I recently came across the fascinating BBC documentary Why Beauty Matters (2009), written and presented by philosopher Roger Scruton. In it, Scruton offers a strong argument for the importance of beauty in human life, it is in fact an essential human need. He laments the loss of beauty in our everyday existence, its pursuit having being abandoned by modern architecture and art. We are, for Scruton, in a world made ugly. He suggests:
Our world has turned its back on beauty and because of that we find ourselves surrounded by ugliness and alienation.
Not everyone will agree with Scruton’s conclusions, especially his discussion on beauty and transcendence, but I found it a fascinating watch. Scruton powerfully describes the destruction wrought by utilitarianism on the literal, moral and imaginative landscapes of modern human life.
Since watching the documentary I have driven around Auckland, shopped in the supermarket, watched Television, walked in the park, with new eyes. We are, indeed, surrounded daily with much ugliness. We have as a culture valued usefulness and cost-effectiveness over beauty. I wonder what impact this is having on our moral imaginations? What are we being taught about the world we live in?
I believe the biblical account echoes Scruton’s call for beauty in the everyday. God himself delights in the beauty of the world he made, and calls us to joyful participation with him in it. Surely one of the great challenges of the church this century is to bring beauty back into the life of the world. As the great artists and craftsmen of our past understood, making something beautiful can be a sacred task (see Exodus 31:2f), a way in which we image our God. Beauty affirms that life is worth living, it offers consolation in our troubles, and can draw us to contemplate God, whom the poet Gerard Manly Hopkins called “beauty’s self and beauty’s giver”.
Check out Why Beauty Matters below. WARNING: there are a couple of somewhat graphic examples of Modern Art displayed, especially in the first 10 minutes.