Monday, February 24, 2014
Is there such a thing as good taste?
This is the big question in aesthetics, but it is surprising how seldom philosophers attempt to answer it. Like many aestheticians I am attracted both to the approach of David Hume and to that of Sibley. So it seems to me that Hume is right that the standard of taste cannot be anything totally objective. Rather than explicate Hume or Sibley here, I am more interested in developing some sort of combination view, at least one that works for me. I'll start by rejecting any sort of science-based standard of taste. Although it might be the case that the golden rule or a certain curve tends to produce things that look good there is enough variation in taste to preclude any conclusive objectivist theory of taste. Taste must be based on something like what Hume called "the good judge." This would be someone who has practiced and compared a great deal in a particular field of interest, for example Rap music, or perhaps even some narrower field such as West Coast Rap. If a person with good sense (which is to say, the capacity to think and analyze rationally) and lack of prejudice (or at least relative lack of prejudice, since an absolute absence of prejudice would seem impossible) has practiced and compared a lot (had a lot of experience in this field of interest) then that person will have positive aesthetics experiences when confronting objects of beauty or objects of some other positive aesthetic quality (and negative experiences when confronting objects with negative aesthetic qualities.) However, we want to avoid some of the difficulties in a Humean approach to taste. Hume says that the standard of taste is the joint verdict of the good judges, but we all know that the people who come closest to what we would call "good judges" often disagree. So, the best we can do is speak of the ideal good judge and the verdict of such an ideal as being the standard of taste. Also, Hume's emphasis on what he calls "delicacy of sentiment," which he usually treats as coming from practice and comparison, seems, in the end, too mechanical. It is just a matter of determining which parts of the object appreciated are good and which parts are not so good. His key example of the two critics of wine saying that the wine is good but for a piece of leather in one case and the piece of metal inn the other, leads us to believe that a good critic is someone who is able to tick off good and bad parts of an object of taste and then give a summary account in the end. Yet taste is more holistic than that. I tend to see objects of taste, including works of art, as organic wholes in which each part has characteristics that partake of the characteristics of the whole. On this view, although a part may, in isolation, be seen mechanically as bad-making, in reality even such parts probably contribute to the goodness of the whole in some way. Nonetheless there is some truth in Hume's account of delicacy of sentiment. Certainly someone who is practiced in a field of art can make distinctions and see things that others cannot: this is an indicator that someone is likely to have good taste. But it is here that we might bring in Sibley. In many respects Sibley's views on taste seem quite similar to Hume's. However, unlike Hume, Sibley stresses the interrelationship between the good critic and what Hume would call the bad critic, but I would rather call the student. The good critic (Sibely seems to suggest) is only known as a good critic if he or she is able to get the less tutored one to see an aesthetic quality. This is a process that requires being present to the work in question. So let us imagine both the critic and the student as standing before a painting. The good critic is able to get the student to see that the painting has certain aesthetic qualities, say "grace" and "tragic character" through pointing out various things. The critic might, for example, point out certain non-aesthetic qualities upon which the aesthetic qualities of the object "depends." The word "depends" is used oddly here, since none of these qualities serves as either a necessary or a sufficient condition for whether or not the object in question has these qualities (here I would agree with Sibley). Rather, experience has simply shown us that by making certain statements about the painting (including statements both about aesthetic and about non-aesthetic qualities) or by asking the student to note certain things in the painting, one can eventually get students to experience it as having certain aesthetic qualities. If one does this, then one is a good judge. This might cause some problems as it is always possible that someone can get people to have aesthetic quality experiences without these experiences being the ones one wants them to have, or even without actually having had those experiences oneself. So perhaps we should add the condition that the good critic is one who gets students to experience the aesthetic qualities he and at least some other good critics have had. In any case, this dynamic teacher/student relationship adds an important element to the Humean base understanding of the nature of good taste. So, yes, there is good taste, and good taste can be passed on from teacher to student through various strategies, and we know that this happens because students can attest to "getting it" sometimes, i.e. in experiencing the object as positively aesthetic or even as negatively aesthetic in the case of negative criticism. This does not indicate however that the aesthetic qualities are objectively independent in the object. Rather they emerge in the processes of interaction between observers and objects and also between observers and observers (i.e. between teachers and students and between experts as well). Anyway, that's the thought.