The Laws of Nature

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Taste and Beauty

Brillo Box by Andy Warhol, 1969

But is it art? by Cynthia Freeland

We all know that taste in art is subjective and each person has a different opinion of what is "tasteful." In her book, Freeland examines the historical philosophical debate about taste between Hume and Kant. While both men agreed that works of art can be classified as superior or inferior, they disagreed about why some people have "better taste."

Hume's idea is that "good taste" is acquired through education and experience. He added that it is these educated people who set the "standard of taste" for all, and who differentiate between good and bad works of art. In contrast to that opinion, Freeland notes the skeptics' viewpoint that Hume's taste-arbiters only acquired their values through cultural indoctrination. In other words, these few elite weren't raised in a vacuum, so the culture they grew-up in influenced their opinions. It's a passive way for society to maintain a form of stasis in aesthetics.

On the other hand, Kant was more interested in explaining judgements of "beauty" in order to address "taste." He felt that good judgements in aesthetics are grounded in features of artworks themselves, not just in us and our preferences. Unlike Hume, Kant believed that judgements of beauty were universal and grounded in the real world, even though they were not actually objective. His definition of what makes something beautiful is that it has "purposiveness without a purpose." Say what????

The author unpacks this for us (thank goodness!). She uses the rose as an example. Although we could say that the purpose of a rose is to produce more roses, that's not what makes it beautiful. Beauty is found in the color, texture, and odor of the rose that seem "right" to our senses and elicits pleasure. This is its "purposiveness without a purpose." Kant believed that to make beautiful art requires human genius , the special ability to manipulate materials so that they create a harmony of the faculties causing viewers to respond with distanced enjoyment. So, Freeland interprets Kant's ideas by stating that beautiful objects appeal to our senses, but in a cool, detached way which satisfied our imagination and intellect.

It's interesting for me to read Freeland's comparison of Hume and Kant's ideas. I think that today we operate in a mixture of the two, since society tends place high regard in the opinions of educated art critics and museum curators while also placing value in what satisfies us personally. For instance, I've been to museums and art exhibitions where a few art objects that are proudly on display don't make sense to me - they lack content and/or skill. For me, the art doesn't have to be beautiful, but it must satisfy my emotions and intellect. There must be some sort of significance for it to be included as an important work of art among others that are deemed "great." When I read a lengthy narrative by a curator about the importance of a work of art, sometimes I'm convinced and sometimes not.

This may seem unimportant, but we artists are part of an industry that is worth bazillions of dollars and has some historical significance. Therefore, the opinons of Hume's few educated elite greatly influence the market, which affects even the smallest artist like me. It's somewhat paradoxical.

What are your thoughts??


Anonymous said...

YUK! Oh- that was my comment from yesterday. And since I don't have the bucks to make a difference- I'll just keep my opinion to myself. Off now to enjoy the sunshine! Thanks Kathy for all the enjoyment- nothing like a good blood boiling to keep us motivated. LOL!!

Kaylyn Munro said...

This is a huge topic these days. The ugliness and lack of decency and respect we are seeing on every level of human interaction is I think causing a considered reaction. I have much more to say, but this video series is worth a watch.

It is also interesting and provacative to read the statements of Fred Ross at the ARC. ( ) I am disturbed by the absolutism of his statements and the suggestion that there is an organized sham in "modern' art.

There is also an interesting discussion going on at The Real Art World.

Thanks for presenting such interesting topics for thought and discussion.

M said...

After a three hour drive and snow last night I can't seem to wrap my head around your excellent post with just one reading of it. I shall return.

This looks like an interesting book so I look forward to a good round of discussion.

Unknown said...

Hi Pam - hope you enjoy the sunshine! I'd like to but our pollen count is so high that I keep sneezing when I'm outdoors!

Hi Kaylyn - wow! Thanks for all the great references. I, too, am not a fan of absolutism. It seems contradictory to "art" which should be a free an open reflection.

Hi Margaret - a three hour drive in snow?? Were you at the North Pole? Gee - I'm glad you're safely home. Hope it's warmer there.

hw (hallie) farber said...

Hmmm...a lot to consider.

I have always felt that art was one soul speaking to another--whether the art portrays ugly or beauty--whether the viewer is educated or not--whether the viewer has acquired good taste or no taste.

Luckily I've been able to paint or sculpt without regard to what others think or are led to think-- it's something I would do even if no one ever saw the works. I do realize that I would be much thinner if my art sales paid for groceries.

And I'm not sure I can be cool and detached when I see art that really speaks.

Joyfulartist said...

In a nutshell; different strokes for different folks. Art is as diverse as the world is.

Mary Paquet said...

Much to wrap my brain around. Reading this post triggered the memory of your comment about the AWS show being somewhat conservative. I looked at the jurors list and recognized some as very established artists. I could understand that their choices would not be cutting edge. Don't get me wrong, I admire the jurors that I recognized as terrific artists. Actually, I enjoy the art that's been selected. I suppose it has "purposiveness."

Then I thought, well how does a society that's been around since the 1800s be anything but a little conservative. There would likely be a slow evolution in what art is perceived as the best art done in watercolor.

Then there is the flip side, the cutting edge. I recall in one major modern art museum walking into a room that had one exhibit -- a pile sand. Humm? Is it art?

-Don said...

Kathy, this is quite thought provoking, as are the links Kaylyn provided.

I'm afraid I may be one of those dealing with a "considered reaction" (as Kaylyn so adeptly defined it) to what's going on in the world of contemporary art, and my emotions have a tendency to run high as I try to understand.

I will stop here because everything else I've tried to type starts becoming an even more heated rant. Well, except for one more thing... I loved a quote from the video series Kaylyn provided the link to titled "Why Beauty Matters" that goes, "In our democratic society it's considered threatening to judge another person's taste." Hmmm, maybe it's time I removed my crap-o-meter filters...

Nah, for now I'll keep being nice, since I do want to one day break through that contemporary art glass ceiling...


-Don said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
-Don said...

Well, so much for me mellowing with age... I think I'm actually getting a little bit curmudgeony...


PS I deleted the previous comment due to misspellings.

Unknown said...

Hi Hallie - like you, I also see art as a personal communication between myself and another. I like the way you put it. And, I, too, can't remain emotionally unattached from art.

Hi Joyful - Amen!

Hi Mary - My comment about the AWS exhibition is meant to reflect that the society has a long-standing mission and that the jury did an excellent job selecting works that fit that mission. So, I wouldn't expect to see more cutting-edge work at that exhibit. The work was masterful and some of it was content-rich, but typically AWS.

Hi Don - if it's socially incorrect to criticize the works of others, then we can add art critics to the ranks of the unemployed! I think that great art leads to a conversation, and most conversations have at least two sides. I'd be very happy if people got into a debate over my art :-)