I have been encouraged by Mr. Joseph Pearce’s two excellent essays, “How Many Loves? Arguing with C.S. Lewis” and “The Vulgar Mob: Arguing with G.K. Chesterton,” to offer up a little challenge to one thinker who has indelibly influenced my own conservatism. I have tremendous admiration for Roger Scruton’s courage in abandoning his academic career to articulate his traditionalism—a costly sacrifice for the heart as well as the wallet. I recommend his Our Church: A Personal History of the Church of England to all of my friends with an interest in the Anglican Church. Few books on the topic are so illuminating for Anglicans and non-Anglicans alike. A friend from my equestrian days gave me On Hunting for Christmas this year, which bears all the same merits as Our Church: being an account of tradition from the living heart of that tradition. Whether Mr. Scruton would be pleased to know or not, I am a thorough-going Scrutonian on the whole.
For the most part this holds true for his aesthetic philosophy, which, we might sometimes forget, is what Mr. Scruton’s training and specialty is in. After studying the work of Immanuel Kant—arguably Mr. Scruton’s greatest influence—my devotion to Scrutonism was deeper than ever. I was convinced that beauty was something internal, and art inherently spiritual and intellectual. It is the means of communication, so to speak, of our exalted dimensions. The soul codes its language in the form of music, which slips gracefully into the ear and, from there, through to the hiding-place of another soul. Like many other aspiring imaginative conservatives, I warmly embraced Mr. Scruton’s call for a return to classical ideas of beauty set forth in his BBC documentary Why Beauty Matters. I nodded my head sadly when he said of modern art’s philosophy, “Since the world is disturbing, art should be disturbing, too. Those who look for beauty in art are just out-of-touch with modern realities.” I lamented with him at the charge that, “surely something is not a work of art just because it offers a slice of reality—ugliness included—and calls itself art.” This traditional aestheticism is what drew me to Mr. Scruton’s vision of Anglicanism in Our Church; he gives a comparable meditation in On Hunting, seeing the English countryside as “Kant’s Kingdom of Ends… the eternally recurring glimpse of our transcendental home.”
In defending this perspective, we can point to any of Gerard Manley Hopkins’s poems, especially “God’s Grandeur,” as Mr. Pearce has done in another excellent essay. Mr. Pearce writes,
The world is indeed charged with the grandeur of God! It flames out like shining from shook foil! It gathers to a greatness! And each of us is charged with the grandeur of God, full of His life and made in His image, so that we can see the beauteous goodness of the work of Art of which we are a part…
In the midst of the mess that we have made, we no longer see God’s grandeur because of the dust-storm of distraction that we have raised in the desert of our just deserts. Thus blinded we do not see a world charged with the grandeur of God but a gutter that shares our smell and shows us nothing but the ugliness of our selfishness.
I have no doubt that this is true of art like Hopkins’s. It is certainly true for me as the audience of his art, and Hopkins is one of my favorite poets because of it. One of the most sublime addresses to Christ in all of English literature is Hopkins’s in “The Windhover”:
Brute beauty and valour and act, oh, air, pride, plume, here
Buckle! And the fire that breaks from thee then, a billion
Times told lovelier, more dangerous, O my chevalier!
“O my chevalier!” Absolutely breathtaking.
Hopkins was also one of the favorites—and among chief influences—of a very different sort of poet: Ted Hughes. This exchange can be difficult to perceive when we look for some common philosophy. Hopkins was a Roman Catholic priest; Hughes was a sort of agnostic pantheist. Hopkins spent his career toying with traditional verse forms; Hughes emerged at the heart of free verse’s domination in poetry. Where, then, does the influence lie? I have some ideas, all of them half-baked. But for the purposes of this discussion, the contrast between these two obviously but elusively akin poets is more considerable. I would ask you to compare “God’s Grandeur” to one of Hughes’s finest poems:
“The Howling of Wolves”
Is without world.
What are they dragging up and out on their long leashes of sound
That dissolve in the mid-air silence?
Then crying of a baby, in this forest of starving silences,
Brings the wolves running.
Tuning of a violin, in this forest delicate as an owl’s ear,
Brings the wolves running—brings the steel traps clashing and slavering,
The steel furred to keep it from cracking in the cold,
The eyes that never learn how it has come about
That they must live like this,
That they must live
Innocence crept into minerals.
