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.

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4 thoughts on “Standards of Taste

  1. Hugh, a very tasteful post. Two thoughts come to mind. People who have practiced a craft far more than others, have the ability to discern subtleties whether it be wine, paintings, music, athletic prowess, etc. The rest of us will enjoy what we enjoy, but will it last? A pop song with a catchy phrase or beat may be hugely popular, but have a very short shelf life, as people get bored with it. Yet, a group that makes more complex music with various rhythms may last a lifetime and beyond. Steely Dan had very few hits, but their music was played by very good musicians and their body of work is sustainable. Good post. BTG

  2. it’s always interesting to witness different ‘experts’ and the way they share their expertise. sometimes they critique with the natural gift of teaching while the listeners light candles from their knowledge. others inflate their lungs and blow out flames of curiosity as they bore us with their air of self importance!

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