Monday, May 24, 2010

Taste in Art

It is a truth universally acknowledged that there is no accounting for taste, whether it be in matters of culinary delight or works of art. In other words, taste is individual and subjective. Nonetheless, we all imagine, because we like a movie or a book, that others should share our preferences. In other words, we think everyone else should respond the same way. Thus, we say to a friend, after seeing Notting Hill (recently viewed in Goethe Girl's antediluvian household), "It's enjoyable," meaning "I enjoyed it, and you will, too." Indeed, we don't ask friends who have seen a certain play whether they liked it but, rather, "Is it good?" Such reactions suggest that our judgment is self-evidently correct.

Taste, especially in connection with art, occupied thinkers in the 18th century. The Quarrel between the Ancients and the Moderns had brought about the recognition that "modern" works were to be evaluated according to criteria different from those for classical works. Certainly taste was individual, but what, it was asked, was the basis of our judgments? Are they simply spontaneous, emotional reactions, as was declared by the Jean Baptiste DuBos? According to this French man of letters: "Whether a work is stirring and makes the right impression on us is something our own emotional responses can tell us better than all the treatises of the judges of art." DuBos called this inner feeling a "sixth sense," or "je ne sais quoi."

Others, however, especially in Germany, were opposed to such intangibles and sought to put taste on a firmer footing. Johann Christoph Gottsched, for instance, the Leipzig literary arbiter (looking very much here like the "literary pope" he was accused of being), disagreed that the appreciation of the public for a play was of any account in judging it. He insisted that, for taste to be defensible, there had to be an element of considered reason in our judgments. German men of letters, particularly in the early part of the 18th century, were well aware that Germany lacked a great literary tradition, and Gottsched in particular took it as his role in life to help in the founding of a great national literature. The role of a critic like himself was to elevate the taste of the German public. (That taste is also a function of the time in which we live is evident in Gottsched's own choices: he placed Corneille above Shakespeare.)

Gottsched believed (and here I am following Peter Hohendahl's A History of German Literary Criticism) that the beauty of a work of art resided in its perfect organization, which could be objectively analyzed. As he wrote in Critische Dichtkunst: "The exact relation, the order and symmetry of all the parts of which a thing is composed, is the source of all beauty." And, further, "The pleasure of the observer of such a work is rooted in the work's purposiveness, which can be demonstrated by means of poetic laws." In turn, these rules "are merely a healthy Reason's expression of what is proper, what is fitting (or not) in a work of art."

One hears already, in that word "purposiveness" a foreshadowing of Kant. For Kant, too, taste was subjective, but he would go on to separate beauty from the object itself. Thus, he held that there are no objective principles or rules by which we can judge the Beautiful; Beauty exists only in relation to our subjective response to an object. At the same time, Kant gave philosophic grounding to the feeling that we all have, namely, that everyone should react with the same enthusiasm (or dislike) vis-a-vis a work of art.

He did this in a very interesting manner, by insisting that, to be legitimate, judgments of taste must be "disinterested." He thus excluded the pleasures of eating and other sensuous delights from the aesthetic realm; he also excluded any moral considerations. The "Good," after all, is something we desire and in which we may therefore be said to have an "interest." Beauty, however, is what pleases universally and without interest. When we judge something to be beautiful, we impute our pleasure to everyone else. Aesthetic judgments are thus normative, meaning that we think everyone else should think as we do.

"Disinterest" means that we have no horse in the race, whereas pleasure (as in food) and the good are things in which we have interest and want for ourselves.

Whatever their implications for works of art, it seems to me that Kant's ideas are much more applicable to a modern phenomenon, namely, "feeling the pain of others." To feel the pain of others -- whether of the homeless or the victims of Darfur -- is to have an aesthetic reaction. I call it aesthetic because the homelessness or whatever is not something I experience myself; in other words, I do not feel the actual pain. Thus, I am in principle "disinterested"; I have no horse in the race. At the same time, I believe that everyone else should share my reaction, whether it be outrage, sadness, etc. I am sure that all of us have had the experience of encountering people the correctness of whose opinions (add your own favorite contentious social or political topic) is absolutely self-evident to them. Because they feel deeply, so we should, too. Interestingly, if you ask them to give you specific reasons for their judgments, you will discover that there is a "je ne sais quoi" quality about them. Politics has become aestheticized.

In defense of what might seem my cold-heartedness, I would submit that feeling doesn't suffice to change the condition of those in need of our help in the world. For that we have to dig in and do our part, based on what Gottsched would have called a reasoned, objective assessment of what stirs our emotions, which might then lead to decisions about our capacity to help.

1 comment:

Zentrist said...

An extraordinarily rich discussion--"to my taste"!

At the end of it I thought of Obama's criterion for the Supreme Court, "empathy." Ms. Sotomayor was chosen for her ability to "feel the pain of others." Ms. Kagan also. But in the hearings, as we saw, and as we will see, "empathy" just doesn't quite cut it. There have to be other, more "objective" criteria: constitutionalism, restraint, sobriety, legal precedent and yet more experience. "Subjectivity" and "empathy" are almost the very antithesis--or am I wrong?--of legal judgment. In other words, the "best" justice, he or she, will interpret sort of like the New Critic, "objectively." That "je ne sais quoi" business will not hold water. That said, I'm grateful to have heard here about those proto-Nietzscheans who successfully challenged the likes of Gottsched. I'm grateful to have been introduced to critics who espoused what might be called the principle of "feeling," albeit well-informed feeling. If I'm not mistaken, Gadamer terms this aspect of "reading"--prejudice or "fore-understanding," the more or less conscious "thoughts" that our embodied histories bring to a constitution or work of art or philosophy....That introduction to Kant's "Critique of Judgment" was very, very helpful to me in finding a "frame" through which to organize these approaches. I was trained in the New Criticism, Straussian hermeneutics AND Gadamer's hermeneutics! These conflicting "dogmas," if you will, are still alive and well. I'm looking forward to more...By the way, I really like Elena Kagan's well-rounded approach to the law. Her appreciation of Scalia, even while disagreeing with his "subjective" and "misguided" readings on some issues...bespeaks a truly sublime legal and human mind. (In my opinion!)