When reading Roger Scruton, one can always be sure that the ideas and sentiments expressed are being offered with utter sincerity. The extent to which he is willing to defend a view of the world and the place of humans in it that seems not simply conservative but thoroughly antique can be astonishing, but he does defend it, seriously and systematically. As a philosopher, Scruton sticks to the most fundamental questions of social and cultural value, in many instances raising questions long assumed satisfactorily answered and renewing conservative objections to the direction taken by much of modern culture.
Those who might rebut Scruton's case against modern art and popular culture are perhaps tempted to simply dismiss his invocations of such seemingly agreeable concepts as "order" and "beauty" as so much opportunistic cant. This would be a mistake, not merely because Scruton makes his arguments in an intellectually honest way but because the role of order or beauty in art ought not be denied outright. Scruton is not wrong to consider "beauty" a relevant consideration in the assessment of art. He is wrong in his conception of beauty as it manifests itself in works of art.
In a recent essay, "Beauty and Desecration," Scruton asserts that "the sacred task of art. . .is to magnify life as it is and to reveal its beauty." Since the era of modernism, however, deliberate ugliness has usurped the place of beauty and "[a]rt increasingly aimed to disturb, subvert, or transgress moral certainties, and it was not beauty but originality—however achieved and at whatever moral cost—that won the prizes."
Note that is the transgression not of aesthetic standards but of "moral certainties" to which Scruton objects. Scruton rightly notes that in the 20th/21st centuries "expression" has become the underpinning of most movements in and commentary on "new" art, but rather than examine the specifically aesthetic flaws in an approach anchored in "expression," Scruton instead recoils from the moral anarchy unleashed by the modern Romantic rebel: "This emphasis on expression was a legacy of the Romantic movement; but now it was joined by the conviction that the artist is outside bourgeois society, defined in opposition to it, so that artistic self-expression is at the same time a transgression of ordinary moral norms."
Scruton uses as an example the widespread habit in productions of opera to alter the staging and the dramatic vision to produce a "modernized" version. He cites a particular production of Mozart's The Abduction From the Seraglio set "in a Berlin brothel, with Selim as pimp and Konstanze one of the prostitutes. Even during the most tender music, copulating couples littered the stage, and every opportunity for violence, with or without a sexual climax, was taken. . .The words and the music speak of love and compassion, but their message is drowned out by the scenes of desecration, murder, and narcissistic sex."
Even if we accept that Scruton's description of the staging of this opera is true to its director's intent--and I would guess that many others in the audience that night did not see it in this way--his outrage is directed at its moral implications. It is "an example of something familiar in every aspect of our contemporary culture. It is not merely that artists, directors, musicians, and others connected with the arts are in flight from beauty. Wherever beauty lies in wait for us, there arises a desire to preempt its appeal, to smother it with scenes of destruction." Scruton manages to connect this sort of "re-visioning" in the high arts to the music video, which "is often devoted to concentrating into the time span of a pop song some startling new account of moral chaos."
Scruton cannot appreciate that the operatic production he attended committed an aesthetic offense, not a moral one. I am quite willing to believe that those responsible for it thought it a clever idea to "set the opera in a Berlin brothel, with Selim as pimp and Konstanze one of the prostitutes," but ultimately this is just an aesthetically vacuous attempt to "update" Mozart, to run roughshod over Mozart's original vision of his opera and establish their own overwhelmingly lame one in its place. It is a practice to be found not only in opera but in theater in general, whereby directors and producers with the aesthetic sensibilities of lizards attempt to keep the great works "relevant." One could, I suppose, call this artistic cluelessness a "moral" problem, but most of what Scruton sees as the unleashing of "moral chaos" is finally just the consequence of the aesthetic incompetence of some those entrused with the job of re-presenting the theatrical art of the past.
I suspect that Scruton does not want to examine the art he despises for its specific aesthetic failings because the very introduction of the "aesthetic" leads for him to the moral decadence he fears. "Beauty" is not to be found in the creations of artists separated from the moral universe to which they must conform:
We can wander through this world, alienated, resentful, full of suspicion and distrust. Or we can find our home here, coming to rest in harmony with others and with ourselves. The experience of beauty guides us along this second path: it tells us that we are at home in the world, that the world is already ordered in our perceptions as a place fit for the lives of beings like us.
In this view, beaty is not even a "creation" of artists. It is a discovery by artists of "harmony," of the "order" that is "already" there "in our perceptions." Artists, such as the great landscape painters, are, if they are to be artists at all, "devoted to moralizing nature and showing the place of human freedom in the scheme of things."
This harmony and order--a moralized nature--is what Scruton means by the "sacred," the capturing of which is the duty of artists. Modern art is engaged in desecration--the inversion of the sacred. In suggesting that human beings are other than "at home in the world" or that the world itself is not always "fit," modern artists mock and undermine the moral order that art should be celebrating and supporting. It is time, according to Scruton, to recover the sacred, "to rediscover the affirmation and the truth to life without which artistic beauty cannot be realized."
Scruton's is an entirely coherent argument if you accept the underlying world view according to which the role of art is to "affirm" the deep, if not always completely visible, truth in "the scheme of things" that manifests itself in beauty. If you believe, however, that the world at times betrays an order that isn't necessarily beneficent, or that as Scruton puts it in his repugnance at another kind of "truthful" art, a human being can be reduced by life to "a lump of suffering flesh made pitiful, helpless, and disgusting," you might find Scruton's "truth" to be partial indeed. You might, in fact, find it a delusion and the idea that a great artist can't redeem "suffering flesh made pitiful" by an act of imagination (or, as Susan Sontag would have it, "will") anything but an affirmation of life.