The Meaning of Lists

In an interview with Spiegel in 2009, Umberto Eco discusses an exhibition he curated at the Louvre and its accompanying text, which he edited, called The Infinity of Lists.  Of lists, he says:

The list is the origin of culture. It’s part of the history of art and literature. What does culture want? To make infinity comprehensible. It also wants to create order–not always, but often. And how, as a human being, does one face infinity? How does one attempt to grasp the incomprehensible? Through lists, through catalogs, through collections in museums and through encyclopedias and dictionaries. There is an allure to enumerating how many women Don Giovanni slept with: It was 2,063, at least according to Mozart’s librettist, Lorenzo da Ponte. We also have completely practical lists–the shopping list, the will, the menu–that are also cultural achievements in their own right.

Yes.  And another cultural achievement is the top ten list, dreaded as it is by Roger Ebert.  Film critic Andrew O’Hehir, in introducing his top ten list for 2011, writes:

Crafting an annual top-10 list is no doubt a ludicrous exercise, and I’m not promising I’d have given you the same answers a month ago, or will give you the same ones a month from now. But over the years I’ve grown to appreciate the fact that it forces critics to stop hiding behind relativistic weasel words and high-flown rhetoric, and forces me to defend the murky and individual question of taste. The fact that I–ever so slightly–prefer “Coriolanus” to “Drive,” and “Mysteries of Lisbon” to “Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives,” definitely tells you something about me as a person and a movie critic.

Indeed, as I argue in a previous post, we cannot help but respond to films subjectively.  Thus, on its own, any list of one’s preferred art objects is going to tell you more about the person making the list than about any universal criteria by which the art objects should be judged.  It can be valued for that reason alone.  Even if accompanied by strong rational arguments in support of the list’s ranking, this says nothing of its objective worth.  Perhaps this is Ebert’s gripe, as he claims (correctly) that lists “have next to nothing to do with the quality of movies.”

That being said, I believe these types of lists are valuable for another reason. Taken together, from a wide variety of critics, they can help us reach a usable standard by which to judge artworks.  The BFI Sight & Sound list of the top ten films of all time (the one list that even Ebert appreciates) is a good example of how this can be done effectively.

Every ten years, the BFI surveys a large number of film critics from all over the world and asks them for their individual top ten lists.  From these individual lists, the BFI compiles the definitive list of the top ten films of all time.  The ten films on this list become exemplars of the standard of taste exhibited by this group of critics.  I doubt that any two individual lists are identical (and you can view all of the individual lists if you do not believe me), but Citizen Kane is continually deemed the standard of excellence in cinematic art.  Kristin Thompson recently wrote a compelling argument against this fact, but even she concedes that Kane’s status appears to be cemented for the time being.  That’s not to say that tastes won’t change; they will, just as they did back in 1962 when Kane dethroned Vittorio De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves for the number one spot.

The BFI list and others like it are especially valuable for those who do not usually swim the murky waters of film criticism or know which critics might offer the most trustworthy opinions. For them, an aggregated “best of” list is an easy way to discover films that might be worth watching.  The two biggest review aggregators that will offer such lists are Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic; in addition, Movie City News always creates a beautiful year-end chart from aggregated top ten lists. What the review aggregators do is take a film’s multiple reviews and give the film a score based on the critical consensus.  Thus, individual tastes can be merged into a single standard of taste, just as with the BFI lists.  People who want to get in on the conversation surrounding film would do well to follow these aggregators, check out their lists of the best reviewed films, watch the films, and then read the reviews.  In this way, one will learn the current standards of taste among critics, learn the arguments in favor of these standards, discover the critics with whom one’s own standard of taste might align (or misalign), and finally, if one wishes, take an active part in the community of criticism.  That is when the true fun begins, for with each new critic (if his or her opinions are heard and deemed valid by the rest of the community) comes a new chance to push the standard of taste in new and exciting directions.

Roger Ebert claims that “all lists are meaningless.”  Clearly, this statement is untrue.  Lists can be full of meaning, as long as there are people who read them and utilize them.  In the least, they are expressions of the tastes of those who have made them, whether an individual or a critical community.  Thus, they can tell us something about a person in the former case, and they can tell us something about critical standards in the latter.  In either case, the word “meaningless” does not apply.

