Monthly Archives: August 2020

15. Beauty’s Difficulties: The Problem of Taste

After more than a century of grappling with Descartes’ division of knowledge into “subjective” and “objective”, eighteenth-century thinkers developed a way to rescue the concept of beauty. The conversation about beauty moved away from a discussion of harmony, proportion, or unity and towards the idea of taste. In fact, at this early stage, the attention to taste as a theme in the discussion of beauty was an attempt to prevent the complete subjectivisation of beauty, and to retain some level of objectivity by defining standards of taste. Even David Hume argued for refined taste: “In many orders of beauty, particularly those of the finer arts”, Hume writes in his Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals, “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”.

Alexander Gottlieb Baumgarten (1714–1762) seems to have coined the term aesthetics. Baumgarten used the term to refer to judgement of good and bad taste, defining taste in his Metaphysica (1739) as the ability to judge using the senses and not the intellect. For Baumgarten, beauty was nothing less than perfect sense knowledge.

Though it had its opponents (notably the Earl of Shaftesbury), the Enlightenment departed from the classical and traditional Christian notions of beauty as being or as a property of God. A growing sense of the individual’s subjective consciousness and a growing awareness of cultural diversity further challenged simplistic ideas of equality, symmetry and harmony as the sum total of beauty. An increasingly secularised intellectual world was now struggling to account for taste apart from any theological moorings. The newly-coined term aesthetics was to become a distinct discipline within philosophy, focused mostly on the beaux arts, rather than a basis for ethics, or as one of three transcendentals that explained immanent reality.

This non-religious aesthetic form of art was soon to become valued for itself, creating “art for art’s sake”. Art was now on its way to becoming an autonomous entity, divorced from worship, ethics, or religiously useful effects on the head and heart. Instead, these works of art were valued as badges of social status, goods to be marketed or components of a growing “culture industry”.

Indeed, the avant-garde averred that taste for this new form of autonomous art would be contaminated by religious or moral interests. The taste for art was divorced from the spiritual taste that had been spoken of by believers for centuries.

In the same century, Edmund Burke defined taste in A Philosophical Enquiry into the Sublime and Beautiful as a complex of three factors: sensory perception, the pleasures of imagination, and the conclusions of the reasoning faculty.  Taste is the ability to rightly discern and respond to aesthetic qualities. He wrote,  “[I]t has three elements or facets: perceiving, enjoying, and judging”. Burke’s view assumes that there is a true beauty outside the observer that can be known.

If this is true, it is possible for taste to be better or worse, more discerning or less, acute or dull.  Aesthetic taste is a discipline that must be cultivated like any other. Taste goes beyond preference, for to call something beautiful is to say more than just, “I like it”, but to make that claim public, and expect agreement.

A difference in taste is more than a difference in preference. A difference in preference represents the symptom of differing taste, not its very essence. Differing taste produces differing preferences, but those preferences are not the sum and substance of differing taste. Differing tastes may, in the end, correspond to the difference between two sorts of beauty which themselves differ in kind. That is, bad taste is a taste for bad things, the love of what ought not to be loved.

This is a controversial claim. How do we account for widely differing tastes? Our next post will make some suggestions.

14. Beauty’s Difficulties: A Case of Mistaken Identity

The topic of beauty suffers not only because its definition is disputed, but because beauty is often a victim of misidentification. These wrong associations lead beauty’s critics to dismiss the topic out of hand. As I’ve said, I believe beauty refers to the deepest reality, and so it is no small matter when beauty is trivialised or mistaken for something else. Beauty is confused with at least four things, which compromise its true meaning.

1) Beauty is not prettiness. That is, beauty has little to do with the saccharine-sweet, the merely decorative, or the superficial niceness of appearance. While there may be instances of what is pretty, charming, or pleasing that possess beauty, beauty is far more, and far deeper than the surface appearance of an endearing garden, a memorable face, or a cute outfit.

2) Allied to this, beauty is not kitsch. Sentimental art evades or trivialises evil, presenting a fiction of an unfallen present world, and so allows its viewers to wallow in pleasant feelings. The sentimentalist is emotionally self-indulgent, loving, grieving, hating, pitying, not for the sake of another, but for the sake of enjoying love, grief, hate, and pity. Sentimental art denies the need for sacrifice in approaching beauty, but in so doing deprives feeling of depth and reality. Dorothy Sayers terms such art “amusement art” and notes that what people get from it “is the enjoyment of the emotions which usually accompany experience without us having had the experience”. Nothing in such an aesthetic experience reveals people to
themselves; it merely enhances and inflates an image of themselves as they fancy themselves to be. Sentimental art appeals to human vanity, self-centredness, and egotism. Kitsch is where humans go to indulge the love of self, and to escape into worlds of their own making. Kitsch trades in the familiar, the easy, the shallow, and the childish, because these appeal to what is most selfish in all. Sentimentalism is then worse than an aesthetic faux pas, it trades in falsehoods. It distorts the realities to which it claims to allude. It cannot generate action appropriate to what it claims to represent, for it falsifies the experience from the start, giving instead a placebo emotion.

