When my oldest son was a Boy Scout in England 20 years ago, I once watched his troop play a game in which the boys formed a circle around a troop leader holding a soccer ball. The leader proceeded to throw the ball to the boys at random, saying as he did so either “head” or “catch.” If he said “head,” the boy was supposed to catch it; if he said “catch,” the boy was supposed to head it. Anyone who slipped up and caught the ball when instructed to catch it or head the ball when instructed to head it was out and had to leave the circle. Eventually, only one scout was left standing. That boy, as I have often had occasion to think since, must have been one of nature’s ironists. He and the others had certainly had an education in the central principle of all ironic—and, for that matter, non-ironic— discourse, namely that meaning depends on context. A boy who’d said that he would just love to play such a game could have meant either that he’d love to play it or that he’d absolutely hate it, and all but the most literal-minded would have been able to tell which it was on hearing the words spoken in their context.
All art is to some extent propaganda,” claimed George Orwell, a view that was the corollary of his socialist belief that all human relationships had a political dimension. Though he himself was a robust conservative about some things— patriotism, for example—he was essentially conceding the magnificent artistic heritage of his country to a form of Leninist brutalism by which aesthetic judgment was subordinated to political. It was a concession that was also being made, implicitly if not explicitly, by artists themselves at more or less the same time all over Europe and America. This surrender to politics and, with it, utopianism is what is ultimately responsible for the decline of beauty in art so eloquently lamented in the new book, Beauty, by my colleague Roger Scruton. Beauty, like honor, demands consensus and is therefore in its essence non political.