The late Oxford writer and philosopher Roger Scruton said, “Beauty is vanishing from our world because we live as though it does not matter.” He called our culture’s loss of beauty the “postmodern desecration.” Scruton chose “desecration” carefully: it’s a religious word that implies the spoiling of what is sacred.
I couldn’t help but think about Scruton’s words after watching a segment of the Super Bowl halftime show earlier this month. Lewdness replaced loveliness; empowered self-expression supplanted beauty. I was appalled and embarrassed.
And yet to some, the halftime show was a glorious display of two female “artists” expressing themselves in culturally and artistically significant ways.
Is this the bar for art in our culture? How far we’ve fallen from the grip of the truly beautiful.
Short History of Desecration
How did we get to the point where naked self-expression (often quite literally) is the new artistic standard?
Before the Enlightenment, Scruton says, artists considered beauty sacred, and it served as the telos (goal) of their work. But beauty lost its sacred position for the artist and became definable by the person. We see this subjective turn in the words of David Hume, for example, who in 1757 wrote an essay titled “Of the Standard of Taste” from which we get the axiom, “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.” Hume’s famous statement is consistent with the dominant rallying cry of the Enlightenment: freedom.
A few decades after Hume, German philosopher Immanuel Kant touted “enlightenment” as the process of growing up; to stop relying on the masters of old to dictate what we are to feel, think, love, and believe. “The public use of one’s reason,” Kant wrote, “must be free at all times, and this alone can bring enlightenment to mankind.”
It’s interesting to note that the Enlightenment also coincided with a general decline of the arts in the church and in Christian patronage of art as well. As autonomy in art and philosophy grew, the church allowed its influence in these areas to wane.
One ramification of a world that throws off the shackles of authority in its quest for intellectual freedom is this: icons of power are treated with contempt—among them God and his church.
Just as artists turned inward and defined beauty for themselves, philosophers championed the human will over a sovereign will. That is to say, as long as a will finds satisfaction within itself, then that is enough; the will of a person is its own end. The will of an artist—whatever they want to express—thus becomes the only arbiter of artistic “meaning.”
In its abandonment of God as an absolute standard, relativism thus not only degrades morality; it also desecrates beauty.
Expression, Transgression, Empowerment
What’s left when beauty falls from something out there, beyond the self, to something originating within us? What’s left when we lose a transcendent concept of the beautiful? Simply the naked will asserting itself; subjective expression presenting itself as beautiful.
What’s left is the Super Bowl halftime show.
What’s left is “art” celebrated not for its inherent quality, meaning, or beauty, but simply because it represents a point of view (especially an underrepresented or marginalized point of view). What’s left is not a value of craft but a value of creative transgression—thinking up new ways to push boundaries, upend convention, disturb, shock, and reinvent. What’s left is Lady Gaga and the exhausting need for constant novelty, or Billie Eilish singing a sickly, goth version of “Yesterday” at the Oscars. What’s left is the empty provocation of Rupi Kaur’s “poetry,” or Lars Von Trier’s sordid visual aesthetic.
Relativism not only degrades morality; it also desecrates beauty.
Taylor Swift put it concisely when she said, while shooting a cosmetic commercial, “Unique and different is the next generation of beautiful.” Beauty, for Swift and most of our modern culture, is an iconoclastic rejection of any standard that came before or is presently asserted, and an embrace of the utter freedom of the self to define beauty however one wishes. Again, it’s not just about disregarding moral norms—it’s about transgressing them, destroying them. Desecration.
That’s why something like the Super Bowl halftime show—or any provocative display in pop culture—is now championed as art. The more it ruffles feathers and makes people shake their heads or cover their children’s eyes, the better. The more it demolishes the supposedly oppressive old standards of beauty and replaces them with whatever the artist wants to do or say, the more “empowering” it is. And if anything has replaced beauty as the highest telos of art in today’s world, it is empowerment.
But this new world of desecrated beauty isn’t really empowering. It rather imprisons our culture in an inescapable vortex of ceaseless, shrill, and ultimately unsolvable fights over whose expression matters most. But lost in the vortex is beauty itself—and a world without beauty is a terrifying place.
Path Back to Beauty
What are we to do? The world desperately needs someone to point the way back to beauty. It is not enough to lament beauty’s demise. Something must be done.
Writing about St. Francis of Assisi, G. K. Chesterton said it is the great paradox of history that each generation is converted by the saint who contradicts it the most. Chesterton believed when a generation gets too worldly, it is up to the saint, or the church, to rebuke it. St. Francis embodied this cultural rebuke by the life he lived. The saint is “not what the people want, but rather what the people need,” Chesterton says; the saint is someone who runs incongruous with the modern world.
It is not enough to lament beauty’s demise. Something must be done.
We need bold artisans and storytellers, entrepreneurs and CEOs, managers and homeschool parents—Christians from all walks of life who will bear witness to beauty in their everyday lives.
The path back to beauty can begin with the simple act of seeing. We can take a “marveling” walk in which we admire God’s creation and “collect unusual things” such as rocks or wildflowers. Walking this path should also include changing our perspective of beauty’s prominence in our theology. It is no mere consolation of our faith; it is foundational to it. We can also cease the crass modernist tendency to build efficient black boxes and call them churches, and give more thought to how beautiful architecture can inspire awe, signal grandeur, and teach humility. What might it look like for churches to employ artists in residence or commission a poet laureate or sponsor a community art exhibition?
C. S. Lewis said, “Our business is to present that which is timeless in the particular language of our own age.” And he blazed a trail with a baptized imagination and beauty as his tools. We too should get down to business, and point the world to true beauty once again.