mon 15/07/2024

Why Beauty Matters/ Ugly Beauty, BBC Two | reviews, news & interviews

Why Beauty Matters/ Ugly Beauty, BBC Two

Why Beauty Matters/ Ugly Beauty, BBC Two

Roger Scruton and Waldemar Januszczak disagree to agree on beauty

Waldemar Januszczak at the Anish Kapoor retrospective at the Royal AcademyBBC/ZCZ Films

The battleground: beauty. What’s at stake: our souls. At least on these two things philosophy don Roger Scruton (presenter of Why Beauty Matters) and art critic Waldemar Januszczak (presenter of Ugly Beauty) were agreed in the Modern Beauty season. For despite very different ideas of beauty, they both reached the same conclusion: it is there to nourish the soul.

Which is why it may seem odd that their programmes consider the same examples and yet reach very different conclusions. Jeff Koons to one is shallow and materialistic, to the other a source of self-knowledge. Scruton finds Damien Hirst a soulless, abominable trickster, Januszczak a poet of death in the tradition of the Baroque.

Scruton’s is a philosophical essay set to pictures and music. He starts with the importance of beauty in art up until the 20th century, and says its purpose was to transfigure the real in the light of the ideal: that is, to make us consider reality and how it relates to our higher ideals. The problem of the 20th century is that we have no ideals any more except for utility, and what is useful is invariably ugly and eventually useless. (Take Reading town centre, he says.) What beauty does is connect us directly to the spiritual, in the manner of religion, and thus nourishes the soul: this is Plato’s idea, and Scruton is a fan.

(Scruton argues that creativity is important in beauty, differentiating Michelangelo’s David from cemetery copies of the statue. This does make it slightly unfortunate that one of his jumping-off points is Oscar Wilde’s quotation, “All art is quite useless,” which is a paraphrase of John Ruskin’s “The most beautiful things in the world are useless.”)

Januszczak’s is a much more irreverent tour around Venice’s Biennale, with over-dramatic narration and on-screen antics, slopping dead fish everywhere and gesticulating like a bull at Pamplona. He – like Matthew Collings in the same season – outlines his vision of aspects of beauty, which include death, motherhood, texture, emptiness and kitsch. (This last is where Koons comes in.) Except, unlike Collings, he interviews many artists to provide us with the knowledge to understand their works and find them more beautiful. His roll-call is starry – Koons, Hirst, Anish Kapoor, Yoko Ono, Carl Andre (who refuses to appear on screen) – and the explanations provided may convert even the sceptical to viewing their work as beautiful.

The problem with Scruton’s argument is that it is old-fashioned, not just in the authorities it cites (Plato, the third Earl of Shaftesbury, Victorian poets), but when he says that beauty is meant to console the afflicted and reinforce the joyous, as if beauty is visual Prozac. This negates the message of the 20th century, which is that sometimes there is no consolation, no joy.

If two world wars and existentialism and the double helix showed us anything, it is that the world does not exist for a higher, affirmative purpose, and thus beauty should not try to make us feel good. The world is bad, so beauty can show us the bad.

This "bad" beauty nourishes our souls – or at least stimulates them to thought or emotion – in the same way as "good" beauty. Scruton does not realise, or refuses to accept, that the notion of beauty has been extended to reflect the world as we know it, not as we would like it.

That said, the underlying message of his principle is not wrong, nor is it rejected by Januszczak, who quite clearly believes that modern beauty is there to touch the soul: he just does not believe it must be a comforting touch.

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Thank you Robin Scruton for highlighting the issue of ugliness surrounding us. You echoed the feelings of all the people I know, met or had the chance to converse with: this ugliness comes from the soul (or lack of it) of those that created it, imposing it on us. We are mocked, accused of being old fashioned etc.. all we want is to see beautiful things to uplift us from the daily drudgery and monotony. These so called artists, critics and those with the power to force their views on us have changed the world beyond recongnition: leaving no heritage for the subsequent generations - only ugly buildings that will need pulling down, artifacts that will loose their novelty and will be discarded. Nothing as lasting as the works of artists past. If they are to be dispised so much why are we still flocking to see them in Florence, Paris, and thousands of other cities round the World? Prince Charles had his fare share of mockery for creating his dream village, and sew how successful it is!! commercial deveopers copy his ideas - just walk through the latest housing estates of Swindon - of all places!! Thank you once again, though I am sure we can not turn the clock back to "normality" when we depict and seek out the beutiful, at least it may be brought back to the mainstream and be accepted again. Thank you, t.kovach

I loved this programme. Most of us love the beauty that artists have wanted to express to us, always. It is appreciated in the emotions of those who are open to it. It is a conscious decision to seek it. Yet breathtaking when unexpected. It is valued in the most progressive nations. Lets not be afraid to say to 'artists' if we dont want to look at their work because we think its horrible. We can say it because we know the difference between good art and bad art and all who see it have a right to say which is which. Since my own personal enlightenment the first lesson I learned was that beauty is mans greatest expression of himself.

