aesthetics

Roger Scruton on Judging Beauty

Beauty and value

For Plato and Plotinus, “beauty is an ultimate value.” Like truth and goodness, it justifies rational judgments.

But can’t beauty be “the enemy of truth”? The attractive yet untrue myth or urban legend, for example. And immoral things are sometimes beautiful. Kierkegaard and Wilde chastised “the ‘aesthetic’ way of life” for its vice. At least it is unclear if beauty is an ultimate value.

Perhaps “beauty is a matter of appearance, not of being,” and “we are investigating the sentiments of people, rather than the deep structure of the world.”

(I don’t love this analysis. Let’s grant that truth, goodness and beauty are ultimate values. That doesn’t mean they need to be commensurable. Maybe they rule over their own domains: truth is binding on what we ought to believe, goodness is binding on what we ought to do and beauty is binding on what we ought to admire, in purely aesthetic terms. I can admire the beautiful lie without believing it.)

“Platitudes”

  1. Beauty pleases us.
  2. One thing can be more beautiful than another.
  3. Beauty is always a reason for attending to the thing that possesses it.
  4. Beauty is the subject-matter of a judgment: the judgement of taste.
  5. The judgment of taste is about the beautiful object, not about the subject’s state of mind. In describing an object as beautiful, I am describing it, not me.
  6. Nevertheless, there are no second-hand judgments of beauty. There is no way that you can argue me into a judgment that I have not made for myself, nor can I become an expert in beauty, simply by studying what others have said about beautiful objects, and without experiencing and judging for myself.

(This last one condenses the “autonomy” and “acquaintance” principles other aestheticists argue about.)

Beauty-judgments are supplemented with critical reasoning about the object we’re judging. We’re judging it, not ourselves; our judgments aren’t just us reporting how we feel, but they are statements — perhaps truth-apt ones — about the object.

(This is a similar view to those metaethicists who oppose non-cognitivism and emotivism in particular. The first lecture in C.S. Lewis’ The Abolition of Man and Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue strongly argue the point.)

Minimal beauty and some consequences

“There is an aesthetic minimalism exemplified by laying the table, tidying your room, designing a web-site.” They can “look right” and “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,” which Scruton interestingly characterizes as “the way that beauty generally matters.”

Minimal beauties enhance magnificent beauties, the experience of which can be hampered by unbeautiful surroundings. Scruton variously calls it neighborliness, appropriateness, soothing, harmonious, unpretentious, nice, tasteful, fittingness, continuousness, civility, humility… it all concerns what I’d call “presentation.”

“Too much attention to beauty might defeat its own object. … If you want to stand out, then you have to be worthy of the attention that you claim.” Not everything can be a masterpiece: they would be “jostling for attention side by side, would lose their distinctiveness, and the beauty of each of them would be at war with the beauty of the rest.” In a way, scarcity is necessary.

Beauty is more than elegance, delightfulness, intricacy, fineness, expressiveness, discipline, orderliness, prettiness, charm, attractiveness: “To speak of beauty is to enter another and more exalted realm.”

Two concepts of beauty

Scruton offers “a distinction between the judgment of beauty, considered as a justification of taste, and the emphasis on beauty, as a distinctive way of appealing to that judgment.” A work might be beautiful, but it might be decidedly unbeautiful in being beautiful: “harsh” music, “ugly” paintings, “unprincipled” photographs… And works may be “too beautiful: that they ravish when they should disturb, or provide dreamy intoxication when what is needed is a gesture of harsh despair.”

We can set aside “beauty” as “a supreme aesthetic value” — it is an open question whether there is one —and turn our attention to the aesthetic, to “beauty in its general sense, as the subject-matter of aesthetic judgment.”

Means, ends and contemplation

There is an eighteenth century distinction between fine arts and useful arts. Useful arts objects have functions and they are judged by their fulfillment of their functions. But a functional object is not necessarily beautiful because it functions well. To call it an art or an artwork means that it is appreciated as an end in itself and not only as a means. Oscar Wilde: “All art is quite useless.”

This is modern. Greek poiesis is “the skill of making things”; Roman artes “comprised every kind of practical endeavor.”

Wanting the individual and a caveat

If something is beautiful, no substitute will do. You want that thing, not something like it. (What about works that admit of many instances? If they’re the same work — different copies of the same book or poetry collection, say — there is no issue. Sometimes what work is desired is unclear: this performance of a same work of music by performers, or that performance of the very same work by the very same performers.)

