Daniel Herwitz Guest Lecture -
Aesthetics & Criticism
Now suppose somebody thinks that either this work or this work, especially the Warhol because it's sort of clear it's not a work of art--suppose they think it's a fraud, or suppose they think it's not a fraud, it's just, sort of, like, nothing of any interest at all? How do you go about resolving that sort of thing? Suppose, in other words, somebody says, "I understand that Warhol is painting in this context." The context is many things. It's the context of the idea that people are beginning to realize that artworks are just another thing in the world, it's the context of Jasper Johns and all of that, it's the context of mass consumption, and the idea that in mass consumption, the real question is whether there's any real distinction between art and mass consumption and what it is, and whether there's no distinction at all. And suppose you say, I understand that Warhol thinks he's doing all of that, but I think it's a big nothing; I think it just doesn't do anything. I think it doesn't do any of those things. I mean, people can say whatever they want about things and they can sort of delude themselves, and it turns out that they're more charlatan than everyone else. Like the guy in Hollywood who produces Rambo/whatever, and says, "We have the greatest thing in the world; we have the greatest film; we have the greatest actors." Everyone says that in Hollywood and you just realize it doesn't mean anything...it's just, selling, that's all.
The thing about aesthetics is ... one talks about it as very important; it's a mish-mosh, it's a smorgasbord actually. There's various things that aesthetics is. I mean part of aesthetics is just simply the history of philosophy, part of the history of philosophy. You study the history of philosophy, and you find ...that in the history of philosophy, Plato and Aristotle and all these people have written on art, or some kind of art that interested them, poets, some art contemporary to their time. And they have had things to say about that art. The things they've said about art in general have very much been located in terms of the contemporary art of their time. Aristotle writes about tragedy, which by his day was quite highly developed and so forth; tragic Drama. And Plato writes about a certain kind of poet, a poet who used to come into Athens and would produce a kind of intoxication; almost a kind of a certain kind of mesmerization, would recite Homer and people would bet, become hysterical, intoxicated...and what Plato has to say about art, namely the fact that he deeply distrusts it in general, is very much, has to do with the kind of people who are around doing these things in his time.
So every Philosopher has responded to the Art of their time, to the things that were going on then, And they've formulated their comments about these things in terms of the way they understand these things, based on their own intelligence and their social values and whatever else, and in terms of their philosophical systems in general. So that's one thing aesthetics is, a good part of it. Aesthetics is also criticism, I mean people... architects, painters as I'm sure you know, write about something about the nature of their subject in a way that somehow sets the conditions for their own stylistic advances. For example, Le Courbousier, in wanting to defend or articulate or reflect on a revolutionary conception of architecture and its relationship to social values at the turn of the century, beginning of the century, writes a book on the foundations of architecture, but in a way that's very much closely related to sort of his own stylistic concerns, because it usually turns out, when an artist writes a book on art, that their art somehow gets justified. I mean an artist usually doesn't write a book on art in which makes it clear that what they're doing is totally out of it. And so that, it's somehow stylistically loaded, part of the debate about how one should see art, and so forth. All these things are aesthetics.
So having said that, the interesting thing to note is that, in fact, aesthetics, as a subject, arose in the 18th century, I mean--just a little history on the subject. Before the 18th century, people wrote about Art, as I'm sure you know. Alberti in the Renaissance wrote treatises on the nature of architecture and how architecture should express the city. People wrote about art, but there was no subject called "aesthetics," which makes one ask this question, which in fact I'll end up talking about at the end, what aesthetics has to do with art in the first place? Because people, wrote about art, they just didn't write
about something called Aesthetics.
Now when did they? They began writing about aesthetics in the 18th century. Aesthetics is a product of the 18th century, and in particular the very idea of "the aesthetic" comes from a certain kind of 18th century theory. That is to say, people had a certain view about what the beautiful things, what it is to find something beautiful is which is very much a product of the 18th century. It's important to know this because this view, while in a certain sense highly contested, is still very much with us, and so one wants to know its origin. Now what is this view? Originally, the word "aesthetics" comes from the Greek, the Greek word aisthetikos (or aisthanesthai)) just means sense perception, just to see something, to have sense perception.
So, the word aisthetikos gets adopted into the word "aesthetic" by a philosopher in the 18th century called Baumgarten, and he wrote a book called Aesthetics, the Science of the Beautiful or The Science of the Beautiful Aesthetics, or I forgot exactly what it is, even though I shouldn't have forgotten, I did forget. Anyway, he writes this book, and what does he say? He wants to take the word "sense perception" and use it to describe the experience of the beautiful things. Because he has a certain view about what it is to experience beautiful things. Now what is this view? Aesthetics has to be understood in terms of, in the 18th century, there's this basic distinction between finding something beautiful and being interested. The 18th century thinks of human beings as basically products of interest. Whatever they do is ruled by interest. So, what does that mean? It means you get up in the morning, and the first thing you do is get out of bed, and why do you get out of bed? Not because you want to, in particular, but because you have an interest in getting out of bed, namely... I mean, maybe you just get up and say, "Oh, what a beautiful morning" (sings), but probably you don't or maybe if you do, I'm very happy for you. But in any case, if you don't, if you don't, it means you get up because you have an interest, you have to get to class on time. And then you brush your teeth and you go on the freeway and this and that, all of which is designed. Your life is guided by the things you want to accomplish, your goals. And you study hard so that you can get good grades and learn things, and everything you do is guided by interests.
