Culture Does Count
The distinguished British philosopher Roger Scruton, in his latest book, Culture Counts: Faith and Feeling in a World Besieged (Encounter Books, 2007), focuses on the impact—for good or ill—of culture on almost every aspect of life. The issue has become pervasive, resonating with both concerned scholars and the general public. “Culture matters,” writes Scruton, “because it is a vessel in which intrinsic values are captured and handed on to future generations.” He maintains that high culture establishes a measurable standard of excellence, which we recognize through an exercise of judgment. The question of judgment, he believes, has become a flashpoint: “We have entered a time when aesthetic judgments are routinely avoided.” Americans are encouraged to live in a “non-judgmental,” “multi-cultural” society, and taught to believe that there are no intrinsic values.
If Scruton wanted supporting evidence for his thesis, he might visit the 2008 Biennial at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City (through June 1, 2008). Mostly young, casually dressed exhibition-goers move from one gallery to the next, barely pausing to take in the innocuous minimalist constructions of plastic, plywood, resin and fiberglas by some eighty carefully selected artists, “representing the best of contemporary American art.” Occasionally, something odd, like a pig’s head done in white fiberglas, momentarily draws a nod or smile, then they move on, too young to associate it with the fatuous golden pig by Jeff Koons from the 1986 Biennial. A large blue rubber tub filled with fiberglas granules and a gallery room stuffed with hand-sewn black vinyl—sagging, drooping and clenched into wrinkles reminiscent of aging flesh, with phallic protuberances and coiled black tubing representing human organs—only momentarily impedes the forward motion of the festive crowds. They shuffle docilely through a maze created by floor-to-ceiling plywood staffs, some still chatting on their cell phones and blackberries. There are no sharp eyes here, no keen sensibilities at work. The atmosphere throughout the five floors resembles a nightclub party rather than an intellectual or aesthetic experience. There are a few exceptions, such as the two handsome urban landscapes painted by Robert Bechtel, but the huge blank canvases, slathers of Crayola colors and slabs of oxidized Corten-steel sheets covering gallery floors encourage one to finally seek refuge in the only reflective space in the museum—its hauntingly beautiful, dark stone stairway leading back down toward the exit.
If, as the curators promise, this enormous collection truly represents “where American art stands today,” then the nation is simultaneously confronting an external clash of civilizations and an internal culture war. But, how many times do we have to repeat this warning? Is it over-reacting to connect these endemic lapses in good taste and judgment to a general moral decline? Scruton doesn’t think so.
There is a “growing revulsion against the prevailing nihilism” in the arts, universities and the marketplace, he writes. Scruton, who has taught at Cambridge and the University of London, is the author of thirty books on philosophy, political and cultural commentary, and currently works as Research Professor at the Institute for the Psychological Sciences in Washington, D.C. In Culture Counts, Scruton addresses the nature of the current crisis, its historical roots in the Enlightenment and its hegemony in twentieth-century culture. This “culture of repudiation,” he writes, has spawned a massive literature of subversion, from Foucault’s ideology of knowledge as political and economic power, to Barthes’s structuralist debunking of the classics, to the deconstructive cultural virus released into the academic air by Jacques Derrida.
Scruton begins his study by examining what we mean by “culture,” which he defines as “the accumulation of art, literature and humane reflection that has stood the test of time.” He quickly introduces the reader to Aristotle and Friedrich Schiller, whose writings on aesthetic education remain guides throughout his argument. If there is one shortcoming in this valuable book, it is one that characterizes the efforts of scholars and critics who are not artists themselves. However knowledgeable they might be, steeped in history, literature, philosophy and criticism, they lack an artist’s eye. They may understand rationally, but they cannot see how things work aesthetically. Scruton restates the idea, expressed in Aristotle and Schiller, that the aesthetic represents an intrinsic value which can be communicated from one generation to the next. For Scruton, culture—art, literature, music, poetry, architecture—represents that which is demonstrably true, without regard to the subsequent developments wrought by history and time. For relativists such as the postmodernists, in contrast, Western culture is merely the expression of policy by those who control the power and economic wealth.
