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Author Topic: Essay: Beauty and Desecration  (Read 23002 times)
Justan
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« on: November 19, 2009, 11:46:43 AM »
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Foreword: This is an interesting if windy essay on the transition of art/poetry/music away from historical themes of beauty and ever more deeply into the realm of what the author terms “transgression” and “betrayal” of earlier forms of morality.

Grab a cup of coffee and devote about 15 minutes to reading the essay. Following are the first few paragraphs and there is a link to the rest of the article, for those who are interested…


By Roger Scruton

At any time between 1750 and 1930, if you had asked an educated person to describe the goal of poetry, art, or music, “beauty” would have been the answer. And if you had asked what the point of that was, you would have learned that beauty is a value, as important in its way as truth and goodness, and indeed hardly distinguishable from them. Philosophers of the Enlightenment saw beauty as a way in which lasting moral and spiritual values acquire sensuous form. And no Romantic painter, musician, or writer would have denied that beauty was the final purpose of his art.

At some time during the aftermath of modernism, beauty ceased to receive those tributes. Art increasingly aimed to disturb, subvert, or transgress moral certainties, and it was not beauty but originality—however achieved and at whatever moral cost—that won the prizes. Indeed, there arose a widespread suspicion of beauty as next in line to kitsch—something too sweet and inoffensive for the serious modern artist to pursue. In a seminal essay—“Avant-Garde and Kitsch,” published in Partisan Review in 1939—critic Clement Greenberg starkly contrasted the avant-garde of his day with the figurative painting that competed with it, dismissing the latter (not just Norman Rockwell, but greats like Edward Hopper) as derivative and without lasting significance. The avant-garde, for Greenberg, promoted the disturbing and the provocative over the soothing and the decorative, and that was why we should admire it.

The value of abstract art, Greenberg claimed, lay not in beauty but in expression. This emphasis on expression was a legacy of the Romantic movement; but now it was joined by the conviction that the artist is outside bourgeois society, defined in opposition to it, so that artistic self-expression is at the same time a transgression of ordinary moral norms. We find this posture overtly adopted in the art of Austria and Germany between the wars—for example, in the paintings and drawings of Georg Grosz, in Alban Berg’s opera Lulu (a loving portrait of a woman whose only discernible goal is moral chaos), and in the seedy novels of Heinrich Mann. And the cult of transgression is a leading theme of the postwar literature of France—from the writings of Georges Bataille, Jean Genet, and Jean-Paul Sartre to the bleak emptiness of the nouveau roman.


The rest: http://www.city-journal.org/2009/19_2_beauty.html
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Rob C
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« Reply #1 on: November 19, 2009, 01:28:56 PM »
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Interesting read, Justan, even it there is a danger that the author might be extrapolating somewhat further than he legitimately might.

However, I do think he is quite right in the overall sense of his essay. Many examples of this current disregard - disrespect, even, for beauty come to mind. I watched a programe on BBC FOUR tv last night about the state of contemporary art in Britain. It had short segments on various artists and also visited some art school shows. All I can say is that after the hour of watching, I suddenly felt much more self-satisfied with my own output - meagre as it might be right now - and very firmly of the opinion that the current crop of art students should either be looking for its money back or, worse, was untalented enough actually to be proud of the rubbish it had stuck up on the walls. Speaking of walls, one artist interviewed (not a student) had licked a wall until his tongue bled and the resulting mess was considered art. Indeed.

From the mid 60s until some time in the 70s I had a subscription to Playboy (US edition). I used to leave it lying around the house and never felt troubled that either my son or daughter might care to look through it. In my opinion, the pictures were mainly pretty beautiful and not a million miles from where I was heading with my own work. The kids had no problem accepting models as part of everyday life - in fact, my son who was about eleven at the time, had the pleasure of sitting in the back seat of our hire-car in Rhodes one night between two of the UK's top Page 3 girls as we drove back to the hotel after dinner during a calendar shoot on which our kids had been brought along for a holiday. The girls were rather merry at the time... could have been my personality but was probably the Greek vintages instead; my son probably had nothing to do with it. Anyway, back to Playboy. There came the time when it changed, slowly, from what it had been into something that resembled, in my view, Penthouse. I did not like Penthouse. I would not have been happy that my kids might come across something that resembled Penthouse, particularly at home. I cancelled the subscription to Playboy. Whilst not equating the then Playboy with an art gallery, the changes there were certainly being echoed down many other avenues.

