losing it's sense for beauty, he is fighting for that which touches the soul against that which deadens the soul and lamenting modern culture's tendency towards the latter. He is trying to point out that there is a difference between a work of art that awakens inside you the search for meaning, and between a "work of art" produced to satisfy material appetites. Of course there are different tastes and subjectivity involved here, but there are also universals involved here. This entire discussion is about how to distinguish between the two.

#46 tenpenny

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Posted 19 December 2010 - 09:49 PM

From the Marx Brothers' Animal Crackers. With Groucho as Spaulding, of course:

Chandler: Well, I've always tried to do what I could, especially in the world of art.

Spaulding: Art. Well, I don't know how we drifted around to that, but what is your opinion of art?

Chandler: I am very glad you asked me!

Spaulding: I withdraw the question! This fellow takes things seriously, it isn't safe to ask him a simple question. Tell me, Mr. Chandler, where are you planning on putting your new opera house?

Chandler: Oh, I thought I should like to put it somewhere near Central Park.

Spaulding: I see. Why don't you put it right in Central Park?

Chandler: Could we do that?

Spaulding: Sure, do it at night when no one is looking. Why don't you put it in the reservoir and get the whole thing over with? Of course, that might interfere with the water supply. But after all we must remember that 'art is art.' Still, on the other hand, water is water, isn't it? And east is east and west is west and if you take cranberries and stew them like apple sauce, they taste much more like prunes than rhubarb does.

Sorry. I couldn't resist.

I've listened to the first half of Scruton's program and, although it's potentially an interesting topic, his air of smug superiority is tough to take. It's as though until he's been able to educate us as to what beauty is, us plebs have no chance. A lot of life-long academics suffer from this fault, but Scruton seems to have a heapin helpin of it.

Then too, the following self-contradiction is so glaring, I can't believe the director or the editor or somebody didn't point it out to Scruton - save the man some embarrassment:

Michael Craig-Martin: A work of art is a work of art because we think of it as such. I honestly think it's important to say that the notion of beauty has been extended to include things that would not have been thought of... that's part of the artist's function is to make beautiful - make one see something as beautiful - something that nobody thought was beautiful up until now.

Scruton: Right. Like a can of sh*t. [and Scruton visibly smirks]
...

Scruton [not 20 minutes later, and in all sincerity]: ... beauty is an ordinary, everyday kind of thing. It lies all around us. We need only the eyes to see it, and the hearts to feel.


Edited by tenpenny, 20 December 2010 - 02:06 AM.


#47 Thom

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Posted 19 December 2010 - 10:22 PM


I haven't read over this entire thread yet but I am both looking forward to it and feeling rather anxious about it. However, I am leaning in the direction of changing the title to "Why understanding individual perspectives about beauty matters."

Here I go...

So ... has the anxiety passed?


I don't think the anxiety will ever pass. So much beauty in anxiety ;)

Actually, this sort of discussion is always a lot for me to process. I continually shift between anger (or frustration) and a sympathetic ear of partial agreement. The problem is that my sympathy is more often due to the context I create for his comments about art, beauty, propaganda, etc.

I need to finish up the videos. However, reading through the posts requires the need for fresh air and time away.

#48 tenpenny

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Posted 20 December 2010 - 11:48 AM

From part 4 of Scruton's program:

Scruton [in voice-over - the scene is of a baby in a stroller with a woman cooing over it, with ethereal music playing softly in the background]: Consider the joy you might feel when you hold a friend's baby in your arms. You don't want to do anything with the baby. You don't want to eat it [!], to put it to any use, or to conduct scientific experiments on it. You want simply to look at it, and to feel the great surge of delight that comes when you focus all your thoughts on this baby, and none at all on yourself. That is what Kant described as a disinterested attitude. And it is the attitude that underlies our experience of beauty. To explain this is extremely difficult because if you haven't experienced it, you don't really know what it is. But everybody listening to a beautiful piece of music, looking at a sublime landscape, reading a poem which seems to have contained the essence of the thing it describes, everybody in an experience like that says yes, this is enough.