And when you're dealing with other people, in many ways your relations with other people--the 18th century will say--are products of what it calls interests. You know, you're making deals with people. "I'll study this, you study that--we'll get together-‑we'll do lunch--we'll have this." In L.A., people do this all the time. Anyway, then, all of a sudden the 18th century says in the midst of all this you see this rose, you're walking to school, this and that, and you just stop. And you look at this rose, and you perceive it with your eyes, of course, and with your nose you smell it, and you sense it, you drink it in. But the thing is, in a way, that is not in any way the 18th century things are guided by interests. You don't want to get anything from this rose; it's not going to ... it's not going to ... I mean one thing you might want to do, is you might wanna be interested in it because you know if you take this rose and give it to your teacher or your friend or something, you'll make a good "impression." But that's not really why you're looking at it; you're just simply enjoying it. "For its own sake," is the famous 18th century phrase, for its own sake, for no further reason.
So in other words, when you find the thing beautiful, the 18th century conceives of the idea of finding something beautiful as drinking it in and experiencing it free from all interests. You don't want to get anything out of it; you don't want to do anything with it--you just enjoy it as such. And you can understand how liberating that is, how important that is, in a life that's guided by getting and spending, to be able to do this. So this is the 18th century conception of aesthetics. The idea that something is beautiful is that it pleases you apart from all interests. In the formulation of Kant, the most famous and deepest aesthetician of this time and so forth, you can think of two ways that you might look at water, for example, in this 18th century view. You go to what is called, Hoover Dam, and you might look at Hoover Dam, all the water and you might say "... look at the power we have in that water." You're interested in it. How much, how much. You go to Mono Lake for example, and if you're from L.A., you think, well, how much can we drain this thing so that we can have sort of in this desert community called L.A. unbelievably green gardens, lush tropical plants, orchids in everyone's back yard. That's being interested in it. You want to exploit it, you want to get something from it. But, instead, if you just go to Mono Lake and you watch... these marvelous, what are they, salt pillars? Those algae pillars or
whatever they are, and the way they're set off against the mountains, and things that one often thinks of as formal qualities: textures, relations of space, design elements, and so forth. Then you're just enjoying it for its own sake, and that is, according to the 18th century, the experience of the beautiful. It is immediate, non-conceptual, and wonderful.
Now, this distinction it is worth pointing out as a fact of culture--as a fact of culture this distinction arises conjointly with the idea of the museum, in France especially and England and so forth. The idea that you get in France in the 18th century, of the distinction between fine art and useful art, it's related to this-- indeed it's part of the whole 18th century view. In the Renaissance, there's no distinction between fine art and useful art of the same order. I mean when Brunelleschi designs Il Duomo in Florence, whatever, he designs it in a way that should look beautiful, be airy and light, but he also designs it in a way that the tower should just be a functional engineering --sorry, the dome, should be an engineering marvel, should be bigger than that in Sienna, so you can say to Sienna, "up yours" basically, or whatever. And that for the Florentine is part of what makes it wonderful, and they make no real distinction between these things, between its fine... it's related to the fact that in the Renaissance there's no distinction between architecture and interior decoration. I mean Brunelleschi would do the outside of certain buildings and the inside of maybe some other ones. Daniel Cortona would do the inside of a palazzo and so on, you know, they're all doing insides and outsides and... because there's no distinction between decorating things, which makes it somehow look nice but is functionalist on this view, and the architectural structure which has a function.
So in the 18th century, you start to get this distinction between fine art and useful art. Now you could imagine how it would go: Paintings and sculptures and things like this are all fine art. It means that your interest in them, like the rose, is apart from all functions or interests. You just like them for their own sake, for the perceptual, pleasing qualities, the formal qualities they give you. Whereas, you can imagine what's on the other side. What would be on the other side? Useful arts. What would be a classic case of that? (Comment: Advertising?) Yeah, right, advertisement, or in the 18th century, it'd be more like, what graphics would be, yeah, in this century it would be design things, architecture, stuff like that. In fact, interestingly enough, they put furniture in, too, tend to put it in useful arts, well, because it's made to be sat on...but in fact, if you look at 18th century furniture, some of the most useful stuff you could possibly imagine, nobody does anything with it, it just sits there basically, like in the Getty in Los Angeles or something.
