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Mikolaj Sławkowski-Rode, 'Art in the Life of Culture and Mankind, An Interview with Roger Scruto

The following interview was first published in Polish in Arttak 3 (10) 2014, a fine arts quarterly. The original English version of the interview appears here for the first time.Photography by Stanislaw Loba.

Front cover of Arttak 3 (10) 2014, featuring interview with Roger Scruton, and several short pieces on his aesthetics by Mikolaj Slawkowski-Rode, Zofia Rosinska, and Ryszard Legutko.

A short article by Zofia Rosinska, professor of philosophy involved with the Humane Philosophy Project at Warsaw University.

Art in the Life of Culture and Mankind
An Interview with Roger Scruton

Mikołaj Sławkowski-Rode: T.S. Eliot in ‘Tradition and Individual Talent’ asserted that ‘What happens when a new work of art is created is something that happens simultaneously to all the works of art that preceded it’. Eliot the Modernist was trying to rescue tradition from the idolatry of artistic genius, which eclipses the relation of the individual artist to the wider context of the tradition on which he depends, and to which he contributes. In the post-modern age, the role of artistic genius is widely questioned; indeed celebrated artists themselves frequently declare that they’re no better or more talented than anyone else. However it is not clear that this development has been accompanied by the return to tradition that Eliot advocates. Do you think that Eliot’s worry about the role of tradition is still the most urgent concern for contemporary art, or are a new set of challenges more pressing in post-modernity?

Roger Scruton: The cult of genius arose in the 18th century, in part because the Romantic Movement emphasised the originality and individuality of the artist as a necessary part of what works of art express. There was no place for ordinary, day-to-day or merely decorative art. ‘Works of genius or nothing’ was the demand of the day. In the ‘postmodern’ condition – itself a fiction in the brains of people who have no real love of art but a great love for themselves as the dividers and rulers of history – the slogan is repeated. ‘Works of genius or nothing’. And since there are no works of genius (or none perceivable to the ‘postmodern’ sensibility) the solution is to produce nothing instead. Or rather, not nothing, but Nothing. Vast, impertinent and ostentatious heaps of Nothing like Tracy Emin’s bed or Damian Hirst’s sharks in aspic.

But in fact, as Eliot was trying to point out in that great essay, originality is not opposed to tradition, but on the contrary depends on it. Hence if you destroy the tradition, there will be no works of genius. The task of the true artist is to express his individuality in the terms made available to him by the tradition, and in doing so to give objective form to subjective feeling, as Beethoven did in his late quartets, or Michelangelo in his pietàs. Hence the truly individual artist also renews and re-arranges the tradition. By following it, he changes it. A tradition is a living thing, and always new because it is old.

It is difficult to belong to a tradition when the tradition is no longer accepted as a lingua franca. That is why you are right to imply that the question of the role of tradition is of great urgency for us. You see this strongly in the art of painting. More and more young painters today are looking for the way back to the pictorial language developed over centuries in Western civilisation. They are looking for a way to restore the human form, the shapes of the earth and the light of the sun to their central and traditional place in our understanding. In particular they want to return to the art of representing the human form as something both outside the world of objects and fully a part of it. Many have gathered around figures like Odd Nerdrum in Norway, or the painters of the Florence Art Academy, in order to learn again what the tradition has to teach about light, texture and the life of colour in the world of human movement. And the question they have is this: are we reviving the tradition, or merely copying it? And what is the difference?

That question was raised about the tradition of tonality in music by Wagner in his great drama Die Meistersinger, and since I have nothing to add to what Wagner said, I recommend the reader to go away and listen. Well, that’s not entirely true, I have something to add, namely that Wagner could invoke a community of taste through which the new becomes part of the old. Do we have a community of taste now? There is a chasm opened up between the lovers of art and the art establishment which pretends to represent them – those ‘postmodern’ critics who have got beyond the realm of meaning – and another chasm between the lovers of art and the denizens of popular culture.

MSR: Your new novel Notes From Underground has come out this year and The Disappeared is due to come out soon. You are also the author of two operas (The Minister and Violet), philosophical dialogues, and many poems. In your opinion and experience what is the relation between working on philosophy and artistic creation?

