Guest post by Steven Knepper
Throughout his body of work, the Irish Catholic philosopher William Desmond has pondered the revolt against beauty in the West. I’d like to draw on his writings to add to the blog’s recent discussion of Roger Scruton’s essay “Beauty and Desecration.” Desmond, like Scruton, sees a turn from beauty in the early twentieth century. While poets like Eliot and Stevens and painters like Picasso and Matisse, as well as a poet-painter like David Jones, combined modernist experimentation with a high regard for beauty, Marcel Duchamp helped to sunder the two in “works” like his 1917 Fountain (a urinal signed “R. Mutt”) and his 1919 L.H.O.O.Q. (a mustache drawn on a postcard reproduction of the Mona Lisa). Given the proliferation of such ironic anti-art, and of attendant manifestos that scoff at beauty, Desmond wonders in his essay “Ethics and the Evil of Being” if we have “fallen under the spell of the avant-garde doctrine that beauty is the false consciousness and consolation of the bourgeoisie?” (Garrick Davis recently shared a telling anecdote about Derek Walcott trying to get skeptical MFA students to talk about the beauty of a poem.) Like Scruton, Desmond notes that the new doctrine is often one of desecration, and that it has now produced banalities for a long time. On more than one occasion, Desmond has borrowed a quip from Saul Bellow’s novel Mr. Sammler’s Planet: “Who had made shit a sacrament?” He’s wondered what Dostoevsky would have thought of Piss Christ, and he’s sardonically noted that several of the signed cans of excrement sold to art museums by Piero Mazoni have since exploded.
Still, Desmond thinks that the revolt against beauty involves deeper trends. He thinks it is, at least in part, a consequence of long term changes in how we perceive being itself. Both the Bible and the classical tradition of Plato and Aristotle attested to the goodness of being. This remained the foundation of medieval theology and philosophy, where being is endowed with value by the sustaining Creator God. (James Matthew Wilson, a frequent Dappled Things contributor, discusses beauty and being in the “Christian Platonist” tradition in his recent book The Vision of the Soul.) But in the modern age, first with nominalist theology, and later with mechanistic science, secularization, industrialization, and commodification, being began to be seen as a mere neutral resource. Desmond also points to the greater prizing of human autonomy—and hence the elevation of human ends. Modernity is not monolithic. It contains different attunements to being. But still, as Desmond puts it, “there is a pervasive sense of the valuelessness of being as such.” The value of being has largely become whatever use humans could make of it, its “serviceable disposability,” a utilitarian attitude that has led to much ecological devastation—and to a simultaneous devaluing of the resplendence and aesthetic sensuality of being, a devaluing of its beauty. As Gerard Manley Hopkins famously writes, “The world is charged with the grandeur of God,” but we cannot see it because,
Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;
And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell: the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.
Hopkins here seems to make the same argument as Desmond—the instrumentalization of the world entails, and perhaps depends upon, an insensitivity to beauty, a numbness to Creation. It is perhaps unsurprising, then, that some of the most spiritually serious and beautiful of the last few decades’ art—such as the writings of Wendell Berry, N. Scott Momaday, and Annie Dillard—is animated by ecological concern, and that such art has provided some of the strongest resistance to desecration as an ideal.
Desmond claims, though, that modernity is haunted by a fear that being is not merely valueless but that it is unworthy of value or even evil. (Desmond’s friend Cyril O’Regan has followed Eric Voegelin and Hans Jonas in tracing the “Gnostic return in modernity”.) Moderns have been both increasingly wary of beauty and increasingly enthralled by violence and evil. As Desmond puts it, “The fascination with evil is perhaps understandable in a post-Holocaust time, but it also testifies to a certain lopsidedness of the human spirit.” This can take depraved forms—the pornography of violence we see in pseudo-snuff flicks like Saw or Hostel for instance. As Desmond warns, “We can come to be in love with the thrilling counterfeits of transcendence precipitated by the perverse.” But Desmond does not deny the pervasive violence and loss in the world or the necessity for art to address them. He has written, for instance, about how tragedies dramatize “being at a loss” in harrowing but necessary ways. And he claims that even the contemporary “lopsidedness,” at least testifies to how the utilitarian conception of the person is too shallow—“Strangely the horror of evil keeps the spirt alive in an age where spiritlessness is advanced as self-advancing cleverness.” As Flannery O’Connor might say, it can at least knock us out of our lethargy. Likewise, Desmond points out that dramatizations of radical evil, at least negatively, raise the possibility of radical good: “It makes no sense to confront the possibility of radical evil without raising, as an equally astonishing perplexity, the possibility of radical good.”
This longer view suggests a way that Desmond might criticize, or at least qualify, Scruton’s essay, despite their points of agreement. “At any time between 1750 and 1930,” Scruton begins, “if you had asked an educated person to describe the goal of poetry, art, or music, ‘beauty’ would have been the answer.” True enough, but for Desmond the central emphasis on beauty across the modern period may actually have contributed to the current suspicion of it. For as the sense of being’s goodness eroded and as religion faltered, many thinkers and artists thought that art itself could carry the banner of transcendence, that art could re-enchant a disenchanted cosmos. This was the great hope of the Romantics, which was taken up in turn by the Victorians and by many of the moderns but has now mostly fizzled out. This hope took markedly different forms—compare, for instance, Nietzsche and Matthew Arnold and George Santayana. There is much to be learned from those who pursued this project, but Desmond claims its failure is yet another reason for the present suspicion of beauty. In the conclusion to Art, Origins, Otherness, he claims, “Too much has been asked of art, with the result that too little, or almost nothing, is now being asked of art. And too little is now asked, because too much was asked—asked in the wrong way.”
In modernity art has been asked to provide the spiritual solace and the ethical formation that religion once provided. (Terry Eagleton tells a nuanced version of this story in Culture and the Death of God.) Art can, of course, strike us with wonder. It can get us to see the world and its inhabitants anew, to see them in their sensuous givenness to be more than raw material. Art can be morally edifying. It can, for instance, expand our capacity for compassion. But it cannot carry that full load alone. Following Plato, as well as Platonic heirs as different as Søren Kierkegaard and Simone Weil, we might say not only that art and poetry are unable to form us in truth and goodness by themselves—but also that some artworks are downright parasitic upon the true and the good. Art has often been able to carry some of the load by drawing on deeper springs. Only in modernity are “art” and “literature” thought of as spheres easily separable from the whole way of life of a people, from their composite beliefs and practices. Desmond argues that religion and art can certainly be antagonistic, but they also both need each other. They both attune us to transcendence and the mystery of being, but only if both are in touch with them. The modern overemphasis on the autonomy of art can close off those deeper springs. The German Romantics and Nietzsche recognized this—for art to re-enchant it would have to be prophetic, and mythology would have to be reinvigorated. Desmond points out that Greek tragedy was part of a religious festival and that it was overtly liturgical; Shakespearean tragedy emerged on theatrical ground prepared by the mystery plays. And, of course, there is the achievement of Dante and the way in which the iconographic imagination continues to nourish Russian art. Even today, when religion has receded in much of the West, spiritually serious art can command widespread attention, and this is perhaps some reason for hope. As jaded and ironic as our culture may be, many still yearn for an art that helps them see their “bleared” world as beautiful, as being “charged with the grandeur of God.”
Steven Knepper teaches literature and writing at Virginia Military Institute. His poems and essays have recently appeared in journals like TELOS, Presence, and the American Journal of Poetry. He conducted an interview with William Desmond that is forthcoming in Religion and Literature.