Scruton on Culture

Culture-Counts-2018-310x460Last year, we were honored to host Sir Roger Scruton as the keynoter for the second session of our Tradition Project, on culture and citizenship, here in New York. (You can view the video on the sidebar to the right, or on our Videos page). This fall, Sir Roger published a book on the subject of culture for Encounter Books, Culture Counts: Faith and Feeling in a World Besieged. Looks very worthwhile. Here’s the description from the publisher’s website:

What is culture? Why should we preserve it, and how? In this book renowned philosopher Roger Scruton defends Western culture against its internal critics and external enemies, and argues that rumours of its death are seriously exaggerated. He shows our culture to be a continuing source of moral knowledge, and rebuts the fashionable sarcasm which sees it as nothing more than the useless legacy of ‘dead white European males’. He is robust in defence of traditional architecture and figurative painting, critical of the fashionable relativists and urgent in his plea for our civilization, which more than ever stands in need of the self-knowledge and self-confidence that are the gift of serious culture.

Bolton, “Heavenly Bodies”

849137060385d59a2407e4a27d172730There is a great scene in Fellini’s film, “La Dolce Vita,” in which Anita Ekberg’s character, dressed in a ridiculously inappropriate version of a priest’s cassock, climbs to the top of St. Peter’s dome to have a look. It’s all played for laughs. Ekberg’s character doesn’t mean to offend; she probably is trying to show respect, in fact. But she has no clue. And, Fellini’s point seems to be, that goes for everyone in post-war Europe. Everything and everyone is banal. People no longer have a sense of meaning, and therefore no longer understand when they are being insulting.

I thought of that scene when I stumbled earlier this month upon the Met’s exhibit on Catholic fashion, “Heavenly Bodies.” The less said about the show, the better, except that the word meretricious comes to mind. On the Saturday evening I saw it, the exhibit was jammed with visitors; I’m sure it has been a great success for the Met, financially. Apparently the Catholic Church cooperated on the exhibit, a fact which, as a non-Catholic, I have to say I find truly perplexing. In “La Dolce Vita,” the problem was that people didn’t know when they were being insulting. Today, apparently, people no longer know when they’re being insulted.

Anyway, for those who are interested, here is the Met’s catalogue for the exhibit, Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination, by the Met’s Andrew Bolton. The publisher is Yale University Press. Here’s the description from the Yale website:

A brilliant exploration of fashion’s complex engagement with the great art and artifacts of Catholic faith and practice.

Since antiquity, religious beliefs and practices have inspired many of the masterworks of art. These works of art have, in turn, fueled the imagination of fashion designers in the 20th and 21st centuries, yielding some of the most innovative creations in costume history. Connecting significant religious art and artifacts to their sartorial expressions, Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination provides a critical analysis of fashion’s engagement with notions of the divine. Exploring fashion’s complex and often controversial relationship with Catholicism, Heavenly Bodies probes what dress reveals about the state of religion and spirituality within contemporary culture, and how it may manifest—or subvert—Catholic values and ideology. Art objects, such as devotional paintings and altarpieces from The Met’s collection, are presented alongside fashions from designers including Cristóbal Balenciaga, Callot Soeurs, Domenico Dolce and Stefano Gabbana, John Galliano, Jean-Paul Gaultier, Madame Grès, Christian Lacroix, Karl Lagerfeld, Jeanne Lanvin, Claire McCardell, Alexander McQueen, Thierry Mugler, Elsa Schiaparelli, and Gianni Versace. The volume also presents a selection of ecclesiastical vestments and accessories from the Vatican collection, many of which have not been published before.


Walsh, “The Fiery Angel”

EB_The-Fiery-Angel_lowres-310x460Art reflects a culture’s values and sometimes even drives them. This is why conservatives often find contemporary art so off-putting. It’s not that conservatives are philistines–though some are, as are some progressives. Rather, it’s that they understand that the values our current art express are mostly inimical to their own–especially the pointless insistence on ugliness and transgression for transgression’s sake. (At some point, transgression become simply cliched; and we have long since passed that point). In fact, some of the most thoughtful conservative commentators today recognize that giving up the arts to progressives was a major mistake. In a conservative reformation of society, art may prove a lot more important than law or politics.

Anyway, a new book from Encounter, The Fiery Angel: Art, Culture, Sex, Politics and the Struggle for the Soul of the West, by critic Michael Walsh, looks interesting. Here is the description from the publisher’s website:

In Western Civilization, the arts embody the eternal battle between good and evil, and through understanding the arts, we can address the political issues that plague us. Far from being museum pieces, simple recreation, or tales and artifacts from the past, the arts should be seen at the wellspring of our politics, and in particular in public policy debates. They are actually the reason we have public and foreign policy in the first place. In an age that prizes specialization, it’s a mistake to think of public/foreign policy as a discipline onto itself. The Fiery Angel is a historical survey showing significant ways the arts both reflect and affect the course of history, and outlines the way forward, arguing for the restoration of the Heroic Narrative which forms the basis of all Western cultural and religious traditions.

Reynolds, “The Judiciary’s Class War”


Here is another new book that addresses the impact of culture on law, The Judiciary’s Class War (Encounter Books), by University of Tennessee law professor Glenn Harlan Reynolds. As I wrote in Monday’s post, cultural values profoundly American influence church-state law. Reynolds, who also hosts the InstaPundit blog, points out that it’s really educated-upper-middle-class cultural values that matter–the values that judges, who come from the upper echelon of the legal profession, see as natural and inarguable. Reynolds’s theory seems quite plausible to anyone who has studied American constitutional law, including the Court’s religion-clause jurisprudence. The book looks very interesting. Here’s the description from the publisher’s website:

The terms “Front-Row Kids” and “Back-Row Kids,” coined by the photographer Chris Arnade, describe the divide between the educated upper middle class, who are staying ahead in today’s economy, and the less educated working class, who are doing poorly. The differences in education—and the values associated with elite schooling—have produced a divide in America that is on a par with that of race.

