Thursday, July 28, 2016

A Sensible Humean Approach to Taste

Summertime is when I can catch up some in reading the philosophy journals.  This can be tedious work since much philosophy, to be frank, is overly technical and picky.  The payoff is when an article one hardly expects anything from yields riches.  This was the case for me today reading Andy Hamilton's "Scruton's Philosophy of Culture:  Elitism, Populism, and Classic Art."  British Journal of Aesthetics 49:4 (2009) 389-404.  Roger Scruton (perhaps the leading living English-speaking aesthetician/philosopher of art today) prides himself in being an elitist, although he also thinks that the elite product has meaning insofar as it relates to the emotions and aspirations of all.  It may be easy for some to simply dismiss Scruton as an arch conservative, and he certainly does often seem to identify with upper-class values as such.  Yet, although politically a left-liberal, I have long felt a strong affinity for Scruton's work in aesthetics and his critique of kitsch.  Hamilton does a nice job of showing why Scruton has something to offer us on the concept of "elitism" and in his defense of what he calls "high culture." Hamilton rejects these two terms, but mainly because of associations he does not want to advocate. One has to be careful with the definition of elitism, and if you use it in a theory you have to be very clear about the sense in which it is used.  Hamilton defines elitism as "denial of populism...[in] the sense which rejects the possibility of better judgment in moral, aesthetic, and cultural matters."  His view is not to be confused, then, with elitism as defined by anti-egalitarianism.  In short, the elitism Hamilton defends (actually, in the end he just dumps the term "elitism" in favor of "meritocracy") is not the idea that there is a class of people, commonly an aristocracy, which counts as "the elite" and whose taste is to be regarded as superior.  He would not support elitism in that sense.  His defense of elitism is more in line with David Hume's idea (in "Of the Standard of Taste") that there are certain works of art that are of great value, a value which can be perceived by those who have taste in that domain, those people being the "good judges" which, Hamilton would say, is another way of referring to the cultural elite in a cultural meritocracy.

Hamilton calls these works "classics." I find this problematic since some of the most valuable works, especially important works of our own time, are not classics.  For one thing, they have not had the time to stand what Hume famously calls "the test of time." Hamilton would reply to this objection that "The concept of the classic is backward-looking in making essential reference to the test of time, but clearly one must allow that new works can belong to high culture: contemporary high culture is that which critical opinion predicts will become classic." (401)  However I think that even works that may never stand the test of time can still be of immense value, value that is recognized by people with the appropriate taste.  And yet that value is perhaps more in the innovative nature of the work than in refinement and thus does not meet the standard of what we ordinarily consider to be taste when that is associated with things called classics.  Think of really crude but wonderful examples of early blues music.  Such works only get to be called "classic" honorifically since they are at the beginnings of the great blues tradition.   Does Hamilton's notion of "classic" allow in the possibility of a greatly innovative, but raw at the edges, garage band?  Think of the Beatles.  Their earliest music was by no means classic.  If we think of classic Beatles we think of Abbey Road or The White Album.  However, the greatness of the Beatles also includes the raw energy of their early underground club work. My only problem with Hamilton then is that he (and perhaps also Hume) do not allow for that which is aesthetically great or valuable but also not really even connected to the test of time:  both of their views are a bit too backwards-looking.  OK one could argue that the early music of the Beatles can be brought into the domain of the classic retroactively because it leads too their truly classic rock productions.  But that somehow misses the point.  Hamilton fails to recognize that "classic" is invariably connected with a classical style, which, in Nietzschean terms, is fundamentally Apollonian, not Dionysian.  And to say that the good new stuff is predicted or predictable by the person of taste to pass the test of time in the future misses one very important historical fact:  widely recognized "persons of taste," for example very good art critics, have typically failed to properly appreciate great innovative works when they first came out and in their cruder more formative stages.  A sign of the limitation of the concept of "the classic" is when Hamilton writes "Classics are timeless and transcendental, appealing to all historical eras, because they capture what is essential about humanity."  (403) That is OK as a definition of "the classic" but I wouldn't want to hang a theory of taste or aesthetics or value on art on it since I think we can have taste in all sorts of matters that do not fit this definition at all.  

