Jul 13, 2011
Good taste is restrained. Bad taste is excessive, vulgar, and often offensive. Our culture, especially the visual media, is drenched in bad taste.
It is a philosophical axiom that whatever is received is received according to the capacity of the recipient. Objective beauty is grasped in the manner proportional to the power of the imagination. Developing good taste begins in early childhood and varies with the faculties of the individual. A child exposed to the arts tends to receive the classics in a more positive way than a child who is raised without them. Similarly, one who has developed a vivid imagination is generally more susceptible to the attraction of beauty than those with less development. There are exceptions. On several occasions Glenn Gould, the famous J.S. Bach keyboard interpreter, told the following anecdote when asked how he came to love the composer so early in life. His response was remarkable: when his mother was pregnant with him, she regularly played classical music, especially Bach’s. He attributed his love for Bach to his mother.
Within limits, the adage, “taste may not be disputed,” is valid due to the many factors that form and mold our taste such as character, temperament, education, age, gender, and choice of friends, leisure and entertainment, culture and the arts.
According to aesthetic subjectivism, every eye sees differently, and every taste senses differently. Therefore, the perception of beauty involves a subjective judgment, varying with the individual's eye, taste, time and circumstance. In aesthetic criteria, objective norms are given short-shrift, playing a minor role. However, the adage that ‘taste may not be argued’ (or colloquially, ‘to each his own’), has its limits. Sound taste is not arbitrary. It is not an absolute contention that taste may not be disputed or questioned, thus removing objective criteria from judging a thing. Taste has to do with particulars of the truth. Sound taste knows the difference between what is sweet, bitter, sour, and salty. Good taste applies dispositions and judgments of the mind that reveal one’s choices. It applies to table manners and caring for the body. Public courtesy is essential to good taste. Loud conversation and the casual use of cell phones in close areas like public transportation exemplify a striking lack of public courtesy.
A nose in the perfume industry and a sommelier in the wine have acquired the sense of delicacy. These experts, who know when something is too much, too little, or just right, have transformed their industries into art forms. They have cultivated the art of impeccable taste.
What is impeccable taste? A person who “develops his soul according to the images of the objectively beautiful gradually learns to acquire the art of discrimination, that is, the art of perceiving what is beautiful” (Von Balthasar, Theological Aesthetics, 481). He observes that “an eye for quality is analogous to the eye of the connoisseur, which can infallibly distinguish art from kitsch, and excellent quality from average or merely good quality” (Ibid., 482). The words of Hebrews 5:14 support this position: “But strong meat is for the perfect; for them who by custom have their senses exercised to the discerning of good and evil.” An alternate translation renders the verse: “But solid food is for the mature, for those who have their powers of discernment trained by constant practice to distinguish good from evil.”
The art of good taste is a never-ending pursuit because it consistently chooses the better of two good.
Taste: an analogous word
Taste is an analogous word and refers to the appetite. One may speak of taste in food and in wines, taste in the arts and entertainment, taste in one’s companions. The Psalmist exhorts us to “taste, and see that the Lord is sweet” (Douay-Rheims, Ps 33:9). Here taste is used in the spiritual sense wherein it participates in the act of faith. The goal of taste is enjoyment and union with what is tasted.