In French it is often said that des goûts et des couleurs, on ne discute pas, but to what extent is this trivial popular wisdom really true? The question whether there is any such thing as ‘good taste’ seems, prima facie, to end in an elitist bidding contest among intellectuals. But who, on the other hand, would argue that T.S. Eliot’s Prufrock and Other Observations is of the same artistic caliber as the poems of the local village-poet?
A philosopher who asked himself the same question was David Hume (1711-1776). In his work Of the Standard of Taste, the British empiricist searches for a way to resolve this centuries-old dispute. He develops, on the basis of several criteria, a systematic synthesis that should make it possible to distinguish good from bad taste and then, above all, to tell a competent critic from a less competent one. We may ask to what extent such a standard is really defensible, but another question that is at least as interesting is whether ‘good taste‘ is always an expression of an elitist view of man and the world? And it is precisely this latter question with which this essay is concerned.
Clear vs. ambiguous art
First of all I make a distinction between two kinds of artworks, of which especially the latter present themselves as interesting for our inquiry. First, there are works of art where everyone seems to agree on their artistic value. Examples include paintings by Rubens, Vermeer, or Caravaggio, sculptures by Bernini, or symphonies by Mahler, Verdi, or Rachmaninoff. What these works of art have in common is that they are immediate, outward testaments to the excellence of the artist’s craftsmanship. Laymen and art connoisseurs alike are capable of recognizing and accepting this to a certain degree. The fact that they, in a second movement, are included in an established historical canon is eventually sufficient to anchor these works of art in a kind of collective appreciation for particular artists. But what then of modern or contemporary works of art that at times are not even offered as testimony to the excellence of their creator’s craft? What elevates these objects to the realm of art?
Works of art are, on a fundamental level, material objects, even symphonies in the strict sense, and thus by definition possess a spatio-temporal extensiveness. The German philosopher Martin Heidegger called this material extensiveness a Dinglichkeit or ‘thingleyness.’ Although works of art do possess a form and matter, every person who looks at a work of art has the intrinsic feeling that works of art are not mere things. It is not a thing as sand or wood are things, nor is it a thing as ships, tables or submarines are things. Artworks occupy a new and more complex level. They transcend the ‘thingleyness’ that they possess. And it is in this transcendent aspect that the second group of artworks—those works of art where it is not always clear why exactly they are works of art—present themselves.
A classic example of this type of art is 20th century avant-garde art. Kazimir Malevich, Cy Twombly, Mark Rothko, Pablo Picasso and a fortiori Jackson Pollock are some of the artists about whom many have heard people say “Hey, my grandson can do that too!” This shows that the question of good taste obviously becomes more complicated when we take modern and abstract art as our starting point. The strength of these works of art lies not so much in masterful craft as in a complex relationship to more abstract concepts, which can take the form of philosophical ideas, meta-questions about art itself, socio-historical critiques, or self-reflexive reflexes. These abstract concepts, that elevate these simple objects to iconic works of art, are clearly less accessible and more difficult to convey to the spectator than pure outward dexterity and sophistication.
Of the Standard of Taste
It is clear that, to fully appreciate these challenging works of art, men require a certain set of qualities. In Of the Standard of Taste David Hume tries to list just such a set of qualities.
According to Hume, a person of good taste can differentiate himself from his less sophisticated fellows on the basis of the following five criteria: his refinement, practice, comparison, the absence of any prejudices, and his common sense. To present these criteria more plastically, I want to draw an allegory to geometric mathematics: when trying to calculate the squaring of a circle, one divides the figure into as many triangles as possible, the smaller the triangles, the more accurately the area of the circle can be calculated. The same principle applies to the ability to make judgments about taste. The more accurately the various components in a perfume, wine or poem can be distinguished, the closer one will come to making the most adequate judgement of taste possible.
While distinguishing between good and bad taste undoubtedly smells like an elitist activity, the conditions that Hume attaches to it do not, at first glance, seem to be. For example, criteria such as ‘practice’ or the absence of prejudice seem readily achievable by anyone. This applies all the more to the criterion of common sense. Thus, prima facie, these criteria seem to be subject neither to status nor to intellectual, economic, or social factors. In theory, then, any of us can become a sophisticated critic. But while these qualities are theoretically attainable for any individual, practice does not always flow from theory.
The socio-economic context in which one is born plays a significant role in the ability to develop and maintain these criteria. While it is undoubtedly possible for an individual to transcend this, the lives of the majority of the population involve this inextricably socially determined context. The ‘finer’ tastes to which Hume refers are not sufficiently instilled in these social milieus for their occupants to become fully familiar with them. A person struggling to make ends meet is not in a position to fill his days with comparing complex varieties of wine or modern sculptures. Although at first glance these criteria do not belong exclusively to a certain cultural and intellectual elite, in practice they often do. As a result, Hume will consider the majority of people incapable of making any correct taste judgments, and resigned to a position that holds that there does exist such a thing as good and bad taste, regardless of the elitism that accompanies it.
A non-elitist standard of good taste
However, I believe it is possible to accept a non-elitist standard of good taste. One that does not function as a rule, but as a guideline. A standard that can be used to discover more complex and hidden forms of beauty for people who have not yet fully developed Hume’s criteria. The development of such criteria is an active process that should be approached in the same way. Those who wish to discover new and more complex levels of beauty must actively seek them out themselves. It is beyond doubt that those who fully develop these criteria can become acquainted with finer, more elegant and perhaps even more interesting forms of beauty.
We must conclude, however, that despite his elitist approach, it is worth reading Hume’s Of the Standard of Taste carefully. Hume meticulously describes how the eye of a connoisseur operates and, with his five criteria, comes rather close to developing a generic standard of good taste. Indeed, even for the reader who believes that taste and beauty cannot be debated, it is worthwhile to examine Hume’s standard in great detail. Hume’s analysis offers insight into what beauty requires to stand the test of time and how we, as cultural beings, should perceive it.
And, even for those who will never meet Hume’s strict criteria, there is still more than enough beauty in the world to admire. Simply consider the sheer beauty of a healthy family, a close-knit society, or a powerful faith.