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Is Art in the Eyes of the Beholder?
by Dr. Emanuel Paparella
2009-01-26 10:08:59
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“The great variety of taste, as well as of opinion, which prevail in the world, is too obvious not to have fallen under every one’s observation. Men of the most confined knowledge are able to remark a difference of taste in the narrow circle of their acquaintance, even where the persons have been educated under the same government, and have early imbibed the same prejudices. But those who can enlarge their views to contemplate distant nations and remote ages, are still more surprised at the great inconsistence and contrariety. We are apt to call barbarous whatever departs widely from our own taste and apprehension: but soon find the epithet of reproach retorted on us. And the highest arrogance and self-conceit is at last startled, on observing an equal assurance on all sides, and scruples, amidst such a contest of sentiment, to pronounce positively in its own favour….For a like reason, we are more pleased, in the course of our reading, with pictures and characters, that resemble objects which are found in our own age or country, than with those which describe a different set of customs. It is not without some effort, that we reconcile ourselves to the simplicity of ancient manners, and behold princesses carrying water from the spring, and kings and heroes dressing their own victuals. We may allow in general, that the representation of such manners is no fault in the author, nor deformity in the piece; but we are not so sensibly touched with them. For this reason, comedy is not easily transferred from one age or nation to another. A Frenchman or Englishman is not pleased with the Andria of Terence, or Clitia of Machiavel; where the lady, upon whom all the play turns, never appears to the spectators, but is always kept behind the scenes, suitably to the reserved humour of the ancient Greeks and modern Italians. A man of learning and reflection can make allowances for these peculiarities of manners; but a common audience can never divest themselves so far of their usual ideas and sentiments, as to relish pictures which in no wise resemble them.”

                                                                            --David Hume (“On the Standard of Taste”)

This is the final presentation of the series of theories and theorists of art I’ve been contributing lately. I’d like to end the series with David Hume’s reflections on art. Admittedly, chronologically he happens to be in the middle of the various theorists of art we have examined, but his famous peroration on the standards of taste, in contrast and competition to that of Kant, is perhaps even more relevant today than it was in the 18th century. For we live today in relativistic times which declare that any opinion is as good as any other, that we are all individually entitled to our own opinions as to what is beautiful and what is ugly, what is true and what is false, what is ethical and what is unethical. The expression that encapsulates this attitude is “It’s all in the eyes of the beholder.” This rather philistine  attitude toward all works of art is almost as prevalent as that which declares that what is most recent historically is always better and more progressive than what is past or ancient, the so called theory of “inevitable progress.” And of course the ancient Romans had a slogan: De gustibus non disputandum,” [one does not argue on taste] which the modern cultural philistine readily incorporates as confirmation of his relativistic prejudice. Who are you to tell me that spaghetti should not be cooked “al dente”?, to each his own, and so it goes. Does culinary taste have an aesthetic component as the movie “Babet’s Feast” would suggest? Let’s see how Hume approaches this conundrum.

David Hume (1711-1776) is well known as an eminent Scottish philosopher of the school of British empiricism. When it came to art Hume was less concerned with finding a suitable definition of art based on empirical evidence, than in the exploration the question of whether there are objective standards for assessing the validity of works of art. He presents the reader with an antinomy: two ideas with a claim on truth but mutually irreconcilable. On one hand, most people believe that they can easily make a critical judgment on the quality of a particular work of art. Confronted with the Mona Lisa by Da Vinci and a merely pleasing Norman Rockwell illustration most people would have no problem in judging the former is objectively speaking better than the latter. This forces to acknowledge objective standards for critical judgments about art. But there is another side to the antinomy: the consideration of what exactly grounds those judgments. Hume asserts that it is nothing but taste, or to use his own language, whether a work of art affects the “sentiments.” 

Hume believes that there is a “natural equality of taste,” that is to say, one’s tastes are one’s own and not subject to corrections by others. So, a critical judgment is nothing more than the expression of an idiosyncratic reaction to a work of art. It follows logically that there can be no objective standard of judgment, a view that contradicts the earlier conclusion that there must be one. How does Hume resolve the dilemma? Simply by asserting that as a matter of brute empirical fact, our human nature is so constituted that certain features of works of art just happen to please all human beings. In other words, there is a universal human susceptibility to certain qualities and therefore it follows that there is also a universal agreement that some works of art are more beautiful than others and consequently objectively better.

But aesthetic disagreements persist despite their grounding in a supposedly uniform human nature. Hume is here forced to invoke factors found in the psychological make-up of individuals, or in shared cultural preferences. They interfere with a person’s natural ability to appreciate the beauty of a meritorious work of art. They are a sort of natural biases and prejudices. Only those with “a strong sense, united to delicate sentiment, improved by practice, perfected by comparison, and cleared of all prejudice” are capable of discerning the qualities that make a work of art good.” So it’s all in the eye of the beholder but those afflicted by myopia or blindness will not be able to judge. The contradiction is not really resolved despite the fact that it all sounds logical enough; for, if only some with a good education and experience are qualified to judge, what about those who also have the universal capacity to judge? Well, Hume seems to be saying, they have the potential but not the ability. They may be cultural philistines and not even know it. If it all sounds slightly elitist, a rationalistic game of smoke and mirrors, it probably is. It is left to Kant to reveal it as such. Perhaps relativism is not such a great path to objective truth.  

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trol2009-01-27 13:05:19
My personal experience here for whatever it counts. I had several art history courses in college which by now I like to call them 'visual literacy courses'. Simply for the reason that each professor placed a great emphasis on studying the images first and above all, (a great image library helped) being able to describe them, to somehow map the image in words, a process that although looked at times superficial thinking that in the end you can can just bla bla bla about it, however it proved on the contrary to be a great exercise for the eye and the mind. I have often been surprised at how easily I had overlooked pieces of art that only later I managed to recognize their brilliance. Along the same lines, I have so often be surprised by being able -to a certain extent- "categorize", visually at least, new images that beforehand I would had found original or impressive, somehow an ability to "read" influences, intentions, etc. For these reasons, I believe art history is an exceptional education and should be taught quite widely. For being only a student of art history have I become more elitist towards the views of others on taste? I would have to admit that yes. Do I accept relativism? Hardly so. Am I ever more surprised to somehow see taste or better a certain way of being open-minded visually in people that had absolutely no training, no traveling, no access, etc? All the time. Sure tradition helps, locality too, you kind of accumulate large amounts of knowledge just by living at a certain place and that is an education itself. But I am always amazed at seeing people having received only that education, being able to appreciate and recognize the fine points of another tradition.

Oh, splattered thoughts very quickly.

Great idea the presentation of theorists!

Emanuel Paparella2009-01-28 16:32:48
I am glad you found the presentation of theorists useful. I too believe that to go for the praxis while ignoring theory is like placing the cart before the horse.

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