Why Beauty Matters

C. S. Lewis wrote that if science could learn every fact in the universe, it still couldn’t answer the question – Why? Or the question – What does it all mean? He wasn’t attacking science, but pointing out that not everything yeilds to the microscope. Iv’e attached a link to a BBC documentary on beauty, by Roger Scruton. He askes some difficult questions about beauty and the part it plays in our culture and humanity. He also has some pointed remarks that relate to craft and design. It’s the best treatment of the subject Iv’e seen. Be advised, some of this material may offend, though I think the folks offended most, will be those who take pleasure in besmirking our cultural traditions.

Why Beauty Matters

George Walker

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Woodworker and writer
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6 Responses to Why Beauty Matters

  1. Dave says:

    The best part was this: “Sullivan’s doctrine has been used to justifly the greatest crime against beauty that the world has yet seen, and that is the crime of modern architecture.”

    I feel like I could be in a church, and I feel the need to yell “Preach it Brother, preach it!”

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  3. millcrek says:

    George, Very interesting and thought provoking film, I come away with more questions than answers. In some ways I believe he is over simplifying and has some false presuppositions. He is also ignoring the concept of intent. I’m not sure there is a universal archetype for beauty and if there is, is it our western version. However I enjoyed the film, thanks for posting.

  4. curt seeliger says:

    I also can’t help but feel he’s set up straw men to destroy in one-sided arguments.
    That said, I think one of the primary take-home messages was that beauty is an important component of the utility of a ‘thing’, whether a created object or an idea. This makes beauty as important to successful engineering as shear strength, cost or toxicity. He might well be right about that.
    Thanks for posting the link.

  5. Rob Porcaro says:


    Thanks for calling attention to this excellent presentation. I largely agree with Scruton’s thesis. I like his pointing out the “me” obsession of many modern arteests, the emptiness of much of modern architecture, and the futility of art that does little but throw the ugly things in the world back in our faces (as if we needed the grand wisdom of these arteests to find the ugly).

    Provoked by his discussion of the relationship of utility and beauty, I can’t help but wonder how it is that nature is so exquisitely and brilliantly functional, yet is a source of perhaps the ultimate beauty. Could it be that when we humans try to create beauty, we are sharing in the ultimate source of beauty?


  6. Aaron Avivi says:

    Thanks for posting it, it’s certainly thought provoking. Overall though I have to agree with Millcrek. I watched it a couple days ago and it bothered me then, but I wanted to mull it over a bit more before posting.

    The issue of intent is huge. While I can sympathize with the vapidity of, as Rob calls it, the “me” in a lot of modern would-be artists, there is something to be said for the distinction between art and design (not to mention craft). One very glib way of putting it is that design seeks to satisfy, while art seeks to stimulate. You may not think the art is beautiful, and it can even be designed to be decidedly ugly on the surface, but I have to say that’s kind of beside the point. It’s really more the concept that matters, and I think it has been that for a very long time. Michaelangelo’s David would have been considered scandalous 100 years prior to its creation. The technique might be flawless, but if it doesn’t carry some message and intent, then it’s not art. It’s design or engineering.

    Another issue is that of form vs. function and modern architecture. He picks the absolutely most horrid examples of modern architecture, skipping over geniuses like FL Wright and going straight to brutalist concrete monstrosities that we can all agree were a bad idea 😉 Wasn’t form decided by function the basis for so much of Shaker design? The minimal ornament, the simple shapes and construction, even the proportions that were chosen to match human body scales?

    I agree that beauty is important, but to say so is almost trite. It might even be pathological to not seek out beauty, at least what one considers beauty. It’s certainly self-destructive. But I guess the main issue I have with Scruton’s thesis is that he believes that what he considers beautiful is what I should consider beautiful. He gets relief from the fragmentation and alienation in modern society by looking to classical works put into the modern world. Relief for me, in a very real sense, comes from more modern and minimalist designs (which, incidentally, I believe owe so much to the shakers!) that stimulate often in a more atmospheric way.

    Sure, there’s a lot of garbage out there that considers itself art, but certainly there always has been? (it’s like that in other media, like literature at least.) He seems to disregard all of modern and conceptual art and design, since I don’t remember him giving any examples of good pieces. That’s throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

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