Oddly, considering the brayings of the feminist movements, political correctness and their combined contributions to the eventual demise of my calendar business, it's interesting that the overarching effect has not been what those people had expected: rather than simply sanitising the world's media, they achieved the opposite effect of driving out much that merely put women up there on an anassailable pedestal and turned the ground over to the pornographers. Some alternative! And now, if you want to see good-looking women without their clothes on, where do you go? Exactly! Right into the heart of the women's world - the fashion magazines. Now is that a feminist victory or the annihilation of the movement at source, in the very heart of the gender?

As the author indicates, if you kill off beauty you fill the void with the cult of the ugly, the corrupt and the profane.

Rob C

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LKaven
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« Reply #2 on: November 19, 2009, 01:57:23 PM »
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It seems that this author has overlooked the inherent existentialism in modernist art, that which helps to underwrite its humanistic nature.  The point of Theater of the Absurd, for example, is to point out the absurdity of a world devoid of commitment and engagement with being in the world.  Modernism is not a celebration of emptiness, but a cry against it.  The celebration of love, truth, justice, and beauty is of its essence.  In doing so, he has also overlooked the difference between art and entertainment as he inveighs against films and music that have never pretended to be high art.  A vague and florid essay all in all.
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Rob C
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« Reply #3 on: November 19, 2009, 02:26:49 PM »
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Quote from: LKaven
It seems that this author has overlooked the inherent existentialism in modernist art, that which helps to underwrite its humanistic nature.  The point of Theater of the Absurd, for example, is to point out the absurdity of a world devoid of commitment and engagement with being in the world.  Modernism is not a celebration of emptiness, but a cry against it.  The celebration of love, truth, justice, and beauty is of its essence.  In doing so, he has also overlooked the difference between art and entertainment as he inveighs against films and music that have never pretended to be high art.  A vague and florid essay all in all.




Perhaps not 'high' art, whatever that might be defined to be, but why should there be no beauty in film or music? Though you have not written so in that many words, you could be seen to be suggesting they are mutually exclusive.

Is there no connection between the graphic shock of horror/crime/sex movies and the lack of beauty? Is it, in fact, worse if beauty is present in such cases? Beauty, its lack, morality, they all tend to become interconnected in life; every little stone that tumbles into the water creates such ripples. You can read it here in the forum too - nothing exists of its own, within its own little vacuum; one man's praise is another's condemnation. Perhaps beauty is one of the few qualities that stands a chance of being unambiguous, but then again, is it simply an expression of a cultural expectation, destined to horrify those for whom it is alien?

It's late; I'm hungry but know it is just the pangs of comfort feeding making themselves felt. I shall resist their siren call and shut down the computer and drift off to vegetate before the other screen until such time as I feel inclined to dream.

Buenas noches, those of you still awake.

Rob C
« Last Edit: November 19, 2009, 02:27:42 PM by Rob C » Logged

Geoff Wittig
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« Reply #4 on: November 20, 2009, 05:39:20 PM »
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Quote from: LKaven
It seems that this author has overlooked the inherent existentialism in modernist art, that which helps to underwrite its humanistic nature.  The point of Theater of the Absurd, for example, is to point out the absurdity of a world devoid of commitment and engagement with being in the world.  Modernism is not a celebration of emptiness, but a cry against it.  The celebration of love, truth, justice, and beauty is of its essence.  In doing so, he has also overlooked the difference between art and entertainment as he inveighs against films and music that have never pretended to be high art.  A vague and florid essay all in all.

Florid, maybe, but vague? I don't really think so. There appears to be a bit of a gulf in art criticism/theory between the popular and the 'academy'. Most of us amateurs and phillistines instantly grasp what Roger Scruton is saying. There is a real disconnect between any model of beauty comprehensible to a lay audience, and the 'beauty' notionally demonstrated by a rotting shark carcass in a glass tank or Tracy Emin's trash-as-art. I'm not suggesting that 'art' has to conform to some Hallmark Card æsthetic, but it's self-evident that a lot of contemporary art depends on gratuitous offense for its impact.

