Beauty & Desecration

Future Symphony Institute

EDITOR’S NOTE: This is a transcription of the plenary address delivered by Roger Scruton at The Power of Beauty Conference, hosted in October 2014 by the Franciscan University of Steubenville and the Dietrich von Hildebrand Legacy Project.
It is reprinted here with their gracious permission,
and we encourage you to watch their video of the address.

Just to say a few general philosophical things to begin with about why beauty matters: We live in a world in which utilitarian values are not just triumphant but for many people the only values that there are. There seems to be no sense that things can have a value which is not a form of use. This means that all of us are engaged all the time in what some philosophers call instrumental reasoning. Whenever we’re asked to justify something we try to find a purpose for it – we justify, for instance, the shape of this room in terms of its purpose, which is to gather people together to listen to a lecture. If it’s not very efficient at that, then the room has not actually achieved what it set out to achieve.

In all our activities we are familiar with this kind of reasoning, but what other kinds of reasoning are there? We know perfectly well that instrumental reasoning can’t be the only kind because if something is a means to an end, there has to be an end that it’s a means to. That too needs a justification. So we do reason with each other – rather insecurely but nevertheless we do reason – about the ends of our activities, what our goals are, and whether we should be pursuing the goals that we pursue. This is especially true in activities like building – building a room like this, or setting out on a career, and so on – in which there is a long-term project involved and an end point that you can’t very clearly envisage.

When you set out to build something you can’t clearly envisage the end point just from a ground plan. You need some conception of not just what it will look like but what it will be like to live with it. Only if you know what it’s like to live with it will you be justified in building it. Here is an example of a simple activity in which aesthetic reasoning is fundamental. One reason why modern architecture is such a failure is that people don’t do this. They don’t try to envisage what it will be like to live with the product of their building, only what its capacity is for the number of people assigned to it, and so on. Reasoning about what it’s like to live with something means bringing the end of your activity forward into the present so that you sense its being, as it were, with you in the moment where you are. And that is one of the roles of beauty and of aesthetic judgment in our lives: to do just that.

In another area, of course, we argue about our ends from a religious point of view. We know that people have this conception of the meaning of life, as lying in some way beyond life – either in the transcendental or in the afterlife. And this meaning is sometimes revealed in the present moment, the moments which people are apt to describe as sacred: the moment of liturgy and worship, the moment of revelation, of reading a sacred text, and so on. Perhaps being blessed with that experience is what Saint Paul described as the peace that passeth understanding.

That’s a very powerful emotion and a powerful experience if you can obtain it. But of course we live in a world where not everybody does obtain it or even seeks for it. And increasingly the surrounding culture either ignores that sort of thing or denigrates it. So it’s very difficult to explain to people who are immersed in the secular culture today exactly how you would think about justifying the ends of existence and not just the means. We need some other notion of the real presence in our life of the meaning of things if we are going to be able to justify to others who are skeptical exactly what it is that we want them to do. I think this is our situation today.

Pierre-Auguste Renoir: La Montagne Sainte-Victoire, 1889
Pierre-Auguste Renoir: La Montagne Sainte-Victoire, 1889

Here is a picture, a landscape by Renoir. There’s no particular reason for me to have chosen this landscape – and all landscapes presented on PowerPoint are hopeless anyway, because, as you know, it’s backlit and it doesn’t contain the texture of the paint, and certainly not that of the canvas. Still, you see in that a particular artist’s attempt not just to present a little bit of la douce France, which everybody loves, but also to make you love it, too. And whatever goes on in that landscape is imbued with a sense of peace and order and it takes from the surrounding colors the vitality that makes life meaningful. Renoir, like other Impressionists, painted a world to which we belong. Belonging is an all-important aspect of human experience. Not everybody has it, and of course our jails are filled with the people who don’t. Most people in this room, I imagine, got here without criminal offenses, and feel that they do instinctively belong in the world and are in the business of trying to make that belonging more rooted, more permanent, more wound together with coexistence with their fellows. That of course is part of what education is about. And that’s what you see in that beautiful landscape by Renoir: a painting of ordinary fruit trees and an ordinary mountain in the distance, and so on – but painting it all as part of the world to which we belong.

