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Praising the Unpopular: Some Reflections on Taste

July 21, 2010

In the beginning pages of his latest book Living in the End Times, Slavoj Žižek argues for the different between good taste and true taste. He writes:

The only proof of taste is that one knows how to occasionally appreciate things which do not meet the criteria of good taste–those who follow good taste too strictly only display their total lack of taste. (Likewise, someone who expresses his admiration for Beethoven’s ninth symphony or some other masterpiece of Western civilization immediately bears witness to his tastelessness–true taste is displayed by praising a minor work of Beethoven as being superior to his “greatest hits”). (9)

We can observe several consequences of Žižek’s proposal. First, separating true taste from good taste suggests that good taste is simply a construct of the majority. According to this view, it demonstrates good taste to appreciate Beethoven’s ninth symphony, because this symphony is widely recognized as something excellent and beautiful. Because good taste is a determination of the majority, however, it should not be confused with true taste.

Second, and as a result, it does not require any real work to develop good taste. One can have good taste simply by listening to all the recognized “masterpieces,” memorizing the famous poems, and reading the classic literature. Developing good taste does not take individual effort, but simply requires that one submits to the guidance of those who have decided what counts as good taste.

Third, and by contrast, true taste will always display an element of eccentricity, departing from the consensus on good taste to assert true tastefulness. True taste may correspond with good taste to a certain extent, but it is not the case that good taste will always be true taste. True taste recognizes beauty wherever it is found, not matter how something rates according to popular, tasteful opinion.

Of course, this understanding of true taste causes some problems. If true taste requires an element of eccentricity and praises the unpopular, is it ever possible to judge between tastes? Can I ever tell someone else that they have bad taste? Or to state the question another way: what if I do not like Beethoven’s ninth symphony at all? Does that signal bad taste and prove that there are standards for true taste? Furthermore, does it really make sense to distinguish between good taste and true taste?

I realize there are not easy answers to these questions, but I would love to hear your thoughts. Because this post is quite open-ended, feel free to comment on any aspect of taste, but especially how Christians should approach these issues, and to what extent Christians should be advocates for true taste, which may mean at times praising the unpopular.

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11 Comments leave one →
  1. Anna permalink
    July 21, 2010 10:23 am

    This definitely brought to mind the idea of the coolness (which is another way of labelling approved “taste”) of some music or clothing style as being only so while it is unknown or niche and then once it is mainstream those trend makers move onto other music or clothing styles. This is a defined marketing strategy to limit access to a good so that it is in fact a rare commodity and thus more desirable. It strikes me that taste when it is “good” must have a higher end than this.

    These are only brief thoughts…and just a first response.

    • July 21, 2010 11:58 am

      Yes, and I think this goes to show how Christian need to develop a different sense of taste than what is simply popular in our culture at any give time.

  2. Travis permalink
    July 21, 2010 11:26 am

    Taste is certainly subjective, as the above post bears witness. Žižek’s statement strikes me as elitist. To revere certain pieces of art and shun others we are appealing to some set of criteria, whether acknowledged or not. Therefore I find it most fruitful and illuminating in discussion to state what those criteria are or might be to which we are consciously or subconsciously appealing when we make our subjective aesthetic judgments. Some of the qualities may be elusive and difficult to articulate but they become no clearer to ourselves or others by remaining unspoken. I still think there is value to traditional or historically-recognized qualities of which the beautiful (to varying degrees) partakes. Qualities such as unity, proportion, harmony, excellence, etc. I also think that the giving of pleasure and evoking of desire or longing (in a properly ordered soul–morally categories are always binding, so I am excluding the sadomasochist, e.g.) is a useful summary of the effects of the beautiful on a soul, which can be either sensual or intellectual-affective or (usually) a combination of the two. I also find Burke’s distinction between the beautiful and the sublime a helpful one. When an object impresses one with its magnitude or immensity or evokes awe, e.g., it is moving away from the category of the beautiful toward the sublime. Of course, God is both.

    Regarding the more abstract and immaterial effect of beauty upon one’s understanding and emotions that I mentioned, distinct from the more concrete (and less imaginative?) pleasure that one receives through physically beholding a beautiful painting, e.g., it is this ‘intellectual’ and/or affectatious effect of beauty contained in the idea or nature of a thing which can allow for certain objects that are ugly or repulsive to the senses per se—a crucifixion, to take the primary Christian example—to still be called ‘beautiful’ as they are contemplated by the mind as an idea, or as the meaning of such a scene is understood by the mind/heart. While a naked man bleeding, slowly and painfully dying of asphyxiation because he has been nailed to a tree, is beautiful by no one’s definition, when comprehended as a selfless act of willing sacrifice to redeem a beloved humanity that has been tragically and otherwise irrevocably lost to its Creator and Father God, it becomes a movingly beautiful act connected to a deeper, more profound and dramatic reality than that of which the mere physical scene partakes. In other words, crucifixion is ugly but redemption accomplished at greatest cost is beautiful.

    • July 21, 2010 12:07 pm

      I resonate with the need for criteria for taste, Travis, and thanks for pointing us toward some of the “classic” criteria that can serve to guide discussion.

      I also think you are right that any discussion of “true taste” smacks of elitism. Does true taste simply mean individual taste in this case? I’m not sure.

      But back to the idea of criteria, I wonder if these criteria really get us anywhere. Take Thomas Kinkade’s paintings for example. One could say that these paintings have a remarkable level of unity, proportion, harmony, and even provoke pleasure in many people. But I would like to say that even though many people find these paintings beautiful and even enjoy looking at them, this is ultimately not an expression of good taste, and Christians should be challenged to a higher standard of taste.

  3. Jon permalink
    July 21, 2010 12:14 pm

    Which is precisely why Lily Allen is the greatest musician of our time…

    • July 21, 2010 12:32 pm

      I’m glad you brought that up, because whereas Christian should have better discernment with taste, we should be able to engage with music like Lily Allen’s.

      • Anna permalink
        July 21, 2010 12:44 pm

        hey….i like Lily Allen. Seriously, there are a couple of songs i really enjoy! 🙂

  4. July 21, 2010 12:47 pm

    I have to admit that I have only heard one of Lily Allen’s songs. What would you say is good about her music, and why do you like it?

    • July 21, 2010 3:52 pm

      Some of it is just fun. She has a sharp sense of humor and i like that. I don’t like her whole first album but songs like “Nan, you’re a window shopper” and “LDN” about London just have this quirkiness that makes me smile. She has a song called “smile” that i associate with a particularly fun roadtrip! Admittedly, i wouldn’t just recommend her music without reservation – there’s alot of references to anti-social behaviour and broken relationships in her music. But for someone who writes all her own lyrics and music and has managed to stay mostly independent, she’s any interesting artist.

  5. tim permalink
    July 21, 2010 5:42 pm

    I agree with your ambivalence in distinguishing between “good” and “true” tastes. Perhaps this difficulty in defining comes from using the word “taste,” which is necessarily subjective.

    For me as a Christian, to bring in the word truth takes the discussion out of the realm of taste. Well, not out of the realm, but beyond, at least. Taste is within the realm of truth, but truth is larger and is never subjet to taste. Also, I do not think one can acquire a “taste” for truth. Some truth operates precisely because it is grotesque. One should not find one’s self enjoying Jesus’ lashes or crucifixion. Their truth, though, both symbolically and really, are effective.

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