The Post-Modern Rebellion Against Beauty: Part 1

 Our insatiable longing for ever greater beauty and for union with it is itself evidence that we were made for something more, for something greater; it is an indicator that we are destined for a final end.  C.S. Lewis puts it excellently:

Creatures are not born with desires unless satisfaction for those desires exists. A baby feels hunger: well, there is such a thing as food. A duckling wants to swim: well, there is such a thing as water. Men feel sexual desire: well, there is such a thing as sex. If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world.

Our unsatisfied desire for beauty here on Earth is proof that we are made for Beauty that can only be found in another world. Beauty and our irresistible insatiable attraction to it are evidence of an objective final end, of Something that attracts us in a way that is beyond our control. To admit this transcendent end is to admit that it determines what we ought to do, because to accept a certain end automatically implies limiting oneself to the actions that lead towards it and denying oneself all those that lead away from it.

But this is unacceptable for the postmodern man who believes himself to be an ontologically autonomous “creator” of his own reality in which he is the sole determiner of the good and, ultimately, of the beautiful. The postmodern glorification of the self-determining individual allows room for nothing that challenges his absolute freedom, not even beauty. To admit that something is objectively beautiful regardless of his self-determining perception is to admit that there is an objective order that in some way conditions how he ought to think and act. Admission of beauty thus requires humility and deference. As Roger Scruton in his excellent book on the subject, “beauty makes a claim on us: it is a call to renounce our narcissism and look with reverence on the world.”

This claim of beauty challenges postmodern man’s absolute freedom and provokes him to reassert his autonomy by defying it. We find ourselves in a world that rebels against beauty and is rife with artistic ugliness. To quote Scruton again: “There is a desire to spoil beauty, in acts of aesthetic iconoclasm. Wherever beauty lies in wait for us, the desire to pre-empt its appeal can intervene, ensuring that its still small voice will not be heard behind the scenes of desecration.”

In his desecration of beauty, postmodern man declares that it is nothing more than an illusion, that the truth of reality is instead fundamentally ugly. If artistic beauty has any value, it is only in the fact that we can use it to cushion ourselves from the absurd and ugly world which we inhabit. As the great precursor of postmodernity, Nietzsche, put it, “we have art in order not to die from truth.”

In next week’s post, I will discuss how to respond to the postmodern claim that beauty is nothing more than an illusion.

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