Giles Fraser: Observer’s book of beauty

22 September 2010

ONE of the abiding weaknesses of the British education system is that children are obliged to specialise at too early an age. How can you really “drop History” at 14? But that is how it is.

So many parents like me will have had tricky conversations with their children over their options. My eldest wanted to opt for Art over what I would consider a more serious subject. We had a robust discussion. But she was right and I was wrong.

This week, her art homework involved going off to the National Portrait Gallery and then taking photographs in Brick Lane. She is loving it. And I’ve been struck by the way that with this new interest in Art has come a very marked interest in looking at thinks more carefully. All of a sudden, she is noticing things she wouldn’t have before. She gives things a great deal more attention, more time.

I am utterly delighted — not least because there is so obviously a profound moral component to this new interest that is shaping her development and imagination.

Learning to see is an essential training in moral virtue. Yesterday, I took the memorial service for the fashion designer Alexander McQueen at St Paul’s. There was much about him that was troubled and difficult, and it is a tragedy that he took his own life as he did.

But what came through from that service was his obsessive concentra­tion on the look of something. His attention to the line of a suit or a dress was legendary, and there is no way of separating this sort of attention from the capacity to care. He cared a great deal about what he did. The moral challenge for all of us is to transfer this same care on to each other.

In her address at the service, Suzy Menkes, the fashion editor of the International Herald Tribune, made a strong link between truth and beauty. I nodded to myself as she did, noting how interesting it was that such a link was also one that is particularly im­portant to Pope Benedict. Following Hans Urs von Balthasar, the Pope has challenged us to put back together the things that modernism has separated out: truth, beauty, and goodness.

For Christians, the truth is not just some inert statement of fact; beauty is more than aesthetics, not just “a look”; and goodness is not some narrow moral code. Think, for instance, of the way in which Kant organises his three critiques, each devoted separately to truth, beauty, and goodness. Our job in the Church is to show how all these things are interrelated, and to put them back together. That can begin with art, and even with fashion.

The Revd Dr Giles Fraser is Canon Chancellor of St Paul’s Cathedral and Director of the St Paul’s Institute (

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