January 12 - What Is Good Taste? A Turkish Sultan, relates Burke, when shown a picture of the beheaded John the baptist, praised many things, but pointed out one gruesome defect. Did his observation show the sultan to be an inferior judge of art? (Edmund Burke born Jan. 12, 1729) Read: Burke "On Taste," THC, Vol. 24 pp. 11-26.
Click HERE for an online version of Burke's essay.
"A fine piece of a decollated head of St. John the Baptist was shown to a Turkish emperor; he praised many things, but he observed one defect; he observed that the skin did not shrink from the wounded part of the neck. The sultan on this occasion, though his observation was very just, discovered no more natural taste than the painter who executed this piece, or than a thousand European connoisseurs, who probably never would have made the same observation. His Turkish Majesty had indeed been well acquainted with that terrible spectacle, which the others could only have represented in their imagination. On the subject of their dislike there is a difference between all these people, arising from the different kinds and degrees of their knowledge; but there is something in common to the painter, the shoemaker, the anatomist, and the Turkish emperor, the pleasure arising from a natural object, so far as each perceives it justly imitated; the satisfaction in seeing an agreeable figure; the sympathy proceeding from a striking and affecting incident. So far as taste is natural, it is nearly common to all."
(from Edmund Burke, "On Taste" (1759))
Here we have the 18th century philosopher's attempt at a description of what binds us together as a species related to our experience of that which is familiar, and thus because it is recognized, even if in part criticized for its short-comings, is an example of what human experience brings to the moments of aesthetic sublimity. Thus the Turkish Sultan is made distinct from other admirers of the rendering of a gruesome spectacle because of his experience, which is what each of has the potential to bring to art as unto life itself. Thus I agree here with Mark Blackwell when he writes,
"The Burke of the "Introduction on Taste," however, seems to find the social divisions that result from the refinement of commerce and the arts--from the refinement of taste--a melancholy spectacle. He attempts to articulate a compelling argument for a shared standard of taste as a means of overcoming such divisions, but at the same time drifts toward a vision of the man of taste as an aesthetic aristocrat whose powers of discrimination not only alienate him from the untutored, but also become analogous to the exercise of naked force. Burke's aesthetics do not reflect any particular, programmatic political commitment--his ruminations on taste do not constitute a conservative manifesto or a celebration of "bourgeois" progress in another guise--but the "Introduction on Taste" does discloses a Burke who is pulled in various directions by the contradictions of his enterprise, alternately championing an aesthetic commonality linked by Eagleton to the bourgeoisie, theorizing a "natural" aristocracy of taste, and associating such cultivated taste with a potential for tyranny." (from Mark Blackwell "The Sublimity of Taste in Edmund Burke's A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful" Philological Quarterly, June 22, 2003)
Let us endeavor to honor and celebrate the spectrum of experiences which enliven and energize us to bring our best selves to serve the wider world; mindful, that in the process, if we are note chaste by the partial nature of our experience, we have the capacity to turn the sublime into the tyrannical.