For Renoir and his contemporaries, it was a post-religious world. They were very much people of their time who were skeptical about religion. And in any case, they regarded it as their duty as painters to show that it is this world and not the next that matters. It is quite hard to paint the next world, as you can imagine. It has been done in words by Dante, and a few painters have tried to follow him, but for the most part it has been a failure. Nevertheless our world is not that bad. It is imbued with its own tranquility, and that tranquility can reside in perception itself. That’s what Renoir was telling us: stop, stand still, look. In that perception you will see that this thing in front of you has a meaning all of its own, a meaning which justifies you being in it and reminds you that you belong to it. There’s a moment of standing still that we all can achieve and in which we can let the otherness of the world dawn on us. It’s something other than me – not just imagined by me, but there in front of me and including me nevertheless.

When painters do this – the painters of modern life, as Beaudelaire called them – they don’t behave as photographers behave. This is something very difficult to explain to people these days as everybody goes around with this criminal object in their pockets immortalizing the ephemera of their existence, and as a result desecrating it with their own trivial perceptions. Renoir wasn’t doing anything like that at all. He wasn’t pointing a camera at this landscape. Maybe the landscape didn’t entirely look like that. He was trying to extract from it what it means, not just from a perceptual point of view but also spiritually.

We live in a time when there is much ugliness around us and much desecration – in many ways, a deliberate making ugly of things, or a carelessness as to whether things should be ugly or beautiful. And many things that we regard as beautiful we discover to be desecrated not just by the way we treat them but also by the works of art which are supposed to celebrate them. We know this obviously from our experience of the human form. The human form is all-important to us because it is the primary locus of meaning, the thing that means most to us in the world. The human face and the human body come before us imbued with the life of the spirit. But we can also, as we know, desecrate them – as they are desecrated by pornography and such things, which turn the subject into an object. And being turned into an object is essentially to lose one’s spiritual value.

Part of what lies behind this is a growing obsession with power. Power is the great commodity that is as it were transferred from person to person in the world we are creating. Many people would say, here is old Scruton up in front of an audience enjoying his power. You are transferring to me that power, the power to hold your attention and to infect you with my reactionary attitudes. This power is something that I have not yet justified to you. Many scholars influenced by people like Foucault will say that I couldn’t justify it. The institution is structured by domination, and I’m enjoying that domination and triumphing over you, the victims who are sitting before me. Now, you don’t actually believe that because you know that you are sitting there willingly, but nevertheless you can redescribe the whole of the world in that way. You can take the most innocent thing – the love of a mother for a child, or a child for a mother – and there’s power in that too. If there weren’t, the mother couldn’t protect the child. But yet, it’s not the power aspect of it that’s important here, it’s the love aspect. All our loves create powers.

In all the things that matter to us most there is that element of power. Of the tranquility that Renoir is trying to put across to us in that painting, many of our literary and artistic critics today would ask the question, “What does this tranquility conceal? Who is using it, who is gaining, who is losing?” And you can imagine the text in Modern Language Review which will analyze that painting and try to persuade you that it is there as part of the hegemony of the bourgeois class, representing nature as a place that endorses its comfortable and relaxing attitudes, excluding the truth about labor, which went into creating those fruit trees in the first place – in other words, legitimizing the power of the French bourgeoisie over the French proletariat. In that way Renoir becomes part of the ideology which is being imposed upon us by our Western culture. We need to liberate the oppressed, the victim, from beneath this ideology. And the victim of course will turn out to be whoever the current obsession is – probably working-class women in this particular case.

When you start thinking like that, nothing is as it seems. It’s as though there’s a reality behind everything and that reality is the power that people exercise over each other. And that’s why beauty is a kind of deception – because it’s always concealing those real relations between people in which one class or one person or one group has dominion over another. But of course for the Impressionist painters that’s all nonsense. For them, seeming is everything. What Renoir was trying to do in that painting is to remind you of something that you would otherwise not notice: namely, that the world does seem in a certain way to you and that’s what it really, really is – in other words, how it comes across to you in your immediate perception when you’ve stopped all the instrumental reasoning, forgotten all the powers and the projects, and just look. But because of this obsession with power, people do wipe away the face of the world so that the way things seem is no longer available to us, and that means that beauty is no longer available to us, either.

