Roger Scruton

Sharing a Home in the World



** What follows is only a brief excerpt. The full text is available in Conversations on Art and Aesthetics (Oxford University Press, 2017).  **






Hans Maes: In Beauty you say ‘the first thing you might learn, in considering jokes, is that Marcel Duchamp’s urinal was one – quite a good one first time round, corny by the time of Andy Warhol’s Brillo boxes and downright stupid today’ (p. 99). You consider Duchamp’s Fountain a joke. Is that because it makes a mockery of beauty as an artistic ideal?


Roger Scruton: No. It was a joke in the same way that fancy dress might be a joke – putting an object in the wrong context, so that we laugh at the incongruity. Cage did the same thing in ‘Four Minutes Thirty Three Seconds’. And then of course solemn critics with nothing much to say for themselves puzzle over these gestures of hyper-sophisticated people and begin to hold forth endlessly on the ‘death of art’. Duchamp and Cage were very minor artists: but they did at least show us how humorless the critics can be. On the other hand, there is nothing wrong in reading deep meanings into light-hearted jokes. Shakespeare’s Falstaff was a joke; but we see him now as a profound comment on the emerging forms of citizenship.


Hans Maes: When Warhol presented his plywood replicas of ordinary Brillo boxes at the Stable Gallery in 1964, or when Tracey Emin exhibited her bed at the Tate Gallery in 1999, they were just repeating the same old joke, you suggest. But aren’t there interesting and significant differences between these works of art? The Brillo Boxes are often interpreted as a comment on the culture of consumerism and commodification, whereas My Bed, in showing the aftermath of a nervous breakdown, raises questions about intimacy and vulnerability. These are themes which are notably absent in the work of Duchamp.


Roger Scruton: If you don’t see the joke in Duchamp’s urinal then you are apt to believe that, by putting something on display in that way, you can make your own contribution to the tradition of artistic expression: you can stand beside Michelangelo and Shakespeare and be as important as they. That is why I compare the Warhol and Emin works with the Duchamp. The Brillo Boxes are often interpreted in the way you suggest: but what kind of a comment are they? What do we learn from them? ‘Conceptual art’, as it has come to be known, is said to make ‘comments’, or raise ‘questions’, whose content can never be explained or, when explained, seems entirely banal. I am not sure whether Warhol intended the boxes as a joke. But that’s how I take them. I agree it is more difficult to take Emin’s bed as a joke, since if it is a joke it is a joke in rather bad taste. In the film that I made for the BBC entitled ‘Why Beauty Matters’, I compare ‘My Bed’ with Delacroix’s rather wonderful painting of his bed, in which the attention-grabbing ‘my’ is transcended (the title is ‘The Artist’s Bed’), and a transfiguration of the struggle between rest and restlessness is conveyed to the observer, not as a fact (which is all that ‘My Bed’ really is), but as – to put it in Hegel’s terms – ‘the sensuous embodiment of an Idea’. There is a difference here, between the expression of life, and life’s debris.


Hans Maes: According to Arthur Danto, who was also very fond of that Hegelian phrase, art’s self-reflexive critique of its own nature reaches its apotheosis in the Brillo Boxes. Warhol’s work is perceptually indistinguishable from an ordinary brillo box and so if we want to know why one is a work of art and the other not, we have to turn from sense experience to thought. In other words, from that point onwards, it is up to philosophers, and no longer up to artists, to make further progress in answering the question what art is. Thus, in true Hegelian fashion, Danto declared the end of the history of art. What do you make of his thesis?


Roger Scruton: It is the kind of thing that a philosopher would say. By taking the Brillo Boxes as paradigmatic you create a role for philosophers that seems to make them more necessary to the art-world than they are. But this comes from what Wittgenstein would have called a ‘one sided diet of examples’: only those things that ‘challenge’, that ‘transgress’, that ‘move the boundaries’ are to be considered. The fact that Andrew Wyeth, Miles Richmond, Reg Butler and many, many more were producing their best work at the time of the Brillo Boxes, adapting the great tradition of figurative art to the portrayal of modern life and to the discovery of beauty within it – such a fact had no place in the worldview of Arthur Danto, and so he did not notice it. The ‘death of art’ idea meant something serious when Hegel first announced it – namely, that discursive thought was in the process of displacing the immediate image from the centre of our social consciousness. But, in Danto’s version of the idea, it is a cliché, and I would go so far as to say that the kind of art that interested him was a cliché too.


