The Laws of Nature

Saturday, March 9, 2013

Taste and Beauty

Frederick Edwin Church (1859)
Book Review

Art Theory: A Very Short Introduction
by Cynthia Freeland

Chapter 1, Section 2:  Taste and Beauty

We’ve had a lot of discussion over the years on this blog about beauty and art. Freeland’s discussion in this second section of Chapter 1 gives us a little more insight on the topic. She begins by offering the reader Hume and Kant’s philosophical belief that some works of art really are better than others, and that some people have better taste. 

Hume believed that "good taste" is acquired through education and that "good art" is identified by  a consensus of the educated elite. These folks “set the standard.” As a counterpoint, Freeland states that Hume’s critics note the fact that these elite “acquired their values through cultural indoctrination.” Good point!

On the other hand, Kant felt that humans have the innate ability to perceive beauty and recognize it in a work of art without the benefit of an education. This allows all of us to conclude that some works of art are better than others. Therefore, the identification of "good art" is a matter of taste rather than the opinion of an educated elite. I’ll interpret this to mean that Kant also felt that beauty must be an essential element in a work of art. Otherwise, his argument doesn’t work.

Kant also believed that people with similar sensibilities tend to agree with each other, so I guess that the standard for good art would be set by the largest group. I'm speculating.

So, Freeland ends this section of Chapter 1 with a paradox: Kant’s way of recognizing this [e.g. our ability to see beauty in an object] was to say that something beautiful has ‘purposiveness without a purpose.’”

Section 3 of Chapter 1 will explain.

In the meantime, perhaps we may discuss Hume and Kant’s ideas here.

What do you think?


layers said...

Hi Katherine, have not heard from you in awhile. You always have such intriguing discussions and questions.
I know that for myself I have a very strong aesthetic.. I know what I like don't like and what appears in my paintings is what I am drawn to in other artists' works. Not sure if that would be categorized as taste.

Dan Kent said...

I love how you are talking philosophy, an area I have been interested in lately in my quest to determine what modernism is. I think you are correct that Kant would agree that the standard is set by the group, since he advocated that rulers should pass laws that the majority would voluntarily abide by. Hume believed our experiences resulted in custom, not knowledge. To me that does not sound too different from cultural indoctrination. Education influences what the educated believe is good art.

Through attending Art Basel, I have concluded that the art market is most influenced by the elite collectors, and what they are purchasing. Except for a few trendsetters, what the collectors choose to collect is influenced by dealers and art critics and what they choose to show and criticize. I am not sure that beauty has anything whatsoever to do with it, judging by what I have seen, although I am sure some of the very rich buy because they think something would look good behind their couch. Often concept trumps beauty, but there is room for both in art. I think that where I object is when one maintains it is only concept or only beauty that is important. I disagree.

Katharine A. Cartwright said...

Hi Donna - nice to hear from you again! I agree that individual choice isn't necessarily the same as "taste" since it seems that the latter would be a social standard and the former completely individualistic. But, at the end of the day, we make art to suit ourselves.

Hi Dan - very meaty discussion!! Thanks for providing further insight r.e. Hume and Kant. Your experience with Art Basel is one I wish I could share! I'd love to attend and agreement with your assessment. Money controls trends in the artworld, for sure. I also agree with your feelings about content and beauty. Although I don't think a work of art is required to be "beautiful" I do think that the authentic expression of human thought, feelings, senses, experiences is beautiful.

Celeste Bergin said...

A refreshing notion...that some think beauty is an imperative for art. I grow weary of my contemporaries telling me that "anything goes". I'm a representational artist (but not a photo-real one) and often during discussions someone will say, "that arm doesn't look right" and immediately the next thing heard is: "But that's all right! The artist may have been painting this in an expressive way, not to show off their anatomical skills!" Over and over I hear people say.."it's ok (that it is ugly) because the artist chose what to say, and they are saying "ugly". See, I live in Portland...there is a lot of ugly art here that people embrace. It's almost like the zero tolerance stuff in other areas. We painters of beauty are not really allowed to challenge the painters of ugly because it has been instilled in us that they have a right to express themselves. And they do. I just don't want to say ugly art is art, if I don't see that. So, I pretty much keep my mouth shut!

Katharine A. Cartwright said...

Hi Celeste, thanks for sharing your ideas about this. I wonder if it's a matter of taste, after all. I've seen "ugly" art that's made me think long and hard about my visceral reaction to it. It sometimes makes sense to me that the artist was able to evoke a strong emotion from me. On the other hand, there've been times when "ugly" art was really just meant to shock and I find that manipulative and unauthentic. For me, it comes down to the motivations of the artist. That being said, I'm a great admirer of your truly beautiful work!!