RS: There is very little relation between philosophy as practised by Kant, say, and artistic creation. But philosophy is not one thing. Plato was an artist, and in The Symposium he sets a fairly high artistic standard, endowing his reflections with an ironic dimension that shows exactly why the erotic life is a problem for us, and not just a pleasure. I don’t think Kierkegaard’s philosophy would be worth as much to us were it not for the artistry of his account of Abraham and Isaac, or for that intriguing work of fiction, The Diary of a Seducer. And then, during the course of the 20th century, philosophy found itself with an altogether novel task, which was that of recording and exploring the inner life of man on the edge of society. Assumptions about the integrity of human experience, which could more easily be made in epochs of shared religion, were already beginning to vanish in the works of Hegel. By the early years of the 20th century a new human type had emerged in Europe, enjoying an intense inner life of which he was not in full possession. This modern sensibility must be understood if we are to know what philosophy can offer us by way of a consolation. And one of the tasks of art is to frame the inner life, to put ‘what it is like’ directly before us, so that we recognize it and can see its true significance.

I therefore think that there are areas where the interests of philosophy and the interests of art are interwoven – in particular those areas where our being is put in question, either by social and political reality, or through the loss of old frameworks of value. That is why Sartre wrote La nausée – to illustrate the way in which ordinary things can be put in question by a disorientated self-consciousness. That novel is not great literature, in my view, but it is passable literature, which presents a philosophical predicament in a new way.

Like Plato I don’t think the philosophy of sex can be presented in a bundle of abstract arguments. There is a complex phenomenology involved. In sexual experience judgment and desire are interwoven, and self-identity and community sentiment are prefigured in every sensation. Modern sexological literature ignores all this. Hence it make a mockery of sexual feeling, and fails to show what is at stake in the expression of it. As a result it lends itself to the libertarian and nihilistic attitudes that prevail in our culture today.

Yet we all know that rape is not just bad in the way that it is bad to be spat upon, that paedophilia is an act of cruelty and destruction, that sexual feeling is instilled throughout with the distinctions between the pure and the impure and the sacred and the profane. I try to show this in my book on Sexual Desire. But I think I got a lot further in Phryne’s Symposium, in which I imitated Plato’s method and dramatized the points rather than argued them. And then, in The Disappeared, I think I got even closer to the heart of the matter, by finding a fictional form that wrapped all the problems together in a single story.

MSR: In Death Devoted Heart you explain Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde as a meditation on the struggle to overcome otherness in the most intimate of human relations. Does art ennoble our experience of passion or merely mythologise it?

RS: Mythologizing is sometimes a way of ennobling – everything depends, as Wagner saw, on whether the myth contains a ‘concealed deep truth’, as religion does. Art can trivialize and desecrate our experience of sexual passion, as does so much modern art and literature, but it can also ennoble it – without necessarily endorsing it. Tolstoy ennobles passion in his portrait of Anna Karenina; but he does not represent it as the right path for Anna to take. On the contrary. Only a noble person, in the grip of noble feelings, could fall as Anna fell; and it would be better if she had taken another path.

Art presents us with ideal forms of our experiences – ‘aesthetic ideas’, as Kant put it. We cannot put these things into plain words. They are bound up with an immediate experience. But that experience, conveyed in art, has a ‘redeeming’ quality. It shows us that it is good to be the kind of thing that we are, even if we suffer for it. The world is justified by art, and it is justified in us.

MSR: Many people seek a more individual justification in art, a justification of their particular circumstances and choices. This is offered in popular culture: soap operas, pop music etc. Not finding the same sentiment in high culture they turn away from it. Would you say high art, the art which offers a justification of the human condition, and not merely an excuse for the everyday, is something available only to a few?

RS: Cultural products are of two kinds: mirrors and windows. Soap operas, pop music and so on serve as mirrors of the everyday, in which the ordinary person sees slightly distorted but usually cheerful reflections of the life that he leads. Real art is a window out of this world, in which the viewer sees another landscape – one inaccessible to everyday experience, but showing, nevertheless, a form of redemption from ordinary things. Those visions are sometimes called ‘transcendental’, since they show us not what we are, nor what we could be, but what we should aspire to be, if we are to be truly admirable in each other’s eyes. You see the difference between the mirror and the window very clearly by comparing Tracey Emin’s bed with Delacroix’s bed, as I do in my film ‘Why Beauty Matters’.

MSR: You have often emphasized the importance of functional types of beauty which are understood in the wider context of human life and their various roles in it. To what extent do you think the fine arts possess functions, and if so are these functions important for our appreciation of fine art?

RS: Aesthetic judgment is an inescapable part of rationality, and in functional matters it is a guide to what we are doing. It leads us to the end, so that we are not tyrannised by the means.