Hans Maes: Many philosophers have tried to formulate an adequate definition of art, prompted precisely by works like the Brillo Boxes or Fountain. Has anyone succeeded, in your view? Or, at least, do you think we’ve made progress in this area?


Roger Scruton: I don’t see the question as so very important. The questions what gold is, what the whale is, what gravity is – these are important questions, since they are questions about natural kinds, which have real essences. (I go along with Kripke and Putnam in this matter.) We find out about gold, the tiger, gravity by elaborate research that casts light on the structure of the universe. With functional kinds the case is rather different. The question ‘what is a table?’ is really a question about us – what is the use to which we put these things, and how is it best served? The difficulty about art is not a difficulty about the things we call art, but a difficulty about their place in the scheme of human interests. What exactly are we looking for, and how do we know when we have found it? Hence the question of the nature of art is really a question about the nature of our interest in art. For me anything is a work of art if it is intentionally designed as an object of aesthetic interest, just as anything is a joke if it is intentionally designed as an object of laughter. Works of art can fail to arouse aesthetic interest at all; they can arouse it and also satisfy it; they can arouse it in ways that are corrupt or disgusting – and so on. All the things we say about jokes, when wondering whether they are good or bad, in good taste or bad taste, profound or shallow – all these things can be said about art too. And there is no philosophical problem here, other than that of the nature and objectivity of critical judgment. That is not a problem to be solved by a ‘definition of art’, whatever that would be.











Hans Maes: In 2009 you published a very enjoyable philosopher’s guide to wine, entitled I Drink Therefore I Am, in which you state: ‘The experience of wine shows how to understand the great existential transformations that form the enduring theme of Western art’ (p. 99) What are these transformations that you are referring to and how can the experience of wine help us to understand them?


Roger Scruton: Sometimes it is permissible to write with tongue in cheek, especially when writing about the tongue and what it tells us. But I had in mind the way in which, at the end of a hard day, when utility has been set aside, when the world wears the smile proper to things that are ‘ends in themselves’ and you take a sip of wine, you are granted a kind of inner warmth which is not your warmth but the warmth of the world. The great questions of Being, what it is, how it is sustained and to whom or what it is owed, are the natural cognitive result of the experience. As I say in the passage to which you refer: wine reminds the soul of its bodily origin, and the body of its spiritual meaning. It makes our incarnation seem both intelligible and right.



Hans Maes: There’s a world of difference, you argue, between mere drunkenness and the intoxicating quality of wine, which you compare to the intoxicating quality of a great line of poetry. Can you explain this?


Roger Scruton: Here’s how I see the matter. When we speak of an intoxicating line of poetry, we are not referring to an effect in the person who reads or remembers it, comparable to the effect of an energy pill. We are referring to a quality in the line itself. The intoxication of Mallarmé’s aboli bibelot d’inanité sonore lies there on the page, not here in my nervous system. The case of wine is not exactly like that of poetry. The one is a sensory experience, the other in part intellectual; the one is available whatever the state of your education, the other depends upon knowledge, comparison and culture; the one is strictly tied to the senses of taste and smell, while the other engages the contemplative senses of sight and hearing. Nevertheless the intoxicating quality that we taste in wine is a quality that we taste in it, and not in ourselves. There is a connection between the taste and the intoxicating effect, just as there is a connection between the exciting quality of a football game and the excitement that is produced by it. The intoxication that I feel is not just caused by the wine: it is, to some extent, directed at the wine, and has a quality of ‘relishing’ which makes it impossible to describe in the abstract, as though some other stuff might have produced it. The wine lives in my intoxication, as the game lives in the excitement of the fan: I have not swallowed the wine as I would a tasteless drug; I have taken it into myself, so that its flavour and my mood are inextricably bound up with each other.


Hans Maes: But while my pleasure in reading a beautiful poem qualifies as an aesthetic experience, you don’t think that the tasting of a great wine qualifies as such. Why not?


