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Why Beauty Matters by Roger Scruton

Beginning: At any time between 1750 and 1930 if you asked educated people to describe the aim of poetry, art or music, they would have replied “beauty.”

And if you had asked for the point of that you would have learned that beauty is a value, as important as truth and goodness. Then in the 20th century beauty stopped being important. Art increasingly aimed to disturb and to break moral taboos. It was not beauty but originality however achieved and at whatever moral cost that won the prizes. Not only has art made a cult of ugliness. Architecture too has become soul-less and sterile. And it is not just our physical surroundings that have become ugly. Our language, our music and our manners are increasingly raucous, self-centered and offensive as though beauty and good taste have no real place in our lives. One word is written large on all these ugly things and that word is “Me.” My profits, my desires, my pleasures. And art has nothing to say in response to this except “Yeah, go for it!”

I think we are losing beauty and there is a danger that with it we will lose the meaning of life. I’m Roger Scruton, philosopher and writer. My trade is to ask questions. During the last few years I have been asking questions about beauty. Beauty has been central to our civilisation for over 2000 years. From its beginnings in ancient Greece philosophy has reflected on the place of beauty in art, poetry, music, architecture and everyday life. Philosophers have argued that through the pursuit of beauty we shape the world as a home. We also come to understand our own nature as spiritual beings. But our world has turned its back on beauty and because of that we find ourselves surrounded by ugliness and alienation.

I want to persuade you that beauty matters; that it is not just a subjective thing, but a universal need of human beings. If we ignore this need we find ourselves in a spiritual desert. I want to show you the path out of that desert. It is a path that leads to home……. Full Transcript Here

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  • Julie February 16, 2018, 1:15 PM

    Took my kids to a birthday party recently at a local kids art museum (really more a gigantic indoor playground with an art theme). The kids love it because it is a fun place to run around like a maniac and touch everything, but everything about the place is pretty much the opposite of what you’d expect from an art museum. Instead of peacefulness, noise; instead of contemplation, frenetic activity; and above all instead of beauty, it is full of bright colorful images that nevertheless manage to be aggressively ugly if you should have the displeasure to force your eyes to rest upon any particular surface. I never noticed before how hideous it is, caught up in various activities. Now that I have seen it, though, I don’t plan to return.

  • Casey Klahn February 16, 2018, 1:58 PM

    Julie: color is life, and a component of beauty. I know you’re simplifying, but be precise in your complaint. The art was ugly. I get that.
    I watched this RS video a number of years ago; maybe I’ve seen it 2 or 3 times, now. He’s very convincing and mostly right, which is pretty good for a contemporary philosopher. Those are certainly 2 words that don’t jibe: contemporary and philosophy! So, his work is cut out for him.
    He’s completely wrong when he says that art should not be about the new. What the F is the word “create?” Create a yesterday?
    What about beauty? Yes to that. Beauty matters. It is not the whole envelope of music, art and architecture, though.
    I cite: the 20th Century.
    Yes, much suck exists, and he’s right to expose that. But, I’m afraid you cannot can that which will not stop expanding. It’s a fool’s errand.

  • ghostsniper February 16, 2018, 7:47 PM

    2 random things grabbed from the innertubes:

    This, http://wallpapers.ae/classic-painting-art-wallpaper.html , holds my attention. I can stare at it for awhile. It will make me ponder, enjoy, relish, and aspire. It is not boring and the artist should be commended, it is timeless.

    This, https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/1/1a/Paul_C%C3%A9zanne_047.jpg , does none of that. If I seen this on the wall I would quickly glance at it and then move on. I might dwell for a moment, looking for a reason to continue to look but ultimately my search would be in vane. The subject matter and style are lazy, and amateurish. The “artists” effort would be reflected in my interest – almost none. Yes, I could do better.

