Roger Scruton on Modernism

Roger Scruton touches on so many things in An Intelligent Person’s Guide to Culture that it is tempting to enumerate them all. The theme is cultural decline and attempted recovery in the past four centuries. This crisis happened precisely at a time when Western society began to lose the “cult” (religion) that was once intrinsic to artistic and human activities. When a culture is healthy, people takes it for granted. Intellectuals like Herder began to formally define culture only after it became threatened and uncertain.

Particularly valuable is Scruton’s study of “modernism.” It was an attempt to deal with the loss of tradition, much like the aesthetic and romantic movements that came before it. Speaking of Baudelaire, Picasso and T.S. Eliot, he explains, “The modernist is the one who consciously reshapes the medium, in order that old interpretations can be retained.” Paradoxically, “even the concept of tradition itself” is a “modern phenomenon.” The downfall of modernism was twofold: meaning resided in subjective feeling and it was the domain of an isolated elite. Eventually it ceased even to be a school of spontaneous talent. It emerged as a bureaucratic culture “sponsored by the state” which sought to crush all competing forms of expression. Post-modernism further entrenched this trend. Now we have totally ephemeral and consumable forms of media which are not even abstracted from reality, but “constructed” ex nihilo with no reference to traditional art and culture.

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