Chapman brothers: Zygotic acceleration biogenetic de-sublimated libidinal model, 1995
Chapman brothers: Zygotic acceleration biogenetic de-sublimated libidinal model, 1995

Here’s an example of a work of art, if you can call it that, which was created by two brothers. It’s quite normal now in the products of the British art schools for people to do joint works of art like this because that way you get rid of the romantic idea of the artistic genius who has something special to say. You’re doing it together with someone else. And of course, the purpose in this case is to make the human body repulsive, into a kind of liquid, standing in these childish Mary Jane shoes with all the parts deformed – penis instead of nose and things like that. What its point is can only be understood if you realize that these boys were brought up in an art school which tells them that the purpose of art in not to beautify life, in no way to replace the sacred moments that religion might have given us, in no way to give you a sense of the meaningfulness of things. On the contrary, it is to deconstruct those things, to show that life is essentially meaningless, and you can best do this by taking the human body and making it repulsive.

Tracey Emin: My Bed, 1998
Tracey Emin: My Bed, 1998

We all know of Tracey Emin’s famous bed – which last changed hands at two million pounds – in which she presented, well, her bed – after she had got out of it, of course, and with all the debris of her night’s dissipation lying on the carpet around it. And there it is. It’s in the Tate Modern Gallery now, its permanent resting place, although of course those sheets are going to rot away quicker than most sheets do. I want to contrast it with another bed, which I mentioned in the film I made about this: Delacroix’s bed. Delacroix, as you know, is a great French painter from the Romantic period, who is also a highly learned and interested cultural figure, perhaps one of the greatest of the nineteenth-century cultural figures in France.

Eugène Delacroix: Un Lit Defait, 1828
Eugène Delacroix: Un Lit Defait, 1828

Here is his bed. This isn’t an actual bed, of course, this is a painting of a bed. In painting it, he has tried to transfer into the bed some of his sense of the value of lying in it, of being the thing that was in it, and also what it meant to wrestle with the sheets in that way. A comparison of these two does help you to understand a little bit about what’s gone wrong with art today. Tracey Emin’s bed presents itself but obviously nothing beyond itself; it just is there. Delacroix’s bed presents something other than itself. It’s a life that’s been translated into those fabrics, a perpetuation in another form of a spiritual wrestling, which we know from Delacroix’s life and his other paintings – that wrestling with fabric, with reality, the flexibility of this world, and the attempt to impose upon it a meaningful human form, if you like, a testimony to the spiritual life with which we invest all the objects that we’re in touch with. So he was looking for a kind of harmony, order, even a redemption in the shape of those sheets. He’s searching for the trace left in them by the spirit, which will be a meaning beyond the present moment. Here we’re talking about the difference between an attempt to represent life, which is also a transfiguration of a life into something which is a permanent record of the spirit, and the mere debris of a life. Once you see it you realize that only the first of those is a genuine artistic activity.

However, we’ve entered this period in our history where ugliness has become a kind of cult – not ugliness as such but more transgressive ugliness, like those melted-together human figures of the Chapman brothers. It’s an ugliness that pollutes or negates some familiar ideal or value. Transgression is something which also has a certain appeal, especially to younger people. It’s an act of self-affirmation that frees itself from judgment. The transgressive gesture is one that says, “I don’t actually care whether you judge me or not. I’m going do it and I’m going to affirm myself against your judgment, and that is in itself a liberation.” I think we’ve seen this in every sphere of human endeavor since the 1960s: the assumption of the freedom to offend, the freedom to annihilate other people’s vision of what matters, and to show that the values for which other people live don’t count for you. That’s a stage which obviously all of us have to go through at certain points in our lives. We have to fight against our parents, fight against institutions, fight against the people who seem to be preventing us from being what we truly are and going out into the world and claiming it as our own. In the normal run of things that’s not a particularly bad thing to do because, after all, once you’re out there in the big world, feeling the winds of change around you, you realize that you are actually on your own and that it was a terrible mistake to be so offensive to the people you need, and gradually you work your way back to them. You reassume possession of them in their view and you are reconciled and forgiven, as in the famous parable of the prodigal son. So there’s a paradox in this position of assuming the freedom to offend: it’s only because other people’s values count for you that you can be exhilarated by defying them or disavowing their ideals.