In any case, be that as it may, this distinction is very much with us. The idea that to think that something is beautiful is to think of it as non-conceptual, as functionless, to think of yourself as treating it for its own sake, in its deepest formulation. Then I'll go on, to the stuff about the objectivity of taste. In its deepest formulation, this 18th century idea is that when you're taking pleasure in this rose for its own sake, what you're really doing is, is you're giving yourself this symbolic capacity, the capacity, or the situation, or you're occasioning a situation where you can symbolically get in touch with what it's like to treat someone as a person and not just an object. Because in the 18th century, especially with Kant, who's certainly one of the great philosophers of the West and the deepest articulator of this. For Kant, what you're doing when you're...the one kind of thing that you do treat apart from all interests, or you're supposed to treat apart from all interests, is people. I mean, Kant's idea is, when you treat someone morally, you treat them as an end, and not just as a means. You don't just manipulate; it's a pretty obvious idea you don't just manipulate them, you respect them. And if you're respecting them, Kant thinks, you're treating them as autonomous, which means, you're treating them for their own sake, for their own interests, and so forth. Now Kant's idea is that when you experience this rose, and you're treating it just for its own sake, just to enjoy it as such, what you're really doing is you're symbolically taking a pleasure in your capacity to treat other people as ends in themselves. So, art becomes the reflection, the mirror of one's moral capacities.
I have a teacher named Ted Cowan who I admire very much, and he wrote a nice paper which, just to give you one way that this idea could be developed in which he says that sports fans are a little like that, too. Because, if you think of a sports fan--he lives in Chicago and he's a White Sox fan or whatever, and they consistently lose--but it doesn't seem to affect a fan. I mean a real fan wants their team to win and feels bad if they lose but, the fact that they lose and even in the case of the White Sox, who have every expectation that they will lose continuously, you're still a fan. So, it's the idea of, he thinks the idea of being a fan is partially the idea of having a situation in which you symbolically allow yourself to attach yourself to this group, independent of whether it succeeds or fails, just to take pleasure in your capacity to be attached to other people in a certain way, which suggests that this 18th century view has profound implications. I mean, it's worth saying that this 18th century view arises also in the context of revolutions, of the emancipation of the citizen--of the American Revolution, which you say everyone's equal, everyone's worthy of respect, everyone has the same rights. And so, the idea of treating a person and a work of art as autonomous, is related to this idea of treating everyone equally. It's what the 18th century sort of has to offer the world, not just the 18th century.
Now, the other side of the conception of aesthetics is a completely opposing view, and both of these views are very much with us, and it's important to realize that to a certain extent, in my opinion, everyone believes both these things to a certain extent; it's the contextual view you find it in Hegel actually, and everyone who comes after Kant and rejects him--Schiller, and many other people. It gets its clearest and nicest formulation in my opinion in certain art historians of this century, especially Ernest Gombridge in his book, Art and Illusion and Other Things Like This, wonderful books, actually. kind of a contextualist view. That view is, it's simply wrong to think of a work of art as being something which can be understood and appreciated apart from all functions or uses. That works of art, like everything else, exist and are produced in the commerce of society and the commerce of culture. That you can't begin to understand a work of art without understanding the context that it inscribes. I mean, it's one thing think that you can appreciate a rose without knowing a whole lot, or without connecting it to culture, I mean, it just seems natural that human beings appreciate roses, and sunsets, and things of that nature. And that they don't appreciate certain other things like, I don't know, forks--plastic forks from fast food restaurants, and garbage on the streets, and things like that. You don't have to know a lot not to like that, actually, but when you get into more complex things like works of art, like, for example, like for example, Picasso's Woman with Book, or -- think of your favorite work of art, some painting by Raphael, or something in those cases--it does seem that unlike the rose, you have to know a lot even to begin to get started. You have to know about the culture, you have to know about the art historical context, etc., etc.
Gombridge's idea is that works of art are sort of like languages--I mean, just as you can't understand a language without understanding a bit of the culture that underlies it, that gives it content and meaning--so you can't understand a work of art without the same thing. I mean, as you probably know and, to those of you who have learned second languages, and I'm sure most of you have, sometimes it's very different, disparate languages and stuff, you can't understand a language beyond a certain point without understanding something about the people who speak it and what their social relations are like. Learning the language itself tells you all of that, but you also have to learn other things that will give the language content. I mean, for example, when you go and learn Italian in Scoladante Alegani in Florence, you learn hand gestures-- that's part of it, you know? You... actually it's part of Italian. You learn stuff like that, and all these things, you know. You learn all this stuff and of course, to learn that is inherently to learn something about what it means to be an Italian, obviously--- a certain kind of energy, a certain kind of operatic boisterousness, a sense of attachment, a sense of vola, a sense of volubleness, volatility, and many other things like that. I gather that when you learn Indonesian-- although I don't know Indonesian, my friends tell me this--that there is a whole set of words in Indonesian having to do with relations and respect between one person and another person. Now it's clear you really wouldn't know how to use those words unless you had some sense of who's respecting who, and for what reason, and how, and how you say that. Do you say it too meekly or do you say it some other way?
