Monday, March 19, 2012
Scruton's Misunderstanding of the Other Side of Modern and Postmodern Aesthetics
Before I proceed to criticize Roger Scruton, I would like to say that in general I agree with his position that beauty should be an elevated reality towards which art should strive ideally - that is, we should recognize the existence of and the value of beauty as gradation.
There are two points of clarifications in order. First, not all modern and postmodern art is motivated by a perverse search for originality and rebellion against the beauty transcendent and traditionally recognized. Sometimes, modern art is more of an expression of pessimistic cynicism than creativity - a frustration that "Victorian" self-absorption with transcendent beauty blinds people to harshness of reality. After World War I and World War II, the Victorian ideal of the educated European nobility was shattered. Admittedly, art was in the 19th and 18th centuries often caught up in an elite atmosphere which ignored reality. Take literature, for example. Many novels were written for the upper class elite about "noble" things filled with "romantic virtues." Victor Hugo and Charles Dickens - aghast at this naivete in the face of squalid poverty - wrote shocking books like Les Miserables and Great Expectations in response. Modern art then serves as a critique of real life, of hypocritical social values. Yet, they recognized what true beauty was, too - the courage and strength of Jean Valjean, for example. Taken to the extreme, "Victorian" art becomes insular and petty in comparison to the triumphs and pains of a real life, of a Calvary-like, world.
Motivations matter, too. The anti-war art which Scruton lampooned in the video could be designed as a critical foil for us to judge the world - not merely to shock. This too has transcendent value; otherwise, Elie Weisel's Night is not literature. For that matter, what about the infamous 13th century German woodcuts made during the Black Plague showing the Dance of Death, the squalor of diseased victims? Is this not art as much as Michelangelo's David? Much of modern and postmodern art is designed as destructive, to shatter complacent illusions from the 19th century. Of course, the problem lies in that modern art cannot construct a singular view of beauty unlike earlier ages due to its insistence of breaking everything down into historical narratives and ideologies. Unfortunately, there is no transcendent, universal beauty in modern art - no God, no Platonic One, no Tao, no Yin and Yang. Modern art becomes a necessary evil - a destructive tool creating a gaping hole which no one has yet filled.
On the other hand, modern art seems to have lost its original purpose as critic and has turned, at its worst, into a narcissistic device to create shock and feed what Scruton called "our animal appetites." Here Scruton masterfully and luridly called rightful attention to our consumerist culture filled with explicit themes or shallow fads. At best, modern art insists on beating a dead horse from the 19th century world which has already been throughly slaughtered, fighting phantoms of the past instead of creating. For examples, I only need to cite the horrific examples of modern "art" which infest American museums - a crucifix in a bottle of urine or a Virgin Mary slandered in excrement and abortifacents. Regardless of one's moral or religious stance, I cannot imagine anyone who would see any value in this except as an assault on ethics itself in an effort to be original and "pioneer" aesthetics into uncharted waters. At its worst, modern and postmodern art seems to instinctually desire to assault the truth for that reason alone - not out for attacking "Victorian" hypocrisy but simply to shock the world.
Nevertheless, Scruton is wrong to blatantly criticize all forms of modern art.