We recently received an excellent question submitted through the “Article Suggestions” module in the right column of this site: “What areas of aesthetics are preferences that are relative to individuals (if any)?”
I recently argued in a post on this site (from a chapter in Sound Worship) that it is the responsibility of Christians to change their tastes for beauty to match what is truly worthy of admiration (you can listen to an audio version of this here as well). Since God is transcendent beauty, there do exist absolute standards of beauty that should govern our judgments of beauty. This does not meant that such standards are immediately apparent or that I think that I have determined what they are perfectly! But just because something isn’t exactly clear to us doesn’t mean we shouldn’t make the effort to discern them.
This really is more parallel to the transcendental ideas of truth and goodness than we might immediately recognize. People assume that truth and goodness are more clearly articulated in Scripture than beauty, and we can therefore be more certain of truth and goodness than we can of beauty.
However, just as the Scripture is clear about the truth and morality of some things, the Bible is also clear about some things that are beautiful and some things that are not. In other words, the Bible does call some things beautiful just like it calls some things true and some things good.
Furthermore, there are other things that are both true and good that the Bible does not tell us are true and good. In other words, the Bible doesn’t tell us everything that is true or good, does it? So the fact that we have to work in order to determine what makes something beautiful and adjust our tastes accordingly is not really all that different than how we approach truth or goodness.
But back to the original question: isn’t there any room for preference here?
Taste and preference are two different things, although we may tend to use the terms interchangeably. Taste is black and white. You either have good taste (i.e., you delight in things that are worthy of that delight) or you have bad taste (i.e., you take pleasure in things that don’t deserve your admiration). It’s black and white because standards of beauty are rooted in the nature and character of God himself. Stating that taste is black and white does not imply that it is that clear to us. It just means that absolutes do exist.
Preference, however, is, well, just preference. Within the category of what is truly beautiful, what is worthy of admiration, there is lots of room for preference. I might recognize the beauty of a particular composer’s music, but not prefer it for whatever reason. Or I might prefer a particular work of art that is objectively beautiful, when someone else does not.
So, yes. There is lots of room for preference, but only within the realm of what is objectively beautiful when compared to the beauty of God.