Aesthetics and Philosophy of Art for Everyone

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young Bence Nanay

What follows is a guest post by Bence Nanay. Bence is Professor of Philosophy and BOF Research Professor at the University of Antwerp and Senior Research Associate at Peterhouse, University of Cambridge. He is the author of Between Perception and Action (Oxford University Press, 2013) and editor of Perceiving the World (Oxford University Press, 2010) and he just published a book on aesthetics, Aesthetics as Philosophy of Perception (Oxford University Press, 2016). His current project in aesthetics is about the role of mental imagery in our engagement with art, supported by a 2-million Euro ERC grant. You can follow him on twitter @BenceNanay.

Aesthetic Naïveté

Let’s start with some touchy-feely and somewhat embarrassing confessions about my youth. Continue reading


Matter of Taste

What follows is a guest post by Iskra Fileva. She is Assistant Professor of Philosophy at University of Colorado, Boulder.

A pianist I know said once that she enjoys listening to various types of non-classical music but would not tell this to other classical musicians for fear of embarrassment. Gourmet chefs, similarly, sometimes confess to eating fast and other plain, non-gourmet food (Google “What do chefs really eat after work?”). According to my – admittedly cursory – investigation, pizza, ramen noodles, mashed avocado on toast, and Wendy’s fast food top many chefs’ after-work favorites. Again, many of the chefs in question appear to have opted to remain anonymous, and in any event, they would not put such confessions on the restaurant page. Finally, people with exquisite literary sensitivity have probably, at some point or other, gobbled up a crime story or a fantasy novel, or else taken pleasure in watching well-done B-movies. The question that interests me here is what this type of hedonic eclecticism and the pressure some apparently feel to keep eclecticism secret (nay, to treat it as a “dirty” little secret) tells us about taste.  

It may help to begin by asking why a classical pianist may be sheepish about enjoying non-classical music or a gourmet chef apologetic about eating comfort food. There are, of course, many possible answers. Perhaps, the high-end cook is afraid that confessing to liking low-brow cuisine would be bad PR. After all, many people are suspicious of the value of connoisseur-approved entrées (the merits of expensive wines tend to give rise to even higher doses of skepticism) and one may, not unreasonably, expect that cynics who hear a Ritz-Carleton restaurant chef admit to relishing plain food will become even more cynical. And of course, the chef’s job and livelihood crucially depend on curbing this type of skepticism. 

There is probably some truth to this suggestion, but it’s hardly the whole story. No parallel explanations are available in the case of the classical pianist or the reader with wide-ranging tastes. I have never heard anyone express skepticism about classical music (opera may be an exception here) and claim that, really, Beethoven is no big deal. As for literature, people do, occasionally, say disparaging things about some greats of the literary canon – Shakespeare and Joyce come to mind –  but it is not clear why any reader would care much. For in contrast with the chef, a reader’s job and livelihood do not depend on what others think of the books she reads. But if fear of inviting skepticism regarding the worth of some high-brow endeavor is not the answer, what is? 

One option is the following: people may be concerned that if they get caught seeking lower quality pleasures, others will conclude they don’t really have a refined taste after all, even if they consume quality art or food, etc. much of the time. One may be wary of arousing the suspicion that one is just pretending to like high-end cuisine or Brahms or Joyce or what have you – but that what one really likes is rock, comfort food, and the writing of Steven King. (It is interesting that this type of suspicion always tends to run in the same direction: a person known to enjoy mainstream novels but caught listening to a Virginia Woolf book on his mp3, say, is unlikely to be seen as pretending to enjoy the popular literature he normally consumes). Suppose this type of fear is the explanation. What explains the fear itself? I wish to suggest that at the root of it must be the belief that others assume it to be impossible to genuinely enjoy a variety of things, that they believe that if you truly appreciate the highest quality, you wouldn’t have anything less. 

