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Botticelli’s Birth of Venus and Kate Moss modelling for Topshop were cited as contrasting ideals of beauty by Roger Scruton in a debate on whether or Britain has become indifferent to beauty. Photograph: Corbis/AFP

The great thing about the present economic calamity is that it is forcing a thoughtful re-examination of values, rather than the coarse pursuit of acquiring more stuff we don’t need with money we don’t have.

So, right on cue, the National Trust, guardian of collective memory, has held its first public “Quality of Life” debate, organised by Intelligence Squared, the business that makes brainy argument into an extreme sport for urban intellectuals. During last Thursday’s cocktail hour at the Royal Geographical Society, 700 guests paid to hear a debate on whether “Britain has become indifferent to beauty”.

For the motion was David Starkey, the rebarbative, reactionary telly-don who has turned history into a queenly costume drama. With him, the amiable Roger Scruton: a foxhunting High Tory philosopher in corduroy who is everyone’s idea of a dotty professor. 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. Nothing to them is so howlingly funny as poor people going shopping in Tesco. In their panelled common rooms they slap their thighs and shriek with laughter at the crude appetites of people who drive cars or go on holidays.

John Betjeman was the same. He found dual-carriageways and council houses signs of perdition. Betjeman called Nikolaus Pevsner, our greatest architectural historian and unblinking champion of Modernism, “plebsveneer”.

Against the motion, Germaine Greer and myself. Greer is, after Clive James, our Greatest Living Australian National Treasure, although – to be honest – being told that she recently appeared on television in pop socks had made me a bit alarmed about the integrity of our argument. Greer is, her strident feminist years now gone the way of Starkey’s codpieces as a fashion accessory, an ocean-going intellect of, pop socks notwithstanding, some grandeur.

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.

The debate was chaired, with steely aplomb, by the Guardian columnist and National Trust chairman, Sir Simon Jenkins.

My argument was that, while Britain is most certainly in radical need of wholesale top-to-tail improvements to its fabric and its manners and attitudes, it is insulting and ignorant to say that this entire civilisation is “indifferent to beauty”. Beauty is fugitive and takes different forms at different historical moments. No one, Dr Starkey, writes madrigals any more.

On the other hand, Scruton and Starkey argued that no one discusses beauty any more. What they mean is that in their arid, isolated and increasingly irrelevant academic circles, beauty is a taboo. They need to get out more. Where I travel, in architectural offices and design consultancies and advertising agencies, beauty is discussed all the time.

And the public, consciously or not, is always in pursuit. I don’t know when Starkey or Scruton last visited TopShop on Oxford Street, but here they would find a huge, inspired and energetic audience in pursuit of … beauty, or, at least a version of it. The clothes in TopShop fall straight out of the British art school system, the oldest and best in the world, one that gets Alexander McQueen, John Galliano and Matthew Williamson to be in charge of international fashion houses whose ideas feed beautiful clothes to the high street.

This same art and design education system stimulates the liveliest architectural culture on the planet. Most car designers are educated in Britain. And this same art education system produces Jonathan Ive, designer of the iPod. Last year millions of British consumers bought one because they are passionate about its beauty. They paid a premium price for a machine which, technologically, is no different to its MP3 rivals.

Britain, the country that Starkey and Scruton believe is indifferent to beauty, has by far the world’s most active design culture. Italy (the traditional home of bella figura) is pitiably backward in comparison. Scruton showed a picture of Botticelli’s Venus shoulder-to-shoulder with Kate Moss and told the audience how cruddy our culture is. I had to explain to him that Botticelli’s model was a common Florentine hooker called Simonetta Vespucci, painted nude to titillate his client.

Whether in fashion, products, packaging or buildings, design is by definition mass-market and to satisfy that mass market, you have to design beautiful, attractive objects. As pioneer design consultant Raymond Loewy knew, “ugliness sells badly”. But Starkey feels that selling is a transaction between pimps and whores, a view which may reveal more of his personal experience than it does of national life.

The motion wobbled as the audience saw the prejudice inherent in it: greater interest in beauty existed in the past. Yet people have a selective view of the past and its benefits: Starkey did not, I think, travel to London on an Elizabethan train. And he is corrupted by “survival bias”, the fact that only the best of the past survives and influences us disproportionately. Anyone who has read the accounts by Daniel Defoe or Celia Fiennes of travelling around Ye Olde Britaine know the squalor and ugliness of the past. Engels’s Condition of the Working Class (1844) describes a culture contemptuous of beauty. And let’s not forget George Orwell during his down-and-out period. I personally would not swap Wigan Pier for the London Eye or Liverpool Seaman’s Orphanage of 1885 for the impressive new Westminster Academy.

Design is about the popularisation of beauty. So, far from being “visually illiterate”, we enjoy popular advertising whose visual sophistication and coded language would have baffled a Sorbonne professor 25 years ago. It is readily de-coded by millions of adepts every night. Scruton called this sophisticated act of interpretation “pollution”.

Then there are our art galleries and museums. Seven out of 40 of the world’s most popular galleries are in London. Tate Modern gets 5.23m visitors a year and they are not all tourists: 67% are from the UK and are repeat customers. And what of the National Trust itself? Scruton and Starkey had problems arguing that its 3.5 million members belonged to an aesthetically indifferent culture.

But beauty can be abstract as well as visual. London is the cultural and gastronomic capital of the world. Better now to eat here than in Paris. Same goes for music and theatre. We spend more time in and more money on gardens than any other culture.

Britain is not indifferent to beauty. Anybody who has been on a diet, gone to a gym, dreamed about a holiday or wondered about a new car, watched Dan Pearson on television, enjoyed the London Eye or admired Tate Modern or felt Swiss Re makes an interesting contribution to the London skyline is in dedicated pursuit of … beauty.

Greer and I won the debate overwhelmingly, by a margin that made chairman Jenkins blink. 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.

Stephen Bayley
Guardian

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