Does this so-called work of art do anything for you?
How about this one?
If not, you might be interested in Sir Roger Scruton’s remedy for the ills of Western civilization. If it is cowardly to stare into the void — simply to gripe and make things worse — then we must know how to act. To Sir Roger, we begin by conserving the heritage we have received, and then move toward creating new projects of all sorts that match the old in beauty and practicality.
For Scruton, the road to worthwhile creativity is paved with a right appreciation for the natural world. If we are going to avoid the artistic pollution of Tracey Emin’s bed, we need to be reminded of the beauty of God’s creation writ much larger. In How to Think Seriously about the Planet (Oxford University Press, 2012), Scruton advocates a ground-up approach to culture-wide environmental stewardship. A key conservative principle is that home matters, and therefore the whole earth matters. Stuff is sacred; and if my stuff matters, then so does everyone else’s. Environmentalism ought, then, to be a project for the Right as much as for anyone else, and Scruton laments that it has been ceded to the Left.
The Soul of the World (Princeton University Press, 2014) spiritualizes these concerns in a much higher philosophical register. The earth is where God chooses to reveal his glory, and it is the only place available to us (for now anyway) to participate in it. For Scruton, there may be no better way to achieve such a union than in music (more on that to come); but he first invites us into a warm bath of theological first principles. If Beethoven’s Third Piano Concerto is worth something, it is because of what the world is for, and what human beings were made to do in it.
The earth is fundamentally a religious place — a place of belonging and of worship. It is a place of holy sacrifice, with its highest expression in the Christian sacraments, which “rehearse the solution that previous explorations of the sacred could not find, which is the self-sacrifice of God” (p. 20). Reality is meaningful to us in a most mysterious way. Music speaks the language of this mystery best of all, with melody, harmony, and movement that accomplish a particular purpose and yet compel repetition and re-examination. Great music, like the world itself, is both for me and for no one. It is understandable and completely elusive. Scruton writes:
The faithful approach these things with awe, not because of their magic power, but because they seem to be both in our world, and also out of it — a passage between the immediate and the transcendental. They are both present and absent, like the mishkhan and what it hides from us (p. 15).
In The Ring of Truth: The Wisdom of Wagner’s Ring of the Nibelung (Allen Lane, 2016), Scruton takes us back to a time of vast social and industrial upheaval in the 19th century. The mishkhan was obscured then by clouds of factory smoke and as many ideologies as there were thinkers to propound them. Wagner’s epic creativity in doing for opera what the Grimm Brothers did for literature is precisely the kind of shoring up of civilization that ought to inspire us today. I admit that I committed to immersing myself in the Ring because of my respect for Scruton’s judgment. It has been life-changing — an opinion I have heard from many others who have decided to take the Wagnerian plunge. Scruton philosophizes from the heart here:
But Wagner’s project is not altogether on target for a Christian like Scruton (or me):
Wagner … recognized that modern people, having lost their faith in the divine order, need another route to meaning than that once offered by religion. This is what the Ring aims to provide: a vision of the ideal, achieved with no help from the gods, a vision in which art takes the place of religion in expressing and fulfilling our deepest spiritual longings.
Real beauty detached from religion is better than nothing. Much better. But it simply cannot help but reinvigorate religious longing.
The Ring is eventually the story of Siegfried learning fear and then love. Even in the breaking of Wotan’s rule, something greater than a god is evident. For us, then, even if we pull apart the institutions of official art and an established church, the sacred and the sublime will stick together. Beauty, like love, is above the fray. The result of fighting against this arrangement is something like Duchamp’s urinal: Art that destroys instead of builds up, creating things that widen the void instead of filling it in. (And no one really likes seeing urinals in museum galleries anyway. You know it’s true.)
Beauty (Oxford University Press, 2008) is the first of the two final books I want to recommend. Taken along with Modern Culture (see below), Sir Roger’s case for an aesthetic alternative to the prevailing ethos of 21st-century life is laid out in full. Some of the most convincing parts of this volume are where Scruton advocates everyday beauty. He charmingly approaches this topic elsewhere, including I Drink Therefore I Am: A Philosopher’s Guide to Wine (Oxford University Press, 2010) and On Hunting (St. Augustine Press, 2002); but here his task is greater. His opening shot:
There is an aesthetic minimalism exemplified by laying the table, tidying your room, designing a web-site, which seems at first site quite remote from the aesthetic heroism exemplified by Bernini’s St Teresa in Ecstasy or Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier. You don’t wrestle over these things as Beethoven wrestled over the late quartets, nor do you expect them to be recorded for all time among the triumphs of artistic achievement. Nevertheless, you want the table, the room or the web-site to look right, and looking right matters in the way that beauty generally matters—not by pleasing the eye only, but by conveying meanings and values which have weight for you and which you are consciously putting on display. (p. 9)
Scruton points to the ever-growing epidemic of pornography as a prime target for true beauty’s deadly aim. Building a new world in the ruins of modernity will require learning to love a goal higher than any cheap fulfillment, to contemplate rather than to desire. True beauty teaches us to value the other as other, and to live the hard but really satisfying life of charity — to see nature in the light of he who made it, and to take care of it as such. Sir Roger is at times cynical and funny, and we smile naughtily at passages like this one:
The current building code, which requires that entrance doors be wide enough, and doorsteps low enough, to take a large invalid’s wheelchair, makes it all but impossible to design a front door that looks right, in the way that ordinary Georgian pattern-book doors look right. (p. 84)
Or this one about modern art:
Art picked up the torch of beauty, ran with it for a while, and then dropped it in the pissoirs of Paris. (p. 97)
We learn that we have been left with “pre-emptive kitsch” and the “tyranny of pop.” Surely there is a better way.
In Modern Culture (2nd Ed. Bloomsbury, 2000), our pessimistic guide encourages us to roll up our sleeves and take beauty back up from where it has been cast down. This book is to art and culture what How to be a Conservative, mentioned in my previous post, is for questions of politics and society. It is masterful and thoroughly entertaining. He opens:
It is my view that the high culture of our civilisation contains knowledge which is far more significant than anything that can be absorbed from the channel of popular communication. This is a hard belief to justify, and a harder one to live with; indeed, it has nothing to recommend it apart from its truth.
And what defines this truth?
The common core of culture is religion. … In no genuinely religious epoch is the high culture separate from the religious rite. Religious art, religious music and religious literature form the central strand of high culture in all societies where a common religious culture holds sway. Moreover, when art and religion begin to diverge—as they have done in Europe since the Renaissance—it is usually because religion is in turmoil or declining. When art and religion are healthy, they are also inseparable.
Human beings flourish only via coherent communities whose diverse fruit is rooted in the rich, common soil of faith in a transcendent ground of being. Art, government, domestic life, environmentalism — everything is of a piece. A once unified whole has been shattered; but it is mendable by supernatural means at work in humble creatures like you and me.
In this work, Scruton walks us through the pivotal moments in Western culture. Paragraph by paragraph, we see how we’ve arrived where we are now. Sir Roger, the great aesthete, tells the tale of woe with breathtaking turns of phrase. He concludes with the typically pessimistic inspiration I have come to love about him and his work:
We have entered, as I see it, a spiritual limbo. Our educational institutions are no longer the bearers of high culture, and public life has been deliberately moronised. But here and there, sheltered from the noise and glare of the media, the old spiritual forces are at work.
Indeed they are, Sir Roger. Congratulations on a well-deserved honor.