Talk of beauty is in the air these days. It has been absent as a reigning value in contemporary art long enough to be provoking interest once again. It is a bit of a jumble though. Everyone wants in on the beauty of the philosophers while reserving for themselves the ascendency of their own taste and perceptions. The knot knocks even the best of us off course with little guide beyond the packaged insights of art appreciation. No less formidable a cultural critic than Roger Scruton is unsafe from the tools of the appreciator’s trade.
Consider Scruton’s response to Manet’s Olympia in his 2009 essay collection, Beauty. Manet’s boulevardienne, modeled after Titian’s Venus, was a scandal in its time. And for good reason having nothing to do with bourgeois prudery—always the designated villain in popular telling.
In 1863, the year Olympia was painted, syphilis was a serial killer in France. Infected husbands brought the disease home to their wives who passed it, in turn, to children in utero. Whole families were devastated by it. From public health records, it is estimated that one out of five people were infected at the time. (Manet, a syphilitic like his father, died horribly of complications. In the chaos of an amputation performed on the dining room table, his leg ended up in the fireplace.) Without that retrospective understanding, today’s audience grasps nothing of what the painting meant in Manet’s Paris.
Scruton avoids any reference to the art of the work, such as paint handling, or other barometers of workmanship. Anxious to declare the painting beautiful on higher grounds than craft, Scruton celebrates Olympia as an example of “self-identity and self-awareness.” He skips along the belletristic path in tones that echo the ambient rhetoric of his own era. The figure, in his telling, is an icon of assurance. An independent woman of mettle. He does not ask just how self-possessed any prostitute could have been in nineteenth century France, rife with cholera and tuberculosis as well as syphilis. Contagion was a pervasive danger; and antibiotics not yet invented.
Scruton’s gloss illustrates a crucial hazard of received appreciation: the substitution of art history for history itself. It amuses us moderns to think that Manet’s contemporaries greeted with dismay a work we consider a thing of beauty. We congratulate ourselves for having gotten past such moralistic responses. But Manet’s audience grasped Olympia better than a modern philosopher gazing back through the narrow lens of today’s arts discourse. Where Scruton sees an admirable, hard-bitten poise, Manet’s public recognized a carrier of lethal infection.