William de Kooning: Woman III, 1953
William de Kooning: Woman III, 1953

Nevertheless this is certainly what artists at a certain stage did. De Kooning was a paradigm of this. He’s an artist who, I think, has largely been seen through now, except in America – and the reason why he has not been seen through in America is that a lot of money has been spent on his pictures. So museums, art critics, and private owners conspire together to make sure they are not going to lose the two million dollars that they spent on them. If you can keep the values up, your museum is still worth what you invested in it. This is just called Woman, and it’s his representation of what a woman fundamentally is. All those ideals of womanhood which you might have entertained in your self-deceiving moments are as nothing compared with this representation.

And here is another instance of this way of approaching our ideals. Rusalka – some of you may know this great opera by Dvorak – tells the famous story of Ondine the water nymph who falls in love with a mortal. And it’s a beautiful, romantic story not only about the mystery of woman but also about the importance of chastity and purity in preparing a woman for love, and the danger in which she is put by that. And of course this is symbolized by the fact that there she is living in the water. If she comes out of it, is that the end of her? And if she tempts the mortal into the water, is that the end of him? This story has been told many times, but never as well as by Dvorak. This is the production that Covent Garden made of that opera in which Rusalka, the pure water nymph who dreams of an erotic relation which no water nymph is allowed, is a prostitute and the water is the bath in which she is lying, expecting the stream of lovers. And for reasons that can’t be explained she sings an aria to the moon.

Covent Garden: Rusalka, 2012; Image by Alastair Muir
Covent Garden: Rusalka, 2012; Image by Alastair Muir

Now that’s simply one example of a very ordinary occurrence in opera productions today. The idea in so many opera producers’ minds when given a romantic fairy tale like this is of course to desecrate it if you can, and also to bring in sex, violence, and all the usual stuff in order that the audience you have trapped there – an audience of ordinary, decent middle-class people who spent a couple hundred dollars for the ticket – well, you can really give them a hard time. You’re never going to get them there in any other way because they came for this beautiful romantic legend – and they won’t come again, but you’ve got them for a couple hours anyway. This is the way in which opera productions tend to go now. Why did all this come about?

I think we can’t understand this great movement to desecrate works of art like that if we don’t attend a little bit to the phenomenon of kitsch and the distrust of beauty that arose because of kitsch. The Romantic movement that arose, as you know, at the end of the eighteenth century and dominated all of art through the nineteenth century was a movement away from beauty, the homely sorts of beauty that appeal to ordinary people and that don’t seem to threaten them. There was a movement toward the sublime, presenting great tragedies rather than sweet fairy tales, emphasizing the difficulties of human life, the difficulty of emerging from a life of oppression, and so on. We have many great works of Romantic art which focus on these fairly negative aspects of the human condition but try to find beauty in them nevertheless. All this is epitomized in Beaudelaire’s famous poem to beauty, which I recommend you to read, Fleurs du Mal. There was a movement away from the beautiful and at the same time a fear of the sweetness that beauty can bring into our lives. Isn’t there a kind of deception involved in that? If life really is as bad as we all know it to be, isn’t art deceiving us by trying to make us accept it and find sweetness and consolation in it? Maybe there is no sweetness and consolation. Maybe art should have another role, that of showing the truth to people who wouldn’t otherwise be able to perceive it. If art concentrates on beauty, isn’t it going to degenerate into a form of lying, a form of faking things?

Sandro Botticelli: The Birth of Venus (detail), 1486
Sandro Botticelli: The Birth of Venus (detail), 1486

I’ll give you a contrast between two Venuses. Everybody knows Botticelli’s Venus, who is so detached from the world, and I contrast him with the Venus of Bouguereau, being the famous salon painter of the nineteenth century in France who was a wonderfully accomplished painter in the style of Ingres, but a question mark inevitably is placed over him because of this sweetness and gentleness and also the perfection of everything he did, which seemed to many people to be a kind of lying. Beaudelaire expressly defended Manet against Bouguereau because Manet was showing us life as it is without any of this cloying sweetness. You all know Botticelli’s Venus, not an easy way to show it, but in that face you see a particular conception of what the erotic is. Botticelli was a Platonist, who believed as Plato did that beauty is an object of desire but it’s also a gateway to the transcendental, that you understand what beauty really is if you follow through that gateway, leave behind your earthly desires, and unite with the spiritual condition from which they originally spring.

