Just Because I Like It, It Doesn’t Mean It’s Good

14 06 2010

If I can’t trust my taste in food, can I trust my taste in art? I like chocolate cake. I don’t know for certain, but I am guessing that there aren’t many nutritionist out there who would argue that chocolate cake is good food. So here’s the point. If the food I like isn’t necessarily good food, might it be true also for the art I like?

Good art, I would maintain, communicates and reflects truth; and it is beautiful. There should never be any conflict between the good, the true and beautiful for they are all aspects of being and exist in the object being viewed, for example a painting. However sometimes it might appear as though there is a conflict. We might think something is false, yet find it beautiful for example. Or that something is ugly but good. I have heard some people say that they like Picasso’s Guernica, see below, because its ugliness speaks of suffering. I would say contrary to this that if it is ugly, and it looks it to me, it must be bad. (I might go on and explain that this is contrary to truth because Christian art reveals suffering, but always with hope rooted in Christ, the Light of the World who overcomes the darkness. Such a painting, if successful will always be beautiful. what Geurnica lacks is Christian hope. ) In regard to the general principle, who is right? How can we account for these apparent contradictions between the good and the beautiful?

Many today would respond by asserting the subjectivity of the viewer. That is, they would say that my premise is wrong and the qualities good, true and beautiful are just a matter of personal opinion; and they are not necessarily tied to each other in the way I described. If they are right then there is nothing disordered about liking ugliness; or hating beauty; or thinking that something is both ugly and good at the same time.

I do not accept this. The answer for me lies in accepting that we have varying abilities to recognize goodness, truth and beauty. This gap between reality and our perception of it has its roots in our impurity. Since the Fall, we see these qualities only ‘through a glass darkly’ so to speak and our judgement, to varying degrees, can be disordered. This is where food comes into the discussion.

Now, more than chocolate cake, I love fluorescent-orange cheesey corn puffs. In England are they are called Cheezy Wotsits (pictured right…and don’t they look delicious!). I have an insatiable appetite for these wonderful dusted pieces of crunchy manna. The dust they are coated with is ‘cheese-flavoured’ – there’s no pretence that there is any real cheese involved (and those brands where the manufacturer claims that real cheese is one of the ingredients, are inferior in taste in my opinion).

I could happily enjoy three meals a day consisting of nothing else and never get tired of them. But I don’t do that because I know that however much I like them they are not good food…or not if you eat them in the quantities that I want to eat them anyway. I would end up overweight and have permanently colour-stained fingers and lips.

So where does this leave us in trying to decide if a work of art is good. There are no rules of beauty by which I can decide how beautiful something is on a scale of 1-10. There is no artistic expert doing the equivalent what the nutritionist has done for the Cheesy Wotsit: a scientist with beauty meter that gives a definitive answer. For all that I might use ideals of harmony and proportion when creating art, the process of apprehending beauty after the fact is always intuitive. When I see a tree, I don’t go out and measure to see if it’s beautiful. I look at it and decide that it is. It’s just like harmony in music. The composer follows the rules of harmony, but listener just listens and decides if it is beautiful.

But the fact that it is difficult to discern, doesn’t mean that it is not an objective quality. It just means that I should try to be as discerning as I can. And here’s how I approach this problem: because I know that the good and the true and beautiful must all exist in equal measure in any particular object, I ask myself certain pointed questions to help me judge them and only if the answer is yes will I select the piece:

Is it communicating truth? This means that I look at the content and the form (see Make the Form Conform) and ask myself if what is being communicated is consistent with a Catholic worldview. If it isn’t I reject it, regardless of whether or not I like it.

The second question I ask myself is do I think it is beautiful? If I at least try to make a judgement on beauty then at least I stand a chance of getting it right. And this probably isn’t as unreliable as you might think. When I go through this process with the classes I teach I ask them if they like a piece. Very often there is a split within the class. However, when I ask the question: do you think this is beautiful? There is almost always a much higher degree of consensus. Christopher Alexander, an architect, wrote a book in which he described an experiment he carried out. He presented people with an object and then asked a range of questions and observed the degree of consensus. He found ‘do you like this’ had a low degree of consensus; ‘is this beautiful?’ was higher; and ‘would you like to spend eternity with this?’ gave almost complete unanimity. He was framing the questions so as to get people to think gradually more about the nature of beauty, and when he did, there was consensus.

