Thursday, 29 July 2010

The true, the good and the beautiful (R. Scruton)

"There is an appealing idea about beauty which goes back to Plato and Plotinus, and which became incorporated by various routes into Christian Theological Thinking. According to this idea beauty is an ultimate value - something that we pursue for its own sake, and for the pursuit of which no further reason need to be given. Beauty should therefore be compared to truth and goodness, one member of a trio of ultimate values which justify our rational inclinations. Why believe p? Because it is true. Why want x? Because it is good. Why look at y? Because it is beautiful. In some was, philosophers have argued, those answers are on a par: each brings a state of mind into the ambit of reason, by connecting it to something that it is in our nature, as rational beings, to pursue. Someone who asked 'why believe what is true?' or 'why want what is good?' has failed to understand the nature of reasoning. He doesn't see that, if we are to justify our beliefs and desires at all, then our reasons must be anchored in the true and the good.

Does the same go for beauty? If someone asks me 'why are you interested in x?' is 'because it is beautiful' a final answer - one that is immune to counter-argument, like the answers 'because it is good', and 'because it is true'? To say as much is to overlook the subversive nature of beauty. Someone charmed by a myth mat be tempted to believe it: and in this case beauty is the enemy of truth. (Cf. Pindar: 'Beauty, which gives the myths acceptance, renders the incredible credible', First Olympian Ode.) A man attracted to a woman may be tempted to condone her vices: and in this case beauty is the enemy of goodness (Cf. L'Abbé Prévost, Manon Lescaut, which describes the moral ruin of the Chevalier des Grieux by the beautiful Manon.) Goodness and truth never compete, and the pursuit of the one is always compatible with a proper respect for the other. The pursuit of beauty, however, is far more questionable [...].

The status of beauty as an ultimate values is questionable, in the way that the status of truth and goodness are not. Let us at least say that this particular path to the understanding of beauty is not easily available to a modern thinker. The confidence with which philosophers once trod it is due to an assumption, made explicit already in the Enneads of Plotinus, that truth, beauty and goodness are attributes of the deity, ways in which the divine unity makes itself known to the human soul. That theological vision was edited for Christian use by St Thomas Aquinas, and embedded in the subtle and comprehensive reasoning for which that philosopher is justly famous. But it is not a vision that we can assume, and I propose for the time being to set it to one side, considering the concept of beauty without making any theological claims."

Scruton, Roger. Beauty. New York: Oxford University Press, 2009 (pp2-4).

Sunday, 4 July 2010

Kitsch (C. Greenberg)

"Kitsch is a product of the industrial revolution which urbanized the masses of Western Europe and America and established what is called universal literacy.

Prior to this the only market for formal culture, as distinguished from folk culture, had been among those who, in addition to being able to read and write, could command the leisure and comfort that always goes hand in hand with cultivation of some sort. This until then had been inextricably associated with literacy. Bur with the introduction of universal literacy, the ability to read and write became almost a minor skill like driving a car, and it no longer served to distinguish an individual's cultural inclinations, since it was no longer the exclusive concomitant of refined tastes.

The peasants who settled in the cities as proletariat and perry bourgeois learned to read and write for the sake of efficiency, but they did not win the leisure and comfort necessary for the enjoyment of the city's traditional culture. Losing, nevertheless, their taste for the folk culture whose background was the countryside, and discovering a new capacity for boredom at the same time, the new urban masses set up a pressure on society to provide them with a kind of culture fit for their own consumption. To fill the demand of the new market, a new commodity was devised: ersatz culture, kitsch, destined for those who, insensible to the values of genuine culture, are hungry nevertheless for the diversion that only culture of some sort can provide.

Kitsch, using for raw material the debased and academicized simulacra of genuine culture, welcomes and cultivates this insensibility. It is the source of its profits. Kitsch is mechanical and operates by formulas. Kitsch is vicarious experience and faked sensations. Kitsch changes according to style, but remains always the same. Kitsch is the epitome of all that is spurious in the life of out times. Kitsch pretends to demand nothing of its costumers except their money - not even their time."

Greenberg, C. (1965 [1946]). Avant-Garde and Kitsch. In: B. Rosenberg & D. M. White, Mass Culture. The Popular Arts in America (págs. 98-110). New York: The Free Press.
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