Standards of Taste

In my view one of the most interesting debates, and one I have discussed before in these blogs, is the one among those who insist upon or deny the possibility of standards of taste — especially in the fine arts. We hear all too often that beauty, for example, is a matter of taste. You like popular music and I do not. I prefer Rembrandt to Rockwell, whereas you think I am a snob. Indeed, the disagreement can become heated and often lowers itself, as do many debates, to the level of the ad hominem — attacks on the person. I may or may not be a snob, but my preference for Rembrandt over Rockwell doesn’t rest at that level. There may actually be something about Rembrandt’s work that makes him a better painter and his works truly more beautiful (if we can use that word any more). Or is it all a matter of taste about which there can be no dispute?

It is assuredly the case that taste differs widely among various people and that one’s taste changes as he or she grows older. But it is also the case that the change may well mark an improvement and that there is such a thing as “refined” taste. If I grow up listening only to pop music and never hear a symphony I am not really in a position to judge whether classical music is or is not somehow better (more beautiful?) than popular music. If I have read a great deal of literature it would seem that I am in a better position to judge of a new work if it is truly worth reading or a waste of time than I would be if I never read anything but comic books. I may even be in a better position to say if it is “great” — though, again, we retreat from such words these days. The point is that there may not be such a thing as a standard of taste, but there may be subtle differences in works of art and literature that are only perceived by those in a position to recognize them: those who have a more refined taste, which is acquired with wide experience. This is true even in the case of fine wine and tea. It is said that there are experts who can discern hundreds of different varieties of tea just from tasting them. And we all know folks (I am not one of them) who seem to be able to detect certain qualities of the wine they are tasting that the rest of us seem to miss.

The man who addressed this interesting issue and seems to have made the most sense of it was David Hume in the nineteenth century. In his essay on the “Standard of Taste,” he remarks:

It appears then, that amidst all the variety and caprice of taste, there are certain general principles of approbation or blame, whose influence a careful eye may trace in all operations of the mind. Some particular forms or qualities, from the original structure of the internal fabric, are calculated to please, and others to displease; and if they fail of their effect in any particular instance, it is from some apparent defect or imperfection in the organ. A man in a fever would not insist on his palate as able to decide concerning flavours; nor would one, affected with the jaundice, pretend to give a verdict with regard to colours. In each creature, there is a sound and a defective state; and the former alone can be supposed to afford us a true standard of taste and sentiment. If, in the sound state of the organ, there be an entire or a considerable uniformity of sentiment among men, we may thence derive an idea of the perfect beauty; in like manner as the appearance of objects in day-light, to the eye of a man in health, is denominated their true and real colour, even while colour is allowed to be merely a phantasm of the senses.

In a word, if I am color-blind, I am not in a position to judge the worth of a painting. If I am tone-deaf, I cannot possibly discern the subtleties of a complex piece of music. And if I have no experience whatever with great art and literature, I am not qualified to judge such things. The notion that there is such a thing as “good taste” is often labelled as “elitism,” which once again lowers the discussion to the level of the ad hominem. It is not elitist to recognize the differences among persons who are or are not in a position to judge the worth of various objects. There may not be an indisputable standard of taste, as Hume suggests, but, as he also suggests, there are qualities in objects that announce themselves to those who are in a position to hear them or see them. As Hume admitted, the expert is noted for his or her “strong sense, united to delicate sentiment, improved by practice, perfected by comparison, and cleared of prejudice . . .” Some people are simply in a better position to judge of works of art, say, than are others. I do not speak of myself, but I know of people whose opinions seem to me to be well informed and I know enough to listen carefully to what they say. There may be no disputing taste, but it makes perfectly good sense to speak about those who have “good taste,”  those who know whereof they speak, and those who do not.


I have just returned from a train ride to Cooperstown and back which gave me time to reflect on many things — and time away from the blog, which was a bit of relief, I must say. One of the things I reflected on was a number of huge disappointments in my life. As one gets older, I am told, this is the way the mind wanders.

I attended Baltimore Polytechnic Institute in (of all places) Baltimore, Maryland. Every year the students put on what were called the “Poly Follies.” It took several days and was well attended. It also required the printing and handing out of hundreds of programs. In my senior year the art department decided to have a contest to pick the cover for the program. It was a big deal and I hurried home after hearing the announcement and spent the entire weekend drawing and painting three covers — at least one of which I thought pretty good. At that time I drew and painted a bit and even submitted several pen and ink cartoons that were included in that year’s Yearbook. In any event, I was sure I would win (of course). But when the winner was announced and the cover placed in a large glass case in the main hall, along with all of the other submissions, none of mine were there. I was stunned. There were the three top covers and also all of the other submissions — none of which I thought as good as mine (!) In any event, I was deeply hurt to have my hard work ignored like that. So I went to the art department and reminded the teacher that I had submitted three covers which had not been displayed with the rest. A sudden look of awareness appeared in his eyes as he remembered my submissions, which he had placed in a cupboard below one of the art tables. I had submitted mine early and he obviously forgot all about it. I sensed that, but it simply increased the pain. I had been ignored and my covers were never even considered: they were in that cupboard the whole time.