    Of the several thousand architecture projects I have worked on since 1972 about 80% of them I am not proud of, except for the fact they put food on the table. They did not warrant my education and eventual experience and even though the owners enjoyed them they were mostly idiots that didn’t care about beauty, longevity, usefulness. For every project I do for others there are 10 that I do for myself and no one ever sees them but me and sometimes my wife. I am proud of them and maybe others will appreciate them long after I’m gone. Or not. I don’t care. I didn’t do them for others. I did them for me. Architecture is, and has been, my hobby and my life and not a day goes by that I do not at least visit it. I have no choice and it’s been this way since I was about 7 years old – my spellbound interest in everything buildings. It’s not just the way they look, it’s also the way they work. Most people see any given building think. “Oh, that looks nice.”, I look at the building and my xray vision comes on, I have to know how it works. The structure – what makes this thing stay up there like it does? The mechanicals – the veins and arteries, the nervous system, all of the things that makes a building livable and functional. The 100 million things that exist in a building of worth. All of them working in unison like a melody, providing safe harbor and sometimes beauty for the inhabitants and users. You see the parapet walls, I see the reglets on the backside. You see the 10″ baseboards, I see the corner gaps from a misaligned mitersaw. You see the “open concept”, I see the monthly comfort costs. These are just a samplings of the things I see in every building, and it’s also the way I look at art of every type. I become the art, if it will allow me. Most modern art does not care if I like it, nor does it’s artist. It exists simply for the sake of existence. It has no reason, nor does it deserve any. Having long grown bored then disgusted with modern art I now mostly avoid it. It has burned out as far as I’m concerned. The recent obama fiasco’s are more evidence of the poor efforts that are welcomed with gracious open arms by people that should know better or just prefer to be rotten to the core. They have no choice but to brag, I have no choice but to ignore.

  • Howard Nelson February 16, 2018, 8:48 PM

    Nicely illuminated, gs.
    I take issue with RS’s equating beauty, a surface quality sensed from the eye of the beholder, to the values of truth and goodness. It seems to me that truth and goodness are more foundational, necessary, edifying in life than is beauty. Truth and goodness are subsurface and cannot be rejected for any good reason. They differ in ‘class’ from beauty. It’s like the expert, excellent construction described by gs in some buildings he appreciates.
    I did not read all of the RS article. Did he speak of the ultimates of truth, goodness, AND beauty underlying the surface ugliness of lepers, body-warped babies, the war-wounded burned and shattered? How does surface beauty compare in value to courage, endurance, and that four-letter word — love?
    Where are the museums and galleries telling the stories of the surface uglies and their subsurface glories?
    I apologize to RS and gs if I have misinterpreted their essays and gone too far afield. My muse runs loose.

  • Casey Klahn February 16, 2018, 11:01 PM

    Tsk. Visuals are wasted on you guys. The visual form of beauty. It has no function; it will not hold up a beam, and it will not spill water. Don’t give me the anthropological attraction and mating crap. Vision is a sense that is wasted almost 99% in attitudes like these.
    Do you even get out?

  • Julie February 17, 2018, 12:16 AM

    Casey, re. specifics: The place in question looks innocuous enough. However, one of the current installations features massive canvases around the museum by this artist: Christopher Ian McFarlane. Say what you want about his work, there is a seriously disturbed and disturbing element that really doesn’t belong in a children’s museum, no matter how cartoony it appears. Another temporary installation involves a couple of rooms painted completely with intense black and white lines and featuring strobe lights; meant to be disorienting and “fun,” I guess. Again, a poor choice for kids both for the subject matter and the fact that it should probably come with a seizure warning. There were also unpleasant sounds. No kids strayed into that section for more than a moment or two, it was scary and visually painful.

    Then there are the permanent installations centered on the usual social justice themes: structures made of trash to prove a point about recycling, a nod to cultures of the world, a couple of spots featuring science, and lots of arts and crafts that the kids don’t seem to engage with for more than a moment.

    The coolest thing, which is pretty much universally loved and really is a thing of beauty, is a giant play structure based on The Great Wave off Kanagawa.

    I am an artist. Not a great or even particularly good one by any stretch, but still. I love color, I love expressiveness, I think there’s a place for many different themes and ideas. Not a hater of the abstract by any stretch, though like anything there is stuff I like and stuff I don’t. I also know ugly, creepy and disturbing when I see it. There’s a place for that, too, in fact. Just not a kids art museum.

