Does Beauty Matter? : Art Should Be Ugly

Does beauty in art even exist anymore? Signing a urinal and Piss Christ are probably not the best examples of beauty in contemporary art. To answer the question definitively though, I turned to professional curmudgeon, and conservative philosopher, Roger Scruton.

Scruton has a documentary out called Why Beauty Matters, it’s out on Youtube (I assume because everyone wants to see it 😒). Scruton takes a tour of modern art and disparages the whole production as ugly and sometimes questions if it should even be called art. Honestly, I’ve done the same thing myself but I think on this one I come out in favour of contemporary artists.

Old Rog does have some interesting insights though. The documentary starts with the assertion that through the pursuit of beauty we shape the world around us and discover ourselves. Where old art shows how beauty redeems the world, the new art exposes it’s ugliness. Art, in Scruton’s opinion, should show the real in the light of the ideal. Beauty hits us like nothing else, we are taken by it because it contains the presence of the sacred.

There was a point in this 45-minute-too-long documentary where he compares Françoise Sagan’s “Un lit defait” with Tracy Emmin’s “My bed”. Both are exactly what they claim to be but where “Un lit defait” shows a bed with tortured sweat stained sheets belying the torments of its owner, Emmin’s work shows an undone bed with empty bottles of Absolut vodka and just a general mess next to it. Both are expressing a state of disorder but Emmin’s work resonates more with a modern audience. Scruton was aghast at the comparison.

That led to 20 minutes of God stuff, during which time I got drunk and scrolled through Instagram. Yeah, I’m a millennial, ok? As I was scrolling I realized that making your ugly life look idyllic is exactly what everyone does on Instagram. The internet is filled with a bunch of fucks that try and make their life ‘beautiful’. The Kardashians made a career out of it.

Back when Scruton was a boy the world was ugly. The Mongols were knocking at the door, the plague was ravaging Europe and peasants revolts were destroying France. Art had to elevate life. Making it beautiful was a way of escaping the horror of everyday living and reminding people of God (and the Church). Now, the world is fake. We live in a matrix of fake plastic beauty. Instagram is a nice collective lie we all tell each other, music is a constant battle between corporate bands and indie music that’s about to get co-opted, our office spaces are sterile ‘open concept’ buildings without a sense of the truly aesthetic but a definite sense of Ikea like order.

Modern art is bound to be ugly because there’s a need for reality. When a farmer works in a field or a blacksmith in his shop, life is very real, maybe too real—there’s no escape. Now, we have too much escape. No one shows their shitty undone bed, with the empty bottles, fast food ketchup packets and dirty clothes. We show filtered, sparkling pictures of our lunch with the girls.

Contemporary art, some of it, tries to take away the filter. Gone are beautiful landscapes in the background of otherwise distressing scenes in pre-modern painting. Gone are the perfect bodies of saints as they lie in the torment of martyrdom. We create that bullshit ourselves now. I’ve seen the pictures my friends post (I’ve been there when they take them) and I know their fucking lives. It’s not that great.

Scruton is wrong. Art doesn’t have to be beautiful. It has to be true. If it’s good, it’ll tell us what we need to know.