Sir Roger Scruton on Connection Between Modern Art and Loss of the Sacred

“I think we are losing beauty and there is a danger that, with it, we will lose the meaning of life,” the late English philosopher warned.

Sir Roger Scruton
Sir Roger Scruton (photo: Hoover Institution/YouTube)

The English philosopher Sir Roger Scruton, who died yesterday at the age of 75, was a prolific author on philosophy, art, music, politics, culture and religion, as well as a novelist and the composer of two operas.

In 2009, he attended a Rome conference titled “God Today: With Him or Without Him, That Changes Everything” that brought together thinkers, artists and Church leaders. 

While in Rome, Scruton, who had been a professor of aesthetics, discussed his theory that the deeper reasons for the ugliness of modern and contemporary art are attributable to a general loss of the Christian faith and the sacred. “I think we are losing beauty and there is a danger that, with it, we will lose the meaning of life,” he warned in an acclaimed BBC documentary on the same theme. (See the full program here.)

Here is an excerpt of my short interview with him on the sidelines of that Rome conference, published at the time on Zenit:

The essence of Scruton’s talk was how, until relatively recently, artistic creation of beauty was about giving glory to God, but now is often about desecrating the human form. He explored the reasons why.

“Artists in the post-enlightenment period tried hard to hold on to the idea of beauty precisely to compensate for the loss of their faith,” he explains. Musicians such as Wagner, he adds, saw it as “the unique vestige of the sacred in our world,” and modernism tried to reconnect with the sacred through art created by writers and musicians such as Eliot, Messiaen and Britten.

“Then suddenly in our time, since the 1960s and all the rest, we have a new kind of art which is repudiating beauty and putting ugliness in its place,” Scruton explains. “I’d say it’s an ‘art of desecration’ which looks not to desecrate beauty, but to desecrate the human form.”

He refers to “the examples of the usual young British art types” such as Damien Hirst, and in particular the conceptual artists Jake and Dinos Chapman, two brothers whose work Scruton describes as “particularly repulsive.”

“So I asked myself: What does this mean? Why should people want to desecrate the human form and the ordinary ideals of human life? And I say, you only desecrate what is sacred. Only something sacred can be desecrated. So there’s this cry from the heart here for the religious meaning of things. It’s showing the yearning for God and the sense that these things make no sense without him.”

He adds that we have “lost all that idea that beauty is something we create together by way of embellishing our world.”

Scruton, who was Anglican, also shared his views on liturgical abuse:

[He] is particularly sympathetic to Benedict XVI’s stand against what Scruton calls the vandalism of the liturgy and the musical traditions of the Church. “That resonates with me,” [Scruton] says. “I’ve felt it was so unnecessary giving way to temporary fashions which have now disappeared. But now the Church has to work to rediscover what it could have had without working for it.”