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.
The motion is ... 'Britain has become indifferent to beauty'
Academic and broadcaster known for popularising history with books and TV series
What is striking about Wedgwood and that great generation of industrialists is that they combined enormous technical and technological flair, profound and brilliant marketing skill and an extraordinarily sensitive concern with the idea of beauty which was at the centre of their notions of function, of their notions of marketing, of their notions of manufacture. And it mattered.
One of the great treasures of the National Trust is, of course, our landscape. Our landscape is by and large a man-made creation and the great glories of the National Trust, the great parks and so on, are deliberate man-made creations. They were made by a society that was conscious of the idea of beauty, that explicitly put it at the heart of its culture. The greatest essay on beauty of the late 18th century was written by Edmund Burke, on the beautiful and the sublime. It is absolutely central. It is precisely because of the centrality of the idea of beauty that those societies produced the glories that are the centrepiece of Britain now.
Kant says that the word beauty by definition implies a sort of universality, something which is common, something which you feel is pleasing to the eye, satisfies, harmonises.
Now, that was at the centre of the idea of the beauty of a Wedgwood, of a Bolton, of an Adam. And I think it is one that we have forgotten at our peril, because what we've done instead is to substitute another idea - that art is about self-expression, it is about doing your own thing. It is building buildings like Foster, and producing sculpture like Damien Hirst.
Ladies and gentlemen, we have seen through this. You judge by their fruits and it seems to me very striking that the great commissioners of shards of glass are busted financiers.
There is an extraordinary close relationship between the values of the pioneers of the slump and those of a Hirst or a Foster. Indeed, may I end on this note: if we wish to connect ourselves with the idea of beauty, we must recognise that Damien Hirst and Tracey Emin, those apostles of ugliness and foulness, are to art what Bernard Madoff is to investments.
Writer and academic, author of The Female Eunuch, a 1969 feminist classic
Britain has become indifferent to beauty, I learn. Poor Britain. Who dares to speak on behalf of all the people in these islands. What vanity. What presumption. This is condescending nonsense. Everybody this week has been excited, elated. Why? Because we have had a visitation of spring. There was nobody who didn't understand what difference that golden light made to even the most workaday environment. Our spirits rose, our optimism rose with it, because beauty doesn't exist outside us, beauty is a concept we have within us and we search for it all the time. We search for it in our daily lives, not in art, not in the built environment, not in the National Trust. We have it at our back door, we have it on our lips. A spring day: is it more or less beautiful than the Mona Lisa? Which I happen to consider rather ugly.
Now it is certainly true that the British have uneducated eyes. We handle the teaching of aesthetics, the appreciation of design, very badly in our schools. And we have a timid and unadventurous consumer society for the art object and the manufactured object. This is true and it means we have terrible things foisted on us. British people are easily seduced by kitsch and the picturesque. I spend a good deal of my time trying to persuade people that Essex is not picturesque, which gives it a fighting chance of being beautiful. If you watch the light on the water in the Blackwater Estuary you are actually in the presence of something staggeringly beautiful, and not a tea shop in sight. Remember the uncertain glory of an April day, more beautiful for us because it is so uncertain. Beauty is connected with fragility, with the fact that it is passing.
The British might be insensible to the appeal of grandiloquent architecture, to the monuments, to the ambition and ostentation of the most outrageous aristocratic class in Europe.
Yet beauty is inseparable from freshness, delicacy and fleetingness, and the British are no less susceptible to it than anyone else - the bloom on a child's cheek, the fawn coming over the hill, the crozier of the unfolding fern, the sheen on the woodland that you can see now as the sap begins to rise, the first swallow. One reason why our hearts beat higher now is that we know that all these things are under threat and that they have become more beautiful to us because we may lose them.
It is simply not true that the British are insensitive to beauty. Why has a television programme like Coast been so successful, with 4 million viewers? David Dimbleby's Pictures of Britain averaged 4.3 million viewers. It is because the British are not insensitive to beauty. If they have become inured to ugliness, it is because they have had very little choice. But ignoring ugliness, enduring it, is not the same as not understanding the beauty of the play of lights in an evening sky. We are as passionate about beauty as ever we were and it's just as well, as it is our only hope.
Philosopher and author of more than 30 books including a defence of fox hunting
The British people have a sense of beauty, but they do not respect it. Beauty comes low on their list of priorities and tends to be set aside when some appetite or need competes with it. The same is true of our government, which will happily sacrifice beauty to utility whenever they believe that the two conflict. This is an important underlying motive in the debate concerning windmills. Of course there are those who think that the new kind of windmills, with their fearful asymmetries, are beautiful. But that is not the point: beauty is simply not considered. It has been decided on very slender grounds that windmills will help us to meet our clean-energy needs and so windmills there must be. What does it matter that they spoil a tranquil valley or dominate the landscape for miles around?
Simply put, the beautiful is that which repays contemplation, which tells us we are at home in the world, and that there is a meaning more important than our appetites. That is what our great cities embodied: a sense of enduring values of a common home which is not there to be trashed and desecrated by its temporary tenants. Beauty belongs with grace, politeness and decorum. It is a way of saying that we are not a crowd but a community, and that we wish to be remembered alongside all the things that last. The attitude of the British people and their representatives is well expressed in the modern street, with its meaningless clutter of signs and hideous street furniture. Advertising hoardings are not so different from graffiti. They are attempts to scribble all over the face of the world with a private and self-centred message.
It is probably television that must be blamed for the appalling colour sense of the British, with pastel purples and pea-greens driving out all the shades of nature from their repertoire. Perhaps there is no better illustration of the rapid decline in this colour sense than in the liveries of the new railway companies.
