Even atheists used to believe in good taste. The infamous David Hume wrote in his Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals “In many orders of beauty, particularly those of the finer arts, it is requisite to employ much reasoning in order to feel the proper sentiment; and a false relish may frequently be corrected by argument and reflection.” (emphasis mine).
Today, it is hard to find a Christian who believes good taste is real, founded on objective realities, and possible to identify. Christians have changed places with relativists, and seem to be leading the charge.
T. S. Eliot reminded us that those desirous of good literary judgement need to be acutely aware of two things at once: “what we like,” and “what we ought to like”. Ron Horton said, “Whereas the immature approve of what they like and disapprove of what they dislike, the mature are able to approve what they dislike and disapprove what they like, or are inclined to like”.
Approving what we ought to approve of is clearly Paul’s prayer in Philippians 1:9-11. Scripture certainly calls for the development of good taste. “Let all things be done decently and in order. (1 Cor. 14:40). “Finally, brethren, whatever things are true, whatever things are noble, whatever things are just, whatever things are pure, whatever things are lovely, whatever things are of good report, if there is any virtue and if there is anything praiseworthy– meditate on these things. (Phil. 4:8) “But solid food belongs to those who are of full age, that is, those who by reason of use have their senses exercised to discern both good and evil.” (Heb. 5:14)
Taste is then a discipline that can be developed. Taste goes beyond preference, for to call something beautiful is to say more than just, “I like it”, but to make the claim public in some way, to call on others to share your evaluation. Differing tastes may correspond to the difference between two sorts of beauty. In other words, bad taste is a taste for bad things, the love of what ought not to be loved.
Taste may even be sinful. Frank Brown, in Good Taste, Bad taste, and Christian Taste, suggests four forms of sinful taste. First, there is the Aesthete, who glories in creation, but not in the Creator. Second, one finds the Philistine, who cannot appreciate anything artistic or aesthetic, things which “cannot be translated into practical, moral or religious terms”. Third, one meets the Intolerant, who elevates his own standards to the level of absolutes. Fourth, there is the Indiscriminate, whose radical aesthetic relativism embraces all aesthetic phenomenon without discriminating between the superficially appealing and that which has lasting value.
To even speak of sinful taste is highly controversial in a relativistic age, so a few qualifications are in order. First, taste is rooted in a broader cultural context, and cultures necessarily have differences. (This does not mean they do not share universals.) Second, judgments of taste do not function like logical theorems, valid scientific inferences or valid moral claims. Taste can, contra the Roman maxim, be a matter of legitimate dispute. An element of freedom is built into the pursuit of beauty.
With all that said, some form of consensus should be sought, otherwise no discussions of beauty could take place. How does one explain differing tastes in beauty? I suggest four explanations, which I’ll take in turn:
1. Aesthetic Maturity
2. The Prevalence of Kitsch and Sentimentalism.
3. Cultural Formation and Deformation
4. Natural Preference
The idea that one’s ability to discern beauty is a discipline that can be practised is unfamiliar to many Christians. It wasn’t always so. Jonathan Edwards wrote, “Hidden beauties are commonly by far the greatest, because the more complex a beauty is, the more hidden is it.” Again, even a sceptic like David Hume wrote, “though the principles of taste be universal, and, nearly, if not entirely the same in all men; yet few are qualified to give judgment on any work of art, or establish their own sentiment as the standard of beauty.” So, who is qualified? Hume says, “Strong sense, united to delicate sentiment, improved by practice, perfected by comparison, and cleared of all prejudice, can alone entitle critics to this valuable character; and the joint verdict of such, wherever they are to be found, is the true standard of taste and beauty.”
Edmund Burke saw the cause of bad taste as a defect of judgment due to lack of natural intelligence, or a lack of training and exercise in judgment. He added that ignorance, inattention, prejudice, rashness, levity, obstinacy, and all other passions that pervert the judgment, will pervert the ability to perceive beauty. Taste, according to Burke, improves as judgment improves, by growth in knowledge, and better attention to the object, and by frequent exercise.
Taste engages much of the human soul. It perceives, appreciates, and appraises. If so, aesthetic maturity must be closely related to other dimensions of morality and maturity, including responsiveness, wisdom, love, and discernment. An overall maturity of character is related to aesthetic maturity, and the corollary is that aesthetic immaturity is a defect in one’s overall maturity.
If, as the Greeks said, beautiful things are hard, one would expect the mature to be able to patiently and carefully discern such beauties, whereas the immature and impatient will pass them over.