Beauty, by Roger Scruton

This exquisite little volume on esthetics marries form to function. The unusual octavo size, the glossy pages, the photos of examples discussed in the text make it a pleasant experience.

Scruton avoids saying what beauty is. Instead, he treats the phenomenology of beauty–human, natural, everyday, artistic beauty. He also examines beauty’s negative–pornography and kitsch. Titian’s Venus of Urbino is erotic; Boucher’s Blonde Odalisque is nearly pornographic. Murillo’s Immaculada approaches kitsch; today’s garden gnomes are the real thing.

Regietheater production of Mozart’s Die Entführung aus dem Serail at the Berliner Komische Oper demonstrates the “flight from beauty.” To Scruton, the production’s deliberate shocking images, entirely at variance with the work itself, come from a childish abhorrence of the beautiful. For the same reason that children delight in loud burps and potty humor, the opera director imposes ugliness on a beautiful work out of fear of its real power. Scruton calls it desecration.

Throughout, Scruton defends a tradition of beauty and rationalism. Yet his view does not exclude Beaudelaire and Schoenberg. He explains:

“The modernists feared that the aesthetic endeavour would detach itself from the full artistic intention, and become empty, repetitious, mechanical and cliché-ridden. It was self-evident to Eliot, Matisse and Schoenberg that this was happening all around them, and they set out to protect an endangered aesthetic ideal from the corruptions of popular culture. This ideal had connected the pursuit of beauty with the impulse to consecrate human life and endow it with a more than worldly significance. In short, the modernists set out to reunite the artistic impulse with its underlying spiritual aim. Modernism was not conceived as a transgression but as a recuperation: an arduous path bacd to a hard-won inheritance of meaning, in which beauty would again be honoured, as the present symbol of transcendent values. This is not what we see in the consciously ‘transgressive’ and ‘challenging’ art of today, which exemplifies a flight from beauty, rather than a desire to recover it.”

Scruton may or may not be particularly original in this short book, but he lays out his esthetic with confidence. A list of some the images in the book give an idea of what he considers examples of beauty: S. Maria della Salute, St. Paul’s, a Palladian window, Bergman’s Wild Strawberries, Barber’s Adagio for Strings, Whistler’s Nocturne in Grey and Blue, Michelangelo’s Laurentian library, the Titian and Boucher, a golden Buddha, a table setting.

The book generally does not invoke other esthetic theorists in the text, but provides a section on Further Reading at the end. A lighter touch would have made the book more delightful. I missed Wilde.

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