And finally do I like it? So it’s not that taste is completely unimportant, but that it is just one aspect of choosing.

If the answer to all of these is yes I choose it. Even then, does this mean that I have made an infallible choice? No. As I mentioned before, there is no visible standard of perfect beauty by which I can measure something on any verifiable ‘beauty-scale’. God who is pure beauty is the standard, and I can’t see Him. However, what this does do by using reason to some degree, is to increase my chances of getting it right.

If I was choosing a piece for a public viewing, and especially a work of art for a church, I would play safe and seek not only those works that passed the above criteria when I consider my own opinion, but also for which there is a broad consensus that they are good, true and beautiful. How do I know which these are? Tradition tells me. Tradition is Chesterton’s democracy of the dead – taking the highest proportion of yesses, when considering all time, and not just the present. So for liturgical art, the authentic traditions are the styles of the iconographic, the gothic and the baroque. These styles have passed the test of time and I would choose art in these forms.

One last point, art is like food in another way. The more I am exposed to what is good, the more I learn to like it. My taste can be educated. So the more I expose myself to traditional art, the better my taste will become. Just as the more I eat salad, the more I will like it and the maybe one day I will grow out of Cheezy Wotsits…although I hope that day never comes.




11 responses

14 06 2010
Douglas Bonneville

Wonderful piece!

I have a question though. When I compare the the iconographic to the gothic, the gothic is objectively more beautiful. For instance, I have always found the iconographic style to have certain ugly foibles that distract me. I tend to focus on them, and find this distracting, especially in prayer. The brows of many saints icons has a superficial brow “fold” or protrusion, for example. There are many time strange “folds” on the cheeks, and impossible jaggy folds in garments. I also find the inverted perspective to be distracting, looking more like a mistake than profound thought, though I understand the reason for it.

Gothic seems to delight in overstating the beauty of something, which to me, always points to perfected reality – a sense of hope. I see the iconographic style as functional and certainly harsh, but not necessarily beautiful, since it seems to impose arbitrary culture-bound rules to form. The colors are always beautiful, though, and I find that to be a mismatch. Why a good eye for color and less so for form?

What do think? I can’t be the first to feel that icons aren’t really *that* beautiful.

If gothic was food, it would be chocolate cake the doctor told me to eat, that somehow was better than broccoli. Iconographic is a little more in the brussel sprouts category. I’m told they are good for you, so when I eat them, I just kind of deal with it but not necessarily happily so.

14 06 2010

Thank you Douglas. Interesting what you say.
I have heard many say this in regard to icons. But what you are telling me about, it seems, is your perception. The criteria you list are subjective and not absolute criteria for beauty. Because tradition tells us that icons are beautiful, then if our personal taste tells us otherwise we have to consider the possibility that our taste is flawed. If something is beautiful, then it is good. So if tradition is a guide, then to use your analogy, neither icons nor the gothic are chocolate. They are both brussel sprouts. The problem is in our taste, not the food, ie that we don’t like brussel sprouts even though they are good.

(Although if they are fresh and not overcooked as my mum cooks them, then I think they can be quite delicious, but that is another discussion!)

Many people nowadays favour the gothic over the icon and also the baroque (including me). Tradition is guide based upon perception over all time – Chestertons democracy of the dead and transcends fashion of any particular time. Even then, I’m not going to claim that it gives certainty, simply that it is the most reliable guide we have.

The other thing I would say is that as I was exposed to more and more icons then I really grew to appreciate them more. However, it also meant that I realised also that the quality is not constant. It is possible that you have been looking at bad icons. There are many badly painted icons that conform to the prototypes. I’m not talking about degenerate forms here – but those even by well known and traditional painters. Now again, I am relying on my taste here in making such a statement, and anyone could question that as ot being certain as ot which is better. My taste is certainly not infallible, but the point is that the quality is not even.