Further reading:

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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:

How Food Can Be Art: A Discussion of Taste (Part 7 of 8)

The Aesthetic Meanings of Food and How Food Can Suggest Death

In “Disputing Taste,” Carolyn Korsmeyer writes:

[…] taste is usually considered a rather simple sense that performs only a basic function: to inform the organism whether or not a substance is safe for ingestion. Other than this, taste is often regarded by both philosophers and scientists as a relatively rudimentary sense with limited cognitive significance. Its necessary but restricted instrumental value and its dim epistemic capacity sustain the low rank allotted this sense. (Korsmeyer “Disputing Taste“)

We have already demonstrated how taste can have an epistemic capacity. Now we must show that it can have meaning beyond its instrumental value–that its epistemic qualities can extend beyond flavor properties to ideas like death.

In “Delightful, Delicious, Disgusting,” Korsmeyer illustrates how food can carry meaning that can inform an aesthetic experience: “Foods and their tastes may represent and express significance in a distinctly ‘aesthetic’ fashion, and one can elaborate the meanings that foods embody with all manner of examples from the whimsical to the profound by considering Easter eggs, candy canes, birthday cakes, ceremonial meals, and religious rituals” (Korsmeyer “Delightful, Delicious, Disgusting” 148). The meanings that are carried by the items mentioned above (which, of course, are learned through experience of them in their proper contexts) indeed show that food, like architecture, for instance, can carry meaning beyond its instrumental value.

True, one can object that the meanings of the foods listed above are conveyed through multiple senses, primarily sight. Of this fact, Korsmeyer states:

To me this is not an indication of a poverty of symbolic possibility for food but an illustration of the unremarkable fact that the experience of eating involves more than one sense.  We have already invited smell into the company of taste, fully considered, and texture as well, which makes use of the sense of touch.  The crunch and slurp of food involves hearing (there are Japanese dishes for which audible slurping is prescribed), and the preparation of a table is carefully attuned to visual pleasure. (Korsmeyer Making Sense of Taste 127-8)

That being said, there are in fact foods whose meanings are conveyed primarily through taste.  Korsmeyer uses the example of the seder plate, which is part of the Jewish Passover ceremony.  She writes of the meanings of the foods on the plate and how those meanings are conveyed through the senses:

The bitter herbs signify bondage and sorrow in Egypt.  This symbolic value does not depend on visual properties; the herbs metaphorically exemplify sorrow by means of their sharp taste.  The small bowl of salt water denotes (and indeed chemically replicates) the tears shed in captivity, and the parsley, indicating the renewal of spring, is dipped in the salt water and eaten.  The charoses symbolizes with its texture the mortar the Jews used in building temples for the Egyptians, and it is eaten in combination with the bitter herbs (which may be horseradish or a sharp-tasting green herb).  (Korsmeyer Making Sense of Taste 138)

Thus, foods can convey meaning beyond their instrumental value through all of the senses, even the bodily senses of taste, smell, and touch.

However, to return to the subject at hand, if the instrumental value of a food’s taste is “to inform the organism whether or not a substance is safe for ingestion,” is it possible to cultivate a taste for unsafe foods–foods that can potentially suggest death? Korsmeyer argues that it is.

To demonstrate the cultivability of “unsafe” taste, Korsmeyer writes:

Consider objects with tastes that offend the senses at first, very hot spices and peppers, which burn, and alcohol, which sickens. All of these substances one can learn to like through practice and maturity (for the tongue and its receptors develop into adulthood), and once these tastes are cultivated, substances without them appear bland. (Korsmeyer “Delightful, Delicious, Disgusting” 155)

Clearly, to return to Kant for a moment, a person’s immediate reaction to a taste sensation is not the final word. Brillat-Savarin was correct. There is stage to tasting that allows one to consider the taste beyond the physical act of sensing it. And if one has made an effort to cultivate an aesthetic taste for foods that by nature repel and offend the taster, then this person can potentially consider the taste as delicious. This clearly conforms to Hume’s view as well and explains how different cultures can have such oppositional tastes in both food and art. The beautiful and the delicious truly are in the eye (or the tongue) of the beholder. This also relates to how the aversive art form of the tragedy might have been cultivated in ancient times.

With tragedies in mind, are there foods beyond the merely unpleasant and offensive that can suggest death in perhaps more profound ways? Indeed, Korsmeyer writes of meals that consist of “[…] another animal whose form is still recognizable, not having been chopped and shaped into hamburger or pâté” (Korsmeyer “Delightful, Delicious, Disgusting” 154). This type of meal reminds one immediately “[…] that to sustain one’s life takes another” (Korsmeyer “Delightful, Delicious, Disgusting” 154).