For this reason, sentimentality and kitsch is a form of art hostile to what Christianity purports to teach: a denial of self, so as to worship the glory of Another. Bishop Harries goes as far as saying that “Kitsch, in whatever form, is an enemy of the Christian faith and must be exposed as such”. Kitsch is not only an aesthetic failure, but a moral and spiritual failure, too. Christ’s beauty is not a sentimental prettiness, and therefore sentimental art has the potential of leading into idolatry. Scruton similarly claims that kitsch is not primarily an artistic phenomenon, but a disease of faith.

3) Beauty is not pleasure. At least, while beauty evokes pleasure, and beautiful souls find pleasure in the beautiful, beauty is not identical to pleasure. When defined too narrowly as an aesthetic experience, beauty has no place for pain, discord, tragedy, and suffering. The kind of beauty that a Christian believes in must include the message of the Cross, with its ugliness, horror and pain.

4) Beauty is not a surrogate religion. Emil Brunner pointed out that the danger of this approach, at least in artistic matters, is “taking the reflection for the reality, or at any rate of resting content with it. Thus art becomes a substitute for faith, which is sought because it does not demand decision, as faith does, but merely the attitude of a spectator, or of one who is swayed hither and thither by the artistic influences around him; that is, it is not a real devotion, it is merely aesthetic.” Jacques Barzun wrote that “autonomous art has no unity, no eternity, no theology, no myth, no minister, its cult can only fall into a worship of the instrument—idolatry. And to say idolatry is to say failure, for what is wrong with idolatry is that it is a dead stop along the way to the transcendent.”

The Bowl

High upon a volcanic plateau was a village, about an hour’s walk from the Everlasting Spring. Once a week, on the Day of Worship, the Healer would arise long before dawn and begin his trek to the Spring, carrying the Bowl. Hollowed out from a large stone, the Bowl had been passed down from one Healer to another for more generations than could now be remembered. Once at the Spring, the Healer would carefully fill the heavy Bowl up to its brim, and then begin the journey back, being at pains not to spill the precious water.

Once the Healer arrived, the village people gathered. With great gratitude, they received the bowl, each one drinking his share before passing it on to his neighbour. Fathers helped their children with the weight of the Bowl, so that they too could enjoy the life-giving water. People always thanked the Healer, for they knew the hike to the Spring and back while carrying a stone bowl was indeed an arduous effort.

However, the mood was changing in the village. News of changes in other villages had spread, and discontent began to set in. Murmurings reached the ears of the Healer. Chief of these was the complaint that the Bowl was simply too heavy. People could no longer hold such a heavy Bowl, and they were being denied access to the water by the sheer bulk and weight of the Bowl.
And indeed, the people’s arms had grown weak. The Healer had been observing the strongest of the men in the village losing strength and muscle for several years. And there was no doubt that the Bowl was heavy, particularly when full of the Spring’s water, and especially for weak arms.

Word had arrived of what other villages were doing. They had rejected the traditional Stone Bowls, and had begun using something new – the Plastic Platter. The Plastic Platter was a thin, disc-shaped plate, slightly turned up at the edges. They were usually decorated with bright and colourful designs, and the people marvelled at them. (They were imported from the West, and the village people thought this added to their value.) Some Plastic Platters had been brought to the village, and those most vociferous for change brought them to the Healer.

The Healer took some time to examine them. He could immediately see why people liked them. They were very light – the smallest child could hold them. (For a moment, he was tempted by the thought of how much easier they would make his task.) They were attractive and drew attention to themselves, whereas the Bowl simply focused one on the water. Moreover, they were so cheap that each villager could have his own Platter, making the Day of Worship a very personal experience.

However, the Healer was deeply troubled by the greatest flaw in the Platters: they could hold almost no water. Little more than a sip of water could be held by their shallow forms. The Healer knew that the villagers would begin to thirst and eventually die if the water came to them on these Platters.

He called a meeting and began to explain his concerns. A restlessness pervaded the meeting. Voices began lodging objections. “It’s the same water, isn’t it? Why do we have to do as our forefathers did? These Platters are easier to use. You do want people to have access to the water, don’t you? Or are you trying to keep it all to yourself?”