This assumption is not altogether unreasonable. Eclecticism lacks internal unity. Much like an outfit that consists of a variety of mismatched elements, liking multiple different kinds of thing may seem to cut against the grain of style and good taste all on its own. For style is, to a large extent, a kind of harmony – a way in which all the different elements fit together in a unified whole. Lack of style has much to do with the absence of this type of harmony. Moreover, it is probably true that if one deeply appreciates something, one is unlikely to revel in certain other things. Thus, I would be surprised if many classical musicians voluntarily choose to listen to simplistic and repetitive pop songs, for instance. I would conjecture that classical musicians will tend to find such songs, well, tedious: once a person has learned to expect from music a certain level of complexity and sophistication, she is almost bound to have those expectations frustrated while listening to the typical, familiar 3-cord song. But it would not be astonishing in the least bit if it turns out that a significant number of classical musicians are keen on jazz, alternative rock, tango, or a number of other styles. When it comes to taste, things stand much the way they do with character: character has some unity, but it is also complex and partly fragmented. Thus, while a kind person will not kill for profit, she may well refuse to help someone in need because she has too much on her own mind, say, or is too exhausted. That’s all the unity we can hope for in the realm of character. As with character, so with taste. This is my first point.   

My second point is this: a person’s tastes are more like a collection of objects than they are like an outfit, and this largely obviates the need for unity. The reason a person’s shirt, scarf, and coat must match if she is to be seen as elegant is that the different parts of the outfit are worn and perceived simultaneously, and there is pressure to make them look like a coherent whole, each complementing the rest. But one’s aesthetic preferences are not, similarly, meant to be satisfied all at once, and there is no reason to try and make the set perfectly coherent and unified. Different preferences are satisfied at different points in time. Sometimes, a classical music lover may want to listen to music that’s energizing and, perhaps, allows one to dance to it. A temperamental Latin piece would be perfect for such an occasion, and no classical music piece will be good unless, perhaps, the type of dance one craves is ballet. Or she may be too tired to appreciate the complexity of a Mendelssohn piece or be in the middle of an intimate conversation with a significant other and think that the perfect music for the occasion is soulful singer-songwriter music. Something similar is true of overworked chefs: they admit to just being too tired to appreciate gourmet food after a long day of work and so crave simple meals in the evening.   

Note that the question is not only why many feel pressure to hide taking guilty pleasure in simple things. I am sure not all feel such pressure, and some famous musicians, chefs, etc. have publicly acknowledged indulging in such guilty pleasures. The question is why the multi-faceted nature of taste tends to surprise us. Our default assumption is that classical musicians will simply not take non-classical music seriously and that haute cuisine chefs will scoff at fast food.  

Why would anyone suppose that a person’s taste is either a set of unified preferences or else a set of preferences firmly anchored in the lowest common denominator, i.e., in the plainest and most ordinary among one’s tastes? Perhaps, we think that humans are simpler than they, in fact, are – that there are just a few things they really like. Maybe, we want our images of others to have an internal harmony so we can “make sense” of those others and know how to interact with them – what music to put on when they come over to visit, what gift to buy for their birthdays. Or maybe the higher pleasures are somehow more elusive and thereby easier to deny than the lower ones, sort of the way mental anguish is easier to deny than physical pain is.  

Whatever the truth here, the assumption of unity must be rejected on both theoretical and practical grounds. A person may have a taste for more than one kind of thing. Taste is like Walt Whitman – large and it contains multitudes. Moreover, it is good for a person to have a wide and diverse set of aesthetic preferences. In fact, it is necessary if she is to find just what she needs on a variety of occasions. 

Note that while I have been assuming here that some pleasures are of a higher order than others and also, perhaps, implying that there is such a thing as good taste (controversial views, I know, but permit me not to go into this), nothing important in my argument hinges on these assumptions. The presumption of unity in a person’s taste and the corollary expectation that someone who enjoys this and that kind of thing cannot and should not enjoy this or that other kind of thing are pervasive and held independently of one’s view of the hierarchy of taste.  A propos, I recall an occasion in high-school when some of my friends and I were in a music record store, while on a trip in a different city. There were two young men working in the store, and everything about their appearance screamed “heavy metal.” One of my friends was a Beatles fan (many years after the Beatles heyday), and she wore the Beatles sign as a necklace around her neck. One of the young men looked at her and said, “Excuse me, are you listening to Beatles?” “Yes,” she muttered. “Get out of here,” he said, half-joking, no doubt, but only half. He was thereby showing just the type of purism and snobbism my classical pianist friend feared her colleagues would show, but more militant. More importantly, he appeared to be working on the assumption that someone who listens to the Beatles can’t possibly enjoy Metallica or Iron Maiden and bands of their ilk. But that’s quite possible, actually. I don’t remember if it was true of the friend I just described – if yes, the store may have lost a customer – but I am quite certain it is true in general.   

