Beauty and its corruptions

ROGER SCRUTON

In an age of declining faith art bears enduring witness to the spiritual hunger and immortal longings of our species. Hence aesthetic education matters more today than at any previous period in history.

As Wagner expressed the point: "It is reserved to art to salvage the kernel of religion, inasmuch as the mythical images which religion would wish to be believed as true are apprehended in art for their symbolic value, and through ideal representation of those symbols art reveals the concealed deep truth within them." Even for the unbeliever, therefore, the "real presence" of the sacred is now one of the highest gifts of art.

Conversely the degradation of art has never been more apparent. And the most widespread form of degradation -- more widespread even than the deliberate desecration of humanity through pornography and gratuitous violence -- is kitsch, that peculiar disease that we can instantly recognise but never precisely define, and whose Austro-German name links it to the mass movements and crowd sentiments of the 20th century.

In his article "Avant-garde and Kitsch", published in Partisan Review in 1939, Clement Greenberg presented educated Americans with a dilemma. Figurative painting, he argued, was dead -- it had exhausted its expressive potential, and its representational aims had been bequeathed to photography and the cinema. Any attempt to continue in the figurative tradition would inevitably lead to kitsch, in other words to art with no message of its own, in which all the effects were copied and all the emotions faked. Genuine art must belong to the avant-garde, breaking with the figurative tradition in favour of "abstract expressionism", which uses form and colour to liberate emotion from the prison of narrative. In this way Greenberg promoted the paintings of de Kooning, Pollock and Rothko, while condemning the great Edward Hopper as "shabby, second-hand and impersonal".

Look back at figurative art in the Western tradition and you will observe that, prior to the 18th century, there was primitive art, naive art, routine and decorative art, but no kitsch. Just when the phenomenon first appeared is disputable: maybe Greuze shows traces of it; maybe it had even been foreshadowed in Murillo. What is certain is that, by the time of Millet and the Pre-Raphaelites, kitsch was in the driving seat. At the same time fear of kitsch had become a major artistic motive, prompting the impressionist and cubist revolutions as well as the birth of atonality in music.

Simply put, kitsch is a disease of faith. Kitsch begins in doctrine and ideology and spreads from there to infect the entire world of culture.

It is not only in the world of art that we observe the steady advance of kitsch. Far more important, given its influence on the popular psyche, has been the kitschification of religion. Images are of enormous importance in religion, helping us to understand the Creator through idealised visions of his world: concrete images of transcendental truths. In the blue robe of a Bellini virgin we encounter the ideal of motherhood, as an enfolding purity and a promise of peace. This is not kitsch but the deepest spiritual truth, and one that we are helped to understand through the power and eloquence of the image. However, as the puritans have always reminded us, such an image stands on the verge of idolatry, and with the slightest push can fall from its spiritual eminence into the sentimental abyss. That happened everywhere in the 19th century, as the mass-produced votive figures flooded ordinary households, the holy precursors of today's garden gnomes.

Kitsch is a mould that settles over the entire works of a living culture, when people prefer the sensuous trappings of belief to the thing truly believed in. It is not only Christian civilisation that has undergone kitschification in recent times. Equally evident has been the kitschification of Hinduism and its culture. Massproduced Ganeshas have knocked the subtle temple sculpture from its aesthetic pedestal; in bunjee music the talas of Indian classical music are blown apart by tonal harmonies and rhythm machines; in literature the sutras and puranas have been detached from the sublime vision of Brahman and reissued as childish comic-strips.

Simply put, kitsch is a disease of faith. Kitsch begins in doctrine and ideology and spreads from there to infect the entire world of culture. The Disneyfication of art is simply one aspect of the Disneyfication of faith -and both involve a profanation of our highest values. Kitsch, the case of Disney reminds us, is not an excess of feeling but a deficiency. The world of kitsch is in a certain measure a heartless world, in which emotion is directed away from its proper target towards sugary stereotypes, permitting us to pay passing tribute to love and sorrow without the trouble of feeling them. It is no accident that the arrival of kitsch on the stage of history coincided with the hitherto unimaginable horrors of trench warfare, of the Holocaust and the Gulag -- all of them fulfilling the prophecy that kitsch proclaims, which is the transformation of the human being into a doll, which in one moment we cover with kisses, and in the next tear to shreds.

We seem to be caught between two forms of sacrilege, the one dealing in sugary dreams, the other in savage fantasies. Both are forms of falsehood, ways of reducing and demeaning our humanity. Both involve a retreat from the higher life, and a rejection of its principal sign, which is beauty.

