Let’s start from there. Regardless of your personal tastes or aesthetics as you stand before a painting, slip inside a photograph, run your hand along the length of a sculpture, or move your body to the arrangements spiraling out of the concert speakers…something very primary ~ and primal ~ is happening. And much of it sub-conscious. There’s an element of trust.
Political philosopher, Hannah Arendt (1906 – 1975), defined artworks as “thought things,” ideas given material form to inspire reflection and rumination. Dialog.
Sometimes even discomfort.
So we know that art matters. But the question posed by modern philosophers such as Roger Scruton, of Oxford University, is: how do we want it to affect us?
Are we happy with the direction art is taking? Namely, says, Scruton, away from seeking “higher virtues” such as beauty and craftmanship, and instead, towards novelty for novelty’s sake, provoking emotional response under the guise of socio-political discourse.
In his compelling video, “Why Beauty Matters,” the philosopher asks us to wake up and start demanding something more from art other than disposable entertainment. “Through the pursuit of beauty,” suggests Scruton, “we shape the world as our own and come to understand our nature as spiritual beings. But art has turned its back on beauty and now we are surrounded by ugliness.”
The great artists of the past, says Scruton, “were aware that human life was full of care and suffering, but their remedy was beauty. The beautiful work of art brings consolation in sorrow and affirmation…It shows human life to be worthwhile.”
But many modern artists, argues the philosopher, have become weary of this “sacred task” and replaced it with the “randomness” of art produced merely to gain notoriety.
As example, Scruton points to Marcel Duchamp’s famous repurposing of a urinal into a sculpture he titled, “Fountain“ and signed with a pseudonym. Duchamp’s argument being that the value of any object lies solely in what each individual assigns it, and thus, anything can be declared “art,” and anyone an artist.
But is there something wrong with the idea that everything is art and everyone an artist? If we celebrate the democratic ideals of all citizens being equal and therefore their input having equal value, doesn’t Duchamp’s assertion make sense?
Who’s to say, after all, what constitutes beauty?
What follows are my interviews with two heavy-hitters in this discourse: Roger Scruton, who holds a PhD in philosophy from Cambridge University (his thesis being on aesthetics), and Michael Pearce, a theologian who teaches figure painting and drawing at California Lutheran University, in Thousand Oaks, California, and who himself is also an accomplished painter.
Click below to read Part II in the “Why Beauty Matters” series.
Why Beauty Matters: Philosopher Roger Scruton & Theologian, Painter, Michael Pearce On Why We Need to Reclaim Art for the Soul, Part II.
“We cannot reach a consensus on the definition of beauty, any more than on the definition of other such volatile terms. But we can reach a consensus on the importance of beauty, and its place in our lives. The test of time is important, but the important time is now. And that is why we must educate children in the love of the beautiful and the capacity to distinguish the true from the phony examples.”