Arts & Tradition

Why Beauty in Art Matters: Roger Scruton

TIMEMarch 21, 2019

NEW YORK—Famous British writer, philosopher, and composer Roger Scruton believes that beauty in art does matter and that the modern art of the 20th century has largely lost that beauty.

A BBC documentary from 2009 vividly detailing Scruton’s views on beauty and art is slowly but steadily spreading on the internet.

Scruton states in his introduction: “I think we are losing beauty and with it there is the danger of losing the meaning of life.”

For Scruton, beauty is not in the eye of the beholder, it is an objective truth—a classical notion, but one that is completely revolutionary in today’s art marketplace.

Take for example Sotheby’s recent sale of Mark Rothko’s seminal “No.1 (Royal Red and Blue)” for $75 million. The work consists of little more than a few rectangles of coordinated colors. Anyone who is not told the value of such art would find it difficult to identify it with beauty or beauty with any type of dollar value.

As Scruton narrates in his documentary, Why Beauty Matters, “In the 20th century, beauty stopped being important, art increasingly aimed to disturb and break moral taboos, it was not beauty but originality however achieved.”

The realization among artists and non-artists alike is increasingly that the emperor, in this case the art market, is wearing no clothes. Who can really respect an “emperor” who insists his parading, naked body is cloaked in the finest of garments. To the clearheaded, he’s delusional.

“One day the knowledge that the emperor has no clothes will spread, and the market will crash – but only temporarily,” said Scruton in an email interview.

The true aesthetic value, the beauty, has vanished in modern works that are selling for millions of dollars. In such works, by artists like Rothko, Franz Kline, Damien Hirst, and Tracey Emin, the beauty has been replaced by discourse. The lofty ideals of beauty are replaced by a social essay.

Scruton identifies these prominent trends visible in today’s art market: “I think the most important [trends] are the advantage conferred on people with a plausible sales talk, and the way in which the art establishment can replace spiritual with material values, by propagating art that is primarily to be owned rather than to be looked at.”

As for the undervalued art that predates the 20th century, Scruton said that such works have a lot to offer, including “beauty, humanity, and the care of the soul.”

Some of the artists he picks as the greatest include Titian, Tintoretto, Rembrandt, and Corot.

“Good art appeals to what is best in people, and sets them on the path to self-knowledge,” he said.

As for his other insights, Scruton talked about the unified goal of the arts, whether they be fine arts, performing arts, or literary arts: “They are all attempts to raise their audience from the animal to the spiritual level (except when they attempt the opposite, like the art of desecration today).”

And, if he were endowed with enough funding, he said, “I would establish schools to teach the true disciplines which are needed: life drawing, perspective and the knowledge of light and shade, in the case of visual art; materials, shadows, proportions and the Orders, in the case of architecture; harmony and counterpoint in the case of music; verse forms, rhetorical figures and the wealth of imaginative knowledge in the case of literature.”

Scruton’s simple yet powerful vision is a return to the best of classical arts. Let’s face it, Scruton is right, the emperor looks much better with clothes on.

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Evan Mantyk
Evan Mantyk is an English teacher in New York and President of the Society of Classical Poets.