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Flight from Beauty, Flight from Judgment (Part I)

July 6, 2023


Modern culture is in flight from beauty, and has been for quite some time now. The exact beginning of that flight can be difficult to pinpoint, and varies somewhat based on the particular aspect of culture that one considers. In the fine arts, one could point to 1917, the year that Marcel Duchamp signed his name on a urinal, labeled it “La Fontaine,” and put it on public display as a work of “art.” In architecture, one might nominate 1920, the year that Le Corbusier founded his journal L’Esprit Nouveau, in which he made the following proclamation, one which would turn out to be a disastrous turning point for modern architecture: “Decorative Art, as opposed to the machine phenomenon, is the final twitch of the old manual modes, a dying thing.” Le Corbusier then spent the next forty-five years inflicting wounds on various parts of the world with his concrete, steel, and glass monstrosities. Over that same time period, the claim that there exist such things as objective standards of beauty by which works of art can be judged was increasingly rejected.

Today, we find ourselves in a place where many of the traditional sources of beautiful work in the fine arts (including figurative painting, tonal music, and classical architecture) are considered suspect, if not rejected outright. As Roger Scruton observed, the prevailing attitude toward these traditional styles seems to be, at best, that “you can make the old gestures; but you cannot seriously mean them.”

Sadly, there are not very many artists these days who are even bothering to make the “old gestures,” much less mean them. Why has modern culture produced so few works of genuine beauty in the past century or more? One obvious reason is that producing beautiful works of art requires actual talent, a quality that has been sorely lacking in so many of the people whom our cultural elites have anointed with the appellation of “artist” (or, perhaps even more commonly, with which those “artists” have anointed themselves) in recent decades.

But our culture’s flight from beauty is not explained entirely by the relative lack of artistic talent. Scruton contends (and rightly so) that modern culture has been running away from beauty because it seeks to run away from judgment. Scruton pithily observes that in contemporary society “the only widely accepted value judgment is the judgment that judgments are wrong.” This allergy to judgment has trickled down to popular culture; TGI Fridays, the restaurant chain, ran an advertising campaign a few years ago with the tagline “No judgment in here.”

Beauty judges us personally, in the sense that it calls each of us to a higher standard.

The flight of artists (and also of many of their so-called “critics”) from beauty has, in part, been self-serving. If there are no objective standards of beauty, and/or if the artist makes no attempt to depict reality as it really is (as is required in figurative drawing and painting, for example), then their work conveniently cannot be criticized in any objective way, nor can the critics’ opinions regarding that work. 

But beauty does not judge only the artist and the art critic; beauty judges all of us. In the presence of great beauty of any kind, we can become uncomfortably aware of our own imperfections. In the presence of great manmade beauty (an exquisite painting, sculpture, building, etc.), we can become painfully aware of our own limitations vis-á-vis the skill of the artist who produced that work. Beauty judges us personally, in the sense that it calls each of us to a higher standard. Beauty invites us to strive for greater goals. Beauty calls us to be better than we are. As Scruton expressed it, “[Beauty] speaks to us, as virtue speaks to us, of human fulfillment: not of things that we want, but of things that we ought to want.”

As such, beauty can be a source of inspiration and motivation for both cultural and personal achievement. But we human beings, fallen creatures that we are, tend to resist beauty’s judgment of us. In our weaker moments, we may attempt to deny our imperfections and shortcomings that the beautiful object has brought to our attention. In our weakest moments, some of us may seek to deny the beauty itself, perhaps even to destroy that beauty, as a way of suppressing the feelings of inadequacy and imperfection that the beautiful object has stirred in us. Scruton cites the famous example of a novice Buddhist monk who, in 1950, deliberately burned down the temple of the Golden Pavilion at Kyoto, considered to be one of the greatest treasures of Japanese architecture. When asked why he had done so, the monk replied that he had destroyed the building because he felt judged by its beauty, felt inferior to its beauty, and felt somehow diminished in his own being by its beauty. 

Certainly, beauty does call us to a higher standard. But beauty’s impact on us and on the broader culture can be even more profound than that. Beauty is, according to Scruton, “adjacent to the sacred.” Or as another contemporary thinker on the topic of beauty, Hans Urs von Balthasar, put it, beauty points beyond itself, to the very depths of being, and ultimately to . . . God. And it is this pointing toward the sacred, this pointing toward God, this pointing toward the One who is the ultimate judge of our lives, that is the deepest root of modern culture’s flight from beauty. We do not want to be reminded of the possibility, however remote some people might consider that possibility to be, that our lives will eventually and inevitably be judged by God. Our flight from beauty is thus a flight from the sacred, a flight from God. Our flight from beauty, our attempt to de-face beauty, even to desecrate beauty (literally, to divest beauty of its sacredness), is part of modernity’s attempt to “wipe out the face of God,” as Scruton so aptly phrased it.

But beauty is not the only “transcendental” quality of being from which contemporary culture has been fleeing; we have been running headlong from goodness and truth, as well, in part because these, too, are sources of objective, external standards against which our lives can be judged. “Goodness” has two senses here: the good as that which has value, and the moral good, the morally right thing to do. Scruton comments that we now live in a “world of free choice and free opinion, in which nothing has authority and nothing is objectively right or wrong. In this postmodern world there is no such thing as adverse judgment—unless it be judgment of the adverse judge. It is a playground world, in which all are equally entitled to their culture, their lifestyle, and their opinions.” He goes on to note, as have many other thinkers, the paradoxical combination of moral relativism and censoriousness in contemporary culture, observing, “When everything is permitted, it is vital to forbid the forbidder.” “Anything goes,” supposedly, except anything that forbids certain choices or behaviors or otherwise goes against the values and priorities of our current cultural elite. Hence the vitriol and sometimes outright violence against Christians, conservatives, and others in our society who make the argument that some actions (elective abortion, for example) ought to be forbidden and ought to be judged negatively.

