World-renowned philosopher argues for importance of beauty in art, world


Beauty must be restored in art, and art must regain its trust in beauty, a world-renowned English philosopher and writer argued for in his talk “Why Beauty Matters” on Friday at Franciscan University’s annual philosophy conference.

Roger Scruton was the plenary speaker of The Power of Beauty Conference that was held at Franciscan on Oct. 24-25. Artists, theologians, philosophers, critics and independent scholars from around the world came to speak and share their thoughts at the conference.

The upper and lower levels of the Gentile Gallery were filled with people eager to hear Scruton speak.

“We must defend against fake imitation (of beauty) from the surrounding culture,” he said, “because utilitarian value and instrumental reasoning have corrupted today’s society. … Discredited soft self-indulgence needs to be rehabilitated and restore beauty.”

He said that too often people’s lives are surrounded and caged in by the concept of means to ends. People often stop thinking about what it is like to live because they are too focused on the result.

“The key,” Scruton said, “is to make the end present. It must have a presence of value.”

Scruton gave the example of impressionist painting, like Renoir, that tells the viewer he belongs to something outside himself and in the world, such as a landscape portrayed in a painting.

Scruton’s talk was originally titled “Beauty and Desecration.” He changed the title to encompass more aspects of beauty than originally planned. But Scruton still touched on desecration in the art world.

“So what are ugliness and desecration?” Scruton questioned. “It is the effect of the power obsession where there is no moment of tranquility that conceals the other world-ness, in another word, once art is perceived simply as an object, it loses its spirituality that is beauty.

Scruton continued, “Artists are exercising the freedom to offend, to annihilate, to show that the values by which other people live do not count for them. … But that is paradoxical and false liberation.” Scruton said only because those values do count for others, do artists find exhilaration in defying them.

In addition, Scruton focused on a distrust of beauty that leads to deception and desecration in art.

“Other than obsession of power, there is distrust of beauty,” Scruton said, “and that art presents a deception of sweetness.”

Artists find charm in disenchantment, the sacred way of desecration, said Scruton. They believe that by making something so offensive it must be taken seriously. Scruton added that art should show a true perception of life, even the negative aspects of human life, and find beauty from that.

It isn’t that life is without fault, but beauty can be found despite ugliness in the world, Scruton argued. Art therefore, is not so much a deception of sweetness but a reminder of the need for redemption.

Currently, Scruton is a visiting philosophy professor at the University of St. Andrews and at the University of Oxford. He has written over thirty books and is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C.

The Power of Beauty conference was sponsored by Franciscan University’s M.A. Program in Philosophy and the Dietrich von Hildebrand Legacy Project.