Scruton sees a vital connection between artistic excellence and moral virtue, exemplified by the most enduring works of what we call the Western canon. Drawing on Aristotle’s Poetics and Nicomachean Ethics, and Schiller’s On the Aesthetic Education of Man, Scruton argues that excellence can be observed objectively and dispassionately in art, poetry, music, sculpture, architecture, drama and literature. He then applies this standard to moral and civic education. Aristotle argued that correct behavior, doing the right thing, springs from virtue, and that virtue is an acquired habit. The purpose of high culture, Aristotle wrote, is to teach virtue through familiarity with high standards. Culture, Scruton echoes, is the sacred vessel for high standards. The educational process for children begins by introducing them to high culture. Until the modern era, high culture (art, dance, poetry, sculpture, music, craft, architecture) was instilled through imitation and rote. One of the great myths of our time is that copying from works by old masters destroys creativity. Working from casts or original masterpieces is the best educational tool a budding artist can acquire. Drawing is primary in developing hand-to- eye skills. The canon represents groups of works in various disciplines—works by Aeschylus, Phidias, Shakespeare, Michelangelo, Rembrandt and Mozart are regularly cited— that have come, over a period of time, to be regarded as the best, closest to achieving perfection. Over the last 2,500 years of Western civilization, the canon has evolved as a repository of what the West thinks is excellent and fit to be the basis for educating the young.
Scruton acknowledges that such judgments might appear “hierarchical,” in the possession of a few “elites” who have the ability and knowledge to see and understand what is truly important. He writes:
Culture is in a certain sense composed of judgments, and exists so as to pass on the habit of judgment from generation to generation. This habit of judgment is vital to moral development, and is the foundation of the rites of passage whereby young people leave the state of adolescence and undertake the burdens of adult life. A healthy society therefore requires a healthy culture.
Scruton quotes T.S. Eliot, who writes that culture “consists of all those activities and artifacts which are organized by the common pursuit of true judgment” (On the Use of Poetry and the Use of Criticism). There is an interesting point to be made here. A shared belief system is one way to stabilize a culture. Shared aesthetic standards constitute another.
In general, I agree with Scruton’s principles, but it would be interesting to see how they might apply specifically to art. After all, we judge works of art on formal criteria, not on philosophical grounds. For example, some of Ingres’s large historical paintings are considered flawed, while many of his exquisite society portraits rank high as works of art. Why couldn’t the learned judges of the French Academy gauge the true quality of Édouard Manet’s Le Déjeuner sur l’Herbe (1863), in contrast to the saccharine vapidity of Alexandre Cabanel’s The Birth of Venus (1863)? They concurred with Napoleon III that Cabanel had painted the “greatest work of art of the nineteenth century.” Their aesthetic judgment was poor, although, philosophically, they agreed with Aristotle and Schiller that art contains the intrinsic sacred essence of civilization. Indeed, one of the duties of the French Ministry of Culture was to ensure that no cultural virus infected the grand tradition of official art. It would be interesting to observe how a philosopher such as Scruton would address the problem posed by Veronese’s The Last Supper.
Veronese was tried for heresy in 1573 by the Holy Inquisition of Venice, for his loose interpretation of The Last Supper. Veronese’s painting included in the background German Protestants (identified by their style of clothing), who at that time were in revolt against Rome. A carnival atmosphere, with a number of exotic animals, was also considered disrespectful, given the gravitas of the event. Threatened with excommunication and the loss of future church commissions, Veronese volunteered to change the name of the painting to Feast in the House of Levi. Charges were immediately dropped, and a new commission quickly arranged, his services being then in much demand. No one questioned the aesthetic quality of the work, which now hangs in the Galleria dell’Accademia in Venice.
The Age of Enlightenment introduced confusion into the question of aesthetics. As secularism came to dominate mainstream culture, the matter of judgment became increasingly contentious. The appeal to religious certainty was no longer valid. Immanuel Kant’s The Critique of Judgment (1790) seemed to resolve the issue, at least for the next century, by suggesting that aesthetics be recognized as separate from content. Thus, the formal qualities of a painting (composition, line, color, texture, brushwork, drawing, etc.) could be analyzed independently of the subject. Manet’s Déjeuner and Olympia (1863) would eventually swing the balance of judgment to favor aesthetics (“art for art’s sake”) over content. By the mid-twentieth century, however, aesthetics itself was coming under fire because of its perceived connections with Eurocentric, white male culture.
For the last forty years, reputations in the contemporary art world have been fueled by scandal and publicity, making it difficult for the public to judge the merits of any work without using the tabloid clichés of the avant-garde. Scruton blames a topsy-turvy system of higher education which, he contends, trains its privileged elite to reject the traditional Western canon of “dead white European males”—from Homer to Shakespeare, Phidias to Raphael— and embrace instead a new relativism of values based on semiotics, gender, sexual orientation and Marxism. Great works from the canon have been deleted from university curricula or denounced as patriarchal, aristocratic, bourgeois or theocratic. The “theocratic” connection is particularly suspect.
