Saturday, July 11, 2009

Scruton on modern art

Roger Scruton has written an important article on modern art, one that I encourage you to read in full.

It begins with the question of what high art is for. Scruton observes that modern art is transgressive and aims to shock and confront. Traditional art was oriented more toward beauty.

What is impressive is the further development of these ideas by Scruton. Scruton argues that beauty in art did not exist just for aesthetic purposes but expresses a deeper experience of life, a sense of the sacred, that makes us feel at home in the world.

Modernists do not feel at home in the world, and therefore aim to desecrate: the mockery, the cultivation of ugliness and the moral transgression is aimed as a pre-emptive strike against the deeper experience of beauty referred to above.

If you do read the article, take a moment to compare the two paintings used to illustrate traditional and modernist art. The traditional painting, by Francesco Guardi, is described as "capturing the intimations of the eternal in the transient". The modern painting, by Otto Dix, is very different, being described as "wallowing in the base and the loveless" - an assessment that is difficult to disagree with.


  1. Modern art = I could do that + Yeah, but you didn't.

  2. Or better yet:

    Modern art = I could do that + But why would I want to?

  3. I saw this simple criterion for good art: If someone gives you some piece of art for free, would you display it in your home? By this measure most modern art fails miserably and obviously, unless you have a completely dessicated soul.

    I was at the modern art musuem in Washington, D.C., with a friend, while in college. We buttoned up our top buttons, messed up our hair, and sat down to "ponder deeply" a piece of "art": a giant solid blue painting with a yellow strip down the side. Watching people watch us was the amusing part. People wouldn't give this "art" a second look, until they saw us studying, chin on hand, then they'd stare at it to try to find the depth.

  4. I recently read a book called "The Wreck of Western Culture" by John Carroll (an Aussie, I believe). It was fascinating and insightful, and makes me think Scruton's desire to restore an earlier, better humanism is doomed.

  5. Jaz, agreed. Scruton's article is excellent, but he does overlook some of the weaknesses in earlier modern thought.

    For instance, Scruton puts forward the American poet Wallace Stevens as a counterforce to modernism in art. But Stevens was no traditionalist. He had a view similar to that of John Stuart Mill, namely that we cannot know external reality and therefore cannot site ourselves within an external cosmic order. The only thing left is to imaginatively construct an individual subjective order. This is how Stevens's beliefs are described at wikipedia:

    "Reality is the product of the imagination as it shapes the world. Because it is constantly changing as we attempt to find imaginatively satisfying ways to perceive the world, reality is an activity, not a static object. We approach reality with a piecemeal understanding, putting together parts of the world in an attempt to make it seem coherent. To make sense of the world is to construct a worldview through an active exercise of the imagination. This is no dry, philosophical activity, but a passionate engagement in finding order and meaning.

    "In his book Opus Posthumous, Stevens writes, “After one has abandoned a belief in god, poetry is that essence which takes its place as life’s redemption." [19] But as the poet attempts to find a fiction to replace the lost gods, he immediately encounters a problem: a direct knowledge of reality is not possible."

    Stevens has travelled a long way down the path of modernism here, even if he hasn't oriented himself personally to transgression or rancour.

  6. Hi Mark
    I am far from a historian of modernism. My era of passion would be 1625-1725, in painting, porcelain, silver and architecture. But I have been writing a few articles on the reception that Lionel Lindsay, James S MacDonald and others extended towards modernist art in the 30s and early 40s.

    No-one minds if they found Kandinsky and Picasso incomprehensible. My argument is that they used the language of Goebbels to deal with art they despised.

    If you have some time, my posts are titled:
    1. Traditional Vs Modern Art: 1930s Australia ,
    2. "Addled Art": dishonest art dealers and
    3. "Addled Art" by Lionel Lindsay

    Best wishes
    Art and Architecture, mainly

  7. With respect, Mark, your attitude to modern art differs little from the standard populist philistinism. Yes, there is a lot of rubbish, but art was ever thus. 'Modern art' encompasses Gaudi, Arvo Part, James Joyce, Kandinsky, Jackson Pollock, jazz, Coetzee, Saramago, Neruda, and so many others, that to see only barbarism and 'ugliness' is entirely your failing, and not that of art.

  8. I'm also a little baffled as to what is meant by 'traditional painting'. Is this Aboriginal or Etruscan cave art? Is it Rembrandt? Caravaggio? The icons of the 12th century?

  9. "to see only barbarism and 'ugliness' is entirely your failing, and not that of art."

    Thr, in 2004 500 art experts were polled to find out what they thought was the most influential piece of modern art.

    They voted for "The Fountain", a work exhibited in 1917 by Duchamp. The work was a public urinal.

    For 500 modern art experts the leading piece of modern art was a public urinal.

    What this shows is that the concept of art itself has been degraded.

    This doesn't mean that there haven't been any worthwhile individual pieces of art created over the past century.

    But it isn't business as usual as you suggest. Something serious is amiss.

  10. Orwell: War is peace; slavery is freedom; ignorance is strength.

    THR: Rubbish is art.