Taking this a step further, Korsmeyer writes of dish which consists of “[…] a live fish, still gasping on the plate, surrounded with tasteful symbolic decorations that mimicked the look of the bottom of a sandy ocean” (Korsmeyer “Delightful, Delicious, Disgusting” 157).

However, there is one dish in particular that suggests death in a way that should even satisfy Jonathan Jones:

Perhaps the most notorious example in this category is fugu, the puffer fish, so poisonous that in Japan, where it is commonly eaten, only a licensed chef who know what organs to remove and how to get rid of the toxins is permitted to prepare it. Yet reportedly, the most sophisticated diner is also the one prepared to risk the most to savor the taste of fugu, for by request enough of the neurotoxin can be left in the fish that the diners’ lips and tongue are slightly numbed, reminding them of the presence of danger and death. (And sometimes overwhelming them, for this is a dangerous meal and every year people die from eating fugu.) (Korsmeyer “Delightful, Delicious, Disgusting” 156)

Undoubtedly, this dish suggests death in ways at least equal to (if not greater than) the most terrible and horrifying artworks exhibiting mortality.

References

Next:

Conclusion

Further reading:

How Food Can Be Art: A Discussion of Taste (Part 6 of 8)

Contemporary Examples: Cultivating Tastes for Cilantro and Slow Cinema

(Note: this section is a modified version of an earlier blog post titled “Taste: A Lesson from Food Science.” However, the “Challenges” section at the end is new.)

In a recent article in The New York Times, Harold McGee writes about the divisive nature of cilantro. The article begins: “Food partisanship doesn’t usually reach the same heights of animosity as the political variety, except in the case of the anti-cilantro party. The green parts of the plant that gives us coriander seeds seem to inspire a primal revulsion among an outspoken minority of eaters” (McGee). Only a year after this article was published, another debate began online, this one among film critics. Dan Kois had published an article, also in The New York Times, titled (interestingly enough) “Eating Your Cultural Vegetables.” In this piece, Kois discussed his dislike of slow films–the ones that people are supposed to like, according to the prevailing critical standards (Kois). Many of his fellow critics responded. What is interesting in comparing the article about cilantro to the debate regarding slow cinema is that the science that explains why some people are so averse to cilantro also might explain why some people are so averse to certain types of films (or certain types of art in general), and this ties in directly to our discussion of Hume.

First, we need to know why “cilantrophobes” usually associate cilantro negatively with soap or bedbugs. To uncover the answer, McGee examines the chemical properties of the plant: “Flavor chemists have found that cilantro aroma is created by a half-dozen or so substances, and most of these are modified fragments of fat molecules called aldehydes. The same or similar aldehydes are also found in soaps and lotions and the bug family of insects” (McGee). He then asks: “Why is it only the evil, soapy side that shows up for cilantrophobes, and not the charming one?” (McGee).

To answer this question, McGee turns to Jay Gottfried, a neuroscientist at Northwestern University. According to Gottfried: “[…] the great cilantro split probably reflects the primal importance of smell and taste to survival, and the brain’s constant updating of its database of experiences” (McGee). McGee explains: “When we taste a food, the brain searches its memory to find a pattern from past experience that the flavor belongs to. Then it uses that pattern to create a perception of flavor, including an evaluation of its desirability” (McGee). The similarity to Hume’s view that experience is the basis for knowledge and aesthetic taste is obvious. McGee continues: “If the flavor doesn’t fit a familiar food experience, and instead fits into a pattern that involves chemical cleaning agents and dirt, or crawly insects, then the brain highlights the mismatch and the potential threat to our safety. We react strongly and throw the offending ingredient on the floor where it belongs” (McGee).

In other words, if a person has a history of getting his mouth washed out with soap but has not experienced cilantro as an ingredient in his daily cuisine, his brain will surely connect the plant negatively to the soapy taste from his sad database of experiences. The same goes for someone who has had an unfortunate bedbug experience but has never tasted a good cilantro-infused salsa.