Some people do have a very narrow taste, surely, and appear unable to enjoy a variety of things. I once knew somebody like that – a person with a narrow taste, that is. He had an officemate who was just the opposite of him: always finding something new to enjoy. This acquaintance of mine liked making fun of his co-worker and of the wide range of the other’s tastes but actually, I suspect he was just jealous. The human emotional and psychological  needs are much wider than any one style of art or other product can satisfy, and it seems to me that we all know, at some level, that it is good (healthier?) to cultivate taste for a wider variety of things. And the friend in question must have known it too.

If you are reading this, T, apologies for bringing up the story of you and your co-worker. I either did not have the guts or did not have the insight to say this back then, but perhaps, I will say it now: there is no reason to be disparaging while desirous. Better go find some new things to enjoy. I know you doubt there are such things, but really, I knew you well enough to know you are a large man and contain multitudes. You may doubt there are such things, but I would be astonished if there aren’t.     


Defense of Hume’s Sentimentalist Theory of Taste

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What follows is a guest post by Thomas Leddy. Thomas PhD Boston University 1981, is Professor of Philosophy at San Jose State University.  He specializes in aesthetics and the philosophy of art, but also loves teaching Plato, Kant, Nietzsche, and Dewey.  He regularly teaches a lower-division, general education, course (meeting an Arts requirement) titled “Introduction to Aesthetics.” The course serves about 240 students a year.  Tom has been a member of the American Society for Aesthetics (of which he has also served on the Board) since 1974.  His book, The Extraordinary in the Ordinary:  The Aesthetics of Everyday Life, was published by Broadview Press in 2012 and is currently being translated into Chinese.  He has also published numerous articles in the JAAC, the British Journal of Aesthetics, the Journal of Aesthetic Education, and Contemporary Aesthetics, as well as several chapters in books including most recently, on Dewey, in The Aesthetics of Key Thinkers. He also writes and edits the entry on Dewey’s Aesthetics in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Finally, he maintains an extensive and popular blog titled Aesthetics Today at that deals with issues surrounding the aesthetics of everyday life, art and nature.  He is always looking for ideas that establish the importance of aesthetics both in philosophy and, more generally, in human culture.

One of the best pieces out there on Hume’s “Of the Standard of Taste” is Nick Zangwill’s “Hume Taste and Teleology,” which appears in his 2001 book The Metaphysics of Beauty  (Cornell University Press), and originally appeared in the Philosophical Papers in 1994.  Zangwill represents Hume, I think accurately, as taking a sentimentalist, as opposed to a cognitivist, view of taste (Zangwill himself taking the cognitivist side.)  I continue to think that Hume’s piece is the most sensible thing ever written about taste, so, for now, call me a sentimentalist on the side of Hume. Hume’s great accomplishment was in being able to insist that “beauty is no quality in things themselves” and also that, in many cases, one person’s taste is better than another, so much so that the good critic has the right to condemn the taste of the other, or, better, to feel confident in trying to convince the other that he/she fails to understand that the very principles that makes him/her enjoy certain relatively simple works of art can also be applied to more complex and subtle pieces. Hume, of course, was famous for holding that there is a standard of taste, which is to say that in taste there is a kind of quasi-objectivity (as in the quasi objective truth that the apple I see is red, even though the color “red” is only the result of interaction between the light-waves coming off the apple and my ocular system). The standard of taste is, in his final analysis, the “good judge,” who has “delicacy of sentiment,” which, although it could be partly genetic, is mainly based on practice and comparison in a particular art form (e.g. dance in general, or perhaps even…and I think Hume would agree… something more specific like break-dancing). Delicacy of sentiment must also be supplemented by “good sense” which involves various applications of reason to the art works being analyzed (Hume, here is basically mirroring Aristotle’s Poetics), and this is never going to work unless there is a lack of prejudice. But the key idea (and the original one for Hume) is that of delicacy of sentiment, which involves being able to mark those elements of a complex or subtle work which are good, and those which are bad, thus leading to an overall judgment which could be called correct.  I am more of a relativist than Hume on these matters, but I won’t go into that here.  

