THR Web Features   /   June 2, 2021

More than a Matter of Taste

The danger of relegating beauty to the trivial pursuit of pleasure.

Joshua Hren

( Veduta interna della Basilica di S. Pietro in Vaticano, Giovanni Battista Piranesi (1720–1778), National Gallery of Art, Washington.)

“Beauty,” David Hume held, “is no quality in things themselves: It exists merely in the mind which contemplates them; and each mind perceives a different beauty.” If this were the case, then the human race’s radical disagreements over aesthetical evaluations would be reducible to harmless preferences. Inclined as we might be to enthusiastically espouse our favorite music as “beautiful,” honesty would require that we chasten our speech, opting for the more modest “beautiful for me,” or—better yet—“I like it,” and nothing more.

Not a few foes of moral relativism hold to a wholesale aesthetical tolerance, a permissive disposition toward what is called “beauty.” According to this breakdown, we ought to be morally outraged by fraudulence but can in good conscience soak up artless, sentimental movies stamped with “family values”—as if the ugly, caricatured portrayal of things so overwhelmingly good were not an insult, not to say a borderline crime. We shall not murder but there are no nots or oughts governing our responses to Michelangelo.

In very different ways, both the novelist Henry James and the philosopher Dietrich von Hildebrand make the case that moral disfigurement can be ugly and that aesthetic misjudgments can correspond to vicious poverty of the moral variety. They rally praise for the beauty of self-transcendence even as they caution all comers who would relegate aesthetics to the trivial pursuit of pleasure.  

In his Aesthetics, Dietrich von Hildebrand insists that beauty “adheres to the object as a quality, independently of whether someone understands it, reacts appropriately to it, or enjoys it.” Contra Hume, Hildebrand expounds beauty as “something important-in-itself, not something that is satisfying only to me.” If this is the case, “an appropriate response ought to be made to that which is valuable.”

Hildebrand’s contention has far-reaching implications for a whole sphere of human life that is often dismissed as inconsequential, because “if no response whatever is given because the human person remains totally obtuse,” even in the face of something morally or aesthetically affecting, he is the bearer of an “objective disharmony.” On the other hand, if someone were to be “filled with enthusiasm over kitsch,” he too would be in the wrong, as “a response of rejection ought to be given to that which is a disvalue.”

In The Portrait of a Lady, Henry James gives us a panoramic depiction of disharmonies both moral and aesthetic. As it happens, the heroine of James’s great novel falls in love with an art collector who, whatever his pecuniary failures, is widely understood to have “the best taste in the world.” But when Gilbert Osmond immediately conceives of Isabel Archer as a “figure in his collection of choice objects,” he confirms William Gass’s characterization of the novel as a study “of what it means to be a consumer of persons, and of what it means to be a person consumed.”

In his inability to distinguish romantic relationships from objets d’art, Osmond’s fault could at first seem to be a blurring of categories that should be kept separate: There is no real issue with his reduction of beauty to taste, with his consumerist addiction to acquiring art. But his application of this aesthetic principle to a human person poses problems. Henry James complicates such a separation of powers, giving credence to von Hildebrand’s refusal to separate the beautiful from the ethical.

James does so in part by showing us what it would look like if “taste” were reduced to consumeristic “preferences”—exploring through the novel’s rarefied circles a trend that is in our time endemic. In A Defense of Judgment, literary theorist Michael Clune plays out the position of those who define aesthetics as “embodied algorithms,” which “merely show us the kinds of things, based on our existing tastes, we might also like.” For him, as for Henry James, this alleged bracketing of the moral in favor of a purportedly safe “taste” is a disingenuous move hastened by accusations of moralism; it is also, Clune claims, impossible. While some questions concerning consumption may be legitimately beyond good and evil, many are not. Further: If that which is being “consumed,” and consumed badly, is objectively beautiful—whether Isabel Archer or St. Peter’s Basilica—what masks as “preference” is actually a soulful, ethical act.