The bottle green of the Great Western Railway, which harmonised so beautifully with the polished brass of the engine mounts, was vaguely preserved in the first attempts by First Great Western to give a distinctive livery to its trains. But it was only a few years before the need of the British was felt to revert to sweet-packet colours and childish doodles.
Beauty is no longer honoured as it should be in my country. Yet my country was built by people who revered beauty. It was, for them, a joy for ever and not something to be trashed and brought down to the level of our crudest appetites and our basest needs.
• The National Trust debate was organised by Intelligence Squared
Let me first say that yes, I've been a fan of Kate Moss ever since I can remember, and no, I never once thought I'd get the chance to meet her. That unthinkable moment happened this week when I traveled across the pond on behalf of Rimmel London, which hosted an event to celebrate the 15th anniversary of its partnership with Kate and launch her limited-edition collection of shades for its Lasting Finish lipstick. I was also lucky enough to have something of a cheering squad in my friends and co-workers, as well as my dad, who was mostly just proud of himself for knowing who Kate Moss is.
There were about 12 of us in the room, sitting across from each other on benches draped in vintage scarves, surrounded by clothing from Kate's very own closet. Of course I recognized the pieces instantly — the red sheer gown she wore to Mario Testino's 60th birthday party, her beloved Balmain leather pants — but they all but disappeared from view once she walked in. She definitely seemed a bit nervous at first, but once she sat down with host Scott Wimsett and her fashion stylist, the amazing Zoe Bedeaux, it wasn't long before the tension subsided.
I didn't blame Kate for feeling anxious. She came up in the '90s, an era of models "being seen and not heard," when she didn't have to give interviews, pose for selfies, or even meet with press. I can't imagine how it must feel now, to be in a new world where models have to be brands and are expected to talk about themselves all the time. I've always loved Kate for being such an enigma, and I respect her a lot for evolving with the times and essentially "playing the game."
What I didn't expect was for Kate to be so open. I imagined that the cheeky one-liners, dry sense of humor, and loud, ringing laugh I'd read about were reserved for close friends and famous colleagues, but I was wrong — and so happy to be. Kate lived up to my every idea of her; she was every bit of the charismatic, funny, and witty person I've seen in photos and rare interviews over the years. She revealed things that I wasn't expecting to hear — like that her 13-year-old daughter, Lila Grace Hack, tells her what to do with her makeup and that Kate "chews" her lipstick off but is getting better at breaking the habit. Here are a handful of things I learned during my brief meeting with the other queen, Kate Moss.
- The first lipstick she ever bought was by Rimmel . . . and it was gold. The shade was called Heather Shimmer. "I was 8 or something," Kate said, adding that she bought it "in Boots" and wore it "to the school disco. It's not like I was going anywhere else."
- She wears more makeup now than she ever has. Kate admitted, "I didn't use to wear really that much and I didn't know how to do makeup, but now I know how to do it a bit more. I can do an eye [laughs]. Eyes, I mean. Both eyes!" She added that she has "paid more attention in the last few years than I used to."
- Red carpets make her nervous, but she has a cure. "I'm happier on the runway," she told us. "[On the red carpet] I am not being myself. It's a weird like, 'Who am I? Am I me? Am I them?'" Kate also revealed who helps her get red carpet ready: "A friend, [makeup artist] Charlotte Tilbury, does [my makeup]. We just laugh and then I don't feel nervous. It is more like hanging out with my friend. We just gossip."
- Her daughter, Lila Grace, has already caught the beauty bug. "Lila is obsessed with makeup now," Kate told us. "She knows how to curl her lashes now and she does her brow. She tells me off for not doing it: 'It's about the shape of the brow,' and I'm like, 'Really?' She tells me what to do instead of the other way round. She does my makeup sometimes, which is hilarious. And we do a lot of nails."
- She got her favorite vintage dress from a very thoughtful neighbor. Kate called the dress "a really weird find" and explained just how it came to be: "My neighbor put a note on my door that said 'I've got a Thea Porter — do you want it?' I was like 'Uh, yes!' and it fits me perfect because it has that kind of bohemian chic, like going to lunch in the Summer, easy and floaty."
- She has a habit of chewing her lipstick off. "If I can wear lipstick, anyone can," Kate joked. "I literally chew it off; I don't know why I do. It's like I eat it or something."
- She prefers to wear nude lipstick when she goes to concerts. Instead of a "strong red lip," Kate goes nude for gigs. Why? "It's better for kissing loads of people backstage," she quipped, before miming the way she approaches a band after their show: flinging her arms out, tossing her head back, and shouting "You're amaaaaazing!"
- She loves getting ready to go out so much that she sometimes doesn't even make it out. "Everyone gets ready together and it's a big part of the evening," Kate said. "Sometimes we're having too much fun."
- Like you, she overtweezed her eyebrows back in the '90s. "They plucked them into oblivion. I had like, three hairs," she laughed.
- She loves the "celebration of makeup" happening now. "I saw a lady on the street wearing blue lipstick, just getting on the Tube and I was like, 'Wow, amazing! You're out there!"
- Confirmed: she's not above a cheeky joke. When asked how many pairs of leather pants she has, Kate said, "A few. But [the Balmains] are my favorites!" She went on: "They have been resewn a few times on the kneecaps." When Scott Wimsett joked that the holes were from "doing skids across the dance floor," Kate gave a sly smile before saying, "You know. . . whatever, wear and tear."
Image Source: Getty / David M. Benett