This sounds eerily similar to film critic Manohla Dargis’s thesis in her New York Times piece on slow cinema (a response to the Kois piece): “Maybe some moviegoers who reject difficult films don’t […] have the necessary expertise and database patterns to understand (or stick with) these movies” (Dargis). Thus, when a person perceives a new object (e.g., a slow film or cilantro), his brain refers to stored patterns in his database of experiences, and this information will determine how he reacts. In my above example, the stored pattern involves the person getting his mouth washed out with soap. Obviously, his reaction to cilantro will be a negative one. In Dargis’s example, the lack of any stored pattern whatsoever when faced with a new film will produce an equally negative reaction–the person will feel incompetent.

Similarly, when a person familiar with narrative-driven Hollywood films experiences a “slow” art house film for the first time, he cannot so easily apply his stored “narrative” database pattern. As a result, his brain will not make the necessary positive associations that would lead to a pleasurable reaction. According to film critic David Bordwell: “If you don’t have other schemas in your mental kit, your perception is just lost” (Bordwell).

The good news, according to Gottfried, is that “[…] every new experience causes the brain to update and enlarge its set of patterns, and this can lead to a shift in how we perceive a food” (McGee). In explaining how he himself came to appreciate cilantro, he reports:

[…] I love food, and I ate all kinds of things, and I kept encountering it. My brain must have developed new patterns for cilantro flavor from those experiences, which included pleasure from the other flavors and the sharing with friends and family. That’s how people in cilantro-eating countries experience it every day. (McGee)

In An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, Hume writes: “Custom, then, is the great guide to human life” (Hume An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding 178). In other words, as was demonstrated in “Of the Standard of Taste,” we learn only through our recurrent experiences. Thus, only by repeatedly experiencing films that utilize a slow, austere cinematic language will we be able to learn how to appreciate them and, as Dargis writes, “[…] find pleasure in unlocking their meanings” (Dargis).

If a person were to experience a slow, austere film just once in his life, he would not have enough information to create the necessary database pattern in his brain to appreciate such a film on a future encounter. Similarly, according to Gottfried: “[…] if I ate cilantro once and never willingly let it pass my lips again, there wouldn’t have been a chance to reshape that perception” (McGee). From this contemporary example, it is clear that the opinions of Hume and Brillat-Savarin are more applicable to the ways in which food and art are actually experienced than the opinions of Kant and others who try to separate the two experiences using faulty metaphysical presumptions. As Korsmeyer summarizes: “Just as studying different traditions of music sorts unfamiliar janglings into patterns of harmony and rhythm, so acquaintance with other cuisines accustoms one to try, to tolerate, and even to like foods that were once dubious and unfamiliar” (Korsmeyer Making Sense of Taste 90).

Challenges

Some challenges to the theory outlined above, that taste in food and taste in art are learned and applied in a similar fashion (which allows for the possibility that food can be art), are:

  1. That certain people might be genetically predisposed to be unable to taste certain things (e.g., phenol)
  2. That food allergens, foodborne illnesses, and properties such as toxicity can provide real physical danger to a taster
  3. That food cannot mean anything beyond its nutritive value

Brillat-Savarin addresses the first challenge when he writes:

This circumstance explains how it is that of two guests seated at the same banqueting table, one displays the liveliest pleasure, while the other seems to be eating only under constraint; the reason is that the second guest has a poorly equipped tongue, and that the empire of taste also has its blind and deaf subjects. (Brillat-Savarin 39)

Indeed, the limitations found in certain individuals regarding the sense of taste are no different in regard to the development of a standard of taste within a community (though admittedly of a markedly different quality) than the limitations that can be found in individual senses of sight and hearing.  In other words, that certain people might be deaf or tone deaf does not necessitate the disqualification of music as art; therefore, the fact that certain tastes are not available to every taster should not disqualify food.  Phenol tasters, for example, can develop their own standard of taste in food independent of the standard developed by those who cannot taste phenol.

Of the second challenge, there are definitely potential health hazards and physical dangers in food and the act of ingestion that are probably not present in visual and auditory arts.  Korsmeyer touches on this when she writes:

But tastes of food and drink may be savored for their own presentational qualities regardless of nutritional value (though not regardless of their toxicity, which is a reminder of the greater “bodily” nature of this sense.  One can see appalling things without dying from them.)  The discriminative capacities of tasters may be developed in ways similar to the capacities of eye or ear for the connoisseur of painting or music. (Korsmeyer Making Sense of Taste 107)

Korsmeyer makes it clear that, even though tasters must be conscious of harmful elements such as food allergens, foodborne illnesses, and toxicity, this perceived limitation actually has no bearing on the development of a taster’s “discriminative capacities,” nor on the development of a standard of taste.  Toxic or harmful elements will simply be avoided, just as sounds that humans cannot perceive or that ring too harsh against the eardrum will be avoided in music (though there are exceptions, as we shall see).