William-Adolphe Bougereau: The Birth of Venus, 1879
William-Adolphe Bougereau: The Birth of Venus, 1879

This face for him was not an object of sexual desire but an object of a sexual desire that had been transcended. She was Simonetta Vespucci, who was mistress of his prince Lorenzo de Medici, and therefore unobtainable anyway. The thought in this Venus is the symbol of the erotic as Plato conceived it, something to be transcended into the spiritual.

Bouguereau’s Birth of Venus, as you see, is all perfection of form but doesn’t mean anything. There she is, sniffing her freshly shaven armpit, waiting for the lover who’s going to come through the bathroom door, and obviously she’ll have to get rid of the company meanwhile. Bouguereau was a great master of color and form, but somehow the sentiment is fake: it isn’t a real Venus. This is sexuality in its ordinary, vulgar form without any attempt to show you the meaning of it and its reflection in the transcendental.

Desecration takes many forms. But if we worry about kitsch – which all artists today do – what do we do about it? There are two ways of dealing with it. First, try and find a way of producing real art that is not kitsch. And that’s a really hard thing to do: producing art that doesn’t have this fake character, isn’t childish and isn’t a Christmas decoration. Or you can do what Jeff Koons does: produce something that is so obviously kitsch that no one could ever accuse you of it. He’s saying, “Of course, this is such obvious kitsch that I must be making another and deeper point.” No one has ever discovered what the deeper point is. But there it is, desecrating a beautiful classical façade probably for many years to come.

Jeff Koons: Balloon Dog (Magenta), 2000
Jeff Koons: Balloon Dog (Magenta), 2000

The causes of this situation in which we find ourselves go deep. We have acquired this distrust of beauty because it is an invitation into realms that have been mined. There are traps here. You might fall into the trap of Bouguereau; however beautiful your human figures, they turn out in the end just to be standard Christmas card porn, or something like that. The reality slips away from you and you’re left with this fake.

Artists have come to distrust beauty. And I think you all know this from modern cinema and much modern music as well. There is an attempt often to show that you’re a genuine artist by producing something that nobody could possibly like, so you must be serious. And there are consolations also of ugliness, consolations of showing that in some way life doesn’t matter anyway. That’s the meaning of the Chapman brothers’ sculpture. Life is simply a nothingness. We happen to have been born and we will die and decay and disappear – and so what? There’s a charm in that kind of view, a charm which I call the charm of disenchantment. Being disenchanted with things gives you a kind of glamor. If you go around a room of people who are ooh-ing and aah-ing with fake enchantment about kitsch, then your being disenchanted gives you a kind of distinction.

Many artists aspire to that distinction of not being taken in by anything, not being dupes to the surrounding culture and values. Added to this there is a desire to desecrate values as well, like putting graffiti on things or a moustache on the Mona Lisa. When that moustache was first put on the Mona Lisa by Marcel duChamps, you can see what he was doing. He was saying, “Yes, yes, yes, but we’ve gone beyond that. That’s all nonsense. You might be taken in by that but I’m not.” And essentially, ever since that gesture which was made a hundred years ago, the majority of art that we’ve come across, at least the art coming from art schools, has been putting another moustache on the Mona Lisa. The question automatically arises as to whether there is any point in doing it twice, let alone a thousand times. The thought behind all this is that we’ve asked too much of art, we’ve asked it to be a substitute for religion, to be the light from and the window onto the transcendental. If it disappoints us, we start becoming angry with it. Disappointment turns to repudiation.

So what is the mission of art, then? Is there a mission we can still maintain? I believe we all have a need for redemption. I don’t mean that necessarily in the religious sense. I mean that we need our actions, our gestures, our plans and projects, to have a fulfillment of some kind, to lift us out of the day-to-day appetites that otherwise swallow us. All our actions aim towards this; they aim beyond themselves to a point of rest in which we can look back and endorse what we have done. This is obviously the case with human relations, especially love relations, but it’s there in all our lives and a life without this, without ideals, gets tired of itself. When people set out on the path of transgression it’s partly because they’ve become disappointed with the possibility of actually achieving this sort of redemption.

