Hume, Kael, and the Role of Subjectivity in Criticism

In a previous post, I discuss why I prefer the word “impersonal” to the word “objective” in questions of aesthetic judgment.  I state: “ […] we can make aesthetic judgments independent of personal taste, based solely on our knowledge, experience, and critical understanding of the art in question.  Rather than taking art personally, we can take it impersonally.”

Simply put, I no longer believe this.  I no longer think that an “impersonal” approach to art is possible.  My reason is that I no longer understand “taste” as something separate from “knowledge, experience, and critical understanding.”  Instead, I understand taste as that which encompasses all of those elements (as well as others).  For example, a person’s adopted evaluative criteria will become a part of that person’s taste, along with his or her experience, learning, and values.  For truly, these all play a part in a person’s subjective appraisal of a work.  No matter how much we may want to experience something objectively, impersonally, or purely rationally, we remain stubbornly tied to our individual tastes.

As a case in point, I want to examine the notorious film critic Pauline Kael.  Last year saw the release of both a biography of Kael and a collection of her work.  This prompted many active critics and journalists to write their own appraisals of Kael.  Roger Ebert had this to say:

Pauline had no theory, no rules, no guidelines, no objective standards. You couldn’t apply her “approach” to a film. With her it was all personal. Faithful readers will know I am tiresome in how often I quote Robert Warshow, who in his book The Immediate Experience wrote: “A man goes to the movies. The critic must be honest enough to admit he is that man.” Pauline Kael was that honest. She wrote about her immediate experience, about what she felt.

She’s accused of being inconsistent and contradicting herself. Directors would fall in and out of favor. With her there was no possibility of inconsistency, because she always wrote about what she felt right now. What was the purpose tilting that emotion to reflect something she wrote earlier? I sat next to her once in a New York screening room. She responded audibly. “Oh, oh, oh!” she’d say, in praise or disapproval. Talking like that would get her in trouble in Chicago. Pauline had–or took–license. You sensed something physical was happening as she watched.

Of his own criticism, Ebert concedes: “In my reviews and those of a great many others you are going to find, for better or worse, my feelings. I feel a responsibility to provide some notion of what you’re getting yourself in for, but after that it’s all subjective.”

Manohla Dargis, in a discussion regarding the merits of Kael in The New York Times, comes to a similar conclusion:

As critics, all we have are our beliefs, ideals, prejudices, blind spots, our reservoirs of historical and personal knowledge, and the strength of our arguments. There are empirical truths that we can say about a movie: it was shot in black and white or color, on film or digital, in widescreen or not, directed by this or that filmmaker. But beyond these absolutes there is only our thinking, opinions, ideologies, methodological approaches and moments in time. That isn’t to say that criticism is a postmodern anything goes; it is to admit that critics are historical actors and that our relationships with movies, as with everything in life, are contingent on those moments.

What Ebert and Dargis seem to be saying, what I have already claimed, and what the example of Kael proves is that there are indeed individual subjective elements that come into play in a critical judgment.

To see how this works, I think that we can apply (interestingly enough) Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin’s model of tasting from The Physiology of Taste, in which there are three stages.  However, I think we can simplify it to two concurrent stages.  When appraising an object, we first sense it; as our brain registers the sensation, we immediately start “considering” it (not necessarily consciously or rationally, although that can indeed occur and provide the illusion that we’re operating independently of our body’s conditioning).  What happens when we consider an object?  Our past experiences, our memories, our feelings, our learning, our adopted criteria, and (most importantly) our values all come together (or work against one another) to pass judgment.  Reason might help us sort some of this into a clear, articulate response, but such conscious rationalization is usually unnecessary and will probably only occur, anyway, after a judgment has already been made.  That being said, these rationalizations serve a different purpose–they are what constitute criticism.

Of course, this idea of “no theory, no rules, no guidelines, no objective standards” teeters on the brink of nihilism.  If, ultimately, we each experience an artwork subjectively, what is the point in debating the merit of one opinion over another? How is criticism not simply “postmodern anything goes”?

Fortunately, David Hume addresses this very issue in “Of the Standard of Taste.”  Carolyn Korsmeyer, in her analysis of that work (“Hume and the Foundations of Taste”), expresses the problem in this manner:

If beauty is identified with a particular kind of pleasure, if aesthetic and artistic value is measured by the feelings of the individual perceiver, then one would expect that there would be no grounds for asserting that one aesthetic judgment or expression of pleasure is preferable to any other. People differ, and so do their tastes. However, it becomes clear when reading Hume’s writings on criticism, that tastes, on his account, are not so subjective that no standards can be discerned. In fact, it is quite evident that Hume considered some artistic and literary tastes preferable by far to others.