It's a kind of ideology, you know. High art, low art, fine art, functional art, art craft--it's sometimes related in another way that it's formulated. And for example, Collingwood. The idea that craft products are just products of use in which technique rules the thing and art isn't a matter of craft. As if somehow Michelangelo could have done what he did if he didn't have craft. Then immediately Collingwood, after saying that the essence of art has nothing to do with craft, says, in the same paragraph/Principles of Art, "Well, of course, no real work of art could be produced if somebody didn't have a lot of craft." But, you know it's sort of like tripping yourself totally or whatever. So the distinction becomes overdone and overwrought, and so forth. Anyway, this contextualist view becomes that to which it is opposed. Just as you can only understand a language in understanding the culture that it inscribes. The way the people are who embody the language, the use of the words, the way that the words are inscribed in personal relations and so forth. You can only understand a work of art when you have a kind of context. I mean if you ask the question, "Why should anyone bother to study art history in the first place?" It's not a stupid question, actually. I mean the answer might be, "Well, you get to go to nice places and do research." Like Paris and Florence as opposed to--if you're an anthropologist, you get to go to places like New Guinea or whatever. Depends on what you like, whatever. In any case, but, of course what Gombridge will say is art history is required to make works of art comprehensible. Because if you don't understand the context, the art historical problems, the formal considerations, the cultural background, you can't understand what kind of representation is the work, what the thing means and so forth. Well, I'm going to just run roughshod over that and just leave it for the time being. The point is, we have this split between the view of work of art as pleasing, apart from all concepts, and the view of works of art as, you have to know certain things to find them comprehensible. Because they inscribe a certain kind of context, and you need to know that.
And I'm going to talk about the objectivity of taste. The interesting question of the objectivity of taste and again, this question in many ways arises in the 18th century as, well, something like this: It arises at its most interesting formulation with a philosopher named David Hume in an essay called "Of the Standard of Taste." "Of the Standard of Taste." Wonderful essay, actually. What Hume asks is, "Is there a standard of taste? And how can you prove that? And what would it mean to prove that?" And of course, it's something we debate all the time. Whose taste is better than whose? Is that a disgusting thing to ask, or, or what? And it seems crucial in the context of one's dealing with objects, that, on the one hand, one wants to be able to say something like, some people know more about works of art than others. Some people really know about Picasso, and some people don't know so much. Some people were in music school for ten years, and they really know Bach, and other people don't. Their taste is better.
On the other hand, one wants to be able to say that in a way that doesn't produce revolting forms of elitism, like, "you're no good" and "you're good." "Your taste matters, and yours doesn't; we're the ones who know what's right," and that sort of thing. The hard thing is to be able to do both these things. And of course, as often as not, people who have really set themselves up as people who take art very, very seriously have very easily lapsed into a kind of enormous arrogance. And elitism about things.
Clement Greenberg is a very, very serious art critic, one of the most important there was about abstract expressionism. But it turns out that if you read Clement Greenberg totally seriously, there's ten painters in the last twenty years who are any good, and everyone else is second-rate, so to speak, and there's exactly one person who understands all of these people. Needless to say, Mr. Clement Greenberg is the man. And you know it becomes a self parody. And how do you avoid that? That is the question. Hume himself is a kind of elitist, actually, in the end. But the things he says far outrun that.
Now, the question about the objectivity of taste can be formulated like this: Is there a fact of the matter about what's right and what's wrong? That is to say, is there a fact of the matter that Picasso is a better painter than, l don't know, some other painter; you decide yourself, actually. Is there a fact of the matter that Chaplin was a far greater filmmaker than, than anything with the word Rambo in it, or something like that. And that, is there a fact of the matter that the greatest parody of Sylvester Stallone is Sylvester Stallone, and that is the definition of Sylvester Stallone, or not? And... is there a fact of the matter
that, for example, the cathedral in Chartres is more beautiful than the wrappers that you get from Quarter-Pounders when you throw away the Big Mac and you keep the wrapper, and you sort of let it sit for a couple of days? And how far does this go? Should you be able to say, or is it stupid to say, that Picasso is better than Matisse, or Matisse is better than Picasso? That ... should you have to announce something like, "There is only one serious painter," as Clifford Still himself once announced, "in all of the West." Namely: Clifford Still, and he's a quite marvelous painter. I mean, next time you're in San Francisco go look at his work in that museum, they're wonderful but. .. I mean, but, the statement is, you know, it's one of these macho statements that somebody from Oregon who comes out of the woods and paints huge redwoods in abstract forms or whatever would make, or whatever, and so on and so forth. So how, at what point does objectivity lapse into kind of an absurdity?