You see this in other traditions. Not every academically trained 17th century painter is a Master, and come to that, not every Murillo, for example. is a masterpiece, in my opinion, but they always conform to the prototype.

I couldn’t see this until I had occupied the world of icons for quite a while, and in regard to the baroque until I trained as portrait painter and learnt much more about how to recognise what is good, which affected my taste. ie My taste had been educated certainly so that I could recognise subtler variations and I hope (but I can’t be certain) for the better.

17 06 2010
Mark Nowakowski

David, I will only disagree in one matter. I think that what is truly beautiful is only a “brussel sprout” where perception is concerned. Gothic art, icons — or in my case as a musician, good music — are the richest of chocolate cake imbued with the most healthy nutrients as well. If we perceive (or taste) such things as “brussel sprouts,” it is only a sign that our aesthetics must be clarified. Rather than say “eat your brussel sprouts,” I prefer to say: “here’s the REAL chocolate cake.. and God wants you to eat it.”

Last week when I gave a talk on this VERY subject in Chicago, I suggested that it is a very acceptable prayer to say: “Holy Spirit, please enlighten my perception of beauty. Let me see where your reflection truly falls.” I will even go as far to say that — in a time filled with modernist ugliness and pop-posturing — such a prayer is essential. What do you think?

17 06 2010

I agree and this is the really the point I’m making. It might be that we are stretching the analogy too far and so getting unnecessarily complicated in the dialogue below…fun though it may be!.

17 06 2010
Douglas Bonneville

“But what you are telling me about, it seems, is your perception. The criteria you list are subjective and not absolute criteria for beauty. Because tradition tells us that icons are beautiful, then if our personal taste tells us otherwise we have to consider the possibility that our taste is flawed.”

I perceive the Sistene Chapel as beautiful. I perceive Greek sculpture as beautiful. I perceive High Renaissance Flemish still lives as beautiful. I certainly perceive Gothic as beautiful. I perceive early Renaissance Giotto as beautiful, but maybe less so than Renaissance proper, like Michelangelo. All that said, some icons don’t have the same quality of beauty. They really do seem to have a more limited form of beauty replete with archaisms and culture-bound oddities in form.

If beauty is more objective than subjective, can’t we put icons from the middle ages on a scale across from Gothic icons, and conclude that the Gothic ones are more beautiful? If we can’t do that, aren’t we then admitting to a certain degree that some elements of beauty are culture bound? I have a feeling, but no formal position, that Greek icons are simply not as beautiful as Gothic. Again, it’s just an immediate, visceral, gut reaction. It could simply be my own conditioning as a 21st century person and my training as an artist. But in studying art history, nothing seems to be as beautiful as Gothic and Renaissance.

Would it be fair to say that particular traditions (small T) from a Particular church or traditions of local churches before the Schism, in regards to beauty (and liturgy) are valid, but most certainly culture bound? I don’t have to perceive Greek icons to be beautiful for them to be and remain beautiful for Greeks, right? I would think Greek iconophiles think the same thing about Gothic icons, to some degree.

That said, I knew for years that broccoli was good for me, but I couldn’t stand even a nibble of it. I told myself it was good for 20 years. Now, I can eat it, but give me a plate of sauteed spinach and garlic any day over anything with broccoli. I can’t will my tastebuds to like peaches either. They just taste like metal to me no matter how bad I want them to taste otherwise!

20 06 2010

You may be right, of course. We have no authority to appeal to as an arbiter. I would say however that you can’t be certain that just because you can see the beauty in other traditions, that you are able to see it in icons. It still might be that you are blind to it. The reason for this difference could be any number of things including the one you mention, the cultural from which you are from. But it wouldn’t change the fact that icons are either objectively beautiful or they are not. When you talk of Greek icons, incidentally, are you referring to all iconographic forms or do you really mean Greek as distinct from other national iconographic traditions, such as the Russian, Coptic or Western variants (such as the Romanesque, Carolingian, Ottonian etc)? Interestingly, which tradition points to these iconographic traditions as authentically liturgical, it does not point to the High Renaissance in the same way.