While Scruton agrees with Eliot that “every culture has its roots in religion,” he wisely prefers to argue the secular case presented by Aristotle, a pagan philosopher, and Schiller, an Enlightenment scholar, that artistic excellence nurtures civic virtue. This makes sense, considering the nature of the secular society we live in today. It avoids the confusion of mixing religion and aesthetics. It also avoids confronting the question of why much religious art and poetry is simply bad art, however pious the maker. Unfortunately, this argument also sidesteps why so much great art is religiously inspired. Jonathan Edwards, perhaps America’s greatest theologian, often referred to the “beauty of holiness.” The true believer, Edwards wrote, “loves the loveliness of excellency for its own sake,” a surprising view considering he was writing during the time of the Puritans. Edwards had extraordinary insight into the subject of aesthetics. He believed that the beauty of holiness is located in God, not in the eye of the beholder. Edwards sounds like the supreme art critic when he suggests that only the “purified eye can perceive beauty.” His 1746 treatise on the observable characteristics distinguishing a true Christian remains one of the most astute examples of critical writing on aesthetics.
Scruton’s analysis of why culture matters is insightful and important, but there are limits to his arguments. Can a philosopher write art criticism without a grasp of how artworks succeed or fail? An artist sees things differently, with what Edwards called the “purified eye.” Scruton seems more at home addressing the quality of a literary masterpiece than the quality of a painting or statue. He lumps together, for instance, the attractive originality of Andy Warhol with the commercialized scatolgy of Jeff Koons. Scruton embraces “rays of hope” in what he sees as a resurrection of the classical impulse in contemporary realist painting, architecture and music. He is not keen on popular culture—cinema, photography, music, graphics and industrial design. While I agree with him on the deplorable state of much vernacular art during recent decades, the world has long recognized the remarkable aesthetic quality of American popular culture, especially during its golden age, 1935�’65. An enlightened eye knows the difference in quality between a work by Raphael and Bougeureau, or between works by Bougeureau and Cabanel. The formal aesthetic qualities in a movie directed by John Ford or Alfred Hitchcock are easily distinguished from the multiplex-fodder churned out by corporate Hollywood today. This reservation about Scruton’s judgment does not diminish the importance of his thesis. Indeed, it supports his contention that judgment determines excellence—first, the judgment exercised by an individual, then collective judgment forged over generations.
Arguing the merits of a work of art without introducing the issue of aesthetics is comparable to discussing religion without mentioning God. Thinkers of the Enlightenment, such as Kant, began to separate the aesthetic component from content, which for millennia had been based on religious iconography or epic narrative. In part, this new secularization was a matter of patronage. Scruton focuses on the selection of content. But content cannot be the only criterion for judgment, a point illustrated by the controversy over Veronese’s painting. What we recognize as formal, intrinsic quality, aesthetics itself—which can be dispassionately isolated from the content of a work of art and objectively examined under the lens of an enlightened eye—has come under attack. Aristotle and Schiller linked the content of a work of art to its formal aesthetic qualities. Today, we are rediscovering the basic fundamentals of art, architecture, music, poetry and literature. Does this presage a return to the basic fundamentals of a moral society?
Scruton’s book redirects our attention toward excellence and away from the trivial and banal, exemplified by the Whitney Biennials. With excellence as a criterion, with the great works of Western art and literature as our educational guide, Scruton is positive that we can break free of this cultural malaise. The rumored death of Western civilization is greatly exaggerated, he writes.
In Europe, masterpieces of sculpture, painting and architecture are to be found everywhere. Walk down any dusty village street in Italy and confront some minor masterpiece in the form of a memorial, monument, tympanum or marble frieze. Familiarity with the classics was once the norm; casts and copies were abundantly available in traditional academies and ateliers. The Victoria and Albert Museum in London has hundreds of plaster casts of works by Michelangelo, Donatello and Bernini, including entire facades of architectural masterpieces, and thousands of drawings. Drawing is still a mandatory part of the curriculum in most European and Asian countries. In the fervor of avant-garde modernism, drawing was eliminated in American schools in the early twentieth century, and major cast collections replicating Greek, Roman, and Renaissance sculpture were destroyed or abandoned to warehouses.
Scruton asks, “can there really be any more art in an age when traditions of taste have evaporated?” The last chapter of Culture Counts mentions several of the same artists, sculptors, poets, classical composers and architects who appear in American Arts Quarterly. Revivals of tonality in music, figurative painting and the atelier, the new classicism and urbanist movements in architecture, the new formalism in poetry, the return of myth and religion to popular culture are “rays of hope,” Scruton writes, “that will spread its benefits. . . to become the saviors of our community.”