Of course, by the way, notice that it's exactly the same question about people and people's characters. I mean, one wants, one wants to be able to say, and it's crucial to be able to say, that some people are better overall than other people. Mother Teresa's better than Adolf Hitler. I mean, who would disagree with that? But on the other hand, the kind of person who goes around ranking everyone's character is revolting to everyone. You know such-and-such is better than such-and-such, and this person is a far better philosopher than this person, and this person is slightly worse...you know, that sort of thing. So when do you--academics love to do this, you know?--yeah, exactly.
I remember once this friend of my mother's actually wrote her autobiography, for no apparent reason other than she wanted to write her autobiography. And she, she described her children as quote "in the lower end of the superior range" unquote. I mean, so how do you avoid something like that? Now that question about "a fact of the matter"; think about the very idea of a fact of the matter -- and this is sort of where the philosophy comes in, to a certain extent. I mean, when one says that it's raining outside, you assume that there's a fact to the matter. I mean if I, if I said you know it's pitch black outside right now, you would say you're you're crazy, or you're joking, or you need glasses, or what drugs have you taken, or something. So everyone assumes there's a fact of the matter, more or less. When you say that there's a fact of the matter, that you're here now, you assume that it would be ridiculous to doubt such a thing, and anyone who doubted it was just playing games with you, you know. When you say that there's a fact of the matter, it tends to be because you tend to believe, without even thinking about it, that there is some kind of perspective in terms of what you can decide what's true or false. When you say there's a fact of the matter about whether it's dark out or not, what's the test of that? Well, obviously your eyes, right? I mean you go out, and you look, or if if you are having trouble with your eyes, you ask your friend, and you just trust them. So everyone assumes there's a standard, a way of telling.
Now, if you say there's a fact of the matter in aesthetics about what's good and what isn't, there has to be some equivalent way of telling. And then, of course, it raises the classic question, "Well, who's to tell?" Whose opinion matters? The people in the New York Times? Your friends? In art, it's not so clear. There aren't these clear ways of being able to, it seems, decide once and for all, what would be the test, what would decide what the fact is? Who's to tell?
Hume formulates that question. "How can you figure out who the true judges are? The true judges of taste of what's beautiful and what isn't?" Now Hume formulates this question, "Who can you trust, who is the true judge of taste?" To be related to the question, how can you prove that there's a standard in the first place? Because those who doubt that there's a standard of taste do so for a reason. They say "Well, you can't really say that there is a standard of taste, everyone as their own view of it, after all taste is en gustibus non disputandem est, the kind of thing that everyone has their own opinion about." That's what it means to speak of taste; I like coffee; you like tea. We should decide which is better? It's what I like that's all. I like dogs; you like cats. I like the mountains and you like the ocean. And I like going to the South of Europe, and you like going to, I don't know, Colorado, and this and that, and everyone likes what they like, and why should we debate such things? That seems to be what taste is all about.
And then you ask, well, why should there be a standard? And of course, the question of the relationship between standards and control becomes all too obvious. Is a standard just a political fact that white men are imposing their taste on the rest of the world? Or that some other kind of person is imposing their taste on the rest of the world? Or the people with the money are sort of imposing their friends on the rest of the world? Or whatever, and of course, it's often like that, and we all know that, right? I mean just read the New York Times and you'll realize or read, as my teacher loves to say, the New York Review of One Anothers' Books -- and all of that and so forth.
So, on the one hand, there is enormous skepticism. Now, what Hume does and this is his dialectical maneuver, as it were, is he at once tries to tell you who these true judges are, and convince you that there's a standard of taste. And what he essentially tells you is that the people who he tells you something about tell you who a true judge of taste is. He says there's five criteria: They have strong sense; delicacy of passion; they've practiced; they've made comparisons; and they are free of all prejudice. That's what he says.
"Strong sense" means they treat the world vividly, you know, they're excited by the world. It makes an impression on them. They notice things. When the light has changed they are shocked, as opposed to, you know, it's just changed, and I didn't even notice. "Delicacy of passion" means something like, according to Hume, subtlety. Finesse, the ability to notice subtle internal things and all of that. The person who can notice subtle flavors in foods and changes of form in paintings and stuff like that. "Practice" is obvious. He says that, in order to be able to really refine your taste, you have to practice a lot. You have to do a lot of painting classes, figure drawing, etcetera, etcetera "Comparisons" are equally obvious. I mean, if you can't compare things, you won't have a sense of how good they are. If the best, if the best painting you ever saw was one that your cousin did, you know, you might think it's pretty good. And indeed, it might be pretty good. And then when you see Picasso and Matisse and Raphael, you'll have a different view of it, that's all. If you think that, for example, the most exciting melodist in the world is Beethoven, then you'll hear Mozart and Schubert, and you will realize, Beethoven is not a melodist, not that that's problem with him. You can't do all things. Beethoven is concerned with compression and development, whatever, if you want to put it that way. Schubert and Mozart produce melodies that seem utterly effortless and magnificently ravishing at the same time. So you have to make these comparisons.