The wind sweeps through and the hunched wolf shivers.
It howls you cannot say whether out of agony or joy.
The earth is under its tongue,
A dead weight of darkness, trying to see through its eyes.
The wolf is living for the earth.
But the wolf is small, it comprehends little.
It goes to and fro, trailing its haunches and whimpering horribly.
It must feed its fur.
The night snows stars and the earth creaks.
I can’t reconcile this poem with Kant’s, Scruton’s, or Hopkins’s philosophy. There’s something undoubtedly “artistic” or “poetic” about the lines, “The earth is under its tongue,/ A dead weight of darkness, trying to see through its eyes.” I don’t think it’s one of those modern poems that indulges in what Mr. Scruton calls the Cult of Ugliness, which usurps the traditional Cult of Beauty. It is not trying to be disturbing to level with the disturbing world we live in. And yet I don’t think beauty is quite the right word for the poem either.
The same is true of the poetry of Basil Bunting, who was a veritable conservative or classical liberal during the height of his career. His poem “The Well of Lycopolis” has some probably beautiful moments, like,
Abject poetry, infamous love,
howling like a damp dog in November.
Scamped spring, squandered summer,
Grain, husk, stem, stubble
mildewed; mawkish dough and sour bread.
It also has a few obscene, absolutely un-lovely lines. And yet again I could not say he should have made the poem any nicer, any prettier. The obscenity does not thwart the poetry one bit. Nor, I should say, does the realism. Though you, or Mr. Scruton, might disagree.
We have as the seminal example of rather not-beautiful poetry in T.S. Eliot. I do my best not to misrepresent Mr. Scruton’s thoughts on the master, a wealth of which are found in the former’s essay “Eliot as Conservative Mentor.” His comments as an aesthetician are fewer than those of a social/political philosopher. A few choice quotes are about Eliot’s belief in “the futility of modernist experiments when not informed by literary judgment and moral seriousness.” He calls the Four Quartets “a religious work, and at the same time a work of extraordinary lyric power, like the Cimetière marin of Valéry, but vastly more mature in its underlying philosophy.” A considerable insight regards Eliot’s French influences:
English literature… had not undergone that extraordinary education which Baudelaire and his successors had imposed upon the French—in which antiquated forms like the sonnet were wrenched free of their pastoral and religious connotations and fitted out with the language of the modern city, in order to convey the new and hallucinatory sense of an irreparable fault, whereby modern man is divided from all that has preceded him. Eliot’s admiration for Baudelaire arose from his desire to write verse that was as true to the experience of the modern city as Baudelaire’s had been to the experience of Paris.
Mr. Scruton makes similar points in How I Became a Conservative when he discusses his first encounter with Eliot:
Already as a schoolboy I had been struck by Eliot’s essay entitled “Tradition and the Individual Talent”, in which tradition is represented as a constantly evolving, yet continuous thing, which is remade with every edition to it, and which adapts the past to the present and the present to the past. This conception, which seemed to make sense of Eliot’s kind of modernism (a modernism that is the polar opposite of that which has prevailed in architecture), also rescued the study of the past, and made my own love of the classics in art, literature into a valid part of my psyche as a modern human being.
There are others that more or less fall along the same lines. None of them, I should say, contradict the praise Mr. Scruton offers classical artists in Why Beauty Matters. He repeatedly insists on the need for art to refresh itself and adapt to suit a changing world. His only concern is that it continue to be beautiful.
This is the point on which I cannot agree. Eliot could not have changed the world without those horrible lines,
Let us go then, you and I,
When the evening is spread out against the sky
Like a patient etherized upon a table…
The comical, pretentious, sloppy grammar; the strikingly bland compliment of sky and street; such a jarringly un-poetic reference as general anesthetics, not to mention the lack of any regular meter or foot.… English literature is forever in Eliot’s debt for showing us how rich even the most hideous corners of our world can be.
It was only by these and numerous other examples—Cavafy, Rimbaud, Neruda, Joyce, Larkin, even Swift and Rilke—that I lost my lost my aestheticism, lost my Kantianism, and became something less than an unswerving Scrutonian.