The point of this little story, which recounts one of several disappointments I reflected on during the long train ride, is that disappointment is a part of life. The move today, which I have remarked upon repeatedly, to build our children’s self-esteem and help young people avoid pain and disappointment at all costs may be costing them the growth they require to develop as whole persons. It is the pain and disappointment that deepen sensibilities and broaden our perspectives and help us grow. Our society’s determination to disallow these experiences on the part of our children is a mistake of the first order, I believe, and I call on Dostoevsky as an authority on the subject. He was convinced that suffering is essential for the development of the human person. And he should know as he suffered a great deal himself and witnessed it in many others.  It is not something we should encourage, of course, but it is something we should allow as part of the necessary steps in growing up — along with failure from which we learn so much about ourselves. In its place, we try to guarantee our children only pleasure; we have self-esteem movements in the schools and at home where no one is denied and everyone gets a prize, while only a few truly deserve it; this in turn has devolved into the entitlement we see all around us where spoiled children grow into shallow, spoiled adults whose attention is turned only on themselves.

I don’t regard myself as exemplary, by any means; but I am aware that most of the people I admire and respect have had many disappointments in their lives and have suffered at times a great deal. Dostoevsky may have overstated the case by insisting that suffering is essential to becoming fully human, but our attempts to protect the young from every type of disappointment and harm is assuredly misguided.


When Oedipus killed his father and married his mother, the Greeks witnessing the event on the stage as depicted by Sophocles knew that there would be retribution. The act of marrying his mother is, as we would say, “unnatural.” In the Greek view it was a violation of what they called “Moira.” Since Oedipus was a great king, his actions resulted in cosmic imbalance (that’s right, cosmic imbalance). Things had to be set right. So while the folks sitting in the theater were horrified by what Oedipus did, they were even more concerned about how he would be punished — because he most assuredly would be punished. It was essential that the cosmic balance be restored and the only way that could possibly happen was if Oedipus were punished. It mattered not that he didn’t know his father was the man he killed on the road and the woman he subsequently married was his mother. It didn’t even matter that he fathered children by her. What mattered was that he committed a terrible wrong and it had to be set right.

Fundamentally the same notion of restoring cosmic harmony can be found in a number of Eastern religions in the notion of “karma.” It can be found in such religions as Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, Sikhism, Taoism, Shintoism, and Ching Hai, among others. It is a common thread running through both Eastern and Western thought for many hundreds of years. We still hear today the trite notion the “what goes around comes around.” As it happens, this is a faint echo of the deep-seated notion that wrongs will inevitably be punished.

For the Greeks, of course, the wrong resulted from hubris, excessive pride — not pride, per se, but excessive pride. A certain amount of pride was expected of a Greek: after all, he was a Greek and not a barbarian! But excessive pride was the essence of tragedy for the Greeks and it could be exhibited by an entire city and the results would be the same: the wrong must be set right to restore cosmic balance. Thucydides wrote a history of the war between Sparta and Athens which was lost by Athens, a tragedy according to the historian brought about as a result of excessive arrogance and pride on the part of the Athenian leaders resulting in a series of tactical blunders. Oedipus, of course, exhibited hubris because he ignored oracular warnings and arrogantly proceeded as though he were in control of his own destiny. No one is in control of his destiny, according to the ancients, not even the most powerful of men and women. Not even the gods: Moira was beyond even them.

We, of course, know better (!) We are certain that we are free and control our own destiny. And despite our lip service to karma, we don’t really take seriously the notion that wrongs will be punished — not by the courts, not by the gods, or even by powers beyond the gods, as the Greeks saw it. We know better.

Or do we? We might take a page from these ancient books of wisdom and think about hubris. There can be no question that as a nation we are arrogant and suffer from excessive (unwarranted) pride. We insist that we know how others should live their lives. And if they choose not to live the way we think they should, we feel justified in sending drones deep into their world, or fighter planes with powerful weapons designed to “take out” the enemy (and numberless innocent people cataloged as “collateral damage”). Further, in the name of “jobs” we continue to assault the earth and insist that she bend to our will and yield up all her treasure. Time will tell whether jobs are more important than stewardship of the earth, or whether we are right and everyone else is wrong — or whether the ancients were right all along and at some point cosmic balance must be restored.


