Wednesday, September 5, 2012

David Hume's Problem with The Pretty

In David Hume's "Of the Standard of Taste" there is a distinction between lesser and greater beauties that intrigues me in relation to my current interest in the concept of the pretty.  Hume argues that the true standard of taste is the good judge.  In this entry I will assume that readers have a basic grasp of Hume's well known article.  What is interesting is that in at least two of his discussions of what goes into being a good judge he brings up the problem of a lesser form of beauty.  Although Hume does not mention the word "pretty" anywhere in his essay, these passages lead to a conviction that he is particularly concerned to keep people from confusing trivial with important beauties.  This is exactly the sort of distinction that is commonly made between the pretty and the beautiful. 

When discussing the value of comparison, he writes: "The coarsest daubing contains a certain lustre of colours and exactness of imitation, which are so far beauties, and would affect the mind of a peasant or Indian with the highest admiration. [Hume's racism is unfortunately on display here.] The most vulgar ballads are not entirely destitute of harmony or nature; and none but a person, familiarized to superior beauties, would pronounce their numbers harsh, or narration uninteresting. A great inferiority of beauty gives pain to a person conversant in the highest excellence of the kind, and is for that reason pronounced [rightly so, according to Hume] a deformity.."  It appears that the coarse daubings with lusterous colors and exact imitation have a certain low-level beauty, as do "vulgar ballads," since they are "not destitute of harmony."  Hume observes that the person who knows "superior beauties" knows the distinction.  An interesting aspect of this is that this low level beauty can even involve "great inferiority of beauty" so much so that it gives pain to persons of taste.  One thinks of the paintings of Thomas Kinkade.   The next time he mentions comparison Hume says "Where no comparison has been employed, the most frivolous beauties, such as rather merit the name of defects, are the object of his admiration."  So frivolous beauties are really defects, and we can see so through comparing. 

The criterion of practice also is related to avoiding these low-level beauties.  Hume says, when discussing practice, that  "there is a species of beauty, which, as it is florid and superficial, pleases at first; but being found incompatible with a just expression either of reason or passion, soon palls upon the taste, and is then rejected with disdain, at least rated at a much lower value."  

Although delicacy of taste can be inherited, it is mainly gained through practice and comparison, and as we have seen, Hume recommends practice and comparison precisely to distinguish between superior beauties and such low-level beauties as the pretty.

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