Before Isabel runs into Osmond at St. Peter’s in Rome, she encounters the Basilica without his interference, and we witness the tenor of her soul. Although her attendance at vespers is far from pious or religious (“all good Romans,” even “barbarians,” frequent churches on Sundays), she is immediately moved by the magnificence of the place. Whereas other tourists had been “disappointed” to discover a St. Peter’s “smaller than its fame,” she “found herself beneath the far-arching dome and saw the light drizzle down through the air thickened with incense and with the reflections of marble and gilt, of mosaic and bronze,” and “her conception of greatness rose and dizzily rose,” lacking no “space to soar.” Like a “child or a peasant” she “paid her silent tribute to the seated sublime” (the Pope).

To use Hildebrand’s words, when we behold the effect of St. Peter’s on her, we “rejoice at this noble, beautiful attitude and clearly perceive its value.” Her response to beauty is itself beautiful; it is right and just that greatness obtains an expansiveness here, and that homage is given to the grand chair of the fisherman’s descendant.

As if to accentuate the superiority of her response, James follows with blatant contrasts. First there is the American journalist Henrietta, who, elevating the political over the numinous, “was obliged in candor to declare that Michael Angelo’s dome suffered by comparison with that of the Capitol at Washington.” But the real counterpoint arrives in the form of Osmond, who (literally and morally?) “appeared to have been standing at a short distance behind her.” Eager to ascertain Isabel’s assessment of St. Peter’s, Osmond admits that:

“It’s too large; it makes one feel like an atom.”

“Isn’t that the right way to feel in the greatest of human temples?” she asked with rather a liking for her phrase.

“I suppose it’s the right way to feel everywhere, when one is nobody. But I like it in a church as little as anywhere else.”

“You ought indeed to be a Pope!” Isabel exclaimed, remembering something he had referred to in Florence.

“Ah, I should have enjoyed that!” said Gilbert Osmond.

In Isabel’s reply, we hear echoes of von Hildebrand’s argument that “it is objectively a pity when a glorious landscape or a great work of art is not seen,” because the beautiful “has a message for us.” She exercises a kind of moral irony, teasing him out of his self-absorption and arrogance. Instead of getting the joke, he takes defensive enjoyment in the fantasy of being that “seated sublime” before which Isabel was moved to humble herself. The “message” that Osmond’s soul imposes on St. Peter’s—that he is nothing but a miniscule atom in such a majestic setting—reveals an immoral aestheticism: He will be satisfied only by art that pleasures his sense of self. He is what the Jesuit scholar and writer William F. Lynch would call an “exploiter of the real,” someone whose aim is “to create states of affectivity, areas of paradise, orders of feeling within the self.”

In After Virtue, the philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre describes the milieu of James’s novel as one “in which the manipulative mode of moral instrumentalism has triumphed.” Here, we are treated to an extended portrait of “the condition of those who see in the social world nothing but a meeting place for individual wills, each with its own set of attitudes and preferences and who understand that world solely as an arena for the achievement of their own satisfaction, who interpret reality as a series of opportunities for their enjoyment and for whom the last enemy is boredom.”

The Portrait of a Lady is in large part also a portrait of a man who is, in the novel’s eventual judgment, an “aesthetic sham,” a “sterile dilettante.” Yet, as von Hildebrand puts it, especially in literature, “even the greatness of a wicked person, can serve the artistic beauty of the whole.” One of the great beauties of James’s art of fiction is his dramatic demonstration that aesthetic misjudgments can—not to say must—be connected to moral vice.

Roger Scruton rightly observes that during modernism we see “art increasingly aimed to disturb, subvert, or transgress moral certainties.” There is no question that some of what we call “beautiful” can be reduced to personal taste. There is no question that, on the threshold of such subversions, James’s fiction can disappear into the dimmest corridors of moral meaning-making. But The Portrait of a Lady, for all its famed subtlety, makes us still more unsettled by the certain ugliness of small-souledness. All these years later, far from the milling, madding crowds of ex-patriate Americans, the book dramatizes just how immoral mere preference can be, even as it gives us a sense of how just and how right it is to be ennobled by the beautiful.