Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Robert H on Roger Scruton on Beauty

A little while ago, I did a post about Roger Scruton's amazing documentary about the philosophy of beauty. Well, one of the comments by Robert H was just so thought-provoking, I felt it deserved its own attention in a post of its own.

A link to the original discussion in case you've forgotten. My favorite portion of Robert H's commentary is in bold. :)

Don't worry over much about Scruton's apparent conflation of the Pre-Raphaelites with kitsch. Note he also includes Millet. Two possibilities arise, as both the PRB and Millet were roughly contemporary.

1) He is using them as a chronological marker without considering the works themselves to be kitsch. I'm being charitable with Scruton in including this because I don't believe it was his intent.

2) He does indeed believe the PRB and Millet were kitschy, at which time he lays himself open for serious scrutiny and eventual harsh judgment. Focusing on Millet, Millet oeuvre is best noted for for images of peasants working themselves to exhaustion to provide the meager amount of food that allows themselves to stay barely alive (while undoubtedly making some member of the bourgeoisie wealthy). He is painting the sordid truth of the French peasantry in the midst of their bone-breaking labors. It is not beautiful, nor is it meant to be. It is not kitsch; in fact, it is the antithesis of kitsch. These peasants are not some wide-eyed waifs sitting on rooftops painted by the Keanes, nor are they the garden gnomes that haunt our present consciousness; those images ARE kitsch, and the world be done with them.

Scruton has some personal, smug, elitist agenda that seems either ill thought out or is cynically contemptuous of his audience. In the BBC program, which I manfully sat through, I sense a man totally enamored with his oh so highly refined sensibilities. Recall the number of times it is he who appears to be the center of the program. Be that as it may, on the far side of the man's obvious narcissism in places he blatantly errs in his focus, which ties back to the Millet. In the midst of discussing beauty v. contemporary art he shows an image of Goya's, if I recall one of the Horrors of War, and then shows a modern adaptation of the same image, of which he obviously is simultaneously contemptuous and disgusted. I'll allow him that: I don't much care for a majority of contemporary art. HOWEVER... Goya's image is not beautiful. To claim it so is to cozy up to the perpetrators of atrocity, to condone the massacre of innocents. The image is everything Scruton condemns in the contemporary thrust of art to portray the ugly. And yet he appears to use it as an icon of beauty. Millet and Goya are focusing on the same desperate, horrid aspects of life, looking at it in such a way as the viewer will have a visceral response. They are painting or etching unvarnished truth.

If Scruton wants to live in a fairy land where bad things do not happen he has the right, twit-like though that may be. Goya and Millet were aware that the upper 10% of the population lived comfortably through the exploitation of the rest (and no, I'm not a Marxist). Peasants worked 14 hour days 6 days a week, and then were required to go to church on Sunday. Half the children born in the middle of the 19th century were dead before the age of 18. Pastel putti floating above beautiful gardens while maidens lolled about was not the world of the vast majority, who had no access to the world of beauty Scruton clamors for.

Briefly, because I already am overlong, much of what Scruton appreciates led directly to that which he reviles, not as a rejection of his avowed principle but as a direct and logical consequence of their central thesis: art for art's sake. He repeatedly quotes Wilde. Wilde was in the vanguard of bringing about the collapse of what he, Wilde, most loved. The irony and short-sightedness, to say nothing of the total ignorance of the evolution of the contemporary ethos, is astounding.

As for the PRB... I could write reams about the sheer folly of considering them kitsch. I am baffled as to why Scruton appears to hold them as exemplars of such abased sentiment, though I sense in the end insidious proclivities might arise were one to delve into the matter. Be that as it may, it was the PRB, leading to William Morris, the Arts and Crafts movement, and eventually Art Nouveau, which provided this tired world with its last taste of the endeavors of men and women who were devoted to the concept of beauty while considering the state of their fellow man. In the end, Scruton attempts to chop down the tree on which he is perched. Accept the value that he presents, but be skeptical of the man.


Hermes said...

"it was the PRB, leading to William Morris, the Arts and Crafts movement, and eventually Art Nouveau, which provided this tired world with its last taste of the endeavors of men and women who were devoted to the concept of beauty while considering the state of their fellow man"

Very well said, though some of the later Millais is a bit dubious and was 'done for the money'.

Valerie Meachum said...

Interesting read. Partly because Robert is giving Scruton the benefit of the doubt for correct spelling, and postulating that he did in fact mean Millet and not Millais. *wry g* I'm not prepared to do that, but Robert's point is nonetheless sound.

Robert H said...

Sorry for the tardiness-I thought any comments would pop up in my RSS reader. Oops.

Hermes-your comments on Millais are on the money (pun intended). At the beginning of his career he commented that the time would come when he would have a family and would no longer be able to spend a day painting an area the size of a 50 cent piece (obviously, he didn't say "50 cent piece"; I forget the actual coinage but the impression was that the area implied was small).

If one were to follow Millais's career much past 1856 it would be difficult to consider him still a Pre-Raphaelite. Indeed, his work became the epitome of what he originally rebelled against, with the exception of some of his later landscapes, and even those lacked the fevered and nearly hallucinatory intensity of his earlier work.

There is an anecdote that Millais late in his career viewing a retrospective of his work cried upon seeing what heights he had reached.

Valerie-Scruton deserves the benefit of the doubt. Although I reject a significant part of his analysis he nonetheless is brilliant (one can simultaneously be brilliant and wrong-happens all the time) and knowledgable. Regardless, either way he blithely walks onto thin ice. Millet is not kitschy for the reasons mentioned in the article. Neither is Millais, at least during the time when he was holding up his part of the PRB. Ophelia kitschy? Even The Blind Girl, which is intended to manipulate the viewer's emotions, must not be considered kitsch. Millais's later works... But by that point he no longer is working as a PreRaphaelite and therefore Scruton's analysis fails.