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Beauty’s Difficulties: Accounting for Taste

This entry is part 16 of 17 in the series

"Doxology: A Theology of God's Beauty"

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How can beauty be a real property if the question of “taste” enters in? If so many people find so many different things beautiful, then surely beauty is just a synonym for what people like.

One of the obstacles to understanding the question of taste is common view that art is to be a matter of spontaneous pleasure and immediate delight. The idea that one’s ability to discern beauty is a discipline that can be practiced is unfamiliar to many Christians.

This has not always been the case. Frank Burch Brown writes: “Christian theologians were once well acquainted with the idea that the best art often delights only with difficulty, and through difficulty. Jonathan Edwards wrote, “Hidden beauties are commonly by far the greatest, because the more complex a beauty is, the more hidden is it.” Augustine, likewise, in The Trinity and On Christian Teaching, celebrated the aesthetic rewards of difficult art, including sacred allegory and scripture, whose veiled meanings in the harder passages both ward off the undisciplined and attract the devoted”

The idea that art should be immediately accessible, familiar, and gratifying partly comes from enculturation in an age of commodified entertainment and pervasive amusements. Such enculturation, however, does not change reality: beauty is to be discerned, and discernment can be developed.

Even David Hume, as radical a critic as he was of moral or aesthetic theory not grounded in empiricism, spoke of the need for qualified critics who could find general principals of approbation or blame. Hume writes in Of the Standard of
Taste (1757) that, “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”
What kind of person is “qualified”? Hume answers, “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”.

Of course, only people with good taste could recognise judges of good taste, so how does one escape circularity? Hume suggested that such people “are easily to be distinguished in society, by the soundness of their understanding and the superiority of their faculties” . Of course, Hume meant the polite, literate, civilized, and financially at ease of his day. But even so, Hume believed the views of the aesthetic elite must be corroborated by a group of peers; their verdicts must be joint. All this shows that even an empiricist such as Hume recognised that much in the debate over taste came down to
expertise, not mere preference.

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 judgement. He added that ignorance, inattention, prejudice, rashness, levity, obstinacy, and all other passions that pervert the judgement, will pervert the ability to perceive beauty. Taste, according to Burke, improves as judgement improves, by growth in knowledge, and better attention to the object, and by frequent exercise.

These writers take it for granted that taste can be developed, improved, and refined. By frequent practice, regular comparison, and by hearing the views of critics, one can grow in aesthetic sensitivity, and thereby mature aesthetically. This growth produces the very circularity that Hume speaks of. Beauty is “what the reliable critic discerns, and the
reliable critic is the one who discerns what is beautiful”, according to Roger Scruton.

Taste engages much of the human soul. It perceives, appreciates, and appraises. Because it requires “thought and imagination, sense and sensibility, it is an integral part of our humanness, our loves, our existence as embodied and living souls”, according to Brown. 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.

Some differences in taste can be ascribed to the aesthetic maturity or immaturity of the subjects who are viewing the objects of art. If, as the Greeks said, Beautiful things are hard (Republic, IV, 435c), one would expect the mature to be able to patiently and carefully discern such beauties, whereas the immature and impatient will pass them over.

Taste is also shaped by modern mass culture (with its predilections towards narcissism and sentimentalism), and of course, by natural preference. However, this is a far cry from saying that taste is merely an arbitrary personal choice. On the contrary, the fact that taste is shaped should make us all the more alert to the possibility of acquiring a taste for what is ugly, and losing pleasure in what is genuinely beautiful.

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David de Bruyn

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.

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