In his essay, “Beauty and Desecration,” Roger Scruton asserts that until recently all artists, whether religious or otherwise, would have understood that beauty is the goal of creative effort – But that is the case no longer. He writes,
At some time during the aftermath of modernism…Art 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. Indeed, there arose a widespread suspicion of beauty as next in line to kitsch—something too sweet and inoffensive for the serious modern artist to pursue.
Replacing beauty as the prime mover of creative-types is expression, the ability to unveil an individual’s innermost originality. Not a bad secondary motivating force. After all, we make art because we have something to communicate that the world has never considered before, but a motivation that is disastrous when it displaces beauty and is elevated to the seat of honor. What we’re left with, Scruton intimates, is a situation in which, for an artist to maintain his pride of place as an original thinker outside traditional cultural norms, he must get transgressive, he must get seedy. By extension, we can add that the benefit of standing athwart culture as a person of discerning taste extends to the consumer of the art as well as artist. The consumer can watch a gritty, dark film that only exists in order to be gritty and dark because he understands how miserable life can be (well, typically what he understands is that the lives of others might be like that), that there is a bleak emptiness to our existence, and his approval is a mark of sophistication.
Scruton is almost prophetic in his description of the modern desire to re-make classic literature and film, writing,
That 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.
I suppose that this would be equally true with defacing the natural world, sacred ritual, or great art of the past. The result is, “a habit of desecration in which life is not celebrated by art but targeted by it.” The opposite, the desire to celebrate beauty, is not automatically saccharine (although it might be, but then it would be bad art for different reasons) but rather is a robust and subtle form of artistic achievement. Further, it would be a mistake to suppose that because “real life” is dark and full of suffering, war, and death, that the more art mimics it, the more art speaks to those in the midst of such pains. In fact, it is quite the opposite, such art speaks less to those in the midst of pain. Scruton rightfully maintains that beauty is not an add-on that the privileged few indulge in from time to time (I would actually argue that indulging in ugliness is a mark of privilege), it is a necessary ray of light that situates human beings in the proper metaphysical context. He writes,
It is a need arising from our metaphysical condition as free individuals, seeking our place in an objective world. 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.
Yes, but perhaps this rejection of grittiness-for-its-own-sake is nothing more than moralistic hand-wringing, a refusal to look the difficult questions in the eye, maybe it’s nostalgia for that which never existed? The charge is aimed in precisely the wrong direction – It is desecration which refuses to look the sacred in the eye, that averts its gaze from the fragile and yet eternally present dignity of the huma
n soul. It is ugliness that withdraws its gaze from reality. Scruton explains,
The current habit of desecrating beauty suggests that people are as aware as they ever were of the presence of sacred things. Desecration is a kind of defense against the sacred, an attempt to destroy its claims. In the presence of sacred things, our lives are judged, and to escape that judgment, we destroy the thing that seems to accuse us.
There’s a relentless logic to the creation of art that refuses to countenance any glimmer of light, that serves only to remind of the ugliness and suffering in the world and, further, goes on to suggest that this is all there is to it, ugliness for its own sake, desecration as an act of defiant originality. Scruton argues that, by its moral transgressiveness, this type of art attempts to sever the link between body and soul. This rings true in light of the fact that most of the focus currently in film and television seems to be on including gratuitous sex and violence. In itself, such grittiness is an act of violence against the human soul. Scruton writes,
Many of the uglinesses cultivated in our world today refer back to the two experiences that I have singled out. The body in the throes of death; the body in the throes of sex—these things easily fascinate us. They fascinate us by desecrating the human form, by showing the human body as a mere object among objects, the human spirit as eclipsed and ineffectual, and the human being as overcome by external forces, rather than as a free subject bound by the moral law. And it is on these things that the art of our time seems to concentrate, offering us not only sexual pornography but a pornography of violence that reduces the human being to a lump of suffering flesh made pitiful, helpless, and disgusting.
Once the human soul is desensitized and discarded, the artist is free to re-make us in his own image. This is why the classics are juicy targets to be thrown into the mud. It’s a way of ripping the heart from humanizing depictions of reality, of de-sacralizing the worlds that are presented therein and rendering them null. This is how trendy artists can confirm that their own worldview strides over and tramples upon the unenlightened views of the past. Redemption is unrealistic. All that we know is pleasure and pain.
So where does that leave us as far as realistic, even exceedingly dark artistic efforts?
Dragons are real, but they don’t define reality. They are meant to be acknowledged and at the very least fought to the death. I suppose that the result of the battle defines whether the story is a tragedy or a comedy, but the heart of the matter is that every dragon is meant to be conquered, a fact that great art steadfastly maintains (even if the effort is seemingly a failure). The beauty may not reside in the actual victory itself and a contrived happy ending, but in the very fact that brave heroes are willing to fight. But a long, lingering, loving look at the dragon? Well, there’s the difference.
Ugliness/Darkness simply isn’t true in the way people claim it is. As a corollary position, Beauty is more true than people give it credit for, particularly in a dark world. Great art uses darkness. For instance, take Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy, a novel that openly advertises itself as concerning “regeneration through violence,” a masterwork of fiction that plays on gnostic themes set up by Moby Dick but bloodies up the whale and transforms him into a homicidal, dancing maniac. But the violence isn’t merely for the sake of shock value or to display how originally transgressive the author can be. McCarthy has created an epic about the way in which violence can act as a forest fire, the heat of which opens up new seeds and creates new habitats. This theme, by the way, is fully present in the darkest of all literary masterworks as readers of Genesis are asked to contemplate how the blood of Abel can fertilize the expansion of culture and human industry. The question is compelling, fits into a narrative of redemption, and ultimately finds the hidden beauty contained within unfolding throughout successive developments, ultimately in the Crucifixion itself. At the same time, it is incredibly gritty, honest, and morally challenging.
At some level, it’s begging the question to single out individual efforts and declare “That one. That one right there is a desecration of the human spirit and a slap in the face of every serious artist everywhere.” Especially if the follow up is to declare that art must only depict sunrises and puppy dog parades. I don’t think anyone is arguing that, though. The question isn’t really focused on browbeating the makers of Anne With an E so much as it’s focused on asking what is being added or detracted in a theoretical sense when we darken the classics or desecrate beauty. In some cases, it works well and adds new depth (For a successful example of this, read Grendel), at other times it misses the point entirely and the darkness is nothing more than a stand-in for lack of depth (or worse, a usurpation and desecration of the sacred to parasitically co-opt depth). Art doesn’t rise or fall on its ability to get dark. It succeeds when it unveils the beauty of the human soul even amidst a darkening sky full of circling dragons.
The human soul is the primary cause of the creation of the universe, and attempts to prove it worthless actually invalidate that which would argue such as a simplistic, naïve position. The classics will continue to be revered and unworthy remakes will fade into obscurity.