Inform a museum’s curator that she should request a refund from her plumber who foolishly set a urinal among the works of Rembrandt, Degas, Winslow Homer, and Thomas Eakins, and Madam Curator will likely label you a judgmental, knuckle-dragging, Rush Limbaugh-listening, right-wing Neanderthal.
“That’s not a urinal,” Madam Curator retorts. “That’s art! How dare you bitterly cling to an outdated objective standard of beauty! Clearly you know nothing about art’s relationship with the modern world.”
“But it’s a toilet!” You argue, “Nothing but an ugly bit of porcelain designed to capture my pee.”
“Ugliness and beauty,” Madam Curator haughtily notes, “are merely in the beholder’s eye. They are entirely subjective.”
Roger Scruton flushes that postmodern nonsense in Why Beauty Matters, which aired on 28 Nov 2009 on BBC2. Scruton’s goal is to persuade us:
that beauty matters. That it is not just a subjective thing, but a universal need of human beings. If we ignore this need we find ourselves in a spiritual desert. [Scruton] wants to show [us] a path out of that desert. It is a path that leads to home.
When Scruton’s documentary aired it received the typical reaction from critics. In an article, published in The American Spectator, Scruton notes that whereas many average BBC viewers responded positively,
the reviewers ganged up to lament the sad, anomalous, and reactionary character of poor Scruton, and to thank the BBC for showing the absurdity and outdatedness of the aged professor’s views. Waldemar Januszczak, who made another of the films in the series on beauty, mounted a libelous character assassination in the Sunday Times in order to advise his readers, in advance of the showing of my film, to dismiss me and whatever I might try to say to them.
For Scruton, producing Why Beauty Matters was
an instructive glimpse into my country and its culture. I don’t say that my film had any merit beyond its honesty. But it produced overwhelming proof that its vision of art and the aesthetic is shared by many ordinary British viewers, and that the official culture is not just detached from such people but profoundly hostile to what they believe, what they feel, and what they hope for.…
But perhaps just as many or more believe the official “multicultural” story, which tells us that there is nothing special about Britain, that the old ideals and dignities are mere illusions, and that the purpose of art is to pour scorn on the values of antiquated people. And if the impression of American visitors is right, it is not the official culture only, but also the rising generation of New Brits, which has settled for facetiousness against dignity and transgression against the norms of social life. If this is so, then at least one part of the message of my film has been vindicated: namely that beauty matters, and that you cannot pour scorn on beauty without losing sight of the meaning of life.
Why Beauty Matters – Part I