    THR exemplifies what Burnham described in "Suicide of the West." An optimistic Westerner, in the face of obvious decline, transforms an ongoing string of defeats into "Progress" or some other positive-sounding rubbish, a la Orwell.

  11. THR writes, "Yeah, something is amiss, with you."

    Well that was snarky. Mark made some very reasonable points and the best you can come back with is "I know you are, but what am I"?

    But anyway, you haven't addressed Mark's point. A public urinal was declared in 2005 to be the very apogee of modern art. By what criterion?

    And by what criterion can anything now be called NON-art?

    A plunger? Or the tampon receptacle? Or how about those condom dispensers you see in shady truck stops? By what criterion, do you say that any of these things is not art?

    Or hey, forget the receptacles. Just pile up a load of feces, condoms and used tampons, and you've got the High Art Trifecta!

    I humbly submit to you that a society which calls a receptacle of human waste products the highest expression of itself is a society that can truly sink no lower.

  12. 'Modern art' encompasses Gaudi, Arvo Part, James Joyce, Kandinsky, Jackson Pollock, jazz, Coetzee, Saramago, Neruda, and so many others, that to see only barbarism and 'ugliness' is entirely your failing, and not that of art.

    Gaudi was a true artist, I think. Klee, Pollock and Kandinsky - not so much.

    Most modern art is just shit.

    A small portion is good.

  13. We see the standard conservative tropes, yet again. We have the fabrication of revisionist and mythical beginnings (i.e. 'traditional painting') and complete and utter ignorance when it comes to the here and now. The fact that some of you may not like a particular artist does not automatically make it 'rubbish'. So some art critics voted for Duchamp. So what? Have a look at Nobel literature prize winners over the past few decades. Have a look at what contemporary composers are putting together.

    The irony is, of course, that it is precisely conservatives who would have railed against the likes of Titian and Raphael at the time of their painting. Maybe you should steer clear of art altogether, if it makes you suicidal.

  14. Thr, you continue to miss the point. This isn't a competition to assert ourselves as connoisseurs. It isn't even about subjective preferences in art.

    What we're looking at is the change in the concept of what art is. How did we reach the point at which the purpose of art was held to be a transgressive one rather than a reaching toward the sublime?

    If you change the concept of art you change what is created.

    Thr, the irony for me is that you, as a Marxist, are so emotionally wedded to defending the establishment.

  15. I'll have a look at it later (ie, after work, or when it gets a bit quieter here), but just a short note - many of the early objectors to modernism, and early artistic reactions against modernism, would tend to contradict this statement:

    Modernists do not feel at home in the world, and therefore aim to desecrate...

    C S Lewis and G K Chesterton, for instance, both argued from a traditional Christian world view, that art is unworldly/expresses a yearning for something beyond the natural world. They would probably have argued, further, that modernist artists are excessively worldly.

    I don't know how prevalent this view would have been amongst anti-modernists and 'traditional' artists before them, but the opening to a Wordsworth poem seems to provide further evidence for this sort of view:

    The world is too much with us: late and soon,
    Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers.

  16. I would say from looking at that that Scruton has started out with a particular philosophy regarding all art and has tried a little too hard to make his ideas fit his experiences, and make his experiences fit the historical facts.

    Just to take a few examples, the demand for originality in art has been around since at least the enlightenment, and the cult of 'novelty' (hence their name for that new, bastard art-form, the 'novel'). It's not so modern as Scruton suggests.

    Enlightenment writers such as Pope, Swift, and Fielding may or may not have agreed that beauty is the point of art. But there's no doubt that a good deal of what they wrote was definitely designed to shock, and to viciously satirise or react against certain tendencies in the world, etc, or simply to get a laugh. Beauty was not always the point. (Examples: Swift's obsession with excretement and micturation; Fielding's long early career as a carefree stage writer; etc.)

    Alban Berg's opera Lulu is certainly the portrayal of a morally dissolute woman. I don't think Berg is endorsing Lulu's way of life, however - any more than Fielding endorses the many sexual adventures of Tom Jones.

    It's a bit misleading to say that a focus on 'expression' in the arts was an obsession of the romantics. Some arts have always been self-evidently about expression - ie, those that deal explicitly with language: poetry and novels. And the medieval art of the allegory naturally extended expression to visual arts.

    Just a few examples that come to mind.

    On the whole I don't think Scruton's main idea, that art is about beauty, is wrong, but his difficulty with numerous historical examples would seem to suggest that his definition of beauty could do with further examination.

  17. Tim T: Lewis and Chesterton would have said that you _can't_ be fully at home in the world unless you are ultimately oriented in terms of what lies beyond it - unless, that is, your orientation to the world is proper. If you see nothing beyond it, then very soon your attitude toward life will descend toward nihilism and despair - because, after all, if this world is all there is, you work hard and die, and that's it. Why be happy?

    So modern art, most of which is produced by atheists, is mostly full of hatred of the world. But e.g. Arvo Part, by contrast, is full of love. In Part, we can see that even now nothing prevents moderns from reaching for the sublime.