INTERVIEW WITH ROGER SCRUTON, PHILOSOPHER & MICHAEL PEARCE, THEOLOGIAN, PAINTER
Why Beauty Matters
Deanne Elaine Piowaty: Is is truly possible to ever reach a consensus of the definition of beauty? Or in the end will it be a more a matter of a test of time to sort out what is worth carrying with us into the years ahead?
Roger Scruton: 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.
Michael Pearce: I don’t think we need a reductive definition of the elements of beauty in order to appreciate it. Some qualities are difficult to define, but that often just means that they’re slippery, complex systems. During the last twenty years, scientists have turned toward complexity theory and emergence, which is transforming our understanding of the evolution of culture, semiotics and aesthetics and opening new ways of understanding our relationship to beauty.
Most of us have experienced beauty in front of an extraordinary landscape; or a glorious sunset; or a great work of art, when we feel alone with and transformed by our experience of the thing we see. It makes us feel uplifted, removed from daily life and in spiritual harmony with something greater than ourselves. We know we’re experiencing something beautiful, even though we find it hard to explain what beauty is.
Michael Pearce: Understanding emergence can help us to grasp things that are greater than the sum of their parts – we can apply it to beauty because the experience of it is an outcome that emerges from complexity.
Wetness is a good example of an emergent phenomenon. Water is made of oxygen and hydrogen, but neither of those two elements is wet – and if we analyze oxygen or hydrogen on their own, we have no reason to predict the wetness of water when they are combined. Wetness is an emergent quality of water.
Like wetness, the experience of beauty is an emergent quality that is greater than the sum of its parts.
Michael Pearce: Like the oxygen and hydrogen that join together to make water, we bring numerous small elements of our own experiences to an emergent moment of beauty. When we enter into that wonderful experience, elements of our life experience are joined by the thing we’re looking at as a part of a harmonious conjunction into one unity – an emergent experience of beauty. We don’t need to know what all those elements are in order to know that we’re in the embrace of beauty; in fact, reductive analysis destroys it, because the experience requires the unity of its combined elements.
There’s a degree of acceptance of the unknown in complexity, because an emergent quality can be found as a result of different combinations of elements. An illustration of the outcome of this open-endedness is the fact that different people can experience emergent beauty before different things. I had this experience of beauty in front of the Lippi Madonna in the Uffizi [at left], while my friend Nathan had a similar experience when he visited a Thai temple.
Nathan might look at the Lippi and recognize that it’s beautiful, but not have an emergent experience. When we describe things as beautiful, that word doesn’t describe the emergent experience; it describes things that have the potential for completing the circumstances for an emergent experience.
Our life experiences are among the elements that combine with the beautiful thing to make the emergent experience possible – it’s because our lives are all different that the completion of the emergent experience of beauty can be found in variable circumstances.
This helps to explain why it is that although we collectively understand that certain things are beautiful, we might not agree on which of them are more potent, because our varying individual experiences provide some of the elements that combine with them to create the emergent experience. As our collective experience and history flows through time and cultures, the things that we perceive as beautiful change. Reductive aesthetic studies of the beautiful object will not recreate the emergent experience for a viewer whose life experience does not merge with the object, although such studies help us to understand the production of objects that have the potential for completing the emergent moment.
Deanna Phoenix Selene: Have we allowed advertisements to become the foremost authority now on beauty? And if so, has the public become suspicious of beauty as a result? How can we take back beauty for ourselves?
Roger Scruton: Advertising has certainly done a lot of damage. People need to learn that the appreciation of beauty has nothing in common with the use of advertising. An advert is a means to arouse and exploit human appetite. A work of beauty is an end in itself, whose purpose is to still human appetite and to encourage us to stand back and observe, rather than possess, the world.
Michael Pearce: When we recognize advertising as cynical and manipulative, we become skeptical of its imagery. Perhaps this idea will seem distasteful, but we might even have a emergent experience of beauty when looking at a commercial if we weren’t skeptical of it. If skepticism interrupts that experience of beauty, this implies that it requires the acceptance of the authentic intention of the work of art.
And advertising can be beautiful. There are a lot of very smart people working extremely hard to make it as appealing as possible, so we should expect it to work very well – and it seems to, or we wouldn’t spend so much money on it. Are paintings and sculptures produced in the renaissance less beautiful, because they endorse the Church, or humanism, or were funded by princes?
They were advertisements for the magnificence of their producers, but because they were made long ago the circumstances of their creation may no longer have any relevance to us, so our tendency for skepticism may be reduced and we may more easily appreciate their beauty. We’ve traded princes and potentates for capitalistic corporations, but the motivations for the work are similar. In five hundred years time perhaps people will look back at advertising from the present with great appreciation for its beauty, with little interest or appreciation for the context in which it was made.
Deanna Phoenix Selene: What is the connection between beauty and the soul? Leo Tolstoy wrote, “What a strange illusion it is to suppose that beauty is goodness.” Are the two necessarily intertwined?
