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Tuesday, September 29, 2020
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Reader’s comment: The rise of barbarism

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In response to Laura Perrins: Scruton on beauty – and the beasts who destroy it, PierrePendre wrote:

Beauty matters as an imperative of psychological well-being; a society that nurtures an aesthetic of beauty is likely to be a healthy society in all its respects. The 20th century West consciously abandoned beauty as an ideal in favour of realism and an aesthetic of ugliness. Music, painting, sculpture, architecture and to a lesser degree literature have been captured by barbarians and a cult of brutalism which is gradually numbing that ability to comprehend the world which is part of our human inheritance.

What is breathtaking about the cave paintings of Lascaux is their sheer beauty. Primitive men did not leave behind simple scrawls although the work tends to be minimal. They created works of art that are as fresh today as when they were painted. They understood beauty and expressed it with a developed artistic sense. The first thing that a visitor noticed in the Communist capitals of eastern Europe right up to the end of the Soviet empire was their greyness, the total lack of colour which is so essential to our aesthetic imagination. A dowdy environment in which people felt dowdy and uninspired because inspiration came second to survival.

The 19th century was the high point of the Western aesthetic and still survives interpretively because our individual desire for beauty survives despite the constant assault of false prophets and their false gods. Beauty survives but bit by bit and year by year is replaced by a repellent worship of deliberate tawdriness. I bought the critically-acclaimed Copenhagen Ring not realising that its Wotan was a clapped-out drunk, its Siegmund a harassed travelling salesman, Sieglinde a depressed housewife, probably with varicose veins. The whole concept made nonsense of Wagner’s unique epic but our supposed cultural leaders adored it.

How did this disaster – for that is what the cult of ugliness is – happen? We owe much of our centuries-old aesthetic inheritance to the Catholic church. The rise of barbarism seems to have coincided with the rise and triumph of materialist secularism and our loss of faith in what motivated and gave sense to the hard lives of the cave artists of Lascaux.

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