Taste Formed and Deformed by Culture
Taste is never shaped in isolation. We learn to love what we love from our family, our church, our school, and our society. In other words, taste is largely shaped by culture.
Culture can be defined as T. S. Eliot suggested, “the incarnation of a religion”. At the heart of any culture is Richard Weaver’s “metaphysical dream”: an unspoken but ever dominant vision of ultimate reality. From this vision, a culture creates worship, art, jurisprudence, custom, and social order. Quentin Faulkner says that “culture is perhaps best defined as the collective behavior (together with the resulting artefacts) of a society engaged in acting out (symbolizing) its most deeply held and cherished shared beliefs and convictions”.
Understood this way, culture is formative and , in some senses, determinative. As the composer Julian Johnson, puts it, “Culture is not something you choose: it confronts you with an objective force. To be sure, it is a composite product of individual consciousness and is amenable to our own work upon it, but it is far from being a matter of choice. Culture is no more a matter of choice than having two legs or being subject to gravity is; one can no more reject culture than reject electricity or weather”.
If culture is formative, much of what is wrongly called “personal taste” is actually shaped by example of others and exposure to others’ loves. Tastes are first received before they are scrutinized or even challenged. People begin their lives as members of a culture and identify with its loves and hates; it is only later that they begin to question if they wish to continue to own all that the culture holds dear.
“Ah!”, says the musical and aesthetic relativist, “this just shows that taste has no objective standard! It is completely different from one culture to another, and therefore no taste can be judged to be ‘better’ than another”.
Were humans all still living in isolated folk cultures in which they were united by religion, language, and geographical region, we’d have to consider how different folk cultures have approached beauty, and how taste should be related cross-culturally. But they aren’t. The technologies of mass culture have erased geographical boundaries. All that is left of folk culture are those remnants that have been selected by producers of mass culture to create a new product: a movie about Native Americans, a pop song using Swiss yodelling, or a Disney movie about animals with themes sung in Zulu or Swahili. The truth is, we all live in the world of mass culture. The question of universals between cultures is really no longer a major question: we’re all in the same culture now. And it’s really a non-culture. Christopher Dawson says of mass culture,”[T]he new scientific culture is devoid of all positive spiritual content. It is an immense complex of techniques and specialisms without a guiding spirit, with no basis of common moral values, with no unifying spiritual aim…A culture of this kind is no culture at all in the traditional sense—that is to say it is not an order which integrates every side of human life in a living spiritual community.”
What kind of taste does mass culture produce in its members? Faulkner suggests two beliefs.
1. A belief in the individual’s right to pursue self-satisfaction, self-fulfilment, and self-gratification.
2. Confidence in the potential of modern science to create for us an ever improving quality of life, coupled with a fascination with the technology that is the result of modem science.
The kind of taste that most clearly corresponds to the first belief is what we disparagingly call kitsch (art that makes us feel good about feeling). The taste most properly aligned with the second belief centres on, in the words of Calvin Johansson, “media, presentation and image”. A culture given over to this will be one that emphasises what is more entertaining, such as exciting images, rather than text. When image dominates in a culture, a religion of the Word suffers.
In such a culture, taste is necessarily deformed, and such deformity reinforced. Indeed, only the mentality of the marketplace would define taste as entirely a matter of individual choice, like products to be purchased and consumed. Only a member of mass culture would see an eclectic selection of cultural products as “personal style”. “The equating of cultural choice with personal style signals the end of an understanding of culture as something related to objective spirit” (Julian Johnson).
Mass culture does not, and perhaps cannot, communicate transcendent ideals. Its art forms, made as they are to sustain narcissistic interest, are not capable of sustaining the Christian vision of a holy, glorious, and beautiful God. A culture of easy listening and easy living leads to the atrophy of imagination, and to simplistic sentiment.
When people are dominated by the sensibilities of mass or popular culture, it deforms taste in all the directions that Christian aestheticians have warned against: using art instead of receiving it, taking immediate responses as the “truth” of the work, promoting aesthetic relativism, and creating an appetite for narcissistic art.
Differences in taste can certainly be credited to the shaping force of culture. To what extent a person is embedded in in mass culture will have a proportionate shaping influence on his aesthetic taste.
About David de Bruyn
David de Bruyn pastors New Covenant Baptist Church in Johannesburg, South Africa. He is a graduate of Central Baptist Theological Seminary in Minnesota and the University of South Africa (D.Th.). Since 1999, he has presented a weekly radio program that is heard throughout much of central South Africa. He also blogs at Churches Without Chests.