He admits he’s no oil painting, but our critic knows there’s beauty in modern art. So put that in your pipe and smoke it, Roger Scruton
Matisse said a good thing once. ”There are flowers everywhere,” he trilled, ”for those who bother to look.” How right he was. Look and you shall find. Don’t look, however, and even if it comes and sits on your head, leans over you and gurns in your face, you still will not see it. Because your eyes are closed.
Matisse’s excellent advice has often encouraged me when pessimism was the easier course. And if I knew where Roger Scruton lived, I would rather like to tiptoe into his house at night and tattoo it onto his forehead, so that every morning, whenever he encountered himself in the mirror, for the rest of his life, he might be better prepared for the day ahead.
Scruton is a moral philosopher and professional regressive who recently published a dull little book on Beauty in which he complained that this elusive aesthetic fairy had disappeared from modern art and life. The disappearance has left us bereft of proper aesthetic guidance. ”Beauty,” opined Scruton, worryingly, ”speaks to us… not of things that we want, but of things that we ought to want.” If he had some bully boys at his disposal, you feel, he might wish to send them in to teach us what we ought to want.
Now, there are some subjects on which I might, perhaps, bow to Scruton’s superior knowledge, and accept guidance from him. Fox-hunting, for one. Since he moved to the country, Scruton has become an enthusiastic hunter with hounds. I myself find the spectacle of middle-aged cretins charging around the countryside, chasing foxes, idiotic. But Scruton has written at length in defence of the pursuit, so I suppose he knows something about it that I do not.
It’s the same with tobacco and cancer. I am an antismoker and see no reason why other people’s carcinogens should be blown into my face. A few years back, however, Scruton sent a notorious e-mail to his employers, Japan Tobacco International, offering to place some thinkpieces on the subject into various prestigious newspapers, suggesting that he had some extra information about tobacco and cancer that he wished to share with us.
I suppose he must also know about moral philosophy, since he teaches it and writes books about it, and I am not even half-certain what it is. So, on fox-hunting, tobacco, cancer and moral philosophy I am just about prepared to be lectured by Scruton. But not on beauty. Of beauty, I am certain, he knows little.
It’s not merely the look of the man. I, too, am no oil painting. The best that could be said of my looks is that they might pass, in the dark, for lustily Rubensian. But at least I bear little resemblance to a garden gnome, and nobody has ever suspected that Bamber Gascoigne is my father and the ginger one from Girls Aloud is my mother. I know Constable once said, ”I never saw an ugly thing in my life,” but Scruton’s book on Beauty was not published until after the artist’s death, so there was no chance of him ever glimpsing the author pic on its cover.
Then there’s the fellow’s name. What a charmless collection of curt syllables. My name is merely unpronounceable, confusing, foreign, difficult and long. Scruton’s is spectacularly free of grace. ”Everything has its beauty, but not everyone sees it,” insisted Confucius, whom I am inclined to trust on aesthetic matters. But Confucius spoke no English and would never have come across either ”Roger” or ”Scruton”.
Yet still the BBC, in its wisdom, has chosen to let this grumpy sage loose on the subject of Modern Beauty and its supposed decline. As a sop to more progressive thinking, it has also got me in to argue the opposite line in a film called Ugly Beauty. Of course, what nobody can, will or should doubt is that beauty is a mightily elusive subject. Guided only by the sound governing principle that Scruton is always wrong about everything, I decided to tackle the most famous contemporary artists I could think of, and to accuse all of them of occasionally making beautiful things. Jeff Koons, Carl Andre, Damien Hirst, Yoko Ono, Anish Kapoor – if Scruton looked down on them, they were in.
The best fun I had was hunting down Andre. He, of course, was responsible for the most notorious art scandal of the post-war years, the so-called ”Tate Bricks” affair. Nowadays, with Tate Modern open and thriving as the most popular museum of modern art in the world, the bricks would hardly cause a tremble on the national art front. But, back in 1976, they triggered the mother of all aesthetic earthquakes.
Andre turned out to be a delightful little man, with a ready giggle and an evident joy in life. Launching quickly into an excited Scottish accent, he imitated hilariously the stern television tones of the disapproving Fyfe Robertson: ”These bloody bricks are worth nothing at all.” Andre refused to be filmed, but was happy to talk, and did so beautifully and convincingly, railing against a society that could no longer see the beauty of its own materials. When I asked him about tin, he grew ecstatic. When I asked about magnesium, he became poetic. When I returned to the subject of the bricks, he advised me only to look carefully at their surface.
Andre does what all important artists do: he teaches us to see. Hurry past a plate of magnesium in a DIY store and you will never savour it. But look at it properly, in a Carl Andre sculpture, allow Andre to guide you across it, and you will find textural beauty staring at you from under your nose.
Koons was more of a problem for me. Armed only with the sound advice of John Ruskin – ”Remember that the most beautiful things in the world are the most useless” – I tiptoed into his kitsch world expecting to be challenged. Instead, I was charmed. Tate Modern has a new room filled with Koons’s mirror pieces, based on famous cartoon characters, and the last thing I was prepared for in there was tristesse. But there it was. The cartoon reflections kept shifting gorgeously, then disappearing, and seemed to speak of the transitoriness of earthly pleasures as eloquently as the painted reflections of a rose on a Caravaggio vase. Here, then, was beautiful proof of how good an artist Koons can be.
And that’s the point. I don’t find Koons beautiful all the time, and neither will you. If the beauty of art were reliable, we could serve it in a tin and gorge on it, day in, day out. But it isn’t. Beauty speaks only when you allow it. And that means some of the duty for finding it lies with the observer. As Ralph Waldo Emerson put it: ”Though we travel the world over to find the beautiful, we must carry it with us or we find it not.”
That is something else I would love to tattoo onto Roger Scruton’s forehead. The space is certainly there.