  • MMinLamesa February 17, 2018, 6:21 AM

    Excellent perspective gs. I too have many 1,000s of leaded glass panels out there and like you, I did what the client wanted and what they could afford. Business, not art. It seemed the time between really meaty work requiring my creativity was getting longer and longer.

    Stopped that in 2001. Had enough-walked away from a million dollar/year business. Yeah I know, I was never known for my smarts. However since, I have been creating glorious work with my own glass and I’m quite happy except in the summer here in w Texas with 3 kilns a a furnace operating.

    In fact, I’ve got 3 experiments I’ve run overnight and this it for me on the intrawebs for the day.

  • Doug February 17, 2018, 7:12 AM

    Centuries from now human beings will look back and know for certain whi the most evil, vile and destructive human being who ever existed was. No, not Hitler or even Mao or Stalin….but Karl Marx.

  • ghostsniper February 17, 2018, 7:19 AM

    @Julie, this one https://hauntedmirrorforest.wordpress.com/paintings/#jp-carousel-1290 explains it’s self in plain words. A shame. The “artist” appears to be educated and experienced but chooses subjects that are below his capacity, which is grabbed up by people that should know better, hence, stifling his potential. As far as I’m concerned he has wasted his time and mine. I’ll never look at his meager effort again. Perhaps he too is just “paying the bills” and his real stuff is not appreciated.

    Long ago I designed a large bank in Florida and was asked, after the building had been finished and was in the interior finishing phase, to sit in on the choosing of the expensive art work that would be displayed permanently. The “board” was dominated by a boisterous woman in her 50’s that was a style monger in the city and had her name regularly displayed in the media – she lived for the limelight and didn’t mind twisting arms and shoving people around to keep that image. This ignorant oaf seemed to know nothing about anything at all and muscled large, gaudy, examples of modern art everywhere throughout the building and everyone else either just shut their mouths or even worse, gratuitously agreed with her, bootlickers that they are. I left the meeting early, I know my limits. Another 10 mins and there would have been slit throats all over the place.

  • Casey Klahn February 17, 2018, 8:10 AM

    Julie. I agree with your sense on all of this. Didn’t like his work, either. Politics in the museum, especially the children’s museum, is lowbrow, in my opinion.
    Ghostsniper, I’m glad you mentioned Cezanne. He’s the perfect example of why you cannot see paintings on the internet with any accuracy. For one thing, the low def of the internet ruins the look, and you get nothing of the scale. Most importantly, the color model is completely flipped; the computer is additive, and the painting subtractive (so-called because of the way the visible spectrum is exposed one color or a few colors at a time by pigment; it’s a royal hashing of reality that deserves a long essay, but…). My point is, the internet does not get anywhere near the magic of seeing a room full of Paul Cezanne’s paintings. They project off the wall like a boxing glove on an accordion arm…BAM! It is quit amazing, and he did things remarkably different for his time.
    We’re capitalists here, so I’ll back up my opinion with millions of proofs: how is 250 million of them for you? That is, $250 dollars paid for his Card Players painting, placing it in the top 10 most expensive paintings ever. Of course! These bazillionaires are total freaks, you’ll no doubt say. My response is: seriously? Money is that thin an argument to you? Remember, money talks, and you-know-what walks.
    Go to DC, or new York, or Paris and see the real thing. Forget the internet; Cezanne is not contained on a CRT screen in any way.
    You put up that picture by Kincaid just to fuck with me, right? I cannot speak ill of him, since he’s dead and we were born in the same year.
    People will not see the newest art; they aren’t capable because their eyes don’t know what their seeing. Have you ever stood completely still 5 feet from a doe, and had her try and “make” you visually? She cannot do it, for several visual reasons. If something truly new is painted, 99.9999% of humans will not see it. That’s fine by me. Maybe you’ll understand Cezanne and Kincaid, or my opinion of them, a little better.
    Or, I could go back to a fine quote by Picasso: “I can explain the picture to you, and you will understand my explanation, but you still will not understand the picture.”
    Best wishes. Visual art has no tensile strength, no thermal mass, and will not perc. It is completely useless, so called. It is for your eyes!

  • Casey Klahn February 17, 2018, 8:12 AM

    “$250 million,” of course.