Thank you Roger Scruton for a marvellous programme and thank you BBC for having the courage and insight to broadcast it. There are many unknown people who recognise the power that true art has to touch the lives of mankind. There is the feeling around that many who purport to be experts in the field of the arts are being driven by commercialism, the world of advertising, or ego gratification. We no longer wish to be told what is art by someone who is the puppet of one of the aforementioned organisations. We possess our own faculty of discrimination and no campaign in the world will suceed in convincing those of finer perception otherwise.Fortunately this faculty is not dependent on money, power, or any type of influence cooked up by self serving bodies. It lies within the grasp of all human beings. Try silencing that! More programmes like this please BBC and huge gratitude to Roger Scruton and his team. Did he have a slot on Breakfast TV to promote this programme? if not then why not?Angela Gregory

In spite of an overall dislike and suspicion of his general reactionary argument, I do find myself agreeing with Scruton on certain issues.Yes, Tracy Emin's bed is pretty much unprocessed raw material -like she forgot to put the 'art' in. Yes Pergolesi's Stabat Mater is a helluva piece of music (and seeing the reaction of passers-by as a gifted outfit of players and singers performed it in a railway station was genuinely moving -an amazing outcrop of brilliance within the everyday). And yes, yes indeed, Reading (and Swindon, where I live) town centres do indeed chill the heart. Yet still, I'm not ready to throw out artists like Hirst or the Chapman brothers because Roger thinks they're not beautiful in the same way as Pergolesi. They're attempting something different -the frisson of genuine art is unmistakably there though and that's what Scruton doesn't get. Art is meant to show us new feelings, new worlds of experience: to recalibrate our relationship with reality, not merely to reiterate the comfortable tropes of history in a Classics Fm kindofa way. The crux is that beauty; the experience of art, is entirely -irreducibly- subjective. If hallucinogenic drugs have taught us anything it's that you can have an art experience with many things: a cardboard box or a coathanger for instance. Who can claim the right to tell you it's not valid? I remember seeing one of Joseph Beuys's vitrines and having a vivid epiphany with some corroded copper and a dead hare -these things were most definitely 'beautiful' to me: they spoke of a transfer of life-energy, mysterious natural forces, death, knowledge. It wasn't a Michelangelo moment (though I like those too); it was a different kind of thing. That surely is half the fun of art -that each artist goes at 'it' a different way. It keeps the conversation fresh. Then again, I find Scrutons' views on architecture probably practical enough, albeit depressing. If we give up on pushing the boundaries of the artform forward (because we dont, essentially have the confidence that we're not going to cock it all up again, and it's expensive and disastrous when we do) and retreat to a Prince Charles's position safely tucked up in our born-again artisans' terraces then I guess that's not the worst fate. I don't really have a better idea but then thats the problem- no-one does. The estates in swindon which the other correspondant mentions are not hideous (or not yet anyway) but they are hilariously eclectic -Georgian terraces cheek by jowl with fake cotswold stone cottages next to bogus barn conversions. A village green with an inscrutable obelisk. It doesnt speak of a confident culture. Finally I'm suspicious of Scruton's religiosity. He wont come out and say it but I reckon he may be a Christian of some kind. Which is ok, of course, but when he keeps talking about the 'sacred' and 'the soul' I'm not sure that he's not hinting at a God-based value system that trumps all others (what, truly, if we dont Believe, do we mean by such terms anyway?). Again that's ok if that's what he's into but if he thinks he's got the skinny on Ultimate Values because he Believes then he should say so. Otherwise let him get on with scrambling around, baffled and intermittently courageous, just like the rest of us, finding values -and -yes, beauty- in whatever strange and unexpected places they present themselves.

I think the difference between the art Scruton loves and the art he dislikes is literally Academic. Before the early Twentieth century few artists or architects studied for degrees at universities or colleges, they were apprenticed to studios or worked independently. Now an academic route is mandatory, exposure and conformity to intellectual doctrines is expected, individuality and connection to the wider audience is crushed. It is the academisation of the arts that should be questioned.

Well, I'm in bed with 'bazza' and worry that Mrs Angela Gregory is someone, like Scruton, who would keep us in perpetual lovely sunsets. Those who worry that beauty is absent all around us and then say that that is what is wrong with art are putting a very large cart in front of the horse. If you wish to rail against 'ugly' architecture, for instance, I would invite you to analyse more closely the logic of the situation. First some modern architecture is extraordinarily beautiful ( the Guggenheim in Bilbao springs to mind), second, some architecture is beautiful in concept but is spoiled by either shortage of funds for building or later maintenance and third, some buildings were never even designed to be beautiful but purely utilitarian. The state of the world around us has everything to do with utilitarianism, politics and economics and only rarely is allowed to indulge in being artistic. Scruton totally failed to make that intellectual differentiation and instead betrayed his conservative roots by praising the soulless Poundbury. Much contemporary art is a mirror to tell us how we put economics above beauty: if you don't want to pay taxes to get beauty in your area then don't expect miracles. Damien Hirst's diamond-encrusted skull is the most brilliant satirical take on modern-day pursuit of money. Scruton's programme was excrutiatingly bad.

