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Moral Art: A Course in Aesthetics and Beauty

April 21, 2017 | Katie Eldredge

On April 6, 2017, in a Wheatley Distinguished Lecture in Civic Virtue and Arts, Sir Roger Scruton presented "The True, the Good and the Beautiful." In it, Scruton discussed how our perception of these elements can contribute to our connection with art and the world around us, even in the digital age.

Like never before, social media has made us all artists. We post poetry to Facebook walls, perform theatre on Snapchat, and post creative imagery to Instagram. But what actually defines something as art? As true or beautiful or good? Sir Roger Scruton, who has spent much of his life contemplating the relationship between truth, goodness, beauty, and aesthetics, admits there is no final answer.

However, that shouldn’t stop us from pondering the question. “It is the clarity of the question, in the end, that really matters. Because it enables you to fit the subject matter into your own life and make the decisions that you have to make about it.”

Art provides us with a source of truth, but not like the scientific truth we are used to. When moved by a piece of artwork, “we get sensual truth, intellectual truth, and intentional truths,” types of revelation that happen within us.  Scruton explains that when we search for meaning or understanding from the things we observe, “we are not looking for information, we are looking for experience.”

Throughout history, no matter its stylistic changes, art has always represented the culture and ideas of its time period. At the start of the Enlightenment, many began to ask, “What does art teach us?” Scruton argues that it tells us things about ourselves such as what we desire and what pleases us. Even more important, “maybe art can teach us in advance about the things we won't enjoy when we obtain them.” The truth found in art gives individuals “a type of trust and support,” something that moves them, and gives them hope for the future.

Scruton asks, “What kind of moral improvement can art generate in us? Has it got a particular role in presenting the moral world and improving our own engagement in it?” Essentially, what goodness does art have to offer? Just as it portrays truth, art can represent goodness in a way that motivates people to act.  Works such as Henry James’ book, The Portrait of a Lady, “put us in a position to make a judgment and to make the judgment through [the character’s] eyes.” This is the goodness of art:  By forcing the moral conclusion on you, it becomes “a course of education in the emotions that are directed at you.”

What happens when art portrays vice or evil in an attractive way? Can we still find goodness in these works of art? Scruton argues that some pieces have the ability to “rescue evil by making it seem beautiful.” Charles Baudelaire’s Fleurs du Mal is one such example. Through the use of imagery and a search for meaning, he takes the depravity of the modern city and “makes it look as though there is a spiritual meaning behind [it] that redeems it.”

When these elements come together, they can produce powerful aesthetic experiences. “Only when combined in a unity - the kind of truth, and the kind of goodness of which beauty is the sign, do you have the full aesthetic.” Scruton encouraged listeners to turn to art and search out their own experiences and interpretations.

As for social media, it “has changed the nature of communication because it’s taken away the filters through which people communicated.” The speed and access of digital sharing prompts more people to contribute to the virtual conversation. Before creating any standard of truth or beauty or goodness, Scruton advised, “What you should be addressing is the question whether you can keep the value of these immediate communications… and gradually improve the form. Can you introduce a filter?”

To watch the entire lecture, click here.

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