One of the sobering consequences of the revolution that has placed electronic toys in the hands of everyone who can hold one is what I would call “D.I.C.”  — diminished imaginative capacity. By coining this term I join with others who seem to love to make up names, and especially acronyms, for common events and phenomena in order to seem more learned. (We need not dwell on the acronym in this case!) The electronic toys the kids play with today and the movies they see do not require that they use their imaginations at all: they are loud, graphic, vivid, and present themselves to a largely passive audience. All the person has to do is sit and watch, or play with a joy stick, and their world is at their finger-tips with all its violence and noise. And because they read far less than their parents and grandparents and visit fewer art galleries, dance recitals, or symphony performances, this is of considerable concern: it is symptomatic.

To begin with, the appreciation of all great art and literature requires an effort of imagination. Take Joseph Conrad, for example. Despite working in a second language, his vocabulary is very rich. Further, He is what many have called an “impressionistic” writer and this causes problems for many readers for two reasons. Thus, Conrad’s rich vocabulary requires an extensive knowledge of words on the part of a reader. But more to the point, Conrad leaves gaps and spaces in his writing that require an imaginative effort on the part of the reader in order to engage his writing fully. And the effort is one that a great many people are unwilling or unable to make, especially given their shrunken vocabularies of late. The same might be said of the highly imaginative Shakespeare whose language is rapidly becoming foreign to growing numbers of young people. But the list of writers who demand an effort on the part of their readers could be added to endlessly. And the same could be said for art and music: they require an effort of imagination to engage the works fully. So, the question before us is: Why should anyone make the effort when they can pick up an electronic device, push buttons, sit back, and let the thrills begin? The answer is that very few are, in fact, willing to make the effort.

The results of all this have been analyzed and cataloged by a number of psychologists who have shown that the young, especially, are going forth into a complicated world with short attention spans and what amounts to a form of brain damage. They cannot attend to any subject, especially one that doesn’t interest them, for any significant length of time; further, portions of their brains are simply not developed. There is, indeed, quite a controversy among so-called experts about whether these people will or will not be able to cope in the future. I have written about it in previous blogs and choose not to repeat myself here. But the evidence suggests that it will be increasingly difficult, if not impossible, for these people to think their way through complex issues or use their imaginations to consider alternative consequences of future actions. And this is serious, indeed.

Moreover, I worry about the loss of capacity to imagine when it comes to great literature and great art because it means that these things will simply slide into oblivion, pushed aside by a growing number of people whose interest is focused on the immediate present and the graphic nature of the images and sounds that issue forth from their electronic toys that require no effort whatever. It may not be a problem on the scale of global warming, but coupled with that problem — and others of major proportions — it does not bode well for the future. Those who solve the problems we face now and in the future will have to use their analytic powers and, above all else, their imaginations. So, on the growing list of things that ought to have our undivided attention, we most assuredly should add D.I.C. and insist that the schools continue to require literature and art and that teachers discourage the use of toys as a substitute for those activities that will fully engage their minds and hearts. If only the teachers would….

Intriguing Parallel

One of the little games academics often like to play — when they aren’t hunkered down in their offices worrying about tenure and promotion — is to look for similarities between the Roman Empire and modern America. The game can be fascinating, even if a bit of a stretch at times. But let’s indulge ourselves and look at some of the obvious similarities because, as we know, the Roman Empire disappeared as surely as the language they spoke. And this must give us pause.

To begin with the Roman Empire started out as a Republic and degenerated into a dictatorship. Our nation started out as  Republic (designed after the Romans, as it happens) and has now degenerated into an oligarchy, if not a dictatorship by the 1% of those who control the wealth and political power in this country. The similarity resides in the fact that in both cases, those who came to rule are not elected by the people and do not even pretend to represent the people’s interest.

The Romans had their bread and circuses. We have television and our iPods. In both cases, those in power use the entertainment to divert attention of the masses away from real problems to a world of make-believe where good fights evil and good, as defined by the power-brokers, always prevails.

The Romans had their gladiators. We have the NFL which looks more like its prototype every day.

The Romans used violence to deal with troubles, as do we.

The Romans persecuted the Christians while the Christians in America today exhibit complete intolerance for those who disagree with them and in extreme cases also resort to persecution and even violence out of the conviction that they have the Truth — e.g., the bombing of abortion clinics and the attacks on personnel who work there. In both cases the common element is intolerance of other points of view.

The Romans had their public forums and Senate debates, while we have TV talk shows. In both cases there is much shouting and very little listening, a great deal of smoke and very little fire.

