Thursday, September 27, 2007

Art, Beauty, and Judgment

~continuing our series of posts on's one from Catholic Educators Resource Center by writer and philosopher Roger Scruton
A century ago Marcel Duchamp signed a urinal with the name "R. Mutt," entitled it "La Fontaine," and exhibited it as a work of art. One immediate result of Duchamp's joke was to precipitate an intellectual industry devoted to answering the question "What is art?" The literature of this industry is as empty as the neverending imitations of Duchamp's gesture. Nevertheless, it has left a residue of skepticism. If anything can count as art, then art ceases to have a point. All that is left is the curious but unfounded fact that some people like looking at some things, others like looking at others. As for the suggestion that there is an enterprise of criticism, which searches for objective values and lasting monuments to the human spirit, this is dismissed out of hand, as depending on a conception of the artwork that was washed down the drain of Duchamp's "fountain."

The argument is eagerly embraced, because it seems to emancipate people from the burden of culture, telling them that all those venerable masterpieces can be ignored with impunity, that reality TV is "as good as" Shakespeare and techno-rock the equal of Brahms, since nothing is better than anything and all claims to aesthetic value are void. The argument therefore chimes with the fashionable forms of cultural relativism, and defines the point from which university courses in aesthetics tend to begin — and as often as not the point at which they end.

...The works of art that we remember fall into the first two categories: the uplifting and the demeaning. The total failures disappear from public memory. And it really matters which kind of art you adhere to, which you include in your treasury of symbols and allusions, which you carry around in your heart. Good taste is as important in aesthetics as it is in humor, and indeed taste is what it is all about. If university courses do not start from that premise, students will finish their studies of art and culture just as ignorant as when they began.

Imagine now a world in which people showed an interest only in Brillo boxes, in signed urinals, in crucifixes pickled in urine, or in objects similarly lifted from the debris of ordinary life and put on display with some kind of satirical intention — in other words, the increasingly standard fare of official modern art shows in Europe and America. What would such a world have in common with that of Duccio, Giotto, Velazquez, or even C├ęzanne? Of course, there would be the fact of putting objects on display, and the fact of our looking at them through aesthetic spectacles. But it would be a degenerate world, a world in which human aspirations no longer find their artistic expression, in which we no longer make for ourselves images of the ideal and the transcendent, but in which we study human debris in place of the human soul. It would be a world in which one whole aspect of the human spirit — the aesthetic — would have become stunted and grotesque. For we aspire through art, and when aspiration ceases, so too does art.

Now it seems to me that the public space of our society has in fact begun to surrender to the kind of degradation that I have just described. It has been taken over by a culture that wishes not to educate our perception but to capture it, not to ennoble human life but to trivialize it. Why this is so is an interesting question to which I can offer only an imperfect answer. But that it is so is surely undeniable. Look at the official art of modern societies — the art that ends up in museums or on public pedestals, the architecture that is commissioned by public bodies, even the music that enjoys the favors of the public subsidy machine — and you will all too often encounter either facetious kitsch, or deliberately antagonizing gestures of defiance towards the traditions that make art lovable. Much of our public art is a loveless art, and one that is also entirely without the humility that comes from love.
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