07 December 2005

I got into an old-fashioned aesthetics debate at Shrine of the Holy Whapping

The post at the Shrine concerning Benedict XVI's call for liturgical-musical improvement has yielded some interesting comments, which I wanted to re-post mine below for my own readers:

Writes Hieronymous:
An aesthetic sense is like a conscience - it needs to be properly, vigilantly formed. Although everyone had an inherent knowledge of what is beautiful and what is ugly, just as he has an inherent knowledge of what is good and what is evil, his ability to apply it can be distorted or destroyed.

The greater task than restoring proper music to church (which is necessary, obviously. I will attend no Mass accompanied by soft-rock/pop OCP drivel) is to restore an appreciation for good music to the culture at large.


To which I responded:
I still think it is problematic to say that certain art forms are "objectively" better than others. Some are certainly more intellectually complex than others and demand a great more out of their hearer/viewer than others and these greater demands usually result in greater satisfaction and therfore greater enjoyment.

But another point is that works of art are subjective sensory experiences that we experience in a temporal way--this is integral to the definition of a work of art--and there is nothing "objective" about that at all. Each viewer will respond somewhat differently to a work of art, because each viewer is a different person.

Then again, works of art are fashioned by the artist to work on the viewer's sensory faculties in a certain way with the hopes of achieving a certain effect. Thus, the experience of Bach is different, vastly, from the experience of rock and roll. Bach is far more intellectually sophisticated than rock and roll, but rock and roll achieves vastly different effects which Bach's music cannot.

The question, then, is not what kinds of music are objectively right or wrong for the mass, but which are appropriate to the desired effect on the worshipper, namely reverence? Within that framework we should have a great deal of freedom to tweak things around.

Incidentally, I think that the only "objective" things which do take place during the mass are the sacred mysteries, but those are the very things that we can't comprehend. It is the things that "deliver" those mysteries to us that we can comprehend, and those are temporal and subjective. The problem is is that the line between what is necessary to the mysteries and what is accidental (the form which those mysteries take) is indistinct to us (not, I think, to God).


To my problematizing of objectivity, Emily (the original poster) responded:
The more I've thought about that over the years, the less convinced I am that it's true. I'm don't have time to go into detail on it, but think about the profound connection between truth, goodness, and beauty. There are objective standards for goodness and truth, so I find it hard to make the case that there isn't for beauty. Granted, it's of a different type, but I still think it has to be objective in some sense.

And I rebutted:
I rather hope you will when you have the time. But without taking up wild examples such as "modern" art, what is one to say about the differences between Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque art? On one level they all testify to what we understand to be the objective truth of Christianity, but do so in radically different ways. It is facile (I think) to say that the Renaissance was "more beautiful" than the Gothic or vice versa. It can be said that they represent that truth in different ways. Maybe different sides of the same truth. But if someone says "I think that the Renaissance produced art more beautiful than the Gothic period," they are pronouncing personal subjective judgment--a judgment of taste. To what standard could someone appeal such a statement? Throughout the history of art, people have repeatedly attempted to establish objective rules for beauty, and then these rules have been deliberately broken by others to show that they are arbitrary. But this is getting off track. It is not necessary for mass to be beautiful, objectively or subjectively. If it is, it is; if not, it doesn't fail to "take."

To my last sentence Franklin Jennings responded thusly:
While absolutely true, I don't see how this lessens our obligation to render the Liturgy beautifully.

But then, I also don't see how the fact that men cannot agree on an objective criterion for beauty should prove to seperate beauty from goodness and truth, when men also cannot agree on objective criteria for either.


And Sam with great erudition said this:
... it seems the discussion over catholic liturgical music sounds a bit elitist, classist, or at least exclusively Eurocentric ....What I mean to say is that the development of such nuanced and sublime taste in music or things beautiful necessitates exposure to the material deemed beautiful. In this way, aesthetic sense is not developed as a moral conscience. The inherent givens of goodness and truth are not as accessible to the universal church as Beethoven, Mozart, and Palestrina are....those seven, old ladies who sing their a capella, folky-mexican devotionals out of key every morning at 5 a.m. and sound terrible - but sincere; and the mountain community in Honduras who is visited only 4 times a year by a cleric where they come together and sing out in joy with unsophisticated instruments (like guitar) and less sophisticated melodies (probably the same ones of the seven, old ladies), yet the essence of reverence and holiness… indeed beauty is in the person seeking unity with God via song.


If Keats is right, and the relationship between beauty and truth is tautological, then why worry too much about the mass. What we need to do is to worship in spirit and in truth not aesthetic splendor. Or maybe there is more to it than that....

There's a lot of ideas here, which is partially why I wanted to preserve my comments here on my blog. But please see the Whapping and post there, too!

1 comment:

father wb said...

"An aesthetic sense is like a conscience - it needs to be properly, vigilantly formed. Although everyone had an inherent knowledge of what is beautiful and what is ugly, just as he has an inherent knowledge of what is good and what is evil, his ability to apply it can be distorted or destroyed."

If this is so, it doesn't speak very well of Roman Catholicism, at least as it generally exists outside of Austria. Such an institutional deployment of the meretricious I have nowhere else found.