Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Beauty and stuff

Philosopher Roger Scruton stars in Why Beauty Matters, a BBC television production from last year. If you persevere to the end, you get a nice reward in the form of Pergolesi's Stabat Mater.


Allen H Simon said...

This seems like an old and stale debate. Why the constant focus on Dada, exemplified by Duchamp's urinal, which was created in 1917. Hello? We've come a long way since then. Most people are past the anything-for-a-shock stage.

Osbert Parsley said...

I agree that Scruton seems to have a particular chip on his shoulder against Duchamp which probably exceeds his actual importance - he uses the same urinal example elsewhere. Yet the debate inspired by Duchamp still rages, less in music than in the visual arts. With very few exceptions, the exhibits of contemporary art at galleries in my area always seem to include "conceptual" pieces created precisely for their shock value. While very few members of the general public would defend Damien Hirst's bisected cow as a great work of art, the makers of the TV programme obviously thought that these ideas had to be addressed before presenting a more traditional approach to aesthetics.

(The program gets more interesting, and philosophically sophisticated, midway through part 3, if memory serves.)

Allen H Simon said...

Maybe it's because when I look at the symphony season, I can choose between John Adams and Pierre Boulez by voting with my feet. Same with theatre or dance. But visual arts don't have as many choices. There's likely to be one big "Modern Art" museum in town (galleries are a somewhat different matter).

Still, I don't think the issue in visual arts is philosophy of beauty so much as popular vs. academic values, a slightly different old and stale debate. Academia has a bias in favor of the new (e.g. publish or perish), and academia still controls visual art much more than the performing arts. But I think his analysis about beauty and ugliness and shock value is inaccurate; it's just about making sure your art isn't considered "derivative" somehow.

I know nothing about architecture, but I'd argue that here, too, buildings in the last couple of decades (with the exception of that horror in Hamburg) have been much more friendly to the eye.

cnb said...

Loved it. Thanks, Osbert. I am always thankful for an opportunity to rehearse the Platonic understanding of the significance of beauty. I'll never forget the first time I read the Phaedrus: it was like a crack in the world opened up and a radiant light shone in. It is good to be reminded, not only of that experience, but of what it was about.

The closing lines of the programme struck a bit of a sour note for me though. If you've devoted an hour to articulating a view of beauty as a window through which a divine wind blows into the world, how can you rest content with beauty alone? Surely the whole logic of the argument asks you to look beyond beauty at whatever is behind it.

Allen: It is nice to think that the worst architectural sins of the modernists are behind us, but if the major building projects in my neighbourhood (here, here, and here, for instance) are any indication, this is not true.

Osbert Parsley said...

Scruton is an Anglican if I recall correctly, albeit a somewhat unconventional one. I think he would probably make a stronger case for the link between aesthetics and theology if it were up to him alone, but it's unlikely that it would go over well on television. . .

On a marginally related note, I visited the ROM recently for the first time since the "Crystal" was opened. I thought the space was actually marvellously effective for displaying the dinosaurs - the sheer sense of space, the way the angles of the wall direct your eyes upward - but on all of the other floors, the oddly shaped spaces were ineffective and distracting. All of the walls are on an angle, so you can't hang anything on them, and everywhere you look there are jagged-edged windows giving you a lovely view of the McDonalds. I also contemplated calling security after hearing muffled screams and whispering coming from a gallery in the middle of the building, but apparently this is part of an electronic composition that plays every day.

cnb said...


By the way, next to that McDonalds is Pho Huong, one of the best Vietnamese restuarants in the city. (Not open Sundays.)

Osbert Parsley said...

Yes, I know it well - I've been to that one as well as the other location near Spadina and Dundas.

BTW you will undoubtedly recognize the following from Decline and Fall, which I'm currently reading and which seemed germane to the topic:

"[The famous architect] Professor Silenus watched the reporter disappear down the drive and then, taking a biscuit from his pocket, began to munch.

'I suppose there ought to be a staircase,' he said gloomily. 'Why can't the creatures stay in one place? Up and down, in and out, round and round! Why can't they sit still and work? Do dynamos require staircases? Do monkeys require houses? What an immature, self-destructive, antiquated mischief is man! How obscure and gross his prancing and chattering on his little stage of evolution! How loathsome and beyond words boring all the thoughts and self-approval of his biological by-product! this half-formed, ill-conditioned body! this erratic, maladjusted mechanism of his soul: on one side the harmonious instincts and balanced responses of the animal, on the other the inflexible purpose of the engine, and between them man, equally alien from the being of Nature and the doingof the machine, the vile becoming!'

Two hours later the foreman in charge of the concrete-mixer came to consult with the Professor. He had not moved from where the journalist had left him; his fawn-like eyes were fixed and inexpressive, and the hand which had held the biscuit still rose and fell to and from his mouth with a regular motion, while his empty jaws champed rhythmically; otherwise he was wholly immobile."

Priceless. I love Waugh.