As mentioned above, Hamilton prefers the term "meritocracy" to "elitism" in being concerned with the "classic" rather than with "high culture."  ("High culture" like "elitism" has, as he adequately shows, too many awkward and anti-democratic associations.)  He also believes it is a more positive response to populism.  One of the main ideas of meritocracy is that those who have good taste can come from any part of society.  Meritocracy, on Hamilton's view, is not even inconsistent with a democratic approach since "even the novice's response has a status in critical discourse." (397) (Let me interject here the same problem:  Hamilton only gives the novice a role insofar as the novice debates with the good judge and comes to see in the process of debate that he or she was wrong.  Again, this does not give enough credit to the revolutionary nature of the thinking of some novices who, in debate with the good judge, overthrow the applecart, and in a good way.)  Hamilton correctly sees that Hume is not elitist in the sense of limiting taste to a certain class.  As I have argued elsewhere, for Hume, critical authority comes from practice and comparison that gives rise to delicacy of sentiment within the very area in which practice and comparison has occurred (this also requires good sense and lack of prejudice, as Hume observed).  What the area is is neutral:  it could be opera or hip-hop.  No social hierarchy of art forms is required by Hume's conception of taste.  For Hamilton, "Meritocracy denotes a system of social organization where appointments are made on the basis of ability rather than wealth, family connections, or class" (398) and he extends this to artistic appreciation.  So, for Hamilton, "meritocracy requires an open, non-exclusive body of authorities, and a nuanced notion of authority,.,  It agrees with elitism that some individuals are more penetrating judges of moral, cultural, and spiritual questions, and should have social influence; it denies that the resulting body of authorities is exclusive." (398)  To elaborate the last point, "even if, as elitism asserts, some people are more penetrating judges of cultural and moral questions than others, each individual must ultimately decide these questions for themselves." (398)  (Again, this "decide for yourself" element does not really take into account valuable revolutionary work)  He also rightly sees that, for Hume, the less experienced art viewers do not simply defer to the man of taste but debate with him, and by doing that, can eventually become good critics themselves.  Here, then, is my favorite quote from the article (the one that made me decide to write this post):

"It would be perverse for someone to say 'I just defer to critical opinion.  If I want to buy a painting by a contemporary artist, or recordings of Jamaican dub music, I'll ask an expert's opinion on which to go for.  I'm not interested in developing my own autonomous judgment.  This aesthetically heteronomous individual mistakes the beginning of the process of appreciation for its end. But the opposed extreme is also misguided.  'I never read the critics.  I just form my own judgment' - the claim of the aesthetic solipsist - and 'I never form my own judgment, I just read the critics' are equally perverse." (399)

Hamilton wishes to replace Scruton's concept of "high culture" with that of "the classic," which would include not only that which has stood the test of time and "which demands, and best awards, seriousness and intensity of intention" (400).  "Classic," unlike "high culture" includes all popular and functional genres as well as traditional high culture items, and it is not limited to any ethnic group either.  Classic, for Hamilton, means "excellent of its kind." This allows it also to include design classics such as the Braun alarm clock. (I also have a problem with associating aesthetics exclusively with classics in this sense:  it excludes those aspects of the aesthetics of everyday life which are not tied to works of classic design, for example the pleasure one gets in owning a watch that one recognizes is far from being a design classic, but rather has other redeeming qualities.)

Hamilton concludes his essay rather nicely:  "'Meritocracy' and 'classic' are far from ideal terms, but I believe that they are an improvement on 'elitism' and 'high culture'.  It is regrettable, therefore, that only an exclusive, self-perpetuating group of intellectuals will ever really understand the analysis of culture I have offered." (404)  It is!  

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