You also may be muddying the waters a bit with your terminology. Modernism in art, as generally understood, sought to drop the sentimentality and ornament of Romanticism in favor of clearly communicated truths and the 'beauty of the thing itself'. In photographic terms the pictorialists were romantics, while the 'group f:64' were modernists. Edward Weston in his prime was a perfect example of high modernism—think 'pepper'. No sentiment or artifice, just the thing itself with its own intrinsic beauty.

Of course, I could be wrong about everything. But then, according to Foucault, Derrida et al, we're all of us always wrong about everything anyway.  
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Misirlou
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« Reply #5 on: November 20, 2009, 06:10:30 PM »
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Quote from: Geoff Wittig
Florid, maybe, but vague? I don't really think so. There appears to be a bit of a gulf in art criticism/theory between the popular and the 'academy'. Most of us amateurs and phillistines instantly grasp what Roger Scruton is saying. There is a real disconnect between any model of beauty comprehensible to a lay audience, and the 'beauty' notionally demonstrated by a rotting shark carcass in a glass tank or Tracy Emin's trash-as-art. I'm not suggesting that 'art' has to conform to some Hallmark Card æsthetic, but it's self-evident that a lot of contemporary art depends on gratuitous offense for its impact.

I couldn't agree more. I dabbled in gratuitous impact thing myself when I was younger, but now I have absolutely no interest in doing that kind of work, or viewing any of it either. It seems like I encounter more and more artists who are trying to "challenge" me with this or that political motive now than I could ever possibly pay attention to.

We may have come full circle. The decaying-body-parts-as-art crowd is now the boring establishment, as far as I'm concerned.
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Geoff Wittig
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« Reply #6 on: November 20, 2009, 09:27:08 PM »
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Quote from: Misirlou
We may have come full circle. The decaying-body-parts-as-art crowd is now the boring establishment, as far as I'm concerned.

Katherine Thayer made precisely this point in her elegant essay in Lenswork #53. She notes that ironic, self-referential and intentionally unpleasant art has become such an accepted standard that pictorially beautiful, nature-inspired art is now subversive.
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Rob C
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« Reply #7 on: November 21, 2009, 02:35:26 AM »
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Sort of reminds me of Kay Starr's Wheel of Fortune...

Rob C
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David Sutton
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« Reply #8 on: November 21, 2009, 03:59:53 AM »
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This essay reminds me of the question of whether people attach less importance to beauty now than in the past. I don't know the answer to that. Certainly my feeling is that many people today expect to only see it in context, in other words in a box, whether that be a frame or a stage, and have little time for its appreciation as part of their everyday lives. I am thinking specifically of the Washington Post experiment with Joshua Bell
http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/conte...7040401721.html
David
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Geoff Wittig
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« Reply #9 on: November 21, 2009, 07:42:48 AM »
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Quote from: Taquin
This essay reminds me of the question of whether people attach less importance to beauty now than in the past. I don't know the answer to that. Certainly my feeling is that many people today expect to only see it in context, in other words in a box, whether that be a frame or a stage, and have little time for its appreciation as part of their everyday lives. I am thinking specifically of the Washington Post experiment with Joshua Bell
http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/conte...7040401721.html
David

That Washington Post piece is simply hilarious. Kudos to the folks who thought it up.

It goes right to the heart of what motivated William Morris and his followers in the arts & crafts movement of the late 19th century. They noted that the experience of beauty and craft had disappeared from the lives of virtually all workers in industrial Britain. Instead of hand-crafting chairs or brooms in their cottages, workers were slogging away on assembly lines cranking out industrial dreck. Any experience of beauty was squeezed right out of life for most people. Of course, the products of Morris's arts & crafts project ended up as fine art that was far too expensive for working class folks, and they had about as much impact on industrial society as a fly hitting the windshield of an 18-wheeler going 85 mph.
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Rob C
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« Reply #10 on: November 21, 2009, 10:52:33 AM »
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I think the Washington Post loaded the dice to suit the angle it was pushing.

Next to the bagpipe, the violin is the most anti-social instrument that you can name, worse even than a drum.

I guess the moral is that remove the violin from the dinner-jacket circuit, the complete orchestra, and it is revealed in its splendour for what it is; quite what relationship it claims to beauty defeats me.

Rob C
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David Sutton
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« Reply #11 on: November 21, 2009, 03:00:28 PM »
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Quote from: Rob C
I think the Washington Post loaded the dice to suit the angle it was pushing.

Next to the bagpipe, the violin is the most anti-social instrument that you can name, worse even than a drum.

