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Taste is Black and White

One particularly common misconception in the realm of aesthetics is that “we all have different tastes, and that’s OK,” and Christians are certainly not immune to this errant perspective.

The error here lies once again in a careless use of terminology. If by “tastes” in such a perspective one means “preferences,” then I have no complaint. Different people certainly have different preferences, especially when it comes to art, whether culinary, visual, or auditory. One person may prefer Italian cuisine over Oriental — differences in preference abound and are perfectly acceptable. A person may prefer Mozart over Haydn, something which I certainly will never understand, and yet differences in preference here cause no real concern.

taste however is black and white. One has either bad taste or good taste. If two people differ in preference, both could be well within good taste. But if two people differ in taste, one (or both) is bad. Someone who claims that motor oil is good taste in culinary aesthetics, or one who proclaims fingers on a chalk board as beautiful music, possess inarguably bad taste no matter what their preference.

For example, both my wife’s preferences in decor and my mother’s preference in decor, while somewhat different, are both in good taste. Proportion, balance, and vibrancy are qualities that describe both preferences, placing them clearly in the realm of good taste. On the other hand, I know plenty of people whose decorating preferences are gaudy, loud, cluttered, and obnoxious. These preferences are clearly bad taste

As Christians, we are responsible to reflect the beauty and character of God, and God is described often in terms of splendor, balance, proportion, and modesty. Therefore for a Christian, in whatever aesthetic realm, it behooves us to strive for good taste by discerning those same qualities. Once inside the sphere of “good taste,” then, room for differing preferences exists in abundance.

So be careful the next time you are tempted to say, “Well, we just have different tastes.” If you mean preferences, then by all means, say it! But recognize that excusing mediocrity or immodesty for “difference in taste” is illegitimate for a God who describes himself in terms of good taste.

Scott Aniol

About Scott Aniol

Scott Aniol is the founder and Executive Director of Religious Affections Ministries. He is Chair of the Worship Ministry Department at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, where he teaches courses in ministry, worship, hymnology, aesthetics, culture, and philosophy. He is the author of Worship in Song: A Biblical Approach to Music and Worship, Sound Worship: A Guide to Making Musical Choices in a Noisy World, and By the Waters of Babylon: Worship in a Post-Christian Culture, and speaks around the country in churches and conferences. He is an elder in his church in Fort Worth, TX where he resides with his wife and four children. Views posted here are his own and not necessarily those of his employer.

2 Responses to Taste is Black and White

  1. A couple of issues I would like to raise, perhaps for future discussion here.

    You started out your essay with a brief aside to differences in preference between Mozart and Haydn. Apparently you prefer jocular phrasing and deceptive asymmetry over Mozart's more even keeled, elegant (albeit deceptive in its own way) idiom. This seems to be a valid judgment. However, this calls into question what your later posit as the purpose of music:

    "to reflect the beauty and character of God, and God is described often in terms of splendor, balance, proportion, and modesty."

    If the purpose of music (and, by extension, all pseudo-autonomous art) is to act as metaphor for the characteristics of Deity, then one must first establish a baseline from which to measure the properties of music in order to judge whether it does. What I mean by this, is that if we insist on absolute characteristics of God, and parallel representation of these characteristics in sound, then the aural representation must be able to be mapped onto the cognitive representation. Here's where the problem gets a bit sticky:

    If a) Mozart's music is balanced and proportioned (which, for our purposes, is one of the norms), and b) Haydn's music is noted for its especially irregular antecedent/consequent, sentential, and proportional idiosyncracies, and c) God is balance and proportion, then d) Haydn's music is less "God-like."

    Of course, this could go on ad infinitum with further examples. Romanticism, especially of the late 19th century (Wagner, Bruckner, Liszt) as a whole would have to be written off as "immodest." (and, in some estimations, all of Baroque opera).

    I'm sure that you've already thought of these things, but because your post left off the nuances of the argument, I was hoping you might take some time and defend your position a bit more rigorously.

  2. Hey, Ben. Good to have you here.

    A couple thoughts.

    First, re: Haydn vs. Mozart. I would suggest that the style characteristics you mention are more surface order events than structural, and it is the structural that concerns me here.

    Have you studied Schenker at all? I think his philosophy best represents what I am talking about, and interestingly, he would have called anything after Brahms "immodest."

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