Truths, meanings, facts, and values are now regarded as negotiable.

The reality is that judgment, including judgment regarding the good (in both senses of the term), is an inevitable, even necessary, element of life in society and in culture as a whole. To flee from judgment is also to flee from civilized society and culture. As Scruton points out, “Culture is in a certain sense composed of judgments, and exists so as to pass on the habit of judgment from generation to generation. Culture . . . is a source of knowledge: emotional knowledge, concerning what to do and what to feel.” And many of us today certainly do not want anyone, including our culture, telling us “what to do and what to feel.” We want to be the arbiters of the good, our own judges of what is ultimately valuable and what is morally right or wrong (if we believe that the latter distinction even exists . . .). And we certainly do not want anyone else judging us with regard to these issues, which is why we now get advertising slogans like “No judgment in here.” If the cultural elites have their way, “No judgment in here” will become the motto of Western culture (except for judgments made by or approved by those same elites, in which case those judgments are of course infallible and therefore incontrovertible).

Scruton traces some of the origins of the undermining of the objectivity of the good to the Enlightenment, when what he calls the “old authority” of cultural institutions such as the Church and existing structures of governance began to be questioned and challenged in earnest. But he also notes that there was a certain ambivalence about doing so on the part of at least some thinkers during the Enlightenment: “What if men needed those old authorities, needed the habit of obedience and the sense of the sacred? What if, without them, they should jettison all loyalties, and give themselves to a life of godless pleasure?” As a result, Enlightenment criticisms of “old authority” sometimes were accompanied by what Scruton refers to as a “fervent and pious attempt to retain the ethical view of man.” However, that attempt went out the window with many subsequent thinkers, the most influential of whom was Nietzsche. More than any other thinker of his time, Nietzsche explored the profound implications for morality of the “death of God” first proclaimed by Max Stirner in 1845 and then echoed more famously by himself in 1882. But it was Dostoevsky who provided perhaps the most trenchant statement of the moral ramifications of the “death of God,” when he has Dmitri Karamazov raise the possibility that, if there is no God, then “all things are permitted.” An increasing number of people in our society seem to be willing to affirm that possibility as an actual reality.

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Formerly, the vast majority of people in our society would have agreed that one’s freedom of action generally stops short of action that harms the well-being of another person, but we have seen even that rather low moral bar increasingly rejected, with abortion again being the most glaring example. In the span of about twenty-five years, the pro-abortion movement within American politics has gone from claiming that abortion should be “safe, legal, and rare” to the passage of laws that remove essentially all legal limits on abortion, combined with the vociferous encouragement of women who have had an abortion to “Shout your abortion!” with pride. “Shout your abortion!”—surely a demonic slogan if there ever was one. Our society has not been in mere flight from the good; we have, with regard to issues such as abortion, totally inverted traditional values and morality. We now call evil good and good evil. As a society, we have not “lost” our moral compass; we seem to be intentionally, and gleefully, smashing that compass to smithereens. 

Tragically, the truth has not fared any better than either goodness or beauty in recent decades. Our society has reduced truth to a shadow of its former self, if not rejected truth altogether. Scientism, which has been adopted by a non-negligible percentage of the population, denies that there are any truths other than those bare physical “facts” that are demonstrable using the scientific method—no moral truths, no transcendent truths, only empirically verifiable truths. Even worse, many people these days (especially many of our politicians and other members of the cultural elite) seem to have adopted Nietzsche’s famous (and culturally corrosive) maxim “There are no truths, only interpretations.” However, a moment’s reflection on this claim quickly reveals its self-contradictory nature. If the maxim is true, then it undermines its own claim that there are no truths. If the maxim is false, then there actually is such a thing as truth as well. Nonetheless, the claim that “there are no truths” has obvious appeal to those of us who would seek to avoid any standards of truth that could be used by others to judge what we do or say.

Scruton notes the same paradoxical coexistence of relativism and censoriousness with regard to the truth that he had remarked upon with regard to contemporary society’s treatment of the good:

In place of objectivity we have only ‘inter-subjectivity’—in other words, consensus. Truths, meanings, facts and values are now regarded as negotiable. The curious thing, however, is that this wooly-minded subjectivism comes with a vigorous censorship. Those who put consensus in the place of truth quickly find themselves distinguishing the true from the false consensus. Thus the consensus assumed by Rorty, in his updated defense of pragmatism, rigorously excludes all conservatives, traditionalists, and reactionaries. Only liberals can belong to it, just as only feminists, radicals, gay activists, and anti-authoritarians can take advantage of deconstruction, just as only the opponents of ‘power’ can make use of Foucault’s techniques of moral sabotage, and just as only ‘multiculturalists’ can avail themselves of Said’s critique of Enlightenment values. The inescapable conclusion is that subjectivity, relativity, and irrationalism are advocated not in order to let in all opinions, but precisely so as to exclude the opinions of people who believe in old authorities and objective truths.

You can read the conclusion of Richard Clements’ piece here in Part II of “Flight from Beauty, Flight from Judgment” on Evangelization & Culture Online.