If I gave a 5-talk series on Christians and the Arts, the fourth theme would be:
4. Excellence Triumphs over Taste
The worship wars are ugly and divisive. I understand this, and I don't want to exacerbate them by insisting for “my taste” over somebody else's “taste.”
I'll bet you're thinking of MUSIC right now, especially in the context of a discussion of the arts in church. Yes, matters of taste do tend to get most passionately expressed in discussions of worship music, but I also think they get in the way of deeper conversation on many of the arts.
You see, there are many differences between taste and standards. The differences are important. I strongly believe that discussions about the inclusion of various works of art in worship should almost ignore taste and should instead focus on standards.
Taste is superficial, individual, personal, subjective, and cultural. Taste most frequently reveals itself in the choice of genres and of individual artists. Someone has a taste for, say, Broadway show tunes or Schubert song cycles, just as someone has a taste for buffalo wings or fine claret. They may be a matter of genetics or of social construction: where, when, and by whom the person was raised and educated. They can be developed through education, exposure, patience, and the enthusiasm of others. They are strictly sub-cultural. They have to do with likes and dislikes, rather than with quality.
Standards are also cultural, but in the sense that they have evolved from the collective wisdom and experience of an entire tradition. They arise from a culture and are therefore “universal” within the (large) limits of that culture, and so are not sub-cultural, but are rather one of the more important forms of cultural capital.
While some “standards” may still be subjective, they are communally subjective, rather than individually. For instance, measures for evaluating whether one composer's counterpoint is more skillful than another's are not purely based on what a critic or scholar “likes”: they are based on how well the composer handles the rigorous rules of his craft, which in turn are based both on cultural concepts of what sounds good and on strict mathematical relationships between intervals and so forth.
Let me repeat and strengthen that last point: there are some elements of standards that are scientifically objective. Some have to do with the proportions of sound waves or architectural lines; some with the realities of human anatomy; some with the physical properties of paints and canvas and brush strokes. For example: One may judge an artist's drawing of a human nude based on, among other this, how correctly it renders the realities of human anatomy. Of course there are other criteria as well, and there are cases in which realism was not a goal. But there are cases in which that standard may be applied, and it is at least partially objective.
Here is another example. The human voice, especially the untrained singing voice, has certain physical realities, including limitations, that the songwriter must take into account. For instance, there is something called the “http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Passaggio>passaggio,” a place where there is a kind of “break” or shift in the singer's voice as he or she sings upward through a scale. Trained singers learn to negotiate this change in register smoothly, and to sing above it with strength and power. Untrained singers—the congregants in any church—cannot negotiate it as well. This is simply a fact of anatomy. Therefore, songwriters who are writing for congregational singing MUST shape their melodies so that the melodic line does not hover around or stay in the passaggio. The melody may use those notes, but usually as high points in the musical passages.
Here is another example. Because of the physics of breath and voice, spoken words always have both pitch and accent. You cannot speak a word out loud without giving it a musical pitch (whispering is precisely speech without pitch). In English, pitch usually doesn't matter: a word does not change meaning if you say it on a higher or a lower note. Therefore, composers who are setting English texts to music do not need to take pitch relationships into account for expressing the meaning of the text; they are free to use whatever pitches they deem beautiful or dramatic, etc. There are languages which are http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tone_%28linguistics%29>tonal languages, such as Mandarin Chinese, in which speaking a word higher or lower, or with a rise or fall in pitch, does change its meaning. Obviously composers working with those texts need another whole set of compositional tools.
But English does, of course, use stress—accented and unaccented syllables—in the making of meaning. The word REcord is different from the word reCORD; CONtent is not the same as conTENT. So a songwriter needs to set the accented syllables on the strong beats of a measure. This is, then, an “objective” standard that can be applied to the evaluation of music.
Let me circle back around again to my distinctions between “taste” and “standards,” and I'll continue using worship music as a sort of touchstone for examples and application.
Taste determines which genre is used in worship (say, praise songs vs. hymns): choices of taste should be made by the worship committee based on the demographic of the congregation (age, education, geographic location of origin or present residence, ethnicity, etc). All genres are valid for use in worship, and the demographic of the congregation—its collective “taste”—should determine which genre(s) a particular church uses.
But standards determine which pieces (from within that genre) are chosen for worship, and how they are played, with what instrumentation, and by whom: choices of standards MUST be made by professionals and highly-trained amateurs in the field, not by pastors or by congregational surveys regardless of what people “like.” Those who know about the setting of texts to music should evaluate songs based on how well they join meaning and melody, accents to measures. Those who know about the singing ability of a congregation should choose songs that fit the untrained human voice. Those who know about the history of music should decide on the instrumentation that best fits each piece. And so forth.
OK, I'm planning to follow this up with another post about the theological importance of excellence, but that's almost enough to be going on with today, eh? Here's the question of the day: What standards for evaluating art are “objective”? Which are nearly objective? And which are culturally subjective, meaning that they have been created by a very great number of highly-educated people over a very long time, so that they have come to be accepted and applicable to all the works within that tradition?