The Roman Empire eventually withered from within and was less and less able to resist the barbarian hordes who surrounded the Empire and eventually not only came within the walls, but gained political control as well. We have reared our own barbarians. They have grown in numbers and are increasingly in control of political power. They hide in their mansions and wear expensive suits, or they pierce and tattoo their bodies and buy the latest automatic weapon from Walmart. In either case they seek power and are as small-minded, stupid, and self-seeking as were the hordes the Romans were unable to hold off.

The Romans became increasingly illiterate as their empire crumbled and learning withdrew into the monasteries. America is becoming increasingly illiterate and its citizens are unable to use their minds to follow the shell game the wealthy play at every turn and which deprives them of their freedom right before their very noses. And the irony is that the people don’t know they are losing their freedom because if they have cable they have hundreds of TV channels to choose from and they are easily persuaded this is true freedom.

But there are major differences. We exploit the earth that is supposed to sustain us and we have pollution on a grand scale and nuclear weapons enough to destroy the world over. The Romans did not.

Players As Captains

Now that the United States Ryder Cup golf team has lost the cup once again questions abound as to why this group of talented golfers doesn’t seem to be able to win a team competition against a patch-work team of players from Europe and Great Britain. Phil Mickelson has again put his foot in his mouth and made disparaging remarks about the team captain, Tom Watson, who (it is generally agreed) botched the job. Mickelson simply said what the others wanted to say but had the good taste to keep it to themselves: Watson just wasn’t up to the task. He did a couple of things right, such as putting two first-time players together who made an excellent team — only to leave them out of competition on the second day when their twosome might have won a much-needed point for the U.S of A. Also, he forgot to mention to them that they weren’t going to play.

(Courtesy of Wikipedia)

Tom Watson (Courtesy of Wikipedia)

It seems Watson was too autocratic, too “stand-offish” and uncommunicative. He didn’t involve the players themselves in the decisions he made, and several of those decisions raised eyebrows around the golfing world — like the one mentioned above and the decision not to play Mickelson and his partner Keegan Bradley on the second day when they have shown themselves to be one of the most successful teams the Americans have ever put together. In any event, the golfing world is resounding with the second-guessing of experts and want-to-be experts and they all seem to agree that Watson simply did not get it done.

This raises an interesting question: why is it that outstanding players like Tom Watson so often make terrible coaches in sports of all types? Bill Russell springs to mind — one of the greatest basketball players ever to play but a mediocre coach, at best. The European Ryder Cup team was captained by a very good, but not outstanding, golfer by the name of Paul McGinley who seems to have had the magic touch, taking the same types of self-absorbed, wealthy, spoiled golfers from Europe and melding them into a winning team. Again, why does this sort of thing happen?

My guess is that the outstanding athletes don’t know what it is that makes them outstanding at their sport. They play largely by instinct. I once watched Marty Riessen give a tennis lesson to a middle-aged woman on the tennis courts at Northwestern University. Riessen was a perennial Big Ten tennis champion, played on the Davis Cup team, and later turned professional — once beating Rod Laver for one of his professional championships. But as a teacher he was tongue-tied. He had no idea what to say to his pupil. He became increasingly frustrated and she got correspondingly tense as the lesson went down hill. This is an extreme case, but it is graphic evidence of the inability of at least this great player to communicate to someone else what it is they needed to do to be successful — like the brilliant physicist who can’t teach entry-level physics.

And that seems to be the key: communication skills. Anyone who listens to Tom Watson will be immediately struck by the fact that he has difficulty saying what he is thinking. Couple that with his determination to stand away from his players and call the shots from on high and you have a formula for failure. A good coach is frequently one who has struggled himself or herself to learn the basic skills of the game and who has the ability to communicate with the student just what they must do to be successful. I dare say that golf came very easily to Tom Watson. And he apparently can’t pick up on the chemistry that does or does not exist between people.

I was not an outstanding tennis player. I played a good deal of competitive tennis and won a number of small tournaments, but I wasn’t in a class with folks like Marty Riessen, to be sure. But in taking the game apart and putting it together again at a boys’ camp in Maine years ago with a friend of mine, I learned what it took to produce tennis strokes and was able to explain the mechanics of the game to people trying to learn it. I spent 35 years teaching tennis and another fifteen years coaching at the collegiate level. Whatever success I had was due to my own struggles with the game coupled with my sympathy for those who found the game to be difficult — and my ability to communicate with them successfully. I also learned quickly the delicate art of keeping quiet when necessary. I have seen that formula repeated again and again. The formula the U.S.A. has for picking captains is doomed to failure: a famous player who has himself achieved greatness in the sport. It works on occasion, as it did with one of the few successful American Ryder Cup captains, Paul Azinger (not himself a player in the class of Watson, but an outstanding payer none the less), but not as a rule. The Paul McGinleys of the world will usually trump the Tom Watsons when it comes to coaching — even if they couldn’t beat them head-to-head on the golf course.