To be sure, Hume states: “It is natural for us to seek a Standard of Taste; a rule by which the various sentiments of men may be reconciled; at least a decision afforded confirming one sentiment, and condemning another.”

Like Dargis, Hume does not believe that criticism is “postmodern anything goes,” even as he allows for the subjectivity inherent in the wide variety of individual tastes.  No–as he points out, the “joint verdict” of the best critics (consisting of “similarities of sentiment”–the common, shared elements of their opinions–and not necessarily the individual subjective elements) becomes “the true standard of taste and beauty.” This standard of taste, then, if adopted, becomes the very context in which criticism (and, thus, art) becomes communicable and meaningful (i.e., not nihilistic).

Korsmeyer offers the following as an example of how a standard of taste can develop out of individual subjective tastes:

Time is a reliable filter for passing fads and poor judgments, and the verdict of history cancels out individual foibles and produces a universally valid consensus concerning great art. Therefore, according to Hume, although rules of art cannot be codified, standards of taste do emerge as one takes a long look at human society and history and sees how that art which is best suited to please the human frame attains an unquestioned superiority over other, ephemeral creations.

Despite the apparent universal applicability of such standards of taste, however, the individual subjective elements remain the lifeblood of criticism; ultimately, that is why criticism remains an imperfect, mutable process. That is also why it remains fun, engaging, stimulating, and relevant, as the example of Pauline Kael clearly demonstrates.  To be sure, Keith Phillips says of Kael: “Even when she’s wrong, she’s worth reading. I can’t think of any higher praise for a film critic.”

Kael resisted being standardized.  Not many, for example, will share her distaste for Stanley Kubrick.  But she still championed films such as Bonnie and Clyde and directors such as Godard whose qualities have indeed informed the standard of taste adopted by today’s film critics.  So admitting the subjective nature of criticism does no harm to the practice.  In spite of that fact, a standard of taste still develops, and it is that standard which both shapes and challenges our own critical judgments, and vice versa.

So why practice criticism?  Why read it?  Art critic Jonathan Jones offers the following summation:

No [critical] judgment is final. No critic is right, necessarily. It’s just that criticism offers a more honest and realistic understanding of the deep strangeness of our encounters with these mysterious human creations called works of art.

Yes–and in the spirit of subjectivity, that answer is certainly good enough for me.

Further reading:

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4 thoughts on “Hume, Kael, and the Role of Subjectivity in Criticism

  1. I regret that my responses to these essays (or are they assays?) will never be as impressive or fully formed as your primary thoughts, Art, but if you’ll permit me to voyage…

    An element that somewhat puzzles me in trying to consider the nature of criticism is what it is intended to be/accomplish. Your struggle to define “taste” seems to hinge, appropriately, on determining common consensuses (or the impossibility thereof) of judgment– personal subjective reaction to a work. But I understand an equally important element of criticism to be analysis, the explanation and explication to others of what and why the work is doing what it does– how it is made, how it functions within its own and larger frameworks, how it fits within a historical context, how it handles symbolism/allusion/ethics/social-commentary, etc etc. This analysis aspect seems almost wholly objective and independent of questions of taste, and yet it should go a long way (though certainly never ALL the way) toward determining the viability and adequacy of a work. In effect, analysis should be able to answer every question except the most fundamental and elusive: “Is the work any good?” And yet because, as you argue here, that final element of taste/judgment is personal and subjective (albeit ultimately conducive to / determined by the democratic process), it seems that a critic’s capacity for successful analysis should prove at least equally, if not more, important than their capacity for taste and judgment. Analysis being objective, the critics themselves can more objectively be judged by their capacity for it; whereas, if taste is subjective, then its element in criticism becomes a matter of the critic’s capacity for persuasive [and even perhaps literary] argument. If one accepts the Keith Phillips quote above, then Kael was a successful critic because of her skill in presenting an argument, whether or not that argument agreed with common taste.