  • Casey Klahn February 17, 2018, 8:14 AM

    “They’re” – damn it. Forgive the errors.

  • Julie February 17, 2018, 8:27 AM

    Re. politics in the children’s museum, I will only note that it is in literally every children’s museum, and has been for decades. There is always an exhibit about recycling, always an exhibit about how we are destroying the earth, always an exhibit about how beautiful other cultures are compared to ours, and always a general theme of social justice. Been that way at least since I was a kid going to the Seattle Science Center, which is actually part of a nationwide chain of science centers that all feature pretty much the same stuff. Lots of fun things to learn and do in those places, but the messaging is all-pervasive.

  • Casey Klahn February 17, 2018, 8:42 AM

    You’re right, Julie. Always socialist politics; for socialists, everything is politics, including the very air they breath. They can’t even see it. It’s offensive, too.
    In America, we make our trash cans and garbage collection into objects du art, and they are generally grotesque. At the Yellowstone Lake Hotel, the trash cans are so elaborate and design-forward, that they greet you on the walkway as you go through the grand formal entrance. Instead of placing the garbage in the rear of the building, and behind a visual barrier, they prefer to virtue-signal.

  • hallyk February 17, 2018, 9:19 AM

    My comments are way off from the rest here, but whatever happened to dressing nicely, meaning neat, clean, pressed, healthily attractive, etc. I just looked up denim clothing wanting to find a nice dress–I got women’s jeans with holes in them . I thought this tacky style had passed. I guess I’m still stuck in the 60s when I wore a dress on a date with matching shoes: when no one would go to a public function except in what my lower middle class family would call ‘church’ clothes. Does all this still refer to ‘Beauty’?–I think so. Jeans and tee shirts are OK, not every day for all occasions. And don’t give me the cost argument, because the so called poor people dressed up too years ago. My last statement–I think people acted better when we dressed better.

  • Mary Ann February 17, 2018, 10:44 AM

    hallyk, my thoughts exactly.

  • Jim in Alaska February 17, 2018, 11:44 AM

    A couple of days ago, Thursday to be exact, at eight in the evening, I fell in love. She’s has around 21-22 years on this planet, I’ve (I had to stop and think about it.) 79. She was nude.

    OK she was a model I was sketching but my point is, what I’m thinking is, to create or reproduce a thing of beauty you have to fall in love with it, be it a person, an apple or a rose in a still life, a train station in Amsterdam, or a sky scraper in NYC. On the other hand, to appreciate a thing of beauty invokes a feeling close to, if not, love.

    Perhaps the reason so much ugliness is created and presented in the era is that #metoo, instant gratification, political correctness, etc., are antithesis to love and hence to beauty.

    & of course Klhan, you are welcome to you opinion but none the less, visuals are not wasted on us guys & I often see beauty holding up a beam far far longer than utility.

  • ghostsniper February 17, 2018, 1:04 PM

    @hallyk, there is extreme laziness across the board these days. Some of us have lived lives that have spanned the era going from hard work to hard convenience. We didn’t have a dishwasher til 1988, now we can’t live without it. Here at the hacienda I still wear worn out stuff til it falls off me but I would never leave the site looking that way, and I’ve never seen my wife with worn out stuff.

    I remember wrapping a rope around the spindle on a used $35 mower that wasn’t self propelled when I was 12 years old and pulling til the cows came home and now I cruise around on a 22hp V2 mower with 10″ wide tires but there is 40 years of rope pullin in between and I still have dishpan hands from all the decades of bustin suds in the sink.

    When a person spends $80 on a pair of jeans with holes “in all the right places”, yet their hands feel like stale cookie butter, you can know in advance (no matter what Crichton says) that you are dealing with a hollow person of questionable character.

  • pbird February 19, 2018, 11:35 AM

    We live in an age of grotesquery and malfeasance in all areas of life.
    I agree with Julie about the museum. I think the displays augment discontent and agitation in the children and are meant to.
    I know for a fact that you cannot see a painting on a computer and get the real effect. If you know the painting it can relight your memory of it. I know a young painter whose works just don’t work online and yet are very good.