In all ordinary things that matter – decorating, building, furnishing, dressing, speaking, moving – we are in the grip of aesthetic considerations. We can ignore them, or facetiously misapply them. But they are part of being fully responsive to our situation as social beings. When you decorate a room you are looking for the appearance that is right – and right means right for others as well as yourself. Through aesthetic reasoning we coordinate our place in the world. It is part of building a home, of turning the strange to the familiar and the lost to the possessed. Think of laying a table for guests: it is your way of bringing peace and harmony to those who sit at it. The function and the aesthetic requirements are separable. But if you ignore aesthetic requirements you won’t achieve the purpose well.

In the 18th century people followed Batteux in distinguishing fine art from useful art. In fine art – music, poetry, painting – the function lies in the aesthetic value, and cannot be distinguished from it.

The problem case is architecture. Where do aesthetic values fit in, and how? Is architecture a fine art, a useful art, or something in between? I have always argued (see The Aesthetics of Architecture) that aesthetic values must come first in architecture, since they define the task. Louis Sullivan famously said that ‘form follows function’. I argue that that is the opposite of the truth. In architecture ‘function follows form’. If the building looks right than we will fit our functions into it. When people disobey this maxim they don’t merely produce ugly things; they produce temporary and ecologically destructive things. It is why modern buildings cannot change their function and usually have to be demolished after 20 years.

MSR: Goethe very famously said that architecture is frozen music. This formulation of course resonates Plato’s even more famous idea that no change in musical harmony goes without a broader social and political transformation. Extending the parable would you say modern music froze into contemporary architecture?

RS: The suggestion is interesting. In both modern music and modern architecture there has been a rejection of the organic paradigm in favour of the mechanical. Music becomes sound effects, arranged in some permutational way. Architecture becomes geometry, without reference to the natural contours and organic growth that inspired the classical tradition. But you should not isolate architecture from the political and economic forces that compel it: people used to build in order to dwell; now they build in order to sell.

MSR: There is a tendency in some contemporary art to treat transgression as the only remaining means of authentic expression. This tendency might seem surprising in the context of the prevalent ideology of political correctness, which essentially constitutes a restriction on expression. Given this apparent conflict it is curious that these two views can live together so comfortably (indeed to criticise the transgresiveness of art can itself be politically incorrect!). Would you say political correctness and trasgresiveness in art are connected, and if so is there common root?

RS: It is obvious that political correctness and transgression are connected, since they both have the same source: which is the repudiation of the inherited culture of our civilisation. Being politically correct means censoring out old distinctions, old hierarchies, old forms of manners, and old forms of judgment. Transgression in modern art usually means not censoring those things out but desecrating them, like Gilbert and George in their childish collages and assemblages devoted to excreting on Christ. Both attitudes arise because something formerly revered is being dragged down into the realm of the cast-out and the ordinary.

MSR: Do you think it is possible we are awaiting a revival of a more humane understanding of artistic creation and its role in human understanding of the world and our place in it?

RS: I am awaiting such a revival. I don’t know about the rest of my contemporaries. I suspect that, as Spengler anticipated, we are approaching a time when people will no longer know what you mean by the ‘humane’ understanding of art. Art will have become something that people do, like vomiting, and which perhaps has to be controlled by drugs or confined to special places where you can do it without being a nuisance to others.

But then, in such circumstances, a different kind of art will emerge underground, the art of the catacombs, which will be created by people like Jan and Betka in Notes from Underground. It will be created from the raw material of love and need and compassion. But the masses won’t know anything about this art, any more than they could see the charioteer in the famous statue in Delphi, or the figures concealed within the bronze heads of Reg Butler.

MSR: Jan and Betka’s life in a world re-enchanted by art is a way for them to escape the reality they reject. Their love for each other however pulls them apart as much as it brings them together. When resisting the pressures pushing them underground their relationship takes form and becomes a reality, but it bursts like an air bubble surfacing when that pressure is lifted. The world they end up in is as hostile to human emotion as it is to the art expressing it. Am I correctly interpreting their story as suggesting that art is a form of refuge, but a refuge which also exposes the vulnerability of those who seek it, and can become their undoing?

RS: Possibly. But the thing that undoes you might also be the thing that redeems you. As Jan says, looking back on it. He was offered ‘the only known reason for his life’. No matter that it has gone forever, for that will be true, one day, of his life as well.


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