Where, then, does beauty fit into this and what can it actually do by way of satisfying this desire? I have argued that the search for beauty is the search for home, for a place where you can be at home with yourself and with others, but in particular where you belong. Going back to the Renoir painting, which is a painting of a landscape as a thing that we belong to, being at home means being at home with yourself. And that means seeing yourself in some way as another, as another person, seeing yourself from outside – not just this selfish self-involved thing you are familiar with when you wake up in the morning, but that other thing which you were when you went to bed, having spent the day with other people. You want to be at home with what you find. I think this search for being at home does not start with high art, nor does it end there. One of the reasons people have become so confused about beauty is because they have constantly taken their examples from the realm of high art, those great and difficult things like Botticelli’s Venus, which you have to think about for an awfully long time before you know what it really means. High art challenges us in the deepest parts of our being, and maybe we get turned off by it, we feel we can’t live up to it, so let’s live in another way. But that’s not where the search for beauty begins, nor is it where it ends.

I think it begins and ends in everyday life. People misconceive aesthetics when they see it merely as the realm of beauty. It is as though that’s all we were ever thinking about when we were going around our world making aesthetic judgments. “Oh yes, that’s beautiful. No, that’s ugly.” But that’s not the way we behave at all. We actually make completely different kinds of judgments. We talk about whether something fits in, whether it’s graceful, whether that would be the right way to go forward, does this color fit with that color and so on. And I think people take revenge on beauty because they don’t see that there’s something more important without which there can be no revenge. And that more important thing is just our instinct to get things right, to make things fit in and harmonize. This is where the aesthetic judgment is a fundamental part of our everyday lives; we are making it all the time.

Now, I’m not a natty dresser but even I had to question whether this tie goes with this jacket. It probably doesn’t, but nevertheless the question occupied me for a certain amount of time, and it was part of my attempt to fit in and harmonize and also to fit in to this occasion where I’m giving a public lecture. You could put this, however, in a much more pretentious and philosophical way by saying that when we do this we’re trying to realize ourselves as subjects in the realm of objects. That’s the language that Hegel and his followers would use. It’s a tough language, but you can see what it means. We are free beings, we are subjects who have an inner life, but that inner life is not meaningful to us if we cannot in some way make it into an outward reality among other outward realities. In all our gestures we are trying achieve that, to become something real, and part of things – to belong, in other words.

So, this realization is something that goes on all the time and all rational beings are engaged in it. Children know about this already. In these two little girls you see what Wittgenstein would call the natural expression of aesthetic judgment. There they are, trying to fit things in the right place on the table. They’re not saying to themselves, “Is this beautiful, is this ugly, or sublime?” Those words are not part of their vocabulary, probably, but they are asking themselves the question, “Is this right? Am I getting it right? Should it be a little more to the left?” You can see the intent expression here, something only human beings manifest. No animals manifest this sense of the rightness and wrongness of things because these girls are not reasoning instrumentally. They are completely beyond the idea of the function of these things. They are trying to fit things together so they look right, so the guests will find that they look right, too. That’s the beginnings of the aesthetic attitude.

We know this as well. We don’t accept the world simply as a thing out there, an assembly of objects. We try and adorn it and fit it to ourselves and us to it. We are always aware of the distinction between things standing out and fitting in. Sometimes it’s right for them to stand out; sometimes it’s wrong. Fitting in is one of the most important aspects of our life in every sphere of human endeavor. We all have this need to be part of something greater than ourselves, and this is something that happens to us all day long: that we know that we are part of something greater and we know that we are either fitting in or not fitting in. Obviously there is a distinction between looking right and being right, but one of the important features of the aesthetic is that that distinction gets collapsed. If you look back at the two children, there isn’t a distinction between the plate being in the right place and looking in the right place. Being and seeming have come together and that’s perhaps something that’s really important for us – to live in a world where every now and then being and seeming coincide, so that nothing, as it were, deceives us anymore.

I think this is part of the great social significance of the aesthetic. We live in a world which has in many ways been uglified, and it’s a world that we want to redeem so that we are part of it once again and our fulfillment is reflected back to us from all the things we encounter. And that’s really part of what I mean by redemption and that is the function of the aesthetic. This search for getting things right is an all-pervasive thing, no matter what circumstances you are in. Even if you’re living in a trailer park you can do things right. You can go to a local timber merchant and buy the Georgian windows to replace the rubbish that would otherwise be there, you can have a little cornice and so on. And if there’s a lot of money involved you can still get things totally wrong.

