The recent Just Stop Oil protests sweeping Europe have gained global attention, shocking millions through the desecration of famous works like Vincent van Gogh’s “Sunflowers” and Claude Monet’s “Les Meules.” The organization sees these actions as necessarily provocative in order to get the conversation going about renewable energy and the climate change crisis, with one protestor proclaiming, “What is worth more, art or life?” While these demonstrations have succeeded in generating talk, they have inadvertently succeeded in something much greater: they have revealed the current state of humanity through the desecration of beauty itself.
Stomachs no doubt churned at the thought of soup and mashed potatoes destroying these pieces of art because of their invaluable, irreplaceable, symbolic nature. That’s why they were chosen—to evoke a sense of outrage by the audacity of such actions. But to choose art as a target for protest goes much deeper than any one painting, or painter, or protest, or protester. To assault art is to assault beauty—and to assault beauty is to assault the sacred that beauty signifies. Perhaps no one has written more about this in our modern day than Contributor Roger Scruton who explains, “In the presence of sacred things our lives are judged, and in order to escape that judgement we destroy the thing that seems to accuse us. And because beauty is a reminder of the sacred—and indeed a special form of it—beauty must be desecrated too.”
To Scruton, beauty was more than aesthetics, it was something that always pointed to higher things. In his interview with us, Scruton discusses how this concept of beauty played a pivotal role in his worldview formation:
I was brought up in a lower class family by a socialist father, labor voter, trade unionist, and taught to see the surrounding world in terms of a kind of epic of class conflict. A class conflict was everywhere and we were on the side of the victims against the oppressors. On the other hand, my father was also a lover of beauty who introduced me to the countryside and all the beautiful things that England contained, and which fellow countrymen had forced to defend. And beauty always points to the superior things rather than these inferior and oppressed things. So I was always torn anyway, between this leftist vision of the oppressed proletariat to whom I was supposed to belong, and another vision of a beautiful and ordered place to which I could aspire. And so through getting to love music and poetry and the like, I moved automatically and unconsciously perhaps, but automatically towards that higher thing.
And at a certain stage, I became quite detached from political thinking when I was at university, although still I suppose on the left, because everybody was. Then I went to Paris to France. And in 1968, I was in Paris at the time of the barricades and the ’68 revolutionary moment. And I observed all this shenanigans in the street. And I asked myself a question: Who am I on the side of? These spoiled middle class children throwing bricks through the shop windows of hard working class people or the hard working, working class people? It was obvious what the answer was going to be. So I asked my student friends: What on earth do you hope to achieve by this? And they gave me various books to read. Marx, Foucault, [French 00:02:27], I read this stuff.
And I said, “This is complete charlatanism” There’s nothing said here about a future that’s better than the lovely bourgeois France that you’ve inherited in which I love. So why should I join you rather than those policemen over there?” So I set out to work out my own philosophy in response to this. And then I went back to Cambridge to do research and immediately found that I met people there I could talk to who were on the right. And I saw immediately that I agreed with them.
As revolutionary as these protests may seem, art has been desecrated for centuries and the same loud message proclaimed: we are beyond whatever this piece of art signifies. Scruton explains this further:
Many artists aspire to that distinction of not being taken in by anything, not being dupes to the surrounding culture and values. Added to this there is a desire to desecrate values as well, like putting graffiti on things or a moustache on the Mona Lisa. When that moustache was first put on the Mona Lisa by Marcel duChamps, you can see what he was doing. He was saying, “Yes, yes, yes, but we’ve gone beyond that. That’s all nonsense. You might be taken in by that but I’m not.” And essentially, ever since that gesture which was made a hundred years ago, the majority of art that we’ve come across, at least the art coming from art schools, has been putting another moustache on the Mona Lisa. The question automatically arises as to whether there is any point in doing it twice, let alone a thousand times. The thought behind all this is that we’ve asked too much of art, we’ve asked it to be a substitute for religion, to be the light from and the window onto the transcendental. If it disappoints us, we start becoming angry with it. Disappointment turns to repudiation.
-Roger Scruton, address delivered at The Power of Beauty conference, October 2014
Here, Scruton is using the example of an “artist” desecrating a beautiful piece of art as a medium for his own art. In the same way, these protestors are demonstrating—whether consciously or not—that the world must move on from beauty, from the sacred, from the values that historical Western art so often represents. These things have left us disillusioned. The only things that matters is the agenda at hand—won’t you listen to us?
We’re listening. It’s the cry of a people that want change and are willing to sacrifice beauty to get it. Today’s postmodern culture tells us that this is a small price to pay. Yet, when beauty is laid on the altar of progress, it tells us that the sacred and meaningful in life are not far behind. Our future is grim when we profane the beauty in art.