Rejecting art as transgression

It was about five years ago, in 2009, that Roger Scruton’s essay, ‘Beauty and Desecration,’ appeared in City Journal. What is remarkable about the essay is that we had nearly forgotten that art was, until quite recently, not at all concerned with the transgressive and provocative. In fact, it is only after 1930, according to Scruton, that the view that the purpose of art is to desecrate won out and is now taken to be common sense in the art world.

Certainly, though Scruton leaves the historical explanation out of this short essay, the half-death of God lies behind the project of desecration, and the full death of God is its aim. From documentary filmmaking to performance art, from avant-garde theater to gruesome and melancholic portraiture, the claim that there are higher values than the merely transient is to be shown as false and ridiculous, as farcical and politically naive: a beautiful woman is a piece of artificial filth manufactured by technology, illusion, and false ideals. I say the ‘half-death of God’ because one cannot call the status quo into question unless one seeks to uproot and overturn a quasi-living distinction between the merely transient (my preoccupations, pleasures, appetites, desires) and what is beyond the here and now (the beautiful, the good, the true). The point, more often than not, is to show up the higher as nothing but crap–or power or lust or aggression. Full desecration would end the project of desecration. Scruton has it just right when he states that postmodern culture ‘is a loveless culture, determined to portray the human world as unlovable.’

How off the mark is the leftist view that art must be political! There is a difference between something’s being about the political (say, Nadine Gordimer novels) and something’s actually being a political act. Throwing a rock at the enemy is a political act; throwing a metaphorical rock at the state in the form of a poem is not.

Much would have to be changed about how we regard ourselves and the world if we were to regard art–I mean: the art of our time–as twined with the beautiful and the good. Could we listen instead to what Nietzsche took to be more or less obviously true: that the aim of art is to glorify? In Book Two of The Gay Science, he writes, ‘Artists constantly glorify–they do nothing else–and in particular all those states and things reputed to give man occasion for once to feel good, or great, or drunk, or merry, or well and wise.’

In the following post, I mean to follow this thread. I believe that there are not one but two legitimate aims of art: to glorify the beautiful and to bring into being greater plenitude.