I think this is true, and well said, but I don't see how it can be the whole truth about beauty and art. It seems too one-sided. It seems too self-absorbedly static and satisfied. It seems to leave no place for art that hauls you off by the scruff of the neck and says, look at this, although you may not want to. Art, for example, like John Steinbeck's novel The Grapes of Wrath, or this beautiful song written by Woody Guthrie and Martin Hoffman.

In short, is there a place in Scruton's conception of beauty for "rough" art that wants to get people up off their complacent asses and moving? Art that wants everybody to say yes, but this is not enough. Or would Scruton call that propaganda, and not art?

I'm off to watch parts 5 and 6 now...

Edited by tenpenny, 20 December 2010 - 08:58 PM.


#49 David Smedberg

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Posted 20 December 2010 - 01:20 PM

I still remember a graduate assistant in theology at CUA telling us that his understanding of the Eucharist changed when he and his wife had their first baby -- because, he said, he loved his baby so much he just wanted to eat it up. Nom nom nom ;)

#50 tenpenny

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Posted 20 December 2010 - 03:18 PM

In parts 5 and 6, Scruton at least gestures in the direction of my question/complaint:

Scruton: From the beginning of our civilization it has been one of the tasks of art to take what is most painful in the human condition and to redeem it, in a work of beauty. [This is followed by a fragment from Cordelia's death scene in King Lear - could we possibly get any more highbrow? (g)]

So I suppose he'd accept the two examples I gave of "rough" art within his definition of beauty, although he'd probably point out that both are now some sixty or seventy years old. Scruton's beef with modern art and architecture appears to be of more recent vintage, although his exact boundary line (as to when things went to hell in a handbasket) is not well defined. For someone so consumed with looking backward in time, rather than forward, he doesn't seem to consider how history winnows art over time. I think he unfairly compares great art from the past - "tip of the pyramid" stuff - with "carefully chosen for maximum shock value" art from the present. Would Scruton really have us believe that all modern artists are "desecrators" and that all modern architects are "vandals?" Or that plenty of "kitsch" wasn't also produced when the great masters were alive and painting?

I do agree though with a lot of what Scruton has to say about the connections between religion and beauty.

Thanks, Persiflage, for posting Scruton's program, and to you and jfutral and others for an enlightening discussion.

Edited by tenpenny, 20 December 2010 - 03:30 PM.


#51 J.A.A. Purves

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Posted 22 December 2010 - 02:43 PM

I've listened to the first half of Scruton's program and, although it's potentially an interesting topic, his air of smug superiority is tough to take. It's as though until he's been able to educate us as to what beauty is, us plebs have no chance. A lot of life-long academics suffer from this fault, but Scruton seems to have a heapin helpin of it.

I guess I don't understand what you mean by his seeming smug or superior. I didn't get that impression from him anymore than I did from watching Francis Schaeffer's How Then Should We Live. But then again, I can't say I've ever felt that some speaker felt like he was superior to me since I became a William F. Buckley, Jr. fan.

Then too, the following self-contradiction is so glaring, I can't believe the director or the editor or somebody didn't point it out to Scruton - save the man some embarrassment:

Michael Craig-Martin: A work of art is a work of art because we think of it as such. I honestly think it's important to say that the notion of beauty has been extended to include things that would not have been thought of... that's part of the artist's function is to make beautiful - make one see something as beautiful - something that nobody thought was beautiful up until now.

Scruton: Right. Like a can of sh*t. [and Scruton visibly smirks]
...

Scruton [not 20 minutes later, and in all sincerity]: ... beauty is an ordinary, everyday kind of thing. It lies all around us. We need only the eyes to see it, and the hearts to feel.