Finally he says you have to be free of all prejudice. Namely, you can't go to a work of art and say, "Oh, that's a painting made by a woman. It's gonna be another feminist whatever," you know. Or you can't go to a painting and say, "Oh, you know, that's a painting made by a Marxist, it's just gonna have a bunch of political claptrap, etc. etc. Or you can't say, "Oh, the medieval age never produced anything," you know, or "Shakespeare was so messy," or something like that. You have to have an open mind. Now, Hume thinks these are ideal requirements. I mean he makes it very clear. Nevertheless, he thinks we all know from practice, that people, up to a point, can fulfill such criteria, up to a point. Hume thinks, and he's truly a conservative, it is the joint verdict of these judges which establishes taste. The test of time. No person is free of all prejudice. No person has practiced everything. But then, when you, over time, get generations and generations, the prejudices of the young, ah, the prejudices of one generation gradually get ironed out. Bach at first is thought of immediately as being an old fogey and forgotten. Only sixty years later does Mendelsohn resuscitate him, but resuscitates him in a hopelessly romantic way. And then only fifty years later does Wanda Landowska go back to the harpsichord and play him, again romantically. But with intense, and so forth. And then over time, he gradually gets established.
So Hume believes in the conservation of opinion, that over time, humanity has made a judgment on things. And that, that is the standard of taste. It's a powerful idea. It's precisely the legal model of taste. Because it's the idea that truth is a matter of precedent. It is exactly what people believe in the law. That in the law you have these precedents, and juries apply them. And gradually over time the laws get refined and bad laws get dropped out and better laws get brought in and juries are prejudiced, but gradually they get erased and so on and so forth. It is that sort of idea. The conservation of truth through precedent. And the confirmation of precedent. It's the big picture.
Now, it's clear then that Hume is a conservative. One further thing about this and then we go into a whole bunch of questions that it raises, which is why it's so interesting, namely, that Hume's legal model is also precisely the way he defends the fact that there is a standard of taste. He says, "How would you defend, or this is behind his essay "the fact that the laws and the constitution of this country are and should be the standard of legal practice." What kind of skepticism could you have about it? Well you might say, as critical legal theorists say on the east coast, that a law simply is a bourgeois projection which sort of defends class and justice, you know. The laws make it look like everyone's treated pretty equal, but in fact, what they really do is just facilitate a bunch of practices, namely, if you are poor and steal $50, you get to go to San Quentin. And if you happen to steal $200,000,000, and you're rich, mainly like Ivan Bosky, then you get to go to a tennis camp for three years or something. That sort of thing. That is one kind of skepticism.
Anarchy is another kind of skepticism. There shouldn't be a standard. Everyone has their own view of what's right and wrong. There shouldn't be laws. It is like saying anarchy and taste; everyone should have their own taste. Now, Hume says, in order to defend the idea that there is objectivity of taste, you cannot deny that there are all kinds of problems with this standard.
In any case, so this is the way Hume's standard works. We have this legal model and basically even though no judge is perfect over time, we must trust in the idea that there is sufficient objectivity there. Now, there are many things to ask about this, that's why it is so rich to think about. First of all, go back to this problem of elitism. Hume was 18th century--actually a Scotsman--but his friends were all basically Englishman. Everyone except Hume would have been Oxford or Cambridge educated. They all would have read the same books. They took it for granted that they were the ones who knew what taste was, and they knew what the objects were and they all drank wine and read books, and went and looked at the same pictures, and so on and so forth. And there was no problem. But what about the issue of elitism here? How does one avoid this within Hume's model? Because if you can't, then Hume's model is just out of touch with reality.
And so the question is, what do you have to, how do you relate these various perspectives on taste? It is related to another question, obviously. Namely, the enormous variety of objects and how you compare them. How do you compare? If you have a standard of taste supposedly you are to be able to compare not just Beethoven and Mozart, but other things, things Hume didn't think about.