And I found myself thereafter deeply moved by the philosophy of David Hume. Before he was outrageously commandeered by the academic left as an exponent of atheism, he was one of precious few thinkers known (like Eliot) as equal parts radical and reactionary. Hume wrote little on aesthetics, and even less on precisely what “beauty” is—which is precisely why I think his ideas need revisiting by those dissatisfied with the conceptualism of modern art.
In Why Beauty Matters, Mr. Scruton interviews the traditionalist sculptor Alexander Stoddart, who defines conceptual art as, “a kind of art that’s exhausted in its verbal description. So you need to just say, ‘Half a cow,’ ‘A tank of formaldehyde,’ and you’re really all the way there. The object itself then can be dumped.” Imaginative conservatives know that this is no kind of art – that art must be experienced, and that even a thousand words is not worth one picture. (That, of course, is true of literary art in a metaphorical sense. A great poem or short story can never be described except with the words given by the poet.)
In his greatest aesthetic treatise, “On the Standard of Taste,” Hume applied his revolutionary Empiricism to the task of the critic and aesthetician: the “artness” of an artwork, to use Heideggerian language, is determined by the practice of the artist and the experiences of the audience, not the intellectual conceptions of the philosopher. His admonition of traditional criticism, though irrelevant where the Cult of Ugliness has taken hold, will yet continue to nag those who follow the Cult of Beauty:
There are certain terms in every language, which import blame, and others praise; and all men, who use the same tongue, must agree in their application of them. Every voice is united in applauding elegance, propriety, simplicity, spirit in writing; and in blaming fustian, affectation, coldness, and a false brilliancy: But when critics come to particulars, this seeming unanimity vanishes; and it is found, that they had affixed a very different meaning to their expressions.
As united as our traditional sensibilities may appear in theory, we are all too likely to find someone (like me) who loves Father Brown but does not care for Chesterton’s poetry, or who relishes in The Hobbit but finds The Lord of the Rings trilogy disappointing. I have found that, since admitting I do not care for the huge bulk of Mozart, more conservatives with at least a rudimentary knowledge of classical music agree with me than do not. And yet Chesterton’s poetry is technically well-written, and Mozart’s music technically very fine indeed. That is undeniable. And yet how do we account for this variety in opinion, when we can agree on the technical merits of the arts in question and even in the theoretical virtues of art?
Hume’s explanation, as implied by the title, is that intellectualization has thwarted the study, criticism, and appreciation of art. The terms of taste, though undoubtedly inadequate for the discussion of art in abstraction, is nevertheless the only way we can meaningfully discuss artworks themselves. Only through the criticism of artworks in terms of taste can we arrive at the true merits of a work of art, and so draw closer bit by bit to seeing the “big picture” of that fundamentally ineffable thing called Art.
This is no small task. He points out, for instance, that, “Many of the beauties of poetry, and even of eloquence, are founded on falsehood and fiction, on hyperboles, metaphors, and an abuse or perversion of terms from their natural meaning.” We can be deceived, as I think readers of Chesterton’s poetry and listeners of most of Mozart are, into confusing the saccharin with the sweet, by the lifeless or overdone but technically appropriate flourishes of the artist. As Eliot pointed out, the Romantic poets thrived on excesses of sentiment, and are today regarded as the epitome of poets (windswept, drug-addled, sexually promiscuous, weepy, uprooted), even though their poetry was so often lazy emotional excess swaddled in pretty language. We might even say they were at times too conceptualist in their approach: One can watch the film Lord Byron and never have to read the bulk of Byron’s poetry.
So how to do we advance beyond charlatanism as receivers and critics of art? By imbibing, studying, reflecting upon, and discussing as much art as possible, says Hume. When we are first exposed to works of art (say, our first visit to a museum or an opera, or the first serious work of literature we read), we are often swept away by the work as a whole, and our reactions are polar: we either like the piece, or we d not. Even our strongest “likes” often seem ineffable—which is the exact impulsiveness that artistic charlatans prey on. But as we read more poetry, listen to more music, view more paintings, we begin notice the particulars common to the poetry we love. We then also begin to sense the small failings of artworks we could only previously say we “liked.” I had such a realization when reading Yeats’s “Sailing to Byzantium,” one of my favorite poems, for the thousandth time. On this reading in particular I came to the last stanza—
Once out of nature I shall never take
My bodily form from any natural thing,
But such a form as Grecian goldsmiths make
Of hammered gold and gold enamelling
To keep a drowsy Emperor awake;
Or set upon a golden bough to sing
To lords and ladies of Byzantium
Of what is past, or passing, or to come.
