What is art? A defence of techno rock and reality tv

I turn, yet again, to a post by philosopher Roger Scruton (with whom I respectfully disagree about almost everything).

I found Scruton’s latest offering far more engaging than the last one I responded to.

Writing on his speciality of aesthetics, he contends (as usual) that ‘art’ can be defined, and that definition is a question of duty, taste and judgement. He rails against the relativists, whose argument:

“Is eagerly embraced, because it seems to emancipate people from the burden of culture, telling them that all those venerable masterpieces can be ignored with impunity, that reality TV is “as good as” Shakespeare and techno-rock the equal of Brahms”.

He wants to protect the sacred, uplifting qualities of Shakespeare and Brahms from what he sees as the degrading nature of reality TV and techno-rock.

Now I’m sure Scruton could mount a persuasive argument in Shakespeare’s favour, perhaps an argument that would convince us that Shakespeare is superior to reality TV. However he gives short shrift to the idea that admirers of Big Brother or Aphex Twin might be able to put forward a cogent (if not a winning) counter-argument.

Instead he makes the rather outrageous statement that people supporting these creative endeavors are motivated to desecrate traditional artistic standards because:

“It imposes an unsustainable burden, something that we must live up to, a world of ideals and aspirations that is in sharp conflict with the tawdriness and imperfection of our own improvised lives… The temptation is to turn on it and shoo it away.”

“This you see all the time in children — the delight in disgusting noises, words, allusions, which helps them to distance themselves from that adult world that judges them, and whose authority they wish to deny.”

In other words, we champion facile pop music, trashy gossip mags and exploitative TV shows so that we don’t have to invest the time and energy required to appreciate true culture.

My first response is: so what? If you can get the same amount of pleasure from watching a glossy TV drama as reading Beckett, but with less effort, then surely that’s a good thing.

Of course JS Mill (one of my favourite philosophers) pointed out that not all pleasures are equal – we might value ‘higher’ intellectual pleasures more than the fleeting, selfish pleasures of the flesh.

But even so, who’s to say that I can’t be genuinely challenged and uplifted by popular culture?

The amount of engagement and fulfillment gained from an artwork seems to have just as much, if not more, to do with the attitude of the person appreciating it than anything inherent in the work itself (assuming a minimum level of depth and content in the artwork – and there’s got to be at least as much to think about in The Wire as in Rothko’s paintings).

Lots of people trudge dutifully round art galleries, feeling guilty for not seeing what the fuss is about, while at the same time others engage in vigorous philosophical debates about Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

For this latter group, popular culture isn’t an escape from the depth and challenges of culture, it’s a new way of engaging with them.

above: ‘sleeping figure’ my own attempt at artistic expression in pen and ink