What Purpose Does Beauty Serve?

April 2011By Daniel B. Gallagher

Fr. Daniel B. Gallagher, a priest of the Diocese of Gaylord, Michigan, writes frequently on the philosophy of art and aesthetics.

Beauty.  By Roger Scruton. Oxford University Press. 176 pages. $19.95.



Many have a gut feeling that something has gone terribly awry in the art establishment, though few are able to articulate just what. Have no fear. As an artist friend once told me as I hemmed and hawed over whether to purchase a painting of no small expense, there is only one question that really matters in the end: Do you like it? Dave Barry, a self-confessed “clueless idiot” in matters of art, would agree. He happily deferred the purchase of a “crappy old junk chair some guy took off a trash pile” and placed on display at the “Art Basel” show on Miami Beach to some wealthy representative of the “serious art community.” The price: $2,800. (See his syndicated column “The Idiot’s Guide to Art,” Jan. 18, 2004.)

Gut feeling aside, all of us would like to give a coherent explanation of what beauty is and a reasonable argument for why it is important. Roger Scruton’s Beauty aims to show that beauty is a real and universal value rooted in our rational nature, and that it consequently plays an indispensable role in shaping the human world. The judgment of beauty, Scruton maintains, is indeed a matter of “taste,” but the term must be understood in a philosophical sense. The judgment of taste is not about me — “I find this beautiful” — but about the object — “This is beautiful.” Yet to have a genuine experience of the beautiful means to make the judgment of taste on one’s own. Nothing can take the place of a direct and immediate experience of the beautiful object for one to make the judgment. That is why Immanuel Kant maintained that aesthetic judgments are both universal and subjective. I cannot demonstrate to you that an object is beautiful by offering you a deductive argument. You yourself must experience it directly.

Scruton begins with the preliminary remark that the wide range of things we call beautiful hardly seems to exhibit one particular property equally manifest to each and every observer. Neither does beauty seem to be a mere metaphor like “blue” when predicated of songs, moods, or scents. Consequently, Scruton is not persuaded by the transcendental explanation according to which beauty, like goodness and truth, is found wherever there is being. Because it is ambiguous in a way that truth and goodness are not, beauty’s status as an ultimate value is questionable. So rather than giving it a metaphysical grounding and holding it as indicative of some underlying structure of the world, he proposes that we approach it primarily as an appearance and investigate the human sentiments associated with it. He hopes that such an approach will be much more palatable to the modern mind.

He begins by giving beauty a preliminary definition: A beautiful thing is that which gives pleasure when contemplated as an “individual object, for its own sake, and in its presented form.” As for individuality, Scruton explains that the pleasure to be had in contemplating a beautiful object cannot be gained by substituting it for some other object. Any peach on the platter will satisfy my hunger, but it is this peach whose beauty I wish to ponder. My interest in Mozart’s Prague symphony is not interchangeable with my interest in Beethoven’s Eroica. Perhaps most illuminating is the case of erotic attraction, which is always directed toward a particular person. In other words, whereas the peach is desired in order to do something with it — namely to eat it — erotic desire for the other is a desire for this individual.

Scruton elaborates the second part of the definition by comparing objects cherished simply for the sake of contemplation with those pursued for an ulterior purpose. In the words of Schiller, “with the good, the true and the useful, man is merely in earnest; but with the beautiful he plays.” Scruton is too quick to dismiss the importance of a lack of a distinction between “art” and “craft” in ancient philosophy, but he rightly points out that we find no less difficulty in accepting the claim that Susan enjoys Chopin’s nocturnes apart from any purpose they might have, such as helping her to relax after work or providing pleasant background noise while entertaining guests. Scruton even cautions against taking the eighteenth-century distinction between “fine” and “useful” arts too seriously, for the utility of a thing need not be bracketed completely from aesthetic considerations. On the other hand, as evidenced by Louis Sullivan’s “form follows function” approach to architecture, the supreme rule of utility can generate a host of regrettable consequences.