I guess the moral is that remove the violin from the dinner-jacket circuit, the complete orchestra, and it is revealed in its splendour for what it is; quite what relationship it claims to beauty defeats me.

Rob C

Roberto! You have obviously not tried working in a room next to a teenager practising drums. Whether you like violin or not, you can't deny that there are moments when it stops.
David
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Rob C
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« Reply #12 on: November 21, 2009, 04:36:05 PM »
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Quote from: Taquin
Roberto! You have obviously not tried working in a room next to a teenager practising drums. Whether you like violin or not, you can't deny that there are moments when it stops.
David




David, if the teenager is yours, have you considered violence? Have the neighbours?

;-)

Rob C
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Ray
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« Reply #13 on: November 21, 2009, 08:43:31 PM »
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I get the impression that many of the points made in this article by Roger Scruton, lamenting an apparent desecration of beauty in much of modern art, could apply in almost any age. I get a sense here, amongst the flowery language and lofty ideals, of an older person complaining and decrying the fact that 'things are not what they used to be when I was young', as many old people tend to do.

We should not forget that what most people consider to be beautiful is largely a result of upbringing and familiarity. It would not be difficult to imagine an ancient Egyptian, familiar with the very stylised figures and carvings that were the norm in ancient Egypt, upon seeing for the first time the (then) modern Greek sculptures depicting so clearly every muscle of the naked human form, might recoil in revulsion.

It is often said that music is the universal language. Not true at all. One has to become familiar with, and make an effort, to appreciate, for example, Arabian music with its quarter tones. Those of us who appreciate opera and classical music, tend to find most modern pop music pretty dreadful, and those who are really into modern pop music tend to find calssical music pretty insipid and boring.

Those of us who really appreciate and find beauty in the music of Beethoven, should not forget that many people who lived in the era when Beethoven was composing, who were steeped in the more traditional and classical forms of Bach and Mozart, found a lot of Beethoven's works pretty dreadful and downright ugly.

It wouldn't susrprise me, if one were to do some historical research and dig into the archives of that era, one would come across an article of very similar tone to Roger Scruton's, decrying this awful trend in modern music towards ugliness, started by Beethoven.

One thing I have to thank Roger Scruton for, in this article, is his reference to the production of Mozart's Die Entführung, directed by Calixto Bieito. Is this avaliable on Blu-ray? (I just checked, and it appears not. Sigh!)

Until I see this (shall we say ultra-realistic) version of this opera, I shouldn't comment on specifics. But in general terms, I can say that operas tend to have silly and unrealistic plots. With drama in general (plays and novels), there's a certain capacity for 'suspension of disbelief' required from the audience. With opera, that capacity for suspension of disbelief needs to be very high. One of Mozart's most popular operas, if not the most popular, The Magic Flute, is totally silly. If it wasn't for the music, one might think one was watching an episode of Sesame Street.

It so often happens in opera, the music is sublime but the plot is silly. Wagner's Ring cycle is considered to be one of the greatest achievments of a marriage between drama and music, yet so often the stage work and acting is turgid, bombastic, boring and plain silly. I really wish someone like Steven Spielberg would modify the drama into something worth watching.

I can only assume that Calixto Bieto tried to make that silly opera by Mozart more credible to a modern audience by injecting a bit of realism into the plot.

There's an interesting turning point in the history of opera around the time of Wagner when Nietsche became dissatisfied with Wagner's heavily romanticised, unrealistic and soporific depictions of ancient myths in his operas. The first performances of Bizet's Carmen were like a breath of fresh air to Nietsche. This was opera verissimo for the first time. A plot that did not require super-human effort in suspension of disbelief, a plot that resonated with the experiences of ordinary people, whether personally or now through the ABC news.
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Rob C
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« Reply #14 on: November 22, 2009, 03:24:16 AM »
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There you are, Ray, even music gets Photoshopped!

But I am not sure that the idea of beauty should be applied to music, any more than to literature. I tend to believe, increasingly so, that beauty belongs in the visible spectrum and that the other senses are something very else, nothing at all to do with any notions of beauty and having appeal to emotions completely different from those inspired by beauty This may be somewhat deeper an idea than simply an exercise in semantics.