—and suddenly thought to myself, “A little golden bird? That’s a bit of a cop-out, isn’t it, Yeats?”
I do not love the poem any less. When we develop a mature sense of taste, our relationship with our favorite artworks is like the maturation of a romance from teen bliss to the hard realities of married life. Our idolization is shattered by realizing the other’s flaws, and yet we also grow to appreciate deeper the virtues of the beloved we were only vaguely familiar with at first.
And so Hume says,
Beauty is no quality in things themselves: It exists merely in the mind which contemplates them; and each mind perceives a different beauty. One person may even perceive deformity, where another is sensible of beauty; and every individual ought to acquiesce in his own sentiment, without pretending to regulate those of others.
Some may think Yeats’s little golden bird is the perfect image to close the poem, a cliché rescued from its tiredness by the greater work of the poem. I do not. And yet we may still agree that it technically “works,” and we may still agree that the virtues of the poem would be beauty and elegance and propriety and simplicity and spirit. We see them manifested differently from one work of art to the next, just as persons have different ideas of human beauty. To once more quote Hume:
One person is more pleased with the sublime; another with the tender; a third with raillery. One has a strong sensibility to blemishes, and is extremely studious of correctness: Another has a more lively feeling of beauties, and pardons twenty absurdities and defects for one elevated or pathetic stroke. The ear of this man is entirely turned towards conciseness and energy; that man is delighted with a copious, rich, and harmonious expression. Simplicity is affected by one; ornament by another. Comedy, tragedy, satire, odes, have each its partizans, who prefer that particular species of writing to all others. It is plainly an error in a critic, to confine his approbation to one species or style of writing, and condemn all the rest. But it is almost impossible not to feel a predilection for that which suits our particular turn and disposition. Such preferences are innocent and unavoidable, and can never reasonably be the object of dispute, because there is no standard by which they can be decided.
The virtues may be the same, but tastes vary strikingly. And Hume, with his rigorously scientific approach, encourages us to cultivate this sense of taste rather than squabbling about concepts in abstraction.
In Why Beauty Matters Mr. Scruton quotes a follower of Hume’s, Lord Shaftsbury, as saying, “Stop using things, stop explaining them and exploiting them, but look at them instead. Then we will understand what they mean. The message of the flower is the flower.” An aesthetic Empiricist might say, “Stop explaining and exploiting art, but observe it instead. Then we will understand what it means. The message of art is art.”
And so, departing from Hume only so much as Scruton departs from Kant, I think all the evidence suggests that “beauty” and “art” are not synonymous. Beauty may be a virtue of art, and our tastes may be strongly disposed toward the beautiful to the exclusion of the ugly, but all evidence suggests that the two are not categorically the same. Art is, to again borrow from Heidegger, the thing in itself. Art is experienced, and we use the phrase “art” only to refer to that experience; and so cannot be completely reconstructed with words like “beauty,” “propriety,” “simplicity,” and the like.
I am certain Mr. Scruton could dash together a response that would either rebut my criticism, or show that I have put words in his mouth. I hope I have not done the latter, though I would welcome his (or any) reply defending the Cult of Beauty. Of course, one weakness in my argument is its reliance on examples from poetry; I can only justify myself by saying that I have nothing like a refined palate for music or the visual arts, only strong fancies, and so I’m not going to waste anyone’s time with my amateurish tinkering. Yet I think if something is to be true of art, it must be true of literature, which is the only artistic medium universally accessible in its optimal form: Music should be heard live, painting and sculpture should be viewed in person; but reading a Heaney or an Auden manuscript could only serve to distract from the art, which is meant to be mass-produced in unexceptional paper and ink. (This may not be true of, say, the Authorized Version, or Chaucer, but I digress.) So it might be said that any rule we make about art is tested most rigorously by its application to literature. For all I know, Why Beauty Matters may be applicable to music, painting, and sculpture; but I do not believe it is applicable to literature, which is the only form where a single authentic artwork may be owned by millions of men and women at once. Though in this I may be proved wrong, too.
Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.