The Healer spoke slowly. “I very much want us all to drink of the Spring. Yet I think our forefathers knew well why the Stone Bowl would serve us best. It holds much water, enough for us all. It requires we all share one Bowl, unifying us. It is heavy, reminding us of the Spring’s importance. It sometimes requires that we serve each other, by helping the weak, the sick, the frail and the young.

“I am afraid the Platters will not hold much water. Their colour will distract us from how little water we have actually tasted. Their lightness will remove all sense of what we owe the Spring. And they will divide us from each other, instead of uniting us.”

The meeting broke up. Several disgruntled people left the village with their families, and more people in the villages began using the Platters. The Healer determined he had only two choices: begin using the Platters, or help each of his people hold the Bowl, till each one’s arms were strong enough to hold it himself.

What ought he to do, if he be worthy of the title Healer?

The Unexamined Life

“The unexamined life is not worth living”, said Socrates. Socrates was teaching the need to live a life where all things are parsed for their meaning. A life lived on auto-pilot, following the great mass of humanity, takes most of life for granted. It is a life lived without reflection, without much meditation, and consequently, without much understanding. Life is reduced to a set of tasks to be completed. As reflection and contemplation wither, inevitably wonder, awe and worship suffer as well. Examining life for its meaning sets us apart from animals, who also eat, sleep, mate, get food, build shelter. Animals do not look at the sky and simply ask, “Why?”, nor do they contemplate beauty.

Since Christians believe we live in an ordered universe that was designed and created by an Intelligent Being, it only follows that we should examine all of life for meaning. The Examined Life, however, is not popular amongst many modern Christians. Begin urging Christians to examine the meaning of their music, or the impact of clothing on our moods and manners, or the uses of technology, or the values of pop culture, or the frivolity of entertainment-based living and they will go through a range of emotions.

First, amusement. “You’re kidding, right? You don’t seriously expect me to believe that God has an opinion on my [fill in the cherished idol], do you?”

Second, disbelief. “You must be some kind of cult. I’ve been listening to very conservative preachers all my life, and I’ve never heard anything like this. You’re going off the deep end.”

Third, anger. “I can’t stand all this nitpicking about how I live my life. Who are you to say that my [fill in the cherished activity] is incompatible with Christianity? Show me a chapter and verse!” Strange, as Kevin Bauder has pointed out, how some people are very attached to, and very defensive of, the things they claim carry no meaning.

For many people, a “conservative” Christian church equals a generally biblical theology, some expository preaching, and corporate worship that is tame in comparison to the rock-fests passing for Christianity everywhere else. This is ‘conservative’ to most Christians today. However, what is clear about such churches, judging by the members that come to us, is that no attempt was made to insist upon an examined life outside of the Sunday sermon. The pastor was too squeamish to touch the ‘hot-topics’ that get Christians all defensive, so he never did. Or, he was schooled in an environment which conveniently did a hop, skip and jump over such things, lest they be branded as fundamentalists. This is why people are puzzled by the Examined Life. Few Christian leaders seem to practise it; the chances of the average Christian knowing it are slim indeed.

Should these leaders be called on their unexamined living, the stock response is that such talk is legalism. Legalism is the easiest and most popular smear-word in modern Christianity. Not many people who use it to blackball their opponents would be able to define it if they were pressed. In most people’s minds, it means something like, “I’m being told what to do in very specific areas of my life, and it feels constrictive!” By that definition, simple obedience is legalistic.

True legalism, or better, Pharisaism, is turning from a Spirit-empowered walk in loving obedience to Christ’s Word, to an externalised, flesh-empowered conformity to please man. Despite what evangelicals will tell you today, it is not the specificity of the rule that makes it legalistic, it is the motive and the means through which it is performed. If you think legalism is getting down to the nuts and bolts of everyday life, I’d encourage you to read church covenants and rules of church membership from the 17th and 18th century. You will brand the whole Christian church of the era as legalistic.

The Examined Life is not legalism or Pharisaism, though living the examined life can seem demanding at first. We are not, as a rule, a reflective culture. Forcing people to think about things that are taken for granted seems burdensome and onerous.

But Socrates’ comment is meant to have the opposite effect. The Christian who embarks upon the Examined Life finds he or she was missing the wonder of living when living an unexamined life. The mystery of the world, the wisdom and power of art, the fragility of the conscience, the worth and dignity of the human soul, the revelatory power of nature, the ongoing analogies of faith all around us, the preciousness of living life as the image of God in a universe made by God and for God – these come alive to the one willing to simply examine the meaning of all things.

So when called on to examine yourself or the meanings of things in your life in all areas of life, don’t see it as the invasion of crabby Pharisees into your personal freedom. Realise it is the entry point into the Christian life worth living. “For in Him we live and move and have our being.” (Acts 17:28 )