Hume basically thought about a whole bunch of things which go together. Fine wines, nice port, Beethoven, various works of literature, and things like that. Everything somebody does in an eating club or something. However, how do you compare, for example, Irish folk music and Beethoven? Or plain chant and jazz? Maybe you actually can, there. Or, how do you compare for example, Amish quilt-making with the paintings of Sonia del Layea? Or with Marcel Duchamp? It seems quite impossible or ridiculous that you should even do this. They seem to be such different things. Raising the question, of course, whether there is anything like a standard of taste, or whether a standard of taste is simply a way of ignoring all these other things that everyone else is interested in? And how you put together this pluralism of objects; because elitism always comes out when you pick a few things that you have decided are the things that matter, and you just exclude everything else. That's exclusion and that is what elitism is, I suppose, and so, how do you avoid that? The further question which is related to, I mean which is very interesting, is when you enlarge from culture to culture. These things were not available in Hume's day. But how do you then compare, for example, Buddhist chanting with Beethoven, and Japanese paintings, or Chinese ink brush paintings, with...actually you can compare those with a lot of things, but how would you compare them with ...I don't know, Joshua Reynolds or something? How do you compare all the diverse arts from the world with one another? What kind of standard of taste is that? It raises many questions. Presumably, in order to be able to do this correctly, one has to be able to say, that it's not like you are ranking everything. It's rather to compare them is simply to be able to have a conversation about what matters in what thing and what matters in the other thing. And to be able to let them reflect off one another for good or bad. It can't be anything more than that or less than that. It has to be a recognition of diversity.
Now, that raises one more thing that Hume is talking about and then maybe I will stop actually for a while. You will notice in Hume's criteria, there is one thing that is clearly missing. Hume says a true judge has to have strong sense, delicacy of passion, have practiced, made comparisons, and be free of all prejudice. There's no mention of the word knowledge. Apparently, the true judges don't need to know anything. I mean Hume couldn't have believed that. But it sort of is conspicuously lacking. Now, if you believe and this is of course the 18th century view because to appreciate a rose, do you have to know anything? No, you don't. You just find it beautiful if you have the right sensibilities. And the idea is that these things are just more subtle forms of roses. Call them rosaries, whatever.
In any case, however, if you take Gombridge's view and the contextualists view of art, it's clear that in order to appreciate, you have to know a great deal. You have to know its context. You have to know its cultural background, its uses, its functions. You have to know the form of life it inscribes, the way people are, and so forth. You have to know a great deal. So, for Gombridge and the 20th century, knowing something about art or works of art, will be absolutely explicit in being able to have the right kind of taste. And if that's true, it raises all these questions about how you can know all the art of other culture, because in order to be able to compare objects from one culture with objects from another culture, in order to compare Buddhist two-tone chanting or Japanese Koto music with Mozart, you have to be able to know something about Japanese Koto music. And then what do you have to know, to know about that? Do you have to be a Japanese? Do you have to live in Japan for ten years? Can you study in conservatory? Can you go to Cal Arts or something where they probably have someone who teaches it? Or somewhere in Ohio or something? Is that enough? Or what? And so that, it just simply raises enormously complex questions about cultural relativity. I think there are very interesting things to say
about that. But it is the kind of question that is raised. Rather than actually speak to that, though, I want to say one more thing, and then I think I will stop because it goes on. And then we'll have some discussion. Which is: It is important to note in the 20th century this discussion gets extended to art the objectivity and standards for art. You will notice in the 18th century, Hume was talking entirely about taste.
Now he doesn't actually say exactly what taste is. But that is all right, because it is sort of hard to say what taste is. However, it is clear taste is a matter of feeling things. It's emotional. It is a matter of feeling pleasure, taking pleasure, enjoying certain kinds of things. It is not cognitive in particular. At least not overtly cognitive. However, it raises this question of what taste has to do with art in the first place. And in this century, these questions of objective standards of judgment become explicitly raised about issues of art. Because in this century, it is artworks from around the world which became problematical. Duchamp and all of this sort of thing, also. In this century, the cultural history of this century is very much that you get that the avant-garde has produced a set of works which fundamentally challenge you to wonder if they are works of art or not. And people fundamentally disagree about this. Well, Duchamp exhibits a urinal in the um, ...museum in Paris--a urinal. He asks you to figure out, what he invites, is to shock you. To, to put your ordinary conceptions of what art is in relief, and force you to figure out whether you should take this object seriously and how?
When John Cage makes a piece, which is a four minute piece, in quotations, "It is 4 minutes and 33 seconds of silence" In which the composer just turns the score, he invites you think about whether this is just a joke, a fraud, whether only a fool would take this seriously, somebody who's been sold a bill of goods, like a piece of land in Florida which turns out not to be there or something, or whether there is something profound about it that you haven't fully understood yet, and how would you ever know that? You see, these questions about what art is and how you figure that out, and who's to tell, and and how you would decide that become explicit as a cultural fact in this century. And are therefore of interest for aesthetics. I mean they are of interest for aesthetics.