As a contemporary artist I can happily acknowledge that many of the concerns aired by Roger Scruton in his lengthy television essay are genuine and widely shared. However as a critical thinker I was scandalised by his lack of argument and clear reasoning. Super-big concepts like 'art', 'beauty', 'creativity', 'the soul' and 'spirit' were simply dropped in without a moments argument or explanation. I felt sorry for serious philosophers of art and aesthetics - here we had an opportunity for a philosopher to show what philosophy can do on Saturday night TV and instead we get a self-indulgent personalised view whose only method was to appeal to the authority of great past thinkers. There are many people who could have done a better job. One suspects Roger Scruton was choosen as a opportunity for the slightly comic fogey qualities. Has he had a stroke? He doesn't seem very sharp these days.

How disappointing that Scruton chose Poundbury as an example of the beautiful in architecture, when an essential part of true beauty is - surely - authenticity. Whatever its visual appearance, Poundbury is a contrived fake.

Thank you for all your comments, which took the debate on from the programme, which is definitely one of theartsdesk's ideas. Also, thank you for all the Poundbury-bashing. A few of my thoughts: @Bazza: I agree that 'new emotions, new worlds of experience' are one of the purposes of art, but that need not necessarily class it as 'beauty': an art installation could cut my little toe off and that would be a new experience but it would not be beautiful. Contrarily, the familiar can also be beautiful: I can stare at a late Monet again and again, and each time I think it's beautiful. Also, isn't Scruton's talk of the soul and sacredness not dissimilar to you mentioning a 'transfer of life energy'? They're both basically spiritual. @John Ellis: I think you're right that utility has a place in the world (a central place, indeed), but can it really be that someone designs something without thinking it beautiful at all? Surely a designer of utilitarian buildings finds utility beautiful? @Rob Van Beek: Should we have expected Scruton to start from first principles? It seems that to ask him to define every term he uses would be excessive.

Josh's Missing Toe and it's implications Back in the 18th cent they would pull the curtains on the stagecoach so that the ladies and gents wouldn't see the 'horror' of the Lake District. That was back when wild nature wasn't well mapped and was full of bears and wolves -it could kill you, basically, so we didn't see it as Beautiful. Now we put it on postcards. Beauty, for sure, is a flexible noun, and, Josh, apropos of your poor toe, I knew people who went to see a big Italian boy (Fabio was it?) getting blood dramatically drained from his ample body back in the 80's (as a 'performance,' already) who said it was Beautiful. Not my bag but hey. Maybe that's the issue: the word can mean whatever you want. I come back to the 'subjective'. As in the movie 'American Beauty': Dead Birds? Hot cheerleaders? The basic fabric of the Everyday? -when you feel it is, its beautiful, when you don't, it's not. As for this 'Spiritual' malarkey. A transfer of energy is just that: stuff rots down and out of it grows other stuff. Acid works on metal to create electricity. The sun is retained in coal and oil. Can be used to heat again. Spiritual's not in it.

@Bazza Blood draining? [Shudder] The only thing else I would say is that to say beauty is subjective is ultimately to reduce it to nothing. The series (and my two articles on it) are trying to work out if there is a centre, something definable. If it turned out that it's just a trick of temperament, I'd be a) surprised; and b) disappointed.

Disappointed? Well, yeah, you will be if you're looking for some kind of immutable gold standard where all is a slurry of subjectivity. Look at that italian bloke having blood drained from his body: like I say, I didn't get beyond revulsion really but you can easily imagine someone who did: she would be mid 30's, American possibly New York Jewish and a hardcore performance art fan and she might say that Fabio gave us his act of blood sacrifice so that we can mediate on what makes us alive. It was shamanic, she would would enthuse, he was touching in his vulnerability, it was very moving, it was...beautiful. Who can say she's wrong anymore than one could persuade Roger out of his love for Leon Krier by saying he's old hat? 'Sorry, your beauty's wrong'. I think it would be better if we just said the perception of beauty was a feeling like jealousy or fear of snakes: not susceptible to logic. And speaking of disappointment, I echo the correspondant below in my own. I watched the programme because I'd read Scruton's 'Animal Right and Wrongs' which was a lucid and logical philosophical argument where no appeals were made to holy sounding intangibles. It's a shame that he now seems to have ditched this approach.

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