This is a part of London, and as you can see, someone’s made a mistake here. There’s another example of London mistakes. But here is getting it right. This is just an ordinary Victorian street in London. Someone has built a bridge across it so that two buildings communicate, but this is a totally different thing. Although there’s lots of different buildings there, they all harmonize. They harmonize because they’re standing along a street, they are all built of vertical components which match each other, and contain they classical details, cornice and stringcourse and pilasters and so on. And here’s an example of a modern town center, the center of Reading, built entirely out of horizontals. One of the important differences between them is everybody wants to live here, and nobody wants to live there, and in fact nobody does live there. The center of Reading was destroyed completely by this development and it’s standing empty and vandalized and covered in graffiti.

modernist living room
A living room of modernist design

This emphasis on the horizontal was originally a very aesthetic thing. The modernist aesthetic exemplified in this interior is entirely designed in this way. You can see that, yes, this is a kind of aesthetic ideal. Nobody, I’m sure, has ever sat in this room but nevertheless you can see that it has aesthetic thoughts behind it. Unlike this. But the modernists, of course, were in reaction against this, all this Victorian clutter, which again is something that most people would find extremely difficult to live with now.

Here is an example of a rather perfected modernist interior: Wittgenstein’s house in Vienna, which he designed for his sister. Wittgenstein, like me, had the sense that architecture ultimately must get the vertical emphasis right, must make verticals stand in parallel to each other, and that the sense of detail matters. This is not my preferred form of architecture but you can see the aesthetic instinct at work in everything in this building. He designed it for his sister, who never lived in it. It ended up as the embassy of a communist country, for which it is wonderfully suited.

Haus Wittgenstein, Vienna
Haus Wittgenstein, Vienna

This is an example of what architects really can do when it comes to making corners. This is the corner of a church in Rome, by Pietro da Cortona. You see when you have the sense of detail, the classical idiom and this desire to fit things together, how a building comes alive and captures the light of the sun and incorporates that light into itself, makes it part of its own spirit, so to speak. Even in architecture the human spirit finds its embodiment.

In conclusion, those examples were sort of taken from the air, really, but they’re meant to emphasize the place of aesthetic judgment, of our desire to get things right, in ordinary, everyday life and in our enterprise as builders and dwellers, as people who have settled down. We know that we are free beings, but we also know that freedom demands recognition. This is something that Hegel emphasized. It has to be re-expressed for every generation.

Pietro da Cortona: Santa Maria della Pace (corner detail), Rome, 1667
Pietro da Cortona: Santa Maria della Pace (corner detail), Rome, 1667

We’re not truly free until others recognize that we are free and grant us the space to be free in. And that means that we’re in relations of mutuality with each other. My freedom is always rubbing up against the edge of your freedom, and that boundary between us is the public world where we both belong. And it is in shaping that boundary between us that the aesthetic sense is so important. That’s where, in our search for recognition from each other, we attempt to be graceful towards each other and to bring each other to our side. I bring you to my side, you bring me to your side, so that the boundary where we coincide is mutually acceptable. This reasonably cool grace is a matter of harmony and fitting in. Of course, it cannot be achieved without the habit of giving and receiving: I give way to you, you give way to me, I offer you things and you receive them. This is what the public world ideally should be. That kind of giving and receiving of things is what should be embodied in our ideal forms of architecture.

About the Author

Roger Scruton is the world's preeminent philosopher in the field of aesthetics. Having graduated with honors from Cambridge, he has subsequently held positions at some of the world's most prestigious institutions including the Universities of Cambridge, Oxford, St Andrews, Princeton, and Boston. Roger was called to the Bar after his studies at the Inns of Court in London. He is a fellow of both the Royal Society of Literature and the British Academy. Moreover, Roger has been awarded the Czech Republic's Medal for Merit in recognition of his efforts to establish an underground university in Czechoslovakia during its last decade of communism. Today he serves as a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, DC. But his principal activity remains what it has been for the last 30 years, which is writing. Roger is an astonishingly prolific writer on a broad range of topics in several genres. His serious academic research has been in the area of aesthetics, with two books – The Aesthetics of Architecture and The Aesthetics of Music – that have made important contributions to their respective fields. In addition Roger has written essays, criticism, autobiography, invocations of country life, novels, and poems. He is deeply devoted to classical music and an accomplished amateur composer. For in case you missed it, somewhere in there he also found time to write two operas and the libretto for a third.

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