Can a urinal be art?
Part XI of our travels through Roger Scruton’s “How to be a Conservative”
In 1917, Marcel Duchamp signed a urinal and exhibited it at The Grand Central Palace in New York as “La Fontaine,” or “the Fountain”. Was this art, or was it a joke—or maybe both? These are some of the issues Roger Scruton addresses in “Realms of value,” chapter 11 of his book How to be a Conservative. Regular readers will remember we’re touring through Scruton’s book to see what conservatism means and why we might want to retrieve the term and the practice in modern New Zealand. In Scruton’s account, conservatism is about protecting (conserving) things that have value—but this begs some questions. What, exactly, has value? Where is value created, and who creates it? Is value objective, meaning it’s something that we observe, or is it subjective, meaning it’s something that we bring into being so that value is all in the eye of the beholder?
These days, the government tells us to be kind and passes “well-being Budgets” so perhaps the state is where value, and values, are created? No, says Scruton. The state can recognise value and it can protect the space that makes it possible for us to create value, but it does not produce value itself—value “emerges through our cooperative endeavours” and our free interactions with one another, and governments can’t simply declare it into existence. Nor is value found in economic logic; “value begins where calculation ends, since that which matters most to us is the thing we will not exchange.” The things we value are those we cannot, and will not, put a price on. We don’t want them to help us achieve some goal; they are our goal. In the rest of the chapter, Scruton discusses five different “realms of value,” spheres of life where people create value through their relationships to each other and to the world: religion, family, work, leisure, and culture.
Religion “shines a light from our social feelings far out into the unknowable cosmos.” It helps us to understand our place in the world—different religions describe that place differently, but all help us to see that we are part of something bigger than us, something that transcends our individual experience and connects us to everyone else who shares that experience. It’s what makes the person next door into our neighbour. This sense of religious duty has inspired “Christian civilisation” and still inspires secular law, without requiring Christian adherence. In fact, says Scruton, if there’s a clash between religious obligation and secular law “it is the duties of the citizen, and not those of the believer, that must prevail.” Religious obligations might establish principles, but it’s secular law that expresses them in a way that suits a particular time and place and so the obligation is to obey the particular law in preference to the abstract principle.
Family is “the seat and source of our primary attachments” and “our primary image of home”. It’s where we are formed most deeply and develop our understanding of morality and meaning. So like religion, the family “has been regarded … as the enemy of revolutionary projects,” because both create a sphere of value outside of the revolutionary state and outside of the control of revolutionaries. Marriage, the ideal origin of family life, is a social and civil institution and not merely a contract between partners. Instead, it creates obligations beyond the spouses to the children who typically result so that a wedding traditionally represents “an existential transition, from one state of being to another, in which future children would be the most important element.” This traditional view is increasingly uncommon and yet, “even for us”, marriage is inextricably linked with childbearing, with intergenerational obligations, and with “sacrifice and dedication”.
Work claims an increasing share of our time and efforts, and yet our relationship with it is often conflicted. Scruton argues this is partly due to the distinction between “alienating” and “fulfilling” work. Fulfilling work is work we value in its own right; something we do because we want to, not (only) because we’re paid to. Alienating work is work we don’t want to be doing and wouldn’t do unless we were getting paid. We’re more likely to be fulfilled by our work if we’ve invested something in our ability to do it—“not merely time and effort but also some of [our] aspirations”—and if we have a good place to work and good people to work with. And so Scruton argues for the “abolition of employment,” which seems rather odd until you realise that he believes self-employment, by giving people more agency and control over their work, is more likely to free workers from drudgery and help them find fulfilment.
Leisure is ideally a “community-forming arena,” and supports our ability to create and realise value by allowing us to pursue passions and interests along with others. But Scruton, writing nearly 10 years ago, warns that the internet has severed the in-person interaction that makes genuine relationships possible, the kind in which we pay attention to each other and adjust our own behaviour and expectations as they pay attention to us. Virtual connections engender neither empathy nor self-knowledge. We therefore fail to develop fully, first because online encounters are easier than the in-person alternative and “when the substitute becomes a habit, the virtues needed for the real encounter do not develop.” Second, if we don’t learn “the habit of face-to-face encounters,” in which we risk conflict and negotiate differences “rather than imposing [our] will” and remaining in control, we fail to develop the capacity of a “self-knowing agent, capable of entertaining and acting from reasons,” that we are meant to have in order to be truly free.
Lastly, culture represents the accumulation of inherited judgments about what is valuable, passed from generation to generation. Even more importantly, it represents “the habit of judgment,” which “is vital to moral development”. Only by learning to judge, and to judge well, can we discover and create real value in our own lives. Of course, Scruton is well aware that many will argue that “culture” is subjective and that the judgments it apparently embodies are really just a matter of individual taste. Is Duchamp’s urinal art? In a sense, yes: “Anything is art if somebody sincerely says so”, because ‘art’ just describes something that fulfils a particular function. But is it good art? This is where we need that habit of judgment, which is informed by our cultural inheritance but which also requires us to flex our own imagination and intellect. In fact, Scruton says, whether art is good depends on whether it provokes this reaction; does it raise us to the “higher level” of “ethical reflection”? Was it created to help us “search for meaning … through reflective encounter” and does it succeed in that aim? If so, it has helped us to grow—in our own character and personhood, and in our ability not just to recognise but to create things of value in our personal life and in our life together.