I came across a long article entitled “Beauty and Desecration” by Roger Scruton, in which beauty is championed, defended against what Scruton calls its desecration at the hands of modern and post-modern artists who believe that art is primarily disruptor, disturber, and provoker. He cites as evidence a Mozart opera produced in Berlin back in the summer of 2007, Die Entfuhrung aus dem Serail, in which the director worked directly against the ideas of disinterested love explicit in both the story and the music by relocating the scene to a Berlin brothel in which sexual acts and torturous violence are set against what he calls “tender music.”
That is an example of something familiar in every aspect of our contemporary culture. It is not merely that artists, directors, musicians, and others connected with the arts are in flight from beauty. Wherever beauty lies in wait for us, there arises a desire to preempt its appeal, to smother it with scenes of destruction. Hence the many works of contemporary art that rely on shocks administered to our failing faith in human nature—such as the crucifix pickled in urine by Andres Serrano. Hence the scenes of cannibalism, dismemberment, and meaningless pain with which contemporary cinema abounds, with directors like Quentin Tarantino having little else in their emotional repertories. Hence the invasion of pop music by rap, whose words and rhythms speak of unremitting violence, and which rejects melody, harmony, and every other device that might make a bridge to the old world of song. And hence the music video, which has become an art form in itself and is often devoted to concentrating into the time span of a pop song some startling new account of moral chaos.
I know what Scruton means, and while I can’t quite go as far as he does (I like lots of music video), I love this article for the way he describes the moments of beauty that come at us in regular life. He describes what he means by the sudden appearance of self-evident beauty.
When does this experience occur, and what does it mean? Here is an example: suppose you are walking home in the rain, your thoughts occupied with your work. The streets and the houses pass by unnoticed; the people, too, pass you by; nothing invades your thinking save your interests and anxieties. Then suddenly the sun emerges from the clouds, and a ray of sunlight alights on an old stone wall beside the road and trembles there. You glance up at the sky where the clouds are parting, and a bird bursts into song in a garden behind the wall. Your heart fills with joy, and your selfish thoughts are scattered. The world stands before you, and you are content simply to look at it and let it be.
Scruton then calls such experiences sacred, and locates the entire discussion of beauty in the sacred realm.
Every now and then, however, we are jolted out of our complacency and feel ourselves to be in the presence of something vastly more significant than our present interests and desires. We sense the reality of something precious and mysterious, which reaches out to us with a claim that is, in some way, not of this world.
I shout “amen” when he claims that when you see the holiness and sacredness of all created things, anything can be, and has been, desecrated. Scruton calls us to stop desecrating the world, and pursue once again, the beauty of “settled streets, cheerful faces, of natural objects and genial lanscapes.” That may sound like polyanna, but I know what he means. Must truth always be ugly?
I just got Scruton’s book simply called Beauty. This article makes me want to go home and read it. I’ll let you know when I do.
A long article, but worth the read…
2 Replies to “Desecrating Beauty”
I really liked this article. It made me think of how we are stationed on this earth. Earth is not our true home, but rather heaven, and through the pursuit of beauty we are able to witness a glimpse of what heaven will be like. I think that individuals can witness the harsh cruelties of this word first-hand without needing it pointed out to them through “modern art”.
I don’t think truth has to be ugly. The intent of the artist to present truth is through the use of character. It is through trials and tribulation that character is forged, and the while the imagery/portrayal can be dark, the outcome can be beautiful. It seems that what Scruton has tried to convey is that the celebration of the dark in theme, has become redundant in art. Instead the celebration of the beauty as theme should be pursued, even if the canvas is filled with mostly dark colors. For example, a pure warrior overcoming the dark journey towards his goal.
I think Scruton would agree that truth doesn’t have to be ugly, but wishes art reflected more beauty. Maybe his definition of good art is the reflection of something beautiful, and when modern artist say good art is the reflection of truth, he considers their “art” similar to graffiti. Either way it sounds like Scruton is searching for those glimpses of heaven, even in his day to day life as he mentions interior decorating as a “welcoming home”.
Jeff, I know you try and use all forms of art to help others view those slices of heaven, and that makes you a master of your ministry in my opinion. Your art as reflected through your life is beautiful. Thank you for sharing the article and your thoughts. – Peace