A Joy Forever?
Oxford University Press, 2009
“A thing of beauty is a joy forever”, begins John Keats’s Endymion. Like all platitudes, this raises more questions than it answers: does beauty remain the same over time? Are all things of beauty equal? And what, exactly, is “a thing of beauty”? Elsewhere, Keats tells us that “Beauty is truth, truth beauty”. But, like his other dictum, this claim may be more beautiful than true. In dealing with a concept at once so grand and so personal as beauty, perhaps a certain amount of slippage is inevitable.
Roger Scruton sets out to answer the questions raised by our tired clichés, arguing that beauty is a single quality, that its value is universal, and that it remains important to this day. Beauty, though, is no more satisfying than much of the reasoning it seeks to displace. Scruton seems unclear whether he is writing a meditation on the experience of beauty (along the lines of his England: An Elegy), a work of analytic aesthetics (as he did in the now-standard Aesthetics of Music and Aesthetics of Architecture), or (as in a recent public debate arguing that “Britain has become indifferent to beauty”) a work of cranky cultural criticism. Beauty fulfills the first aim admirably, is far too short to bear the academic weight of the second, and gives too much space to the third. In the end, the book is a frustrating mix of the personal and the academic, the profound and the petty.
Scruton’s approach is a hybrid between the classic tradition of aesthetics that tries to formulate the individual experience of beauty and twentieth-century analytical philosophy’s scrutiny of what the word “beautiful” means. In pursuing the first, phenomenological method, Scruton draws widely on authors from Plato to Alain de Botton, though what he writes is fueled more than anything by personal experience. The other, more rigorous approach leads him to identify a series of “platitudes about beauty” in the first pages of the book, to which he occasionally returns to support his observations. This mediation between common perceptions and their linguistic formulations is a typical method of analytical aesthetics, but here, in tandem with a more personal, idiosyncratic account, reducing beauty to its least controversial elements yields little fruit. In comparison with Scruton’s rich descriptions of beauty’s manifold effects, the more analytic passages feel sterile.
Scruton is committed to the view that beauty is one thing—the same in all times and places—and that the difference between spheres in which we encounter it is a difference of degree and not of kind. This makes for an illuminating account of “everyday beauty”, the modest ways humans seek to order their environment in pleasing ways. For Scruton, the way a house may fit in with its surroundings is no less important than the qualities that make a great work of architecture stand out. This notion of a continuum between “minimal beauty” and the great works of art is Scruton’s most original contribution, and grounds the argument that beauty is an essential part of human life, something that lingers long after a symphony has ended or we have turned away from a landscape. Beauty in all its forms helps us to feel at home in the world.
This is a powerful argument, and salutary in a world where beauty, conceived monolithically as the quality found in art, is often thought to be an effete indulgence. By arguing that a Rembrandt painting and a properly-set dinner table manifest the same quality, Scruton takes beauty out of the museum and places it in daily life. This does not preclude a hierarchy within beautiful objects (he has no problem judging certain works of art the “highest form of beauty”), but it gives a new dignity to lesser species of beauty that seek to fit in and suggests that the greatest artistic beauty can be the experience of ekstasis, standing out.
Yet this unitary concept of beauty also leads Scruton to be quite narrow-minded about what does and does not count. In his final chapter, Scruton examines “The Flight from Beauty”, which he sees as pervasive in contemporary society and particularly pernicious in modern art: “More recent art cultivates a posture of transgression, matching the ugliness of the things it portrays with an ugliness of its own. Beauty is downgraded as something too sweet, too escapist and too far from realities to deserve our undeceived attention.”
This rings of the denunciations that have accompanied changes in art throughout history, from Aristophanes’ satire of Euripides in the Frogs to polemics against Impressionism and the even more vehement debates surrounding Modernism. Undeniably, art today admits of more chaos than it has in the past; but, as Scruton recognizes, dissonance has always been a part of art. Indeed, many of the most powerful works dance on the edge of ugliness (think of Greek tragedy or Schoenberg’s Moses und Aron). Great art can—and sometimes should—unsettle us.
This mixing of pleasurable and unpleasurable impressions is often called “the sublime” in contrast to “the beautiful”, though Scruton might describe it as a kind of beauty that stands out radically. Contemporary art often resists the viewer; its beauty must be won from confrontation. But in an age that has seen man’s powers of destruction increase thousandfold, and finds itself regularly saturated with images of violence and suffering, an untroubled sense of harmony, like that we find in the Botticelli portrait on Scruton’s cover, may indeed feel illusory. Beauty seems not to be at home in the world, today more radically than ever. Our age, as the French theorist Lyotard argued, is more oriented toward the sublime than the beautiful.
Scruton deplores this sublime tendency in contemporary art. But in doing so, he assumes too narrow a concept of what beauty is. Many of the most successful works of the past half-century—think Anselm Kiefer’s brutalist sculptures or Harold Pinter’s violent, inscrutable dramas—achieve a sublime effect through confrontation with ugliness, a flight from beauty that leads back to the beautiful. Instead of detachment and clarity, these pieces offer an intense engagement that is no less a way of making the world our own. This can be jarring and even off-putting at first, but so have been most new means of creating beauty throughout history.
As Scruton argues, the best works of art always make us feel at home in the world. But today they do so by recognizing and incorporating the world’s ugliness, making what is beautiful stand out more wondrous and more strange.
Joshua Billings is a doctoral student in Classics at Merton College, Oxford, writing his dissertation on Greek tragedy and German philosophy. He is a senior editor of the Oxonian Review.