Roger Scruton: Beauty is a revelation of the soul, but it is not the same as goodness. It is a ‘shining forth’ of freedom in the present moment. And not all such things are morally good. This is the theme of Baudelaire’s ‘Hymn to beauty’.
Michael Pearce: Tolstoy was referring to Neo-Platonists, who equated the one mind with beauty, goodness and truth. When we move toward the one, all things become “more good” and more beautiful; conversely, as we move away from the one, things become less good and less beautiful. Like archetypes moving toward the ideal, new qualities emerging from complexity as they evolve become increasingly like unity, which includes everything within itself. Emergent evolution is complexly hierarchical, moving from simplicity toward a complexity so intense that it ultimately becomes unity. This implies an increasing inter-dependence between the elements that compose the emergent forms, consequently goodness.
Michael Pearce: It’s better to choose to seek out beautiful things that lead to complexity and perfection than to deny it because of our fear of our inferiority to it; there’s something glorious about accepting our individual place in the universe as a small part of a much greater mind.
We won’t like this idea if we imagine we’ve killed god, but that’s to indulge in hubris and nihilism, the opposite of emergence: negative, inward looking, downward-gazing self-indulgence leads to narcissism.
Michael Pearce: Without high ideals mankind reduces itself to a nasty but clever species of monkey with an alarming capacity for cruelty.
Michael Pearce: There’s a difference between the beauty of the natural world and the beauty of art. In addition to the elements of our life experience that we bring to the emergent experience of beauty, a work of art brings other qualities that contribute to completing the emergent moment, for example: the artist’s authenticity, skill, imagination, composition, and craftsmanship, among other things.
Michael Pearce: Those elements are both behind and below beauty in the hierarchy of emergence that leads to it, and they’re complex and emergent themselves, resisting easy description. Taken independently, none of them can adequately explain the emergent experience of a transcendently beautiful work of art, which is an orgasmic, completing and delightful feeling, resembling love.
Deanna Phoenix Selene: In talking recently with physicist Keith Williams who teaches at the University of Virginia and works at the Naval Research Lab in Washington, D.C., I asked him whether the natural order of things was necessarily to seek out beauty and finely-balanced patterns or whether nature gravitates towards chaos and entropy. He shared that while science has traditionally associated beauty with elegance and symmetry, scientists are now finding increasing incidences where living organisms actually seek out asymmetry, even discordance. Might beauty also then contain qualities such as novelty or intrigue? Is beauty ultimately about whatever it takes to gain attention?
Roger Scruton: Beauty is certainly a way of attracting attention. Symmetry is not always beautiful – the vertical symmetry of classical buildings is soothing; the horizontal symmetry of modern tower blocks is disturbing and usually ugly.
Roger Scruton: Ugliness attracts attention, just as much as beauty does – but attention from the wrong people and from the wrong part of the soul.
Michael Pearce: We seem to like art that is like ourselves. Although we’re roughly symmetrical creatures, we’re not quite perfect: the two sides of our faces aren’t true reflections; we’re left or right handed; our hair grows unevenly; our internal anatomy is lopsided. There are numerous beautiful paintings that are harmoniously balanced and have a structural symmetry beneath their irregularity; in other words, we have an affinity to things that are asymmetrical, but we like allusions to structural symmetry. The Neo-Platonist Plotinus nailed symmetry nearly two thousand years ago, pointing out that color can be beautiful, but has no form.
Michael Pearce: [quote]There’s a big difference between something complex and something complicated. Complication is only a mess, while complexity is based on order and elegance, although the order within might be difficult to discern and might vary.[/quote] Emergent phenomena (beauty, for instance) are a result of complex systems; they’re definitely novel because they are greater than the sum of their parts, building upon prior experiences but surpassing them.
In A Different Universe: Reinventing Physics From the Bottom Down, [Roger B.] Laughlin describes nature as “an enormous tower of truths, each descending from its parent and then transcending that parent.” Nature may look chaotic, but there are clear indications of emerging order within it that are foundational to evolution. It’s clearly complex, not complicated.
Deanna Phoenix Selene: When we make connections between spirituality and beauty, are we essentially saying something about hope and optimism? That it is not enough to settle for what is, but that we must be also always striving to create something closer to, for lack of a better term, “miracle”?
Roger Scruton: Of course we should be in awe of things, and we should approach the world with humility and gratitude. To return to advertising: this is a lesson in arrogance and greed, a way of expelling gratitude from our lives. Beauty lets gratitude back in.
Michael Pearce: There is a sense of the miraculous about great art, which has doubtlessly given numerous people that emergent experience of beauty. All the elements that go into making a work of art combine to produce an extraordinary thing, but the appreciation of it requires the viewer’s experience of it. Without the viewer, a beautiful work of art is meaningless, the miracle decays into a monstrous self-indulgence.
Deanna Phoenix Selene: Do you feel that artists have a moral responsibility? That by traveling in a realm that is both very public and yet also meets us in the unguarded realm of the subconscious, that artists need to be respectful, even protective oin terms of what they create? Knowing the potential impact on the public’s psyche and soul?