Furthermore, the interworld communication that is our current state of being has produced similar kinds of questions. How do you, how do you decide whether certain things are art or not? Things like Buddhist two-tone chanting; it is part of meditation practice in Tibet, and they chant these two tones. One from the nose and one from the lower diaphragm... and so forth, and they just sort of chant it and it comes and goes and various stuff like that. I mean, should you see that as music or not? How would you ever decide such a thing? It raises the fundamental question of "what is music?" Whether there is an objective way of deciding this. Is it just your own opinion? Or what? ... now, there's many, many things there raised by this. And I just want to say one thing, which is, one shouldn't expect, as the 18th century did, that all of these things can be fully decided. Any more than one can expect that in morals you can say exactly what's good and what isn't. For example, there is a composer who's a disciple of John Cage named Lamont Young. And he did a piece which is one pitch simply done with variations in dynamic centambre. I can't do it. I mean, he has a nice ear and so it sounds nice and all. Now, you hear that, and first of all you might say to this person, " you are going to a concert, you're paying five dollars to hear this? Or $50 or something?" Whatever.
Above and beyond that, you ask yourself, how should you view that? And it doesn't seem to me that there should be any way that you should fully decide one way or another. People can disagree. For example, some people might see it as a meditative extension of what music is, a reduction of the basic fact of musical meditation, a kind of minimalist act of the basic materials of music being elaborated. Somebody else might say, it's a meditative exercise, but I'm not going to hear it as music. I hear it as distinct as music. Music sounds different to me. And then, it seems to me that neither of those reactions is immediately discountable. And the whole point of a work like that is that it can elicit borderline questions. It's on the borderline. And the interesting thing about such borderline things, which are crucial in the 20th century, is that they raise fundamental conceptions --questions about what the difference between these reactions are. One person hears it as music, and the other one doesn't. Does that mean they hear music differently? All of it? Does that mean they hear Mozart differently? And what is it to hear Mozart in the same way exactly? Is one of them simply deciding that they're not going to allow somebody into their group? You know, like enough is enough, I'm cutting it off.
You know, for example, you have open admissions. Students are coming in, and at a certain point you say, enough is enough; no more. Is that what it is? Or is it that somehow your ear just can't fathom that this should be related to something like Mozart? Is it that your ear can't fathom it, or is it that you're just prejudiced? It is hard to figure out all of this, and it is not clear whether there is an answer in the end. What is clear is that what's more interesting is to investigate what the differences in perception are here. And the other thing is, just because people disagree about certain things, doesn't mean they disagree about everything. Just because people disagree about whether Lamont Young is music, doesn't mean they disagree about whether Mozart is music. Indeed, disagreement is only intelligible against the background of sufficient agreement so that you can figure out what you are disagreeing about. If people disagreed on everything, there would be no disagreement, because there would be no discussion. And no way of being able to formulate what the disagreement is about. So, I just suggest that these are certain questions of fundamental interest in aesthetics. Because they raise the basic question of the objectivity of what a work of art is and how much there is to the objectivity, and in particular, what is it to find something a work of art?
To say that anything can be art is to give up the idea that the word art can mean anything. I mean, it would be like a religion that says everything is holy, you know. You can't do that. You are holy, I am holy, it's holy, whatever I do it is holy. Sort of like ... the kind of religion people invent in California or something, you know? Just be here right now, man. You know, it doesn't even matter how you do it. Of course, even in "be here now" they say it matters how you do it. You have to kind of get yourself free of various trouble and all of this. You can't be stressed out. So even there, there's a way to go wrong, to fail.
If you just allow that everything can be art, you don't know what you are talking about anymore. You just give it up, taking the word seriously. On the other hand, to think that all of a sudden you can define what art is and much of the history of aesthetics has consisted of attempts to produce these definitions of art...It's first of all, to make a mistake, if you can't clearly categorize the world, therefore the world has no structure at all. But second of all, it is to make this other mistake, namely, that it turns out whatever definition you produce usually just does violence to a lot of things that you know in your heart you should take seriously.
So the difficulty is to avoid both those things. A reliance on an excessive definition, "This is what art is and nothing else is art!" And, the other side, therefore anything can be art, and I am not even going to think about it.
In any case, that issue for art is no different from that issue of meaning and the issue of morals in general, I think for philosophy. It is sort of a large thing to say, but on the one hand, can one define once and for all what the good life is? Who's living it and who isn't? Can one define exactly what's good and what's bad once and for all? Is there definition of the good? I mean, that is a serious question, but if it's doubtful, does that mean that you should say, or "Oh everyone's-- whatever you do is good?"-- you know. Whatever you think in your heart is good, is good. Or, even more so, you know, everything is good-- whatever you feel like doing is good. That doesn't seem right either. So the key is to be able to establish some kind of standards for what's good or bad, some kind of objectivity, some kind of seriousness in applying the word; "that's good." But do so without a clear definition. And then the question is, how you do that? What you have to be to do that? What kind of experiences you have to have. That is Hume's question about the true judge. The true judge is the person who seems to be the right person to be able to do that, at least some of the time.
Daniel Herwitz Curriculum Vitae