Beauty, truth, modernity, tradition

I have just read a perfect summary by Stephen Bayley of one of the principles underpinning my thoughts on this blog.

For me, the debate was a chance to go rhetorical about the single cultural principle I hold most dear: that history and tradition are things you build on with pride and conviction, not resorts you scurry back to when you can think of nothing better to do. I believe that to deny the present is to shortchange the future. These things I learnt from Nikolaus Pevsner.

Bayley was reporting on the National Trust ‘Quality of Life’ debate, “Britain has become indifferent to beauty.”

In Bayley’s account, the debate sounds very stimulating. Supporting the motion were David Starkey and Roger Scruton. Bayley caricatures them thus:

Starkey and Scruton see culture as a serial that has been recorded in episodes and canned in perpetuity for posterity. The task, in their view, is not to augment architectural history with up-to-date improvements, but regularly to revisit the past for edification and instruction.

Bereft of optimism or enthusiasm, bloated with sly and knowing cynicism, they see no value in contemporary life.

Opposing the motion were Germaine Greer (“after Clive James, our Greatest Living Australian National Treasure”) and Bayley himself. The outcome of the debate? The motion was lost resoundingly. Clearly the audience was convinced by the notion that beauty was not fixed at some past time, but is still being made, albeit in a different tradition.

This was not because we were so very clever, but because Starkey and Scruton were so very wrong. And what was the turning point? One, Greer said what a beautiful spring day it was. Whose mood was not enhanced by sunshine and flowers and blue skies? No dissenters, there. Two, in despair at their negativism, cynicism and defeatism, I asked Starkey and Scruton: “Why is it I like what you like (which is to say: medieval, renaissance and Victorian), but why you are so limited and snitty and crabby you see no value in what I like?” No dissenters here, either.

Wonderful to prove that the British are not, indeed, indifferent to beauty.

Reading Bayley’s account, I felt that the traditionalists’ view was not just applicable to beauty. Many things, including language and weights and measures are held by some to be better in some historical form. On the other hand, I am not sure that the resistance to modernity is a related to fear of change, which is how it is often characterised.

The problem, I think, is that we see the past in a sanitised form. The things that are left from bygone eras tend to be the most beautiful. However, we forget this and assume that we see a true picture of what our forbears experienced. Keats’s grecian urn is a prime example.

Famously, Keats’s poem ends with an assertion that truth and beauty are inseparable. For me, however, the phrase before that is more interesting:

When old age shall this generation waste,
Thou shalt remain, in midst of other woe
Than ours, a friend to man, to whom thou sayst…

Keats appears to be suggesting that the urn will always persist because of its beauty. Given the fragility of antique ceramics, this must be a forlorn hope. In general, however, the probability of survival of any given artefact must surely be proportional to its beauty: people are more likely to take care of such things than they are of their uglier counterparts. As a result, our view of the past is inevitably a sanitised one, containing only the good parts, with little of the bad.

By contrast, we experience all of the present — the good and the bad. Sometimes it is difficult to tell which is which. In the face of such uncertainty, it is not surprising that some people prefer to turn against the present and seek solace in the past. I think this is where Scruton and Starkey sit, whereas Greer and Bayley are happy to explore the present — risking the possibility that what they regard as worthwhile will turn out with the passage of time to be ugly and worthless.

I think they are right to take that risk. To do otherwise is to fail to take part in the process by which the things that are worthwhile are preserved for future generations. We need to remember to do the same in our organisations — not to hold on to repositories of old knowledge just because they are old, but to open our minds to the possibility of the creation of new knowledge by whatever means (and to risk some of that new knowledge being worthless).