Roger Scruton: We should look at the attempts to give a content to our experiences of wine, all of which tend to evaporate in empty metaphor. ‘A honey-nosed beauty on a cushion of cream’; ‘clarion calls of blackberries with muted undertones of horse-shit’; ‘loads of luscious fruit and big oaky flavors you could hang your knickers on’: such are by no means untypical of the outrages that winespeak inflicts on our language. Used in moderation, there is no harm in metaphors. But the problem with tastes is that we seem to have no other way of describing them. Why is this? From Plato to Hegel philosophers have distinguished the senses of taste and smell, which provide us with sensations, from those of sight and hearing, which provide us with representations of the world. When I hear your words I hear sounds; but I also hear what you mean; when I look at you I see shapes and colors, but I also see you, your expression and your physical presence. Smells and tastes are not like that: they do not come organized, so to speak, by the thoughts that they suggest. If they convey anything it is by association rather than content – and the associations can go on forever. Hence tastes are both less informative and more evocative than looks, which is why it was the taste of the madeleine and not the sight of it that set Proust on his train of recollection.


Hans Maes: Part of the reason why you are skeptical about the aesthetic interest and value of tastes and smells is that they do not represent a world independent of themselves and therefore provide nothing other than themselves to contemplate. As you point out in the book, there is no clear parallel case of “smelling as” or “smelling in” that we have in visual perception. However, I wonder how these claims are to be reconciled with some of your reflections on “terroir”. For instance, you use the phrase ‘tasting in’ quite straightforwardly when you observe how we can taste the peculiar flavor of a landscape in a wine. Moreover, you claim that in savoring the wine ‘we are knowing the history, geography, and customs of a community.’ But to what extent is this really a matter of knowing? Aren’t these just associations that we bring to the wine based on prior information that we’ve acquired?


Roger Scruton: The issues here are, I admit, very complex. But I want to distinguish the use of ‘tasting in’ that you have cited from the ‘seeing in’ that Richard Wollheim, among others, identifies as fundamental to our appreciation of painting, and which I call (in Art and Imagination and subsequently) ‘double intentionality’. Of course the pleasure of taste is not a merely sensory pleasure, like that of sunlight on the skin. We rational beings do not merely taste our drink: we savor it, and that means opening our minds and hearts to reflection, in a way that lies entirely beyond the mental repertoire of my horse, even if he enjoys his wine every bit as much as I do. But savoring a wine is nothing like savoring a picture, a poem or a symphony. It is an act of consumption that destroys its object, and which soothes and illuminates through associated thoughts and emotions, not through any meaning contained in the experience itself. Rather than attempt to describe what a wine tastes like, therefore, we should do far better to describe its social, geographical and cultural context. That is why I emphasize the terroir experience. The heightened consciousness that comes to us through wine means that we seek and find features of our world that are, as it were, epitomized in its flavor. Wine, properly presented, properly drunk and properly mulled over, is the distillation of a community and its gods. In savoring wine we are becoming acquainted with a spot of earth, its culture and its way of life. Hence the dispute between the terroiristes and their opponents is not simply about the production and marketing of wine. It is a dispute about wine’s place in our experience. For a committed terroiriste wine is the residue of human life. And, as all Mediterranean civilizations have recognized, its ultimate meaning is religious.


Hans Maes: What do you mean by ‘religious’ here? I’m asking partly because your strong interest in religion and your frequent use of religious terminology is very striking. Certainly among academic aestheticians, it is not particularly fashionable to bring in religion when talking about taste or art.


Roger Scruton: In the case of wine it is important to acknowledge that it has always been assumed to be the gift of the gods, to be taken communally in a spirit of reverence as well as rejoicing. It is not enjoyed only because it tastes good: it is enjoyed because it enters you in a certain way, transforming consciousness and softening the trauma of existence. This has always been understood, and of course in the Christian religion wine forms a fundamental part of the defining sacrament – the blood of Christ, sacrificed for you and for me.


You are right that it is not fashionable among aestheticians to associate the religious aspect of our experience with the experience of art. That is why their writings seem so shallow – namely that they have not identified the place in the human psyche at which the greatest works of art are aimed. In his essay on Religion and Art Wagner makes the connection explicitly.