Finally, as for the third challenge, Korsmeyer takes up the issue in an essay titled “Delightful, Delicious, Disgusting.” In this piece, using the ideas found in Hume, she demonstrates how food can carry meaning beyond its nutritive value. Not only that, she demonstrates how food can even suggest profound ideas, such as death, thus answering the criticism of Jonathan Jones.

References

Next:

The Aesthetic Meanings of Food and How Food Can Suggest Death

Further reading:

How Food Can Be Art: A Discussion of Taste (Part 5 of 8)

Hume: An Empirical Approach to Taste and Beauty

David Hume, in strengthening the use of sensory taste as a metaphor for aesthetic taste, shines light on further problems with Kant’s philosophy. He begins his essay “Of the Standard of Taste” by noting the variety of opinions of aesthetic taste: “The great variety of Taste, as well as of opinion, which prevails in the world, is too obvious not to have fallen under every one’s observation” (Hume “Of the Standard of Taste” 103). Indeed, this observation alone should be enough to counter Kant’s belief in a universal beauty.

As an example, imagine that two people are viewing the cubist painting Guernica by Pablo Picasso. One person is a Spaniard who lived through the Spanish Civil War; the other is an American expert in modernist painting. Will the two people view the painting in the same objective way? Certainly not: the Spaniard might have an emotional reaction based on the content of the work, which depicts through its abstract forms a battle that he has personally experienced; the art expert, on the other hand, will experience the work more intellectually, comparing it to other works by Picasso and other modern artistic depictions of war. Sure, the two people (if their senses are behaving normally) will both sense certain objective qualities of the painting (e.g., its size and color). However, they will both read the same painting differently–even if they both find it beautiful; it will present each with a different meaning. They will not share a standard of beauty because they are approaching the painting from different cultural backgrounds and different levels of experience and learning.

To be sure, if a third person was to view Guernica, and this person has only ever experienced representational painting, the unfamiliar cubist forms would surely strike him as ugly. Like the Spaniard and the art expert, he has applied his rational faculties and compared the painting to others he has experienced, but because he lacks experience with abstract painting, he cannot locate the beauty that Kant would argue is inherent in the artwork. Why is this? Hume answers: “Beauty is no quality in things themselves: It exists merely in the mind which contemplates them; and each mind perceives a different beauty. One person may even perceive deformity, where another is sensible of beauty; and every individual ought to acquiesce in his own sentiment, without pretending to regulate those of others” (Hume “Of the Standard of Taste” 104). So, to use the cliché, beauty is in the eye of the beholder. The cliché is so commonplace now that it is difficult to grasp just how dangerous this idea was to the foundations of Western philosophy in the eighteenth century. If beauty as a value originates in the subject, then the subject becomes the source for value. Our values, both moral and aesthetic, are no longer out there in the realm of being, waiting for us to grasp them with our reason and intellect. Instead, they are readily available through experience, custom, and exposure.

For Hume and many other empiricists, knowledge only comes from sense experience. From this, it follows that aesthetic taste can be learned and cultivated as one expands her experiences and level of learning. And this goes for taste in food just as it does for taste in art. (Hume certainly makes it a point to highlight the analogy between sensory taste and aesthetic taste.) And not only can taste be cultivated, but a standard of taste can develop within a community that shares a cultural background and similar levels of experience and learning. This standard can develop for art and food alike, and a person with the proper attributes and experiences should be able to judge both art and food by the same type of standard. Hume writes: “Strong sense, united to delicate sentiment, improved by practice, perfected by comparison, and cleared of all prejudice, can alone entitle critics to this valuable character; and the joint verdict of such, wherever they are to be found, is the true standard of taste and beauty” (Hume “Of the Standard of Taste” 109). Here, Hume can be talking about wine tasting as much as art criticism. As Korsmeyer writes: “Properly cultivated, the sense of taste can detect fine distinctions among different kinds of food and drink, just as the good critic is able to discern subtle qualities in works of art” (Korsmeyer “Disputing Taste“). Below is a contemporary example of how similar art and food actually are.

References

Next:

Contemporary Examples: Cultivating Tastes for Cilantro and Slow Cinema