Those thoughts return us to my earlier argument. We can see the modernist revolution in the arts in Greenberg's terms: art rebels against the old conventions, just as soon as they become colonised by kitsch. For art cannot live in the world of kitsch, which is a world of commodities to be consumed, rather than icons to be revered. True art is an appeal to our higher nature, an attempt to affirm that other kingdom in which moral and spiritual order prevails. Others exist in this realm not as compliant dolls but as spiritual beings, whose claims on us are endless and unavoidable. For us who live in the aftermath of the kitsch epidemic, therefore, art has acquired a new importance. It is the real presence of our spiritual ideals. That is why art matters. Without the conscious pursuit of beauty we risk falling into a world of addictive pleasures and routine desecration, a world in which the worthwhileness of human life is no longer clearly perceivable.

The paradox, however, is that the relentless pursuit of artistic innovation leads to a cult of nihilism. The attempt to defend beauty from pre-modernist kitsch has exposed it to postmodernist desecration. We seem to be caught between two forms of sacrilege, the one dealing in sugary dreams, the other in savage fantasies. Both are forms of falsehood, ways of reducing and demeaning our humanity. Both involve a retreat from the higher life, and a rejection of its principal sign, which is beauty. But both point to the real difficulty, in modern conditions, of leading a life in which beauty has a central place.

Kitsch deprives feeling of its cost, and therefore of its reality; desecration augments the cost of feeling, and so frightens us away from it. The remedy for both states of mind is suggested by the thing that they each deny, which is sacrifice. Konstanze and Belmonte in Mozart's opera are ready to sacrifice themselves for each other, and this readiness is the proof of their love: all the beauties of the opera arise from the constant presentation of this proof. The deaths that occur in real tragedies are bearable to us because we see them under the aspect of sacrifice. The tragic hero is both self-sacrificed and a sacrificial victim; and the awe that we feel at his death is in some way redemptive, a proof that his life was worthwhile. Love and affection between people is real only to the extent that it prepares the way for sacrifice -- whether the petits soins that bind Marcel to Saint Loup, or the proof offered by Alcestis, who dies for her husband. Sacrifice is the core of virtue, the origin of meaning and the true theme of high art.

Sacrifice can be avoided, and kitsch is the great lie that we can both avoid it and retain its comforts. Sacrifice can also be made meaningless by desecration. But, when sacrifice is present and respected, life redeems itself; it becomes an object of contemplation, something that "bears looking at", and which attracts our admiration and our love.

Sacrifice can be avoided, and kitsch is the great lie that we can both avoid it and retain its comforts. Sacrifice can also be made meaningless by desecration. But, when sacrifice is present and respected, life redeems itself; it becomes an object of contemplation, something that "bears looking at", and which attracts our admiration and our love. This connection between sacrifice and love is presented in the rituals and stories of religion. It is also the recurring theme of art. When, in the carnage of the Great War, poets tried to make sense of the destruction that lay all around, it was in full consciousness that kitsch merely compounded the fault. Their effort was not to deny the horror, but to find a way of seeing it in sacrificial terms. From this effort were born the war poems of Wilfred Owen and, later, the War Requiem of Benjamin Britten.

So there, if we can find our way to it, is the remedy. It is a remedy that cannot be achieved through art alone. In the words of Rilke's "Archaic Torso of Apollo": "you must change your life". Beauty is vanishing from our world because we live as though it did not matter; and we live that way because we have lost the habit of sacrifice and are striving always to avoid it. The false art of our time, mired in kitsch and desecration, is one sign of this.

To point to this feature of our condition is not to issue an invitation to despair. It is one mark of rational beings that they do not live only -- or even at all -- in the present. They have the freedom to despise the world that surrounds them and to live in another way. The art, literature and music of our civilisation remind them of this, and also point to the path that lies always before them: the path out of desecration towards the sacred and the sacrificial. And that, in a nutshell, is what beauty teaches us.


 


ACKNOWLEDGEMENT

Roger Scruton. "Beauty and its corruptions." excerpted from Beauty (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009).

Reprinted with permission of the author, Roger Scruton.

THE AUTHOR

Roger Scruton is a research professor at the Institute for Psychological Sciences in Washington D.C. He is a writer, philosopher, publisher, journalist, composer, editor, businessman and broadcaster. He has held visiting posts at Princeton, Stanford, Louvain, Guelph (Ontario), Witwatersrand (S. Africa), Waterloo (Ontario), Oslo, Bordeaux, and Cambridge, England. Mr. Scruton has published more than 20 books including, Beauty, Culture Counts: Faith and Feeling in a World Besieged, The Palgrave Macmillan Dictionary of Political Thought, News from Somewhere: On Settling, An Intelligent Person's Guide to Modern Culture, An Intelligent Person's Guide to Philosophy, Sexual Desire, The Aesthetics of Music, The West and the Rest: Globalization and the Terrorist Threat, Death-Devoted Heart: Sex and the Sacred in Wagner's Tristan and Isolde, A Political Philosphy, and most recently Gentle Regrets: Thoughts from a Life. Roger Scruton is a member of the advisory board of the Catholic Education Resource Center.

Copyright © 2009 Roger Scruton




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