The judiciary, requiring a postgraduate degree, is the one branch of government that is reserved for the Front-Row Kids. Correspondingly, since the Warren era, the Supreme Court has basically served as an engine for vindicating Front-Row preferences, from allowing birth control and abortion, to marginalizing religion in the public space, to legislative apportionment and libel law, and beyond. Professor Glenn Reynolds describes this problem in detail and offers some suggestions for making things better.

Eagleton, “Culture”


The more I think about it, the more I come to see that law is downstream of culture. Of course, law affects culture, too. The anti-discrimination laws have helped to shape our culture’s understanding of racial justice. The Court’s school-prayer decision shaped public education, which changed the way Americans understand the place of religion in our daily life. There are lots of examples. And yet, I think, culture influences law much more than the other way around. So many legal doctrines, especially in the church-and-state context, turn on cultural understandings. For example, what is a compelling interest that justifies restricting religious liberty? What would a reasonable observer infer from a public religious display? And so on.

The importance of culture was a theme of our center’s most recent Tradition Project meeting last November, which included a keynote by Sir Roger Scruton. But culture is not only an interest of conservatives. Last week, Yale University Press released a new book by the Marxist literary critic, Terry Eagleton, Culture, which addresses some of the same themes and authors as our November conference. Eagleton, a professor at the University of Lancaster in Britain, is famous, among other things, for his take-down of the new atheism about a decade ago. Here’s the description of his new book from the Yale website:

One of our most brilliant minds offers a sweeping intellectual history that argues for the reclamation of culture’s value

Culture is a defining aspect of what it means to be human. Defining culture and pinpointing its role in our lives is not, however, so straightforward. Terry Eagleton, one of our foremost literary and cultural critics, is uniquely poised to take on the challenge. In this keenly analytical and acerbically funny book, he explores how culture and our conceptualizations of it have evolved over the last two centuries—from rarified sphere to humble practices, and from a bulwark against industrialism’s encroaches to present-day capitalism’s most profitable export. Ranging over art and literature as well as philosophy and anthropology, and major but somewhat “unfashionable” thinkers like Johann Gottfried Herder and Edmund Burke as well as T. S. Eliot, Matthew Arnold, Raymond Williams, and Oscar Wilde, Eagleton provides a cogent overview of culture set firmly in its historical and theoretical contexts, illuminating its collusion with colonialism, nationalism, the decline of religion, and the rise of and rule over the “uncultured” masses. Eagleton also examines culture today, lambasting the commodification and co-option of a force that, properly understood, is a vital means for us to cultivate and enrich our social lives, and can even provide the impetus to transform civil society.

Video of Sir Roger Scruton’s Tradition Project Lecture Now Available

Last month in New York, Sir Roger Scruton gave the keynote speech at our second Tradition Project conference, “Tradition, Culture, and Citizenship.” A video of Sir Roger’s speech is now available below:

“The Altars Where We Worship” (Floyd-Thomas et al.)

Defining “religion” presents an enduring problem in American law. One doesn’t want to define it so narrowly that it would fail to protect many bona fide believers, nor so broadly that it would become meaningless. At some basic level, the legal definition of religion should track the understanding of religion in the wider culture. But what happens when the culture changes rapidly, and new conceptions of religion appear?

Here is an interesting-looking new book from Westminster John Knox Press, The Altars Where We Worship: The Religious Significance of Popular CultureThe authors, scholars at Vanderbilt and the University of Toronto, argue that Americans now draw religious meaning from a variety of non-traditionally religious sources in contemporary culture. Whether that fact should change the legal definition of religion is a different question, of course. But it’s worth looking at the evidence of cultural change.

Here’s the publisher’s description:

the-altars-where-we-worshipWhile a large percentage of Americans claim religious identity, the number of Americans attending traditional worship services has significantly declined in recent decades. Where, then, are Americans finding meaning in their lives, if not in the context of traditional religion? In this provocative study, the authors argue that the objects of our attention have become our god and fulfilling our desires has become our religion. They examine the religious dimensions of six specific aspects of American culture—body and sex, big business, entertainment, politics, sports, and science and technology—that function as “altars” where Americans gather to worship and produce meaning for their lives. The Altars Where We Worship shows how these secular altars provide resources for understanding the self, others, and the world itself. “For better or worse,” the authors write, “we are faced with the reality that human experiences before these altars contain religious characteristics in common with experiences before more traditional altars.” Readers will come away with a clearer understanding of what religion is after exploring the thoroughly religious aspects of popular culture in the United States.

Esolen, “Out of the Ashes”

Next month, Regnery Publishing releases Out of the Ashes: Rebuilding American Culture, by Anthony Esolen (Providence College). The publisher’s description follows:

9781621575146-frontcover-202x306It’s not your imagination: civilized human society is collapsing. Communities no longer work towards a common good; children are no longer our first priority; businesses no longer value “hard work”; arts and skills have been lost; and gender is decided by the individual, not biology.

We cannot reverse national and global trends, says professor Anthony Esolen; but we can build communities that live up to humanity’s promise and responsibility. In Out of the Ashes, Esolen identifies the gaping problems in our society and lays out a blueprint for reconstruction that puts our future in the hands of individuals focused on the good of the local community.