I think the difference is the philosophy that says that an artist can make anything beautiful (especially by screwing around with what the word "beauty" means) and the opposing philosophy that says a work of art is not a work of art just because someone says or thinks it is, and by declaring that anything can be beautiful, you lose the eyes to discriminate in order to find what is beautiful. Beauty is anything vs. beauty is everywhere. Scruton is arguing that by asserting that anything can be beautiful, we lose the ability to cultivate what really is beautiful, which is a significant loss, since the beautiful is all around us.

Actually, this sort of discussion is always a lot for me to process. I continually shift between anger (or frustration) and a sympathetic ear of partial agreement. The problem is that my sympathy is more often due to the context I create for his comments about art, beauty, propaganda, etc.

I need to finish up the videos. However, reading through the posts requires the need for fresh air and time away.

Well, it's certainly fun to think about. When you read, please feel free to contribute. I (and hopefully anyone else) will not be offended if you disagree with anything here. I've enjoyed the discussion more and been forced to think about it more because of some of the disagreements. They're healthy because they force you to think more clearly than before.

In parts 5 and 6, Scruton at least gestures in the direction of my question/complaint:

Scruton: From the beginning of our civilization it has been one of the tasks of art to take what is most painful in the human condition and to redeem it, in a work of beauty. [This is followed by a fragment from Cordelia's death scene in King Lear - could we possibly get any more highbrow? (g)]

So I suppose he'd accept the two examples I gave of "rough" art within his definition of beauty, although he'd probably point out that both are now some sixty or seventy years old. Scruton's beef with modern art and architecture appears to be of more recent vintage, although his exact boundary line (as to when things went to hell in a handbasket) is not well defined. For someone so consumed with looking backward in time, rather than forward, he doesn't seem to consider how history winnows art over time. I think he unfairly compares great art from the past - "tip of the pyramid" stuff - with "carefully chosen for maximum shock value" art from the present. Would Scruton really have us believe that all modern artists are "desecrators" and that all modern architects are "vandals?" Or that plenty of "kitsch" wasn't also produced when the great masters were alive and painting?

I do agree though with a lot of what Scruton has to say about the connections between religion and beauty.

Thanks, Persiflage, for posting Scruton's program, and to you and jfutral and others for an enlightening discussion.

Glad you were able to see it, and thanks for taking the time to think and comment about it.

On one point, while it is true that history winnows down art over time, and I'm sure there was plenty of "kitsch" and other non-lasting trinkets back long ago, the difference is a matter of philosophy. Just recently (well, about 100 years) people in the art world are questioning whether there are any objective standards for what is right, and true, and beautiful in a work of art. The philosophy of art taught at universities has changed. Scruton is using older art because the artists back then had an opposing philosophy to the modern artists Scruton is addressing today. Also, our culture has changed - for whatever different reasons - and tends to value art and beauty less. You have a good point though, we don't have to generalize that all modern artists are of the same philosophy.

could we possibly get any more highbrow

Shakespeare could easily be said to be "lowbrow" in his own time period and culture, and yet he is "highbrow" in our time period and culture. What does that say about our culture today?

Edited by Persiflage, 22 December 2010 - 02:58 PM.


#52 Peter T Chattaway

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Posted 23 December 2010 - 12:13 PM

David Smedberg wrote:
: I still remember a graduate assistant in theology at CUA telling us that his understanding of the Eucharist changed when he and his wife had their first baby -- because, he said, he loved his baby so much he just wanted to eat it up. Nom nom nom ;)

I must say, I always found it interesting when my kids stuck their fingers in my mouth, during their infant/toddler years. So cute. And so tempting. I was always rather conscious of the fact that I was wrapping my lips around my teeth to keep myself from biting down hard.

#53 SDG

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Posted 23 December 2010 - 01:39 PM

Shakespeare could easily be said to be "lowbrow" in his own time period and culture

I suspect this is at the very least highly misleading.

#54 J.A.A. Purves

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Posted 16 June 2011 - 10:06 PM

My review of the book.