Roger Scruton and Beauty: Where Do We Go from Here?

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Over the past week I watched Roger Scruton’s “Why Beauty Matters”. It is a refreshing look at objective standards of artistic beauty, why beauty is important to humanity, the corrosive societal effects that occur when we reject the beautiful in favor of the purely functional, and how making art into a subjective experience that relies on the conceptual rather than the perceptual devalues artistic talent.

You should watch it. It’s very good.

But here’s a bit of a “however”. When Scruton does get around to showing some current art that he does like (sculpture and architecture), it’s all of the sort that is consciously attempting to recreate an earlier era. Sure—that kind of art is objectively better than whatever Damien Hirst has decided to show up with, and requires a great deal of skill and training. But much of that sort of thing ends up coming off as a recreation of a specific time, and thereby appearing artificial. For sculpture and painting, many of the new artistic traditionalists being promoted by organizations like the Art Renewal Center tend to produce work that looks like it came from the 19th century academic school of painting, a very specific and rather rigid system that Impressionism was largely a reaction to. In architecture, many of the new traditionalists are also more interested in designing buildings that are in a pretty static mode.

This isn’t to knock the traditional methods and the learning of them. I’m just asking what we’re doing with those skills. I’ve benefited greatly from learning traditional artistic anatomy, figure drawing, and composition—from a school I found through the Art Renewal Center. Yet, I remember having a conversation with one of my (very traditional) art teachers where he lamented that many of the new traditional painters were content with producing what he called “warm-up studies” (academic nudes mostly) without going further to use that talent to tell stories or interpret the world around them.

Maybe this is part of a new tradition taking traditional art and rebooting it to the standards of a hundred and fifty years ago. But if that’s the case, I hope it starts developing into something more interesting, organic, and fresh than it is at present.

 

2 thoughts on “Roger Scruton and Beauty: Where Do We Go from Here?

  1. I think it can be easy sometimes for those re-discovering old methods to assume that the questions those old methods were dealing with are bound up with the traditional method. Simultaneously, one can longingly look back at the old that is lost and assume that was the pinnacle, that nothing can better it. Both are dangers of a traditionalist mindset (and overall I would consider myself a traditionalist). As you rightly point out, can the neo-traditionalists (or whatever they are called) deal with the questions of today and advance modern art down a better path?

    I think this is a very meta-question for Catholics today, artists and non-artists. Can we recover and be true to the richness of the tradition AND be convinced that our best work is still in front of us?

    • John Herreid

      Good thoughts, thanks! I think the answer to your last question is that hope always says yes. And since hope is a virtue, let’s all practice being virtuous.

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