Thursday, September 12, 2013

Do Aesthetic Attributions Require Taste?

Frank N. Sibley's article "Aesthetic Concepts" (originally in The Philosophical Review 68:4 (1959) 421-450, but also widely anthologized) is so famous it almost counts as dogma, as though an appeal to Sibley would make it true.  But there is a something very peculiar in the essay at the very beginning.  Sibley just assumes that there is a list of things called aesthetic concepts and that in order to discern these one must have taste.  He says "we say a poem is tightly knit or deeply moving; that a picture lacks balance, or has a certain serenity and repose, or that the grouping of the figure sets up an exciting tension; that the characters in a novel never really come to life, or that a certain episode strikes a false note." He says that it is natural to say that making such judgments requires taste, although interestingly, he suggests some other things it might require (assuming, I suppose, that all of these are just different ways of saying "taste"), for example sensitivity and aesthetic discrimination.  He defines an aesthetic term or expression as one that requires taste for its application.  He also speaks of aesthetic or taste concepts (but these seem interchangeable with aesthetic terms).  He then goes on to list aesthetic terms:  they include unified, balanced, integrated, lifeless and serene, among others, as well as such more complex predicates as "sets up a tension." Yet it not at all clear why any of the comments in the first set of examples, or terms in the second set, require taste for their application.  You could use any of these terms without having any taste at all.  For the sake of argument let's just assume that taste is the capacity to make subtle distinctions in works of art and other aesthetic objects and to do this in such a way as to appropriately evaluate them.  The OED refers to "aesthetic discernment in art, literature, fashion, etc."  O.K.  that's something to work with.  But someone can say that something is unified or lifeless and make sense without having any particular aesthetic discernment.  That is, it is not required to be a good judge in art or some other aesthetic realm to use these terms.  One might argue of course that for the terms to be used correctly one needs to be a good judge, to have taste in that sense, to be able to discern the good from the bad.  Someone who says that a painting is balanced when it is not (as determined by a good judge in such paintings) is a person with no (or at least, not very good) taste. This is at least a plausible claim.  But to claim that in order to use a term aesthetically one must have taste is just to assume that in each case of aesthetic judgment there is an objectively right answer.  (Those who have taste can see it, and those who do not cannot.)  Sibley is clear that for him "taste"  is an ability to "notice or see or tell that things have certain qualities." Is the objectivity of aesthetic attributions really that secure?  Also, there is a kind of circularity, or at least a tautology, in Sibley's position:  one must have taste in order to correctly say "x is balanced" and in order to correctly say "x is balanced" one must have taste.  You wouldn't be able to determine that someone has taste independently of their being able to make correct aesthetic attributions. Let's say you do not know much about painting and are not able to judge in any knowledgeable way whether a particular painting or its parts or aspects is good (or better) and yet you say that this painting has a certain serenity.  On Sibley's view, you cannot then be using "serenity" in the aesthetic sense of the word.  But this seems absurd.  His position would make it impossible for the expert and the novice to disagree about a painting's serenity, since they would be talking about completely different things!

Things get worse when Sibley extends aesthetic terms to what he calls "everyday discourse."  He says, "we employ terms the use of which requires an exercise of taste not only when discussing the arts but quite liberally throughout discourse in everyday life" which is to say that one has to use such terms even in everyday life in the way a Humean good judge would when talking about an oration, i.e with delicacy of sentiment.  Sibley admits that many of the terms which are used with taste in critical discourse (with respect of art) are often used outside of the arts in a way not connected with taste.  However, at the same time, he believes that terms like graceful, delicate, dainty, and handsome are often used outside of the arts in ways that require taste, and then they are used aesthetically.  Let's take "handsome."  Imagine that a woman says that a man is handsome.  Is it required that she get this objectively right for her to have used the term aesthetically?  Is it required that she be able to make subtle discrimination between different features of handsomeness before she can say someone is handsome?   I think not.   This is an important issue since many who criticize everyday aesthetics argue that it trivializes aesthetics, perhaps for Sibleyan reasons.  They have no problem with application of terms like "serenity" in everyday contexts where this application is like that of a connoisseur in the arts.  They just have a problem with its application in an ordinary everyday way by ordinary people.  If an ordinary person says that a dell is serene that person cannot be using the term aesthetically since that person does not apply the term out of a capacity for subtle discrimination.

Sibley goes on to say, following Hume, that "Taste or sensitivity is somewhat more rare than certain other human capacities" although he thinks almost everyone is able to exercise taste in some area to some degree.  

Sibley also says that "man who failed to realize the nature of taste concepts, or someone who, knowing he lacked sensitivity in aesthetic matters, did not want to reveal this lack might by assiduous application and shrewd observation provide himself with some rules and generalizations; and by inductive procedures and intelligent guessing, he might frequently say the right things. But he could have no great confidence or certainty..."  This does not make any sense on Sibley's view.  If the man has no sensitivity then he couldn't possibly "say the right thing."  If he said that a painting was delicate, on Sibley's view he would not even be using "delicate" as a taste concept, since that would require taste, which he doesn't have.  So how would it be the right thing to say?  Sibley also interestingly thinks that "people often are exercising taste even when they say that glass is very delicate because it is so thin, and know that it would be less so if thicker and more so if thinner." although he thinks such cases are atypical.  Perhaps I am being unfair to Sibley and he simply means by a taste judgment one that cannot be applied by way of conditions or rules.  This is certainly a, or the major point of the paper.  Perhaps Sibley wasn't even thinking of subtle discernment or the Humean good judge at all. It is hard to say. 

I owe a lot to Sibley:  my project of exploring everyday life aesthetics could be seen as a development of his comments in this article about the everyday and of his notion that aesthetic terms (except for the famous ones, like beauty) have been largely neglected.  It is only recently that I have found his requirement that aesthetic terms be only used in connection with taste irritating.

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