Review: Beauty: A Very Short Introduction

Review of Roger Scruton, Beauty: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011), 186 pages.

Beauty is a significant philosophical category for the study of art and theology. While significant, it can also be challenging to understand due to the often lofty and complicated writing about the subject. Despite the challenge, beauty, for some, is fundamental to the nature of God and to our understanding of art. As an aid in our collective understanding, Oxford University Press has recently released Beauty: A Very Short Introduction by Roger Scruton.

Roger Scruton is an English philosopher who has written widely on aesthetics, including participating in a BBC Documentary on the topic. Scruton also has links to the University of St Andrews where he is a quarter-time Professorial Fellow in Moral Philosophy. In this introduction to the topic, Scruton provides a comprehensive account of beauty that provides many jumping off points for further exploration. In this review, I will provide a short summary of Scruton’s approach to beauty in this book and suggest two areas of critique that are most relevant to those interested in art and theology.

Scruton’s book is roughly divided into two parts. The first half distinguishes beauty as four categories – human, natural, everyday and artistic. The second half provides something akin to an apologetic for the pursuit of beauty. The assumption that underlies both parts is that aesthetic judgements can and should be made. (5) While Scruton devotes a chapter to each category of beauty, this review will focus on his chapter on artistic beauty as it has most bearing for readers of this blog.

It is in the chapter on artistic beauty that Scruton’s own bias is most evident. Scruton suggests here and in a later chapter that from Duchamp’s urinal onwards, there has been a ‘flight from beauty’ in the art world. For Scruton, ‘[w]orks of art…have a dominant function. They are objects of aesthetic interest.’ (83) As a result, a judgement can be made about the art – either it uplifts or it demeans – and with that assertion, Scruton brings in the importance of taste and morality. To understand this dynamic, Scruton uses jokes and humour as comparison. We would say that it is poor ‘taste’ to laugh at someone else’s misfortune or a joke that is offensive. It is demeaning. For Scruton, ‘it really matters which kind of art you adhere to, which you include in your treasury of symbols and allusions, which you carry around in your heart…When it comes to art, aesthetic judgement concerns what you ought and ought not to like, and (I shall argue) the ‘ought’ here, even if it is not exactly a moral imperative, has a moral weight.’ (84)

The final three chapters further Scruton’s argument for the moral weight of aesthetic judgement. He begins with the importance of taste by suggesting that one’s taste reflects one’s character (123), and then he deals with two areas where a lack of beauty has desecrated that which is sacred. The first is pornography, suggesting that it reduces the human to an object – a body – and thus loses the embodiment that makes humans beautiful. The second is kitsch in relation to religious images. Scruton notes that ‘[i]mages are of enormous importance in religion, helping us to understand the Creator through idealized visions of his world: concrete images of transcendental truths.’ (159) In contrast, kitsch is ‘when people prefer the sensuous trappings of belief to the thing truly believed in.’ (158-9)

I would like to suggest two areas of critique in relation to this book. The first is an oversight of the argument. Throughout the work, Scruton display a bias towards ‘high’ art, evidenced by a majority of his examples as well as his dismissal of much modern art. However, in his chapter on everyday beauty, there is much space for Scruton to challenge his own categories and extend his discussion to include examples from popular culture, such as in music, graphic design, and film. Omitting ‘low art’ in the discussion of beauty could lead one to conclude that beauty is not there.

The second critique suggests how Scruton’s argument could be extended for theological discussion. Whether intentional or not, Scruton makes several statements that have deep theological import. For example, at the end of the book, Scruton suggests that our need for beauty makes us human. He writes: ‘‘It is a need arising from our metaphysical condition…it tell us that we are at home in the world, that the world is already ordered in our perceptions as a place fit for the lives of beings like us…beings like us become at home in the world only by acknowledging our ‘fallen’ condition…hence the experience of beauty also points us beyond this world, to a ‘kingdom of ends’ in which our immortal longings and our desire for perfection are finally answered.’ (145) A careful reader could use this and other statements as starting points for deeper theological reflection on the nature of beauty as Scruton presents it.

In conclusion, Beauty: A Very Short Introduction lives up to its name. In a lucid and clear way, Scruton introduces the reader to key aesthetic works while making a compelling argument for why beauty matters. Scruton’s own personal position provides a starting point for further discussion on an important topic for theology and the arts.

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