a matter of theological taste? (part 1)

This painting ('Nocturne in Black and Gold, the Falling Rocket' by James McNeill Whistler was compared by one art critic with flinging a pot of paint in the public's face

One art critic compared this painting, ('Nocturne in Black and Gold, the Falling Rocket' by James McNeill Whistler) with flinging a pot of paint in the public's face

To seek the real beauty, or real deformity, is as fruitless an enquiry, as to pretend to ascertain the real sweet or real bitter. According to the disposition of the organs, the same object may be both sweet and bitter; and the proverb has justly determined it to be fruitless to dispute concerning tastes.

That’s sceptical philosopher David Hume discussing the problem of judging works of art (Of the Standard of Taste). Although, it could just as easily be a commentary on the unfolding discussion over my suggestion about ‘the coherent incoherence of theology’, which threatens to descend into something resembling an argument over which flavour of ice-cream is objectively best. Impossible to arbitrate. A matter ultimately of temperament (‘the disposition of the organs’).

But Hume doesn’t just register the problem and leave us languishing in the relativism of taste. Acknowledging our intuition that there do seem to be general principles of taste enduring across cultures and through the ages (however elusive they may be), and thus aiming to keep our judgements at least inter-subjectively honest, Hume develops some guidelines for training that key ‘organ’ of taste — the imagination:

  1. Get acquainted with great artworks — Hume reckons that ‘the frequent survey or contemplation of a particular species of beauty’ can help develop our imagination and hone our judgement.
  2. Pay close attention to the artwork in question — examine it closely, look at it from different angles, etc.
  3. Compare it with other acclaimed artworks — ‘One accustomed to see, and examine, and weigh the several performances, admired in different ages and nations’, Hume contends, ‘can alone rate the merits of a work exhibited to his view’.
  4. Learn to put yourself in the shoes of the artwork’s target audience — a clear sense of what the artwork can realistically be expected to do when viewed in the right light is an indispensable aspect of forming a defensible aesthetic judgement.

I’ll apply these guidelines to the activity of theological judgement in the next post. For now, I’m keen to know how you feel about the parallel I’ve posited between aesthetics and theology, and about my assumption that the imagination is the seat of judgement in both cases.

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