Thursday, April 23, 2009

The Guts of Good Taste

One cannot really advance an argument about taste. I think most of my generation is at least vaguely appalled by any attempt to take inventory, according to some predetermined standard, of those things which are in good taste. When my choir conductor called last year’s overhaul of CBC Radio 2 a struggle between high culture and low culture (Bach=high culture, 3 minute pop songs=low culture), he – and most of his ‘flock’ – was confident in locating good taste on one side of that divide. Establishing such an a priori divide at all seems to me to be in bad taste.

One cannot really establish criterion for beauty. I have long known this. Beauty, like Christ’s Lordship, must be its own argument. Of course, this does not mean we should shut up about beauty (or Christ). It just means that our claims about beauty have no ground to stand on but our own taste. This is a Nietzschean claim, but it – along with Nietzsche’s thought more generally – should not reduce us to some sort of relativism. Not everyone has good taste! Beauty may be in the eye of the beholder, but not everyone has an eye to behold it, and no one can always behold it. Taste is necessarily discriminating. Beauty may be resilient, and may be encountered where we least expect it, but it is not everywhere. Even an argument advancing aesthetic relativism becomes something of a theory of beauty, a criterion that obscures the actual encounter of beauty in some ‘places’ and not others.

A claim about the beautiful is therefore a risky business. One might be wrong. And it’s not as if we can simply find that principle or standard that will ensure our rightness. In judgments of taste, we risk ourselves. I could admire my conductor’s guts, his dedication to Mendelssohn in the face of CanCon and the simple strum of the acoustic guitar (Lobgesang is, after all, frighteningly good), but the problem is that for him there is no risk. His defence of Mendelssohn is a self-preservational claim, something resembling a political platform more than a confessional declaration.

I think I’m going to stick with Nietzsche for awhile. The academic world is one primarily interested in protecting itself with argument, and yet Nietzsche’s works are very respectable objects of study. Too many of these studies still are interested in protecting the academy from Zarathustra’s injunctions by dissecting him rather than wrestling with him (or dancing with him, as we might rather say), but I really do think there may still be room enough to keep him alive and, well, kicking, to allow oneself to be wounded (and blessed) by his demands on us. His demand, finally, is that we have courage enough to make claims about good taste because it is in good taste to make these risky claims. So let us be honest and brave enough to stammer “This is my good; this I love.” This is my good; this I love.


  1. Why confessional? Is this different from prophetic? How is it that one might not have an eye to behold beauty, or might not always? It seems then that beauty is a relative thing just not completely relative. As if anything can be beautiful but we need to be willing to risk ourselves to make it so. This is certainly an interesting notion, though I am not sure where it might lead. Certainly there is a value to the risk and the posture of confession, certainly also however this should not be the reduction of all that beauty is. As your example of the political points out (an example that I think is somewhat unfair to politics) there is the appearance of beauty with out the risk that fails to fulfill the sublimation. This would imply that there is an inherent quality within the beautiful that the beholder simply recognizes, a notion that I doubt you are comfortable with.

  2. Fulfill the sublimation? I'm not sure what you're talking about, but I certainly have no interest in talking about "inherent qualities". Do I somehow make that necessary?
    And whatever the prophetic might be, is it not certainly confessional?
    No, not everything can be beautiful, but I'm not about to locate some sort of divide. And why use the word relative at all? Why not just speak of truth that doesn't depend on universal agreement? Which it certainly doesn't.

  3. Okay Jesse, a better response might be to quote David Bentley Hart at you. I don't agree with him as a rule, but he claims that beauty is objective, but does not adhere to a particular object. It is marked instead by a dynamism, "a relationship of donation and transfiguration." I think Nietzsche might also see beauty as a dynamic relationship. This does not make beauty relative, or even sort of relative, but existentially constituted, if that makes any sense.


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