April 4, 2009


So much for the pleasures of the flesh: Roger Scruton's timely book argues that human reason is essential for appreciating beauty. Wrong, argues Sebastian Smee (Sebastian Smee, 22 March 2009, The Observer)

John Updike thought that, for most men, a naked woman is the most beautiful thing they will ever see. He didn't say it was so for all men, nor did he venture an opinion on whether the reverse held for women. But the proposition, so bluntly delivered – as if centuries of hair-splitting philosophy and frenetic sublimation could be swept aside with one cheerfully ingenuous sentence – has always struck me as hard to refute.

Its implications – that our idea of beauty is linked to sexual selection and Darwinian evolution and that, as such, it is possibly quite banal – are firmly rejected by Roger Scruton in his new book Beauty. This is not an attempt to define beauty. Rather, it asks whether there are correct judgments to be made about it – reasons why we should prefer Titian's Venus of Urbino to Boucher's Blonde Odalisque or, indeed, to photographs of porn stars having sex. Framing the question in this way implies a search for standards. It also implies an attempt to link beauty with morality, which is no easy task.

Scruton is hardly the first philosopher to attempt it. His approach is to take up Kant's idea that the search for beauty is really a search for consensus. Lovers of beauty, wrote Kant, are "suitors for agreement". Thus, judgments of beauty imply the search for a community of likeminded souls.

But the appreciation of beauty also requires – and here we might sniff a contradiction – what Scruton calls "disinterested interest", an ability to maintain a certain distance between the self and the beautiful object. "Beauty comes," he writes, "from setting human life, sex included, at the distance from which it can be viewed without disgust or prurience. When distance is lost, and imagination swallowed up in fantasy, then beauty may remain, but it is a spoiled beauty, one that has been prised from the individuality of the person who possesses it. It has lost its value and gained a price."

This is stern stuff. Why the emphasis on maintaining distance, as if beauty were forever to be framed and set apart? Doesn't beauty often overwhelm us? Can't it be connected to mucking in, to forgetting oneself, to an animal immersion in the world? Scruton's answer is no. Not because he would suppress sexuality, but because he believes beauty is, above all, a function of the rational mind. It has "an irreducibly contemplative component".

Indeed, he is swayed by Plato's idea that beauty is not just an invitation to desire, but a call to renounce it. The idea sounds counterintuitive, but it chimes with the feeling we often have that the most beautiful things are somehow inviolate. Scruton argues that our inability to maintain the necessary distance and our failure to respect the sovereignty of the objects we consider beautiful have helped to bring about what he calls a "flight from beauty." The phrase is resonant. Few who have registered developments in art, architecture and other aspects of life over the past 50 to 100 years could have failed to notice that beauty has suffered a demotion. From its position as a fundamental value in art, it has been reduced to a frivolous side issue or, worse, a carrier of tainted ideologies and clichés.

Consider only that Eleanor Roosevelt was the mother of 5 successful children (and one other who didn't survive) and that Salma Hayek did not reproduce at even replacement rate and the notion that your ideals of beauty are driven by sexual selection is demolished. Of course, Darwinism itself is part of the flight from beauty, the replacement of an aesthetically beautiful faith with a profoundly ugly one, just as surely as the elevation by intellectuals of hideous art.

Posted by Orrin Judd at April 4, 2009 6:02 AM
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