Beauty and the Best

THEODORE DALRYMPLE

A controversy recently erupted in Sweden over an article published by the philosopher, Roger Scruton, in a magazine called Axess. He argued in it that Western art no longer had any spiritual, let alone religious, content; indeed, it had become afraid of the beautiful, from which it shied away as a horse from a hurdle too high for it.

Saltash with the Water Ferry, 1811
Joseph Mallord William Turner

(click to enlarge)

The result was a terrible impoverishment of our art.

The same magazine had published, shortly before, an article about Islamic art in which the author said that such art was inseparable from the religious ideas and beliefs that it embodied. This passed without remark: no one wrote in angrily to say, 'So much the worse for Islamic art.'

Professor Scruton's suggestion that western art had become impoverished as a result of its radical repudiation of anything transcendent in human existence in favour of the fleeting present moment, however, exasperated and infuriated the professional art critics of Sweden -- as, indeed, it would have done the art critics of any western country. They reacted with the fury of the justly accused: for it is the professional caste of cognoscenti who have consistently applauded the trivialisation of art and its relegation to the status of financial speculation at best, and a game for children showing off to the adults at worst.

There was a good example both of art as financial speculation and as silly game at Versailles recently, where some of Jeff Koons' sculptures were shown in an exhibition. I am no great lover of Versailles myself: it strikes me as pompous and overblown, and its formal perfection does not make up for this. Still, no one can fail to recognise its magnificence, and its peculiar unsuitedness to the display of Koons' cheap and childish artefacts (I mean cheap in the moral, not the financial, sense, of course). It is impossible at Versailles, even if one is no egalitarian, not to think of the immense exploitation of the peasantry upon which it was raised; to exhibit Koons there, whose work is a knowing joke (and not a particularly good one) repeated over and over again, is a final insult to the memory of those whose years of toil made Versailles possible. The least that is due to their memory is to use Versailles for something worthwhile.

The mere exhibition of the work at a location such as Versailles serves to keep its (monetary) value up, to save those foolish enough to have invested in it the embarrassment not only being shown to have no taste, but -- worse still in the circumstances -- no financial acumen either. In no field is Hans Christian Andersen's fable about the Emperor's new clothes more salient than contemporary art; or, to put it another way, in no commercial field are there so many Bernie Madoffs.

But, you might say, Jeff Koons was an original. No one had ever done anything like his sculptures before, and after two millennia of artistic endeavour it is no mean feat to be original. You can recognise his work anywhere; indeed, it is quite unmistakable. So, of course, is the logo of Coca-Cola or Hitler's face: unmistakability is not by itself a criterion by which art ought to be judged. The chief interest of his work is sociological, not artistic: how can it ever have been thought worthwhile?



He argued in it that Western art no longer had any spiritual, let alone religious, content; indeed, it had become afraid of the beautiful, from which it shied away as a horse from a hurdle too high for it. The result was a terrible impoverishment of our art.

It is here that Scruton's argument becomes illuminating. The successful modern artist's subject is himself, not in any genuinely self-examining way that would tell us something about the human condition, but as an ego to distinguish himself from other egos, as distinctly and noisily as he can. Like Oscar Wilde at the New York customs, he has nothing to declare but his genius: which, if he is lucky, will lead to fame and fortune. Of all the artistic disciplines nowadays, self-advertisement is by far the most important.

This is reflected in the training that art students now undergo. Rarely do they receive any formal training in (say) drawing or painting.

Indeed, from having talked to quite a number of art students, it seems that art school these days resembles a kindergarten for young adults, where play is more important than work. The lack of technical training is painfully obvious at the shows the students put on. Many of the students have good ideas, but cannot execute them successfully for lack of technical facility. Indeed, their technical incompetence is only too painfully obvious.

It is very striking, too, how few art students have any interest in or knowledge of the art of the past. Do you visit galleries, I ask them?

No, they reply, a little shocked at the very suggestion, and as if to do so would inhibit them in their creativity or to condone plagiarism.

As for art history, they are taught and know very little. This is all part of the programme of disconnecting them radically from the past, of making them free-floating molecules in the vast vacuum of art.

It is true that they are sometimes taught just a little art history. I had what was for me a memorable conversation with an art student when she was my patient. She was in her second year of art school, and told me that one of the things she enjoyed most about it was art history. I asked what they taught in art history.

'The first year,' she said, 'we did African art. But now in the second year we're doing western art.'

I asked what particular aspect of western art they were doing.

'Roy Liechtenstein.'

 

As satire would be impossible, so commentary would be superfluous. The task is not so much to criticise as to understand: that is to say, to understand how and why this terrible shallowness has triumphed so completely almost everywhere in the west.

It is here that Scruton's argument becomes illuminating. The successful modern artist's subject is himself, not in any genuinely self-examining way that would tell us something about the human condition, but as an ego to distinguish himself from other egos, as distinctly and noisily as he can.

No such question can be answered definitively; but I would like to draw attention to two errors that have contributed to the triumph of shallowness. The first is the overestimation of originality as an artistic virtue in itself; and the second is the false analogy that is often drawn between art and science in point of progress.

Let me take the second point first. One often hears of 'cutting-edge' art; indeed, the much older term, avant garde, is of the same ilk. This suggests that there is progress in the arts, as there is in science, and that what comes after must, in some sense, be better than what came before. Art has some kind of destination, with later artists further along the road to it than earlier.