Your interest in its beauty is inexhaustible: “there is no point at which her desire could be satisfied, nor is there any action, process or whatever, following which the desire is over and done with. … Here is a want without a goal: a desire that cannot be fulfilled since there is nothing that would count as its fulfillment.” (I don’t know about that. Sometimes we tire of beautiful things. Not an objection but a good note: some wants-sans-goals, namely gameplay and philosophy, are not necessarily beautiful thereby.)

You need to know what the thing is before you can properly evaluate it. “Suppose someone places in your hand an unusual object, which could be a knife, a hoof-pick, a surgeon’s scalpel, an ornament or any one of a number of other things. And suppose that he asks you to pronounce on its beauty. … Learning that it is a boot-pull you might then respond: yes, as boot pulls go, it really is rather beautiful, but how shapeless and clumsy as a knife.”

The architect Louis Sullivan argued that “form follows function” and that is the source of beauty in architecture. Wrong, Scruton says: “Beautiful buildings change their uses; merely functional buildings get torn down. Sancta Sophia in Istanbul was built as a church, became a barracks, then a stable, then a mosque and then a museum. The lofts of Lower Manhattan changed from warehouses to apartments to shops and (in some cases) back to warehouses — retaining their charm meanwhile and surviving precisely because of that charm.”

Beauty and the senses

One ancient view is of beauty as a sensory, not intellectual, delight. Kant, Aquinas seemed to endorse this. But is the beauty of a novel, sermon, theory, proof sensory? Consider them “presented through the senses, to the mind.”

Disinterested interest and disinterested pleasure

A tentative conclusion: “we call something beautiful when we gain pleasure from contemplating it as an individual object, for its own sake, and in its presented form.”

An interested approach relegates things to our interests, consider them means to satisfy ends. A disinterested approach is “entirely devoted to the object.” As the mother cradles her baby — no other baby would do! — the baby is no end to some interest of the mother; her interest is in the baby tout court.

So it’s a certain kind of interest, one that suspends “all desires, interests and goals.” But didn’t we say earlier that beauty pleases us — doesn’t it satisfy a desire, interests of ours? Our pleasure in a work is the result of our interest in it.

Malcolm Budd, as paraphrased by Scruton: “disinterested pleasure is never pleasure in a fact. The fact that you read the poem might please you, but this is a different pleasure than the pleasure you took in the poem. The prepositions we use — pleasure in, pleasure from, pleasure that — are instructive.

Disinterested pleasure is a pleasure-in, but it has an intentionality and therefore a cognitive life. You take pleasure in seeing your son win the race, but this pleasure is quashed when you realize it was not your child but a lookalike. Intentional pleasures “can be neutralized by argument and amplified by attention.” No wonder we spend so much time deliberating about art, engaging in aesthetic appreciation in community with others.

“My pleasure in beauty is therefore like a gift offered to the object, which is in turn a gift offered to me.” Remember that beauty is inextinguishable, curious, and we aim to consider, reconsider and ultimately understand beauty — though this ultimate understanding is unattainable.

“Hence it tends towards a judgment of its own validity,” and as Kant thought, the judgment is expressed “not as a private opinion but as a binding verdict that would be agreed to by all rational beings just so long as they did what I am doing, and put their own interests aside.”

Objectivity

The judgment is expressed as if it is binding on everyone, presented as such. It may turn out that judgments are not truth-apt, even if they do beg for justification. And we do engage in debates and disputes over aesthetic judgments, and we do try to achieve agreement and consensus. There are laws that govern buildings’ aesthetics, for example. That’s worth keeping in mind.

Artworks Referenced

  1. “Wordsworth invokes the beauty of the Lakeland landscape; Proust the beauty of a sonata of Vinteuil; Mann the beauty of Joseph and Homer the beauty of Helen of Troy.” (8)
  2. Baldassare Longhena’s Santa Maria della Saulte in Venice. (10)
  3. Sir Christopher Wren’s Saint Paul’s Cathedral in London. (11)
  4. Bartok’s score for The Miraculous Mandarin, Botticelli’s Birth of Venus, Keats’ Ode to a Nightingale, Susanna’s aria in the garden in Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro, Tennyson’s In Memoriam and Faure’s Requiem. (15–16)
  5. Sancta Sophia in Istanbul and the lofts of Lower Manhattan. (22)

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