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 How dare you bitterly cling to an outdated objective standard of beauty!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
Beauty is most definitely an objective thing, at least when measured statistically. Numerous studies have shown that babies will in fact look at a beautiful female’s face for a longer time than a plainer female’s face, and websites like hotornot.com give the statistical lie to the idea that beauty is in the eye of the beholder. (Watch the new show on FOX Reality channel called ‘Battle of the Bods’, where five women have to sort THEMSELVES based on the judgment of three unseen men. The closer they get to ranking themselves in accordance with the judgment of the men, the more money they win.
Highly sordid, yet highly educational on the whole ‘ego vs. objective judgment’ thing at the same time.)
When philosophy doesn’t answer the question, try asking the marketing guys.
beauty in the eye of the beholder…is beauty just visual?..am sure there are many great artists who can paint beautiful imagery and get paid handsomely, just go to any traditional gallery in a “high class” area, you can get beautifully depicted imagery of sunsets,countryside etc…i personally prefer to view the real thing, if thats not possible, i’ll get myself a bowl of plums, look at them then eat them…as humans we have hopefully evolved beyond needing a painting of a sunset to prompt our emotions..a beautiful concept like a beautiful mathematical equation is enough to fire me up..i believe duchamp’s urinal and hirst’s shark are beautiful concepts depicted in a thought provoking manner…as stated, you don’t need to be a beautiful looking person to be a beautiful person…
modern art doesn’t exclusively deal with a general consensus of beauty as it’s modus operandi..
regarding craft, we have to look at ourselves..there are still great craftsmen about, and potentially many more, but not nearly as many as in the past, but for that we have to look at the social and economic politics of our joint history..
and by the way, i can see beauty without having to believe in any one of the many gods worshipped around our planet..
This is not either objective beauty OR eye of the beholder. After all, a lot of ugly people fall in love. I may prefer a certain artist’s style or music or writing, or you may not. But to say that means there is no objective standard of beauty or that the very concept of beauty doesn’t exist is a vacuous assertion with no evidence to support it.
Everyone with eyes to see looks at an amazing sunset and knows even without words it is “beautiful.” If you assume there is no God, then you can argue it’s just reflected light that happens to be able to be captured by the lens that happens to be built into our heads and that happens to be able to be interpreted by our brains as “beautiful.” If you assume there is a God, then you can say beauty exists in the universe, and it is a reflection of the goodness and power of a loving God for his creatures. In other words, it is objective and there is a standard by which it can be ultimately judged, even if we are not the ultimate judges.
I’m not saying an atheist cannot argue that beauty is objective and exists in the universe, only that it’s a very hard argument for him to make, there being no standard upon which to make that judgment. And only in a Godless universe can one make the claim that a urinal or unmade bed is “art.” I very much like that idea of the merit of craft, but without God it doesn’t have much sway. You say tomaato, I say tomayto. Relativism, whether in art or philosophy, is a bottomless pit from which there is no ultimate escape, because mankind will ultimately live out its logical conclusions.
I think the urinal display should have an endless parade of people peeing into it. Now THAT would be art!
I don’t believe in an objective standard of beauty. I believe, on the other hand, in the importance of craft and that artists of the past were concerned with it too. No matter what you think of the Mayan religion (and don’t get me wrong, I find it both aberrant and abhorrent) or the Transsubstantion, you have to recognize that both Chichen Itza and Notre Dame De Paris are impressive achievements both technically and aesthetically, that will never be repeated and are definetely out of our leagues. Same goes for the Pyramids (just compare Gizeh with the travesties sitting in Las Vegas or Paris…) the Acropole, Persepolis, Venice, Firenze or Chartres, etc.
The problem with Duchamp and his sinister following is that they completely disregard craft; they believe concept and intent are enough. If you think that art is just about being clever and voicing your personal concerns or just flipping the bird at your audience, then Duchamp’s Fountain is the most amazing work of art ever. If you hold a more adult view of art, one involving craft and the quest for perfection, you are left with the old masters – or those few old-fashioned artists like Balthus or Freud who are routinely derided as “academic” by fans of Hirst, Koons and Buren.
Having said that, I must say that while I am fairly conservative politically and socially, I am definetely not when it comes to culture. Roger Scruton has some points, but we don’t see eye to eye on several others.
Thank you for the comment.
Fortunato seems to argue for an objective standard of beauty while at the same time maintaining “beauty is in the eye of the beholder.” The position Scruton presents is just the opposite. There is an objective standard of beauty and therefore an objective standard by which art can be judged, and Hirst’s shark or Tracey Emin’s unmade bed don’t come close to reaching that standard.
Perhaps one aspect of that objective standard is whether or not a work points to something beyond the individual. Does it, in other words, direct our attention toward the transcendent? It could be argued that Chicen Itza satisfies that standard in a limited sense. The Mayan’s built edifices hoping their activity would satisfying their gods.
Unfortunately, their vision was limited by their animist, pagan beliefs. Let’s not forget that many of Mayan constructions were built for the purpose of conducting human sacrifices in order to gain divine favor. In that sense, Notre Dame or Hagia Sophia are advances in the artistic sense in the same way they are advances in the religious / spiritual sense.
The entire problem is that people have been cowed by elites in the cultural influence professions to believe we cannot judge either art or religious expression. Consciously or not, Fortunato falls into this trap. Chichen Itza is an incredible construction and may be moving to some, but Notre Dame or St. Peter’s Cathedral is better.
Beauty is indeed in the eye of the beholder. There’s no denying the Mayas for instance had different standards from the Greeks or the Western Middle Ages – yet visiting Chichen Itza for the first time was, to me at least, a powerful experience. The problem of modern art is not that it’s not beautiful in a classical or “modern” way but that it doesn’t even seek to be. Modern artists have a warped idea of their craft, thinking it’s only about being original, innovative and “disturbing”. This idea, which flies in the face of everything that art has been ever since Lascaux, originated in the late nineteenth century and, with the law of diminishing returns applying here like anywhere else, we end with Damian Hirst’s infamous shark.
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