There is undoubtedly a variety of opinion in matters of art appreciation – someone may, for example, detest Damien Hirst’s work but praise Raphael’s, and vice versa. A standard of taste is a criterion by which you can judge art to be praiseworthy or not. This means that opinion holds no authority. There are certain facts about a painting, like the composition, that make it either an inherently bad or inherently good work of art. David Hume, the Scottish empiricist, argues such a standard of taste is both possible and desirable in his essay Of the Standard of Taste.
This article aims to determine whether Hume’s arguments stand up to the scrutiny of his critics and, if so, whether this means a standard of taste is possible or desirable. If we accept Hume’s case, then there is no room for personal taste and judgement in matters of art appreciation, meaning the only opinion which is valid is that of the critic. I hope to establish in this article that this would be quite a bleak situation since the enjoyment of art comes not only from the talent employed by the artist but by the interpretation from the viewer as well.
The Variety of Opinion in Matters of Art Appreciation
In his essay The Sceptic, Hume argues that no object is beautiful in itself; but rather, objects are beautiful based on the sentiment which people attach to them. He concludes from this that since there is nothing in an object which makes it beautiful in itself; then there can be no such thing as a standard of taste. Nonetheless, in his later essay Of the Standard of Taste Hume reconsiders his position and finds that if there is not a standard of taste then people could appreciate plays, for example, which glorify vices:
It is natural for us to seek a Standard of Taste; a rule, by which the various sentiments of men may be reconciled; at least, a decision, afforded, confirming one sentiment, and condemning another.
It is not clear why Hume believes it is natural for us to seek this standard of taste, since a variety of opinion in art appreciation has always existed and that fact does not de-value the works of Picasso, Schubert or Milton. Contrary to Hume, some of the most appreciative parts in a painting or poetry are when they are the most expressive of vice. For example, speaking on Milton’s epic poem Paradise Lost, the literary figures William Blake and Percy Bysshe Shelley found Milton’s genius to shine through when he described not God, but Satan and his evil machinations.
Likewise, someone may value a play for its well-formed plot and complex characters, but another may detest the play because of the character’s immoral behaviour in it. For example, in Seneca’s play Thyestes, the protagonist Atreus gets revenge on his deceptive brother Thyestes by feeding him his murdered sons at a feast he prepared. Nothing in this play expresses the virtues of forgiveness or compassion, but many still enjoy the play because of Seneca’s masterful use of suspense and shock. Hume does, however, consider why a variety of tastes exists; why someone may prefer Britney Spears, say, to Wagner or Handel:
Mirth or passion, sentiment or reflection; whichever of these most predominates in our temper, it gives us a peculiar sympathy with the writer who resembles us.
When it comes to art appreciation, a variety of tastes can exist for a number of reasons. It can depend on someone’s character, for example, say if someone has a tendency to be introspective then they may find it easy to empathise with Hamlet the Prince in Shakespeare’s Hamlet – and this may make it more likely that they enjoy the play. Nevertheless, Hume still insists that, despite this fact, a standard of taste is desirable because he worries that poets and artists he sees as inferior to others could be given as much credit as them. This may seem like elitism at first, but Jerrold Levinson rightly points out that masterpieces, while not everyone may consider them beautiful, they are beautiful because they have stood the test of time.
Is a Standard of Taste Possible?
Levinson argues that masterpieces have artistic value in the eyes of the ideal critic because they are works that have been appreciated across “cultural barriers” and “temporal barriers.” Conversely, this does not mean that a standard of taste could or does exist, but rather it confirms Hume’s point that the critic should be more trusted to make aesthetic judgements because they have much more experience of art than anyone else. But can we really imagine what an ‘ideal critic’ would be like? This would have to be someone who does not let their own sentiments and feelings get involved in their judgement of art.
Any critic of any sort will have preferences towards certain things. A movie critic can judge the success of a film by how successfully the plot is employed, how authentic the actors are etc.; but every person, including the critic, will prefer some movies to others. The film Blade Runner underscores this point since it is a film which was praised by about half of the most formidable movie critics and deplored by the other half.
Hume asserts that “particular forms or qualities” of objects “are naturally fitted to excite agreeable sentiments.” This seems like a valid point because some features of an object are more likely to cause a feeling of pleasure than others. It is not obvious which features are more likely to cause “agreeable sentiments” though and Hume himself never suggests any such features. However, there does seem to be a universal aesthetic appreciation of geometry – and this could reflect how our brains are structured. On the other hand, this explanation is very much within the realm of speculation. Furthermore, is it not possible that someone could see no beauty in geometric patterns, such as those found in religious architecture? Can we really say this person is ‘wrong’ in some sense?
In any case, Hume does say that only the ideal critic can detect such features (whatever they are) because his mind and sense organs have been refined in such a way to detect them. Contrary to this argument, Matthew Kieran has said that “the fundamental problem [with Hume] concerns the notion of an idealized version of oneself.” What Kieran is saying is that it is actually impossible for an ideal critic to exist because it would involve developing the super-human capability of divorcing oneself from all emotion and personal opinion.
Theodore Gracyk maintains that in order for a standard of taste to exist general observations need to be made of art and “general principles of approbation and blame” be applied to them. But this is treating aesthetics too much like science. In a play, the extent to which the reader blames a character depends, largely, on the mindset of the reader and not on some unchanging feature of the character or play.
Is a Standard of Taste Desirable?
If a standard of taste existed it would mean that some objects would be worthy of artistic value and others would not. This immediately sets limits on what would be considered ‘beautiful art’ (at least by the critics anyway) because according to Hume, an object is beautiful only if it has the tendency to produce feelings of pleasure in the viewer.
A standard of taste could stifle many artists’ creativity since they might try to create works of art which conform only to the critics’ standard. This certainly is not a desirable situation. Also, a great deal of enjoyment from art comes from trying to interpret its meaning and the artist’s intentions. For example, the contemporary artist Doris Salcedo produced a chasm in a floor in the Tate Modern (London) in the shape of a crack. Many similar looking cracks can be found all over the world, but it is the intentions of the artist which make that particular crack meaningful and arguably ‘beautiful’ in some people’s eyes. If a standard of taste existed, however, it would definitely perpetuate a sense of elitism among critics because they might say that Salcedo’s work is not beautiful because cracks are a sign of deformity.
It seems Hume was more correct in his essay The Sceptic where he argued there is nothing about an object which is bad, good or beautiful; but rather, all judgements like this depend on ourselves. It is, in fact, a more desirable situation if there is no standard of taste because it means that a plethora of opinions can be considered and studied. If a standard of taste existed, then it could easily remove the value we normally attach to works of art and it could discourage the general public’s interest in art appreciation.