Roger Scruton: We all have moral responsibility, artists as much as anyone else. They must be respectful of, and protective towards, those aspects over the human being that we ourselves do not control and which they can arouse. No need to talk about pornography here, which is so obviously the Devil’s work. But violent movies, the constant recourse to five-second cuts from one violent situation to another, and all the other devices whereby film makers capture the attention without offering any reward for it other than a craving for more destruction – these are examples of irresponsible art.
Not all art is about compassion. But there are some pretty good examples: Bach’s St Matthew Passion, Rembrandt’s Return of the Prodigal Son, Shakespeare’s Tempest.
Michael Pearce: Although artists obviously have a moral responsibility for their own work, censorship quickly rises from moral judgments. I think the greater moral responsibility lies falls to the choice of the audience seeing the work of art.
We, the audience ensure the popularity of an artist and their cultural significance by expressing our collective approval. The popularity of the work of artists follows the taste of the audience, both during and after the lives of the artists. Vincent Van Gogh wasn’t popular until the 1960’s, when he became famous for his hallucinatory bright colors, self-absorbedness and romantic stature as a Nietzschean hero, reflecting the mood of the time. Other artists capture the mood of their own time.
Michael Pearce: After a hundred years of deconstruction, we’ve come to expect contemporary artists to do something unpleasant in their efforts to get their fifteen minutes. It’s easy to recognize that we have been culturally immersed in negativity, having chosen to pay attention to depravity, shock and scandal, but we don’t have to. Science is turning from reductive analysis toward complexity.
I’m optimistic that the embrace of emergence and experiential learning we’re seeing in universities will change our outlook toward something much more positive. As the world wars leave living memory and become history, we are overcoming our self-hatred and looking forward to building an emergent culture, leaving deconstructive thinking behind.
There’s been a cultural shift in the last thirty years that’s having a big impact on art – a new freedom of democratic choice that doesn’t require the mediation of centralized, top-down priesthoods of art critics and stockbrokers. The art of the people is increasingly becoming the bottom-up driving force – reflecting emergence. Artists have an important role to play in this transformation.
Please join us now and read “Allegories & Alchemy: Paintings of Michael Pearce,” as Michael Pearce shares his own personal artwork and process.
Keith Williams is a physicist, professor and photographer, formerly of Bulawayo, Zimbabwe, now teaching at the University of Virginia and working at the Naval Research Lab in Washington, D.C. He also applies his knowledge of spectroscopy to his personal photography work. We are excited to be adding Dr. Williams to the Combustus family. Look for his own special-to-Combustus magazine column in the weeks ahead.
Michael Pearce, PhD MFA, is Associate Professor at California Lutheran University in Thousand Oaks, California, where he teaches figurative painting and drawing. Pearce also organizes the Representational Art Conferences.
Michael Pearce is also an accomplished painter and you can read my interview with him here.
We are also pleased to be adding Dr. Pearce to the Combustus family. Look for his own special-to-Combustus magazine column in the weeks ahead.
Roger Scruton is currently visiting professor in the School of Philosophical, Anthropological and Film Studies at the University of St Andrews where he teaches every spring term. He is also visiting professor in Philosophy at the University of Oxford, leading a graduate seminar during the autumn term. He is also a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, a contributing editor to The New Atlantis, and he sits on the editorial board of the British Journal of Aesthetics.
Scruton was a lecturer and professor of aesthetics at Birkbeck College, London, from 1971 to 1992. Since 1992, he has held part-time positions at Boston University, the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, D.C., and the University of St Andrews. In 1982 he helped found The Salisbury Review, a conservative political journal, which he edited for 18 years, and he founded the Claridge Press in 1987.
In 2010 he gave the Gifford Lectures in St Andrews under the title of ‘The Face of God’. The lectures have been collected and published under the title The Face of God: The Gifford Lectures (Continuum, 2012),
In 2011 he gave the Stanton Lectures in the Divinity School at the University of Cambridge. The eight lectures can be viewed here.
Roger is a writer, philosopher and public commentator. He has specialized in aesthetics with particular attention to music and architecture. He engages in contemporary political and cultural debates from the standpoint of a conservative thinker and is well known as a powerful polemicist. He has written widely in the press on political and cultural issues. He is a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and a fellow of the British Academy.
He has written over thirty books, including Art and Imagination (1974), Sexual Desire (2012), The Aesthetics of Music(1999), A Political Philosophy: Arguments for Conservatism (2007), Beauty: A Very Short Introduction (2009), Our Church: A Personal History of the Church of England (2012) and The Palgrave Macmillan Dictionary of Political Thought. Scruton has also written two novels; a number of general textbooks on philosophy and culture; and composed two operas.
Works by Roger Scuton available on Amazon.com
Dr. Scruton is currently shifting from writing philosophy to writing fiction, saying, “Instead of writing about art, I shall be involved in trying to produce it; who knows whether I shall succeed.”
To learn more about Dr. Scruton, please visit his website.