The traces of usefulness scattered throughout aesthetics are perhaps best perceived by reflecting on the gradations of beauty, the lower of which are more tightly tied to practical considerations. Scruton suggests that because there are elements of usefulness inherent in all instances of beauty, beauty always points to something beyond itself. Even life’s most basic aesthetic moments transcend the merely pleasant. Why do we bother tidying up the house, setting an elegant table, and putting on a stylish shirt? Not only because these please the eye, but because they convey meaning and value. This characteristic of everyday aesthetics is not only retained but amplified at the highest levels of beauty.

In order to tease out the similarities and differences among beautiful objects, Scruton discusses four basic types of beauty: human, natural, “everyday,” and artistic. He categorizes these not only according to their respective objects, but the various ways in which humans relate to them: Human beauty elicits desire, natural beauty awe, everyday beauty the exercise of practical reason, and artistic beauty meaning and a sense of taste.

Human beauty is markedly different from the other three types in that it elicits complex feelings of desire that seem to fly in the face of “disinterestedness.” Whereas I only wish to marvel at the beauty of the Pietà or a summer sunset, the beauty of my beloved stirs a desire to possess and to be united with her. Scruton thus eschews the Platonic doctrine that eros is perfected by sublimating my desire for mortal beauty so as to prepare my soul for ideal, eternal beauty. I cannot satisfy a desire for a steak by “staring at a picture of a cow.”

Kant teaches that the appeal of natural beauty is more universal than artistic beauty. Furthermore, aesthetic interest in natural beauty, rather than focusing on individuals, is directed toward the limitlessness we find, for example, in a landscape. In discussing Kant’s distinction between the beautiful, the sublime, and the notions of purpose and purposelessness, Scruton returns to the constantly re-emerging topics of utility and meaning. “The awareness of purpose, whether in the object or in ourselves, everywhere conditions the judgment of beauty, and when we turn this judgment on the natural world it is hardly surprising if it raises, for us, the root question of theology, namely, what purpose does this beauty serve?”

Scruton returns to everyday beauty to elucidate the point further. Activities such as gardening and interior design are inevitably an exercise of discretion. The tendency to match things, to size them up, and to avoid whatever appears inappropriate demonstrates that the appearance of things is intrinsically meaningful. This is what lies behind the eighteenth-century idea of “taste” — i.e., a judgment by which rational beings order their lives through a socially engendered sense of right and wrong appearance. The idea of fittingness, even in the minutest instances of beauty, alludes to the importance of objects contemplated for their own sake.

Only in the nineteenth century, when individual feeling was exalted over objectivity, did artistic beauty become the main focus of attention for philosophers. Scruton immediately points out that the value we place on art does indeed have moral implications. “When it comes to art, aesthetic judgment concerns what you ought and ought not to like, and the ‘ought’ here…has a moral weight.” It is true that genuine art entertains us, but it does so by creating a distance between us and the scenes it portrays, thus appealing to imagination and not mere fantasy. Scruton contrasts this with art that merely offers a vicarious experience of reality and surreptitiously fulfills our forbidden desires. As with the other three types of beauty, artworks are meaningful: they are not merely an arrangement of colors and forms causing delight. They therefore must be understood if they are to be appreciated, and they cannot be appreciated merely by summarizing, paraphrasing, or explaining their content. Art moves us because it is beautiful, and it is beautiful, at least in part, because it means something.

Scruton’s constant attention to the interplay of beauty, meaning, and human understanding has deservedly earned him a place among the foremost contemporary philosophers of beauty today. Yet as the book comes to a close, the reader cannot help but wonder how Scru­ton himself would answer his question, “What purpose does beauty serve?” His refusal to provide a metaphysical foundation for beauty at the beginning of the book is carried right through to the end, such that the reader is left wondering what, if anything, beauty has to do with God. Once again, Scruton shows himself an idealist quite aloof to the ultimate concerns of the theist. He is an ally even though he doesn’t stand in the same camp.

More importantly, however, he is able to crack open these crucial topics for a wider audience. This is a major advantage Beauty has over some of his previous books, such as Modern Culture, which begins with the explicit assumption that the reader is both “intelligent and cultivated.” No such assumption is stated in here, putting less intelligent and cultivated readers — like Dave Barry and me — more at ease.



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