    Also, tangentially, the idea of taste as a democratic process seems like a metaphor worth emphasizing, an illustration worth enlarging, as it were. Obviously no metaphor can perfectly match its vehicle to its tenor, but if, as is claimed above, taste is actually the composite/conglomerate effect of a myriad spectrum/array of different tastes that eventually form a bell curve [god forgive this mangling of physics and maths] so that “common/shared taste” is the result of the most people sharing mostly the same sensations/reactions to a work, then isn’t that much like the process with which a [parliamentary] democratic [such as the U.S.] functions [or should function] in electing its leaders? The masses express their opinions about candidates (or works of art, both of which presume to speak for the masses), each voter’s opinion being unique and different but ultimately tending toward common, shared, or overlapping “ballots.” These votes are then given to the electoral college [which would, in the art world, be the critics] where another, smaller, more condensed / concentrated series of votes are given, again unique and different but ultimately overlapping enough to determine a majority “win.” Individual taste is subjective, but if enough individuals “vote” for a common judgment, and the critics agree with that judgment in their closer [and hypothetically more informed] analysis, then “universal taste” is made, no? It is not a platonic universal to begin with, but it becomes a [who else?] universal “after the votes are all in.”

    I want to be clear with this last metaphor that I am not advocating a direct-democracy system of strict IMDB-style “user votes” and nothing else to assign taste. Critics are necessary, I feel, for precisely the reasons discussed in my first point— to provide educated objective analysis and informed subjected judgments so that the “masses” can then temper their gut reactions with careful mental reflection. We trust [or pretend to trust] our legislators in the electoral college to use their superior powers of analysis and judgment to guide us toward the most qualified or most “good” examples of leadership in art and politics.

    William Wordsworth famously defined poetry as “the spontaneous overflow of powerful emotions recollected in tranquility: it takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquility.” Should not all art AND criticism involve just such a coupling of emotional response with intellectual analysis?

  2. P.S., I know you’ve certainly never advocated AGAINST an idea of criticism based solely on taste/judgment without the assistance of objective analysis; I just made such a fuss about it [analysis] here because it seemed important to keep on the table, at least nominally, while the central storm of subjective response rages. There’s little to debate about or against the merits of effective analysis, but that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be mentioned as an integral element of successful criticism. Right?

    • Kent, you have hit on one of the core issues that readers of Hume’s “Of the Standard of Taste” have struggled with for some time. Noel Carroll, in “Hume’s Standard of Taste,” argues that Hume has simply ignored the cognitive, analytical aspect of our responses to art. Carolyn Korsmeyer gives Hume more credit as an essayist. In her own essay, which I cite, she tries to fill in the blanks left by Hume; she looks to his earlier works to find what, for him, might be the elements in art that most people would find pleasurable–the “objective” elements that become the standards of common taste, that become the fuel for an analysis of an artwork as you describe it: “how it is made, how it functions within its own and larger frameworks, how it fits within a historical context, how it handles symbolism/allusion/ethics/social-commentary, etc.”

      I think Hume did not explicitly address the subject of analysis because his standard of taste allows for it implicitly while not relying on it as a prerequisite. In other words, though proper objective criticism can indeed pinpoint the exact qualities of an artwork that make it successful as such, a standard of taste will still develop around those qualities even in the absence of such reasoned analysis.

      I was careful to point out that criticism is a “rationalization,” and I do not mean that in a pejorative sense. I think that our judgments of taste are imperfect, as they not only reflect our learning about art and the standard of taste we may have adopted as our own (i.e., our capacity to engage in a reasoned analysis of an artwork’s objective qualities), but they also reflect our feelings, memories, values, etc. that can in no way be shared in the same combination by others. Criticism, which follows a judgment of taste, will attempt to sort through all of these varying reactions to explain (yes, objectively) why a piece is successful, why perhaps it isn’t, how closely it conforms to accepted standards, or why (in those happy moments of discovery) it might just be brilliant anyway, even if it does not. Criticism (the best of it) should be carefully thought out, well written, and well argued. But even the most rational, objective works of criticism will still contain traces of the initial subjective judgment of taste. And those traces become important for a different reason. Yes, they will show us an aspect of a work that we may not have considered, a reaction that may be foreign to us. But more importantly, they will show us the critic, the human being behind the argument. Criticism, I believe, is as much about connecting with other people in this manner as it is about showing us new ways to look at art. We are social animals, and criticism is a social activity.

      Pauline Kael is compelling because she wrote some tightly argued objective film reviews. But she also peppered those works (oftentimes heavily) with her unfiltered, subjective reactions. She showed us some exciting ways to look at movies, and she also showed us her soul.

      Relatedly, I appreciate your analogy between the democratic processes of art and those of government. (On my revised “About” page, I point out that I think “people adopt aesthetical systems in the same manner in which they adopt ethical systems.”) And your conclusion gets to the very heart of the matter in discussing any type of human standard or abstraction: “It is not a platonic universal to begin with, but it becomes a [who else?] universal ‘after the votes are all in.'”

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