Beauty, Form, Redemption?

Photography is democratic: it puts into the hand of everyman the means to be his own recorder. To defend its artistic pretensions is to make everyman an artist.
Roger Scruton, ‘The Photographic Surrogate’, 1989 p.178

This morning, after breakfast but before I was truly awake I heard the third of Roger Scruton‘s ‘Points of View’, talks available ‘indefinitely’ as podcasts, but I was listening to the Sunday repeat on Radio 4. It seemed to me an error in programming, with Scruton’s contributions lacking the humour that usually makes these short talks entertaining as well as interesting – as too were the weekly ‘Letters from America‘ by the late Alistair Cooke that had formerly created and occupied this slot for as long as anyone living can remember.

In these three talks Scruton was giving us his views on what is and isn’t real art, and deservedly knocking much of what currently is lauded and sells for high prices. The first talk, Faking It, was a nice sally against “Artists like Damien Hirst” who  “try so hard to be challenging, that causing shock or offence becomes their main motivation.” Then ‘Kitsch‘ looked more at the preoccupation among 20th century artists with “what they perceived as the need to avoid kitsch and sentimentality” which has led to “a different kind of fake: cliche” and the deliberate parody of “pre-emptive kitsch.

In the final piece, ‘The Real Thing‘, Scruton identified and explained the three attributes of ‘real art’: Beauty, Form and Redemption. We may have slightly different ideas than him as to the first of these but can certainly understand his thoughts on form, even if we might not accept that real art always should aim to “take modern life in all its disconnectedness and bring it to fullness and resolution“.

There seems equally a desire for rose-tinted glasses in his final idea of ‘Redemption’, with talk of “proof that life is meaningful“… “triumph of dignity” …  “restore moral equilibrium“….”the face of love shining in the midst of desolation...” and so on. Would I want to restrict art to what sometimes seems an overly positive view of the world and the human condition? He ends his piece with the comment: “Real art is a work of love; fake art is a work of deception.” I’m rather happier with the second phrase than the first.

But though much of this talk, what came to my mind was the work of Walker Evans, which seemed in many ways a perfect fit to his definition of ‘real art’, despite his views on photography. I thought perhaps I would write more about his views on photography, and began doing just a little research. But then I thought frankly I can’t be bothered.  It’s sometimes strange that philosophers can be so blinkered in particular ways, and I have more important things to do. Perhaps even in my own minute and very limited way to change the world.

But if you feel up to it, you might like to read Stefan Best’s review of his ‘Photography and Representation’ or the 2009 paper by Dawn M Phillips, Photography and Causation: Responding to Scruton’s Scepticism, or Siran Changchang’s Representation of Painting and Representation of Photography for a view from the  Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing, the first of two articles on the work of Gerhard Richter. And I’m sure you will find much else, but I feel a pressing need to get some real work done and leave the angels on pins to others.

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