In science, progress is a fact (except for the most extreme of epistemological sceptics, none of whom, nevertheless, would be entirely indifferent as to whether their surgeon used the surgical techniques of, say, the 1830s, rather than those of this century). The most mediocre bacteriologist alive today knows incomparably more that did Louis Pasteur or Robert Koch, for example; the most mediocre physics graduate knows incomparably more than Sir Isaac Newton ever did. This is because scientific knowledge is cumulative. But no one would suggest that the paintings of Rothko were better than those, say, of Chardin because he lived a long time after Chardin, and that Chardin's were better than those of Velasquez for the same reason.

Art teachers and critics use the false analogy with science in order to deny the importance of tradition in artistic production. They do not realise that science is entirely dependent on tradition for its progress. It is not just that most competent scientists know a lot about the history of their subject, but that the very problems that they set about solving, their entire mental worlds, are inherited by them. No scientist has to discover everything anew for himself: no mind, however great, is expected to begin again from zero. Tradition is the precondition of progress, not its antithesis or enemy.

Since art makes no progress, the role of tradition in it is obviously very different. But it is no more realistic to expect artists to be able to fashion ex nihilo a worthwhile response to the world and their own experience of it than it is to expect every schoolboy to discover Newton's laws of motion for himself. Genius is supposed by modern theorists of art education to be like flies according to the spontaneous generationists of the pre-Pasteurian age, who thought that they emerged from decomposing matter by a kind of spontaneous alchemy, rather than from eggs laid by older flies. Worthwhile art grows out of other art: it neither repeats it (that would be impossible even if desired or desirable), nor is totally ignorant of it.

There is a paradox in the new ideology of art with regard to originality. It is both overvalued, and at the same time believed to be too easily achieved.

Originality is not, therefore, a virtue in itself, moral or artistic; and a man who sets out to be original without both the technical ability to express something new, and (most important of all) the possession of something worthwhile new to express, is merely egotistical.

In a sense, everything that human beings do is original, for even if they want to they cannot exactly copy one another. Like M. Jourdain speaking prose, most of us utter completely original sentences by the dozen every day, effortlessly and not knowing that we are doing it.

This is not the kind of originality that is valued in the new art ideology. What the new art ideology means by originality is that which has the power to shock, especially the bourgeoisie (if it still existed). Only the rebellious is original and creative: Norman Mailer, for example, in his essay The White Negro, equates rebelliousness and creativity, by contrast with 'slow death by conformity.'

Unfortunately, deliberately setting out not to conform results in a conformity of its own, one indeed that has become a mass-phenomenon.

Non-conformity for its own sake cannot be the source of true or valuable originality, therefore. The only kind of non-conformity that leads to worthwhile originality is the unselfconscious kind, that arises because the person has something new to express that is transcendently worthwhile, sub specie aternitatis as it were, and that might or might not lead him into conflict with others. Doctor Johnson, with his usual penetration, has it absolutely right:

Singularity, as it implies a contempt of the general practice, is a kind of defiance which justly provokes hostility or ridicule; he, therefore, who indulges in peculiar traits is worse than others, if he be not better.

Originality is not, therefore, a virtue in itself, moral or artistic; and a man who sets out to be original without both the technical ability to express something new, and (most important of all) the possession of something worthwhile new to express, is merely egotistical. That is why the art critics, who are inclined to praise works as being original, path-breaking, taboo-breaking and transgressive, without any reference to their transcendent worth, are wrong, and Roger Scruton is right.



Beauty is a fragile and vulnerable quality, and moreover one that is difficult to achieve; ugliness, by contrast, is unbreakable and invulnerable, and very easy to achieve. (How easy it is to look bad, how difficult to look good!)

Where does the fear in modern art of such qualities as beauty and tenderness towards the world come from? (I am talking here of art that achieves public notice and notoriety: there may be hundreds or thousands of excellent artists who fear neither beauty nor tenderness, but whose work goes unremarked.)

I think it has something to do also with our inflamed egotism, that requires that we should be entirely self-sufficient and autonomous, philosophically, morally, intellectually and economically.

Beauty is a fragile and vulnerable quality, and moreover one that is difficult to achieve; ugliness, by contrast, is unbreakable and invulnerable, and very easy to achieve. (How easy it is to look bad, how difficult to look good!) By espousing the ugly, we make ourselves invulnerable too; for when we espouse the ugly, we are telling others that 'You can't shock, depress, intimidate, blackmail, or browbeat me.'

We use the ugly as a kind of armour-plating, to establish our complete autonomy in the world; for he who says that 'I find this beautiful,' or 'This moves me deeply,' reveals something very important about himself that makes him vulnerable to others. Do we ever feel more contempt than for someone who finds something beautiful, or is deeply moved by, what we find banal, trivial or in bad taste? Best, then, to keep silent about beauty: then no one can mock or deride us for our weakness, and our ego remains unbruised. And in the modern world, ego is all.

 


ACKNOWLEDGEMENT

Theodore Dalrymple. "Beauty and the Best." The New English Review (January, 2009).

Reprinted with permission of the author, Theodore Dalrymple.

THE AUTHOR

Theodore Dalrymple is a former psychiatrist and prison doctor. He writes a column for the London Spectator, contributes frequently to the Daily Telegraph, is a contributing editor of the Manhattan Institute’s City Journal. He lives in France and is the author of In Praise of Prejudice: The Necessity of Preconceived Ideas, Our Culture, What's Left of It: The Mandarins and the Masses, Life at the Bottom: The Worldview That Makes the Underclass, and So Little Done.

Copyright © 2009 Theodore Dalrymple




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