Rob C
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Ben Rubinstein
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« Reply #15 on: November 22, 2009, 08:28:52 AM »
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Could it be that the time will come when beauty for beauties sake will become popular again as people are fed up of strife and unhappiness whether portrayed in real life or as an artistic representation of such? If beauty is escapism then I prefer that to delving into what is wrong with this world as a part of my leasure time. I have to live with a significant portion of unhappiness, why wallow in it as well?

I don't think I'm very sophisticated though. I'd take beauty any day over sadness. My cup is half full as far as far as my art is concerned. I'm reminded of a line from a well known psalm. 'From the depths I call to G-d'. When you are in the dark you want to look towards the light, not delve further and rejoice in the lack of light.

Darkness as art, it's an OK place to visit but I wouldn't want to live there.

As I said, I'm not very sophisticated...  
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Ray
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« Reply #16 on: November 22, 2009, 09:21:58 AM »
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Quote from: Rob C
There you are, Ray, even music gets Photoshopped!

Rob,
When I bought my first computer with CD-ROM drive, about 15 years ago, for the purpose of processing some of my slides which I'd had scanned by Kodak onto Photo-CD, I was so fed up with the long time it took an 18mb image to open on my screen (a full 2 minutes), I took to practising scales on the piano instead of making a cup of tea.
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Ray
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« Reply #17 on: November 22, 2009, 09:34:18 AM »
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Quote from: pom
Could it be that the time will come when beauty for beauties sake will become popular again as people are fed up of strife and unhappiness whether portrayed in real life or as an artistic representation of such? If beauty is escapism then I prefer that to delving into what is wrong with this world as a part of my leasure time. I have to live with a significant portion of unhappiness, why wallow in it as well?


Never in the history of humanity have you had such opportunity to escape into any form of beauty that tickles your fancy.

Museums, art galleries, finely printed art and photography books, the internet, even HD images of art works on Blu-ray, are all now available. A smorgasboard of beauty from the beginning of civilisation is laid at your feet. What more do you want? Complain about a few works that don't meet your standards?  
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Misirlou
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« Reply #18 on: November 23, 2009, 10:29:31 AM »
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Quote from: Geoff Wittig
That Washington Post piece is simply hilarious. Kudos to the folks who thought it up.

It goes right to the heart of what motivated William Morris and his followers in the arts & crafts movement of the late 19th century. They noted that the experience of beauty and craft had disappeared from the lives of virtually all workers in industrial Britain. Instead of hand-crafting chairs or brooms in their cottages, workers were slogging away on assembly lines cranking out industrial dreck. Any experience of beauty was squeezed right out of life for most people. Of course, the products of Morris's arts & crafts project ended up as fine art that was far too expensive for working class folks, and they had about as much impact on industrial society as a fly hitting the windshield of an 18-wheeler going 85 mph.

That is interesting. My wife and I bought an arts & crafts house in 2006, and we did a lot of research on the movement as part of our semi-restoration. I'm certain that a bit of the arts & crafts ethic rubbed off on us in the process. Of course, our Morris chair is a factory-made reproduction, because we can't begin to afford the real thing. Great chair though.

The house definitely crystalized some vague feelings we'd had. We spent a lot of time looking through "contemporary" McMansions and so forth before we settled on that particular house. In almost every way I can think of, the newer houses are easier to live with. But somehow, they never seemed like home. The troublesome old bungalow is just terrifically comfortable. No way we're ever leaving.
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LKaven
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« Reply #19 on: November 23, 2009, 04:45:45 PM »
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I still see this as a vague and florid essay, but maybe this is because I was trained in Ordinary Language Philosophy.

I don't understand why Scruton has to inveigh against people like Grosz and Sartre.  I feel he doesn't understand existentialism at all here.  Existentialism is a humanism, and theater of the absurd is far from a desecration of beauty, but an affirmation of it.  

Some of his targets are strawmen like Serrano, yet even there, what does he intend to uphold as sacred?  Religious prerogative?  But he also deals a sweeping denouncement of rap, as though it did not have either melody or harmony.  A glance at a spectrogram reveals that rap has both melody and harmony composed in the 4-5 simultaneous, distinct and expressive pitch formants of the vocal tract.

I actually do think that much of postmodernism is bankrupt, but that has mostly with its inability to articulate a clear metaphysics of any kind, and its susceptibility to fraud, and not due to its desecration of anything allegedly sacred.

I wonder what he thinks of modern jazz from 1945-1968.  Really, just curious on this one.

Luke
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