20 06 2010
patricia rooney

Dear David , I really in enjoy your postings always food for thought!! sprouts are great, just boil them for five minutes then plunge into iced water to stop them cooking further and then reheat them when your ready by frying them on the pan with butter garlic and chunks of ham really tasty !!.Corn snacks no thanks can’t stand the way they stick to your teeth! And now I’ll get to my question, how do you appraise beauty in portraiture if for example you had painted portraits of Mother Teresa and Lady Diana (may they rest in peace)would one painting be more beautiful than the other ,or would the paintings be equally beautiful ? would love to hear your thoughts. God bless Patricia

20 06 2010

I think the answer to your question is that it depends upon the quality of the painting. There seem to be a number of discussion points relating to this: first, why do we perceive different individuals as ugly or beautiful? not all people are equally beautiful, but all human beings are beautiful relative to all other aspects of creation. The fact that sometimes we cannot see it is a reflection of our differing responses in love to different people.Then the next point, which again seems to be implied by your question is: is it possible to have a beautiful painting of an ugly object. The answer is yes. Bonaventure, for example, wrote of two possible modes of beauty in an image: the image is beautiful when it is well painted; and it is beautiful if it reflects accurately something that it is objectively beautiful. It is possible therefore, to paint something that is ugly – the devil for example — and for it to be a beautiful painting through the presence of the first mode of beauty.

20 06 2010
Matthew James Collins

This is a really interesting discussion. Aesthetics always is. I think that beauty and taste are two different entities that definitely overlap. Beauty is a inherent quality that reflects a certain determining order. Taste is a cultural product that is formed by societal values and cultural experiences and is used to judge quality. That is what makes David’s analogy so relevant. Whether we like something or not is usually more dependent on our personal formation instead of the object we are judging.

“Beauty” has been a core value of our civilization from the beginning. There is, in fact, an active revival of the classical idea of beauty in the arts( Roger Scruton for example). Whether we discuss Michelangelo, the Gothic, or the iconographic tradition, they all possess the quality of beauty. It is our taste that determines how much there is.

Unfortunately in our recent experience Consumerism has commandeered our culture, beauty included. The higher aspirations of art (explaining the human experience) have been sacrificed to ‘market share,’ ‘life style,’ and entertainment. How many times has someone bought a painting to decorate their house so it will look like an image for a magazine? Models and movie stars are our new pantheon of gods. How many women mutilate themselves to look more like the models in the fashion magazines? It goes without saying that they buy the products to be more like their idols.

The inherent quality that once went along with Beauty has been disregarded for only appearance. In a superficial world, quality is expressed by cost. Is the Damian Hirst’s pickled animals really ‘worth’ more than Michelangelo’s pieta?? (See the Mona Lisa Curse by Robert Hughes)

In essence, many of the core values of our civilization have been deemed irrelevant. David (as you all have with your comments) righty points out that culture today is about instant gratification and distraction.

28 06 2010

“But the fact that it is difficult to discern, doesn’t mean that it is not an objective quality.”

Thanks for this. I spent more than 20 years trying to ‘decide’ whether beauty existed objectively or not. Eventually I accepted that it was objective, which had a lot to with my return as an adult to the Catholicism of my childhood.

28 06 2010
Douglas Bonneville

“When you talk of Greek icons, incidentally, are you referring to all iconographic forms or do you really mean Greek as distinct from other national iconographic traditions, such as the Russian, Coptic or Western variants (such as the Romanesque, Carolingian, Ottonian etc)?”

I don’t know enough about icons yet to know the difference in bullet points I can list out. I have work to do. I do know that I see some styles that are closely related, but yet I come across some icons that seem to be either 1) ugly-ish or 2) correctly executed in a style I’m not able to perceive beauty in. I’m not sure which one it is! I could also be looking at a genuine example of a particular tradition, albeit a poorly executed one, and not know what I’m looking at for sure. Yep. Lot’s of homework to do!

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