Roger Scruton & Aesthetics: Beauty & Utility

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§00 In a July 29th episode of the New Culture Forum Peter Whittle engaged in a discussion with English philosopher, author and perpetual comb-eschewer, Sir Roger Scruton on the topic of beauty. It is a fascinating and wide-ranging discussion, covering everything from contemporary art to political censure. One recurring issue caught my attention, however, as deserving of some critical attention: Scruton’s characterization of beauty as both fundamental and antithetical to utility. The topic of beauty is one which Scruton has given much careful thought to and so I do not wish to be dismissive to such assertions, but one of his chief contentions is, I shall argue, wrong, and wrong in a very simple way.

§01 For example, he noted, “What I would say is the most important aspect of beauty is that we are at home with it. Even when it shocks us, or challenges us. You just go back to the great challenging works of art, like Picasso’s middle period stuff or the Stravinsky ballets… there, whatever we think about it, we stand back after a while and think, ‘Yes I can bring this into my life. And it is part of me and its inviting me to be part of it and it a part of me.’ That invitation is, I think, essential to our sense of beauty. In ordinary life were not aesthetes, most of us, we don’t go around the world looking for the sublime experience that you can get from the Shakespeare sonnets or Tristan and Isolde or whatever, we go around the world wanting to find the places where we could be—places which don’t repel us, which don’t say ‘go away.’ Which, on the contrary, open some kind of inner door, and I think that’s what everyday beauty is like and we’re all able to produce it. When we’re given a room and a bit of furniture, we start arranging it, so it is like that. So that we belong and it belongs. And I think that is what the instinct for beauty is and why its absolutely necessary for us and more necessary today than its ever been before, precisely because its so rare and also because the surrounding world is dominated by a utilitarian culture—everything is conceived in functional terms, as a means to an end. Certainly you see that in architecture. You know, its all straightforward, simple engineering devices to perform a particular function but which don’t have any ability to put the surrounding people at ease with them.”

I find Scruton’s description of beauty (and, to a lesser degree, contemporary ‘utilitarian culture’) to be exceptionally deft, but would contend that being “at home” with beauty is its utility. And if this is the utility, then in what way is it beyond or otherwise removed from the functional? Further, what, precisely is the problem with functional terminology? Everything is, in some sense, functional. Regardless of the abstractness or concreteness of a particular conceptualization, it serves some functional purpose precisely because meaning is noetically confined (ie. what would it mean to say that rocks are good in and of themselves?). The narrow deployment of “utility” as expressed in those modernist/postmodernist cultural milieus against whose currents Scruton swims, may very well put their prospective or current inhabitants ill at ease, but this is due to their lack of utility for generating comforting and secure atmosphere, not their overabundance thereof. That is to say, their problem is misapprehending what functions need to be fulfilled.

§02 “The first lesson that you learn when you begin to study the philosophy of beauty is that there is a utility in the useless. That’s what we most need to cultivate. In our own lives as well. We don’t become lovable objects by being useful, although we should lend our help to others and so on. We become lovable by enjoying the world and radiating our appreciation of it. And that is something we look for in buildings too. I always take Paris as an example.”

Here I more strongly disagree, for is not a strong determinate of whether or not one is beloved whether or not they are useful to his fellow man? I would contend that this is indeed so. The fashion of his usefulness can be manifold, but it cannot be said that any terribly useless man, however radiatingly appreciative, was found “loveable.” And so it is with buildings also. What we might say instead is that architecture should reflect the collective dreams and follies and aspirations of its inhabitants, whether transitory or permanent, and in this way might make them feel more “at home.” The quality of concordant ambiance is the hidden function, that which Scruton refers to as the “utility in the useless.” We might more curtly describe this quality as environ’d resonance.


Sources

  1. New Cultural Forum. (2019) Sir Roger Scruton: Professing Right Ideas for 50 Years. Discussing Beauty, Academia & Conservatism.
  2. Roger Scruton. (2009) Beauty. Oxford University Press.

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