Zangwill begins his essay by giving an excellent account of Hume’s overall argument, and then makes the brilliant claim that, when Hume writes, “There are certain qualities in objects which are fitted by nature to produce those particular feelings” [i.e. feelings of pleasure based on the perception that the object is beautiful]  he is saying that “some objects are apt by nature for pleasurable contemplation” (156), and is offering a “teleological account of aesthetics,” which would be naturally supported by evolutionary theory (even though such a theory did not exist at the time.)  At this point in his article Zangwill places somewhat more emphasis on what Hume calls the “test of time” than I would.  The test of time, viz. that the same Homer is appreciated today as in ancient Greek times, is merely, in my view, set up by Hume as a way to determine what he calls “the principles of art.”  Unfortunately, Hume only gives examples of such principles when he discusses Ariosto, who, he says, charms us not by his irregularities (on which point I think he is deeply wrong…. we like William Burroughs, for example, to a large extent, becauseof his irregularities) but because of “the force and clearness of his expression, by the readiness and variety of his inventions, and by his natural pictures of the passions” (Hume in Ross Art and its Significance, 2nd. ed., 81).  In short, he is good because he is clear, inventive and adept at realistic representation.  It is these principles that cause us to gain pleasure, Hume thinks, from Ariosto.  Moreover, Hume is willing to grant that, if the things he called faults in Ariosto, like his “monstrous and improbable fictions,” do generally give pleasure, we should just modify our “rules of criticism”:  “if they are found to please, they cannot be faults.”  It is not whether Ariosto has passed the test of time that is important; it is that the principles, or rather our list of principles, has stood the test of time, which is also the test of experience, hence allowing us to say that, yes, some of these so-called “irregularities” are in fact also principles.

Zangwill has some problem with the possibility of providing evolutionary underpinnings for the natural fit that Hume describes between our organs (eyes, brains) and aesthetic objects.  In doing this, Zangwill wants to make a big distinction between the beauty of a work of art and the pleasure we get from something like smoked salmon, only the latter really getting evolutionary sanction.  This is where, I think, Zangwill blunders, but not in an obvious way.  He says, “an explanation of the limited normativity that constrains judgments of the niceness and nastiness of food and drink seems easier to come by than an explanation of the more substantial normativity of judgments of beauty and ugliness,” (Z 159-60), and thinks it difficult to “even begin to give an evolutionary explanation of why Milton” is more naturally apt for pleasure than Ogilby.  The reason is mainly because what makes Milton better is not obviously “adaptive.” 

Part of our disagreement may have to do with the issue of the aesthetic status of such terms as “niceness” and “nastiness.”  (My contribution to this debate can be found in my book The Extraordinary in the Ordinary: The Aesthetics of Everyday Life, Broadview, 2012a and in my 2012b article, “Defending Everyday Aesthetics and the Concept of ‘Pretty’  Contemporary Aesthetics here) Zangwill writes:

“Like judgments of beauty and ugliness, judgments of niceness and nastiness are based on sentiments of pleasure and displeasure.  But they lack the normative aspirations of judgments of beauty and ugliness.  If you do not like smoked salmon, you are not lacking in the way that you are if you do not appreciate the beauty of the Alhambra” (135).

It is true that we do not debate over niceness quite as much as over beauty, but debates there are. And yet there are as many debates in the realm of food as in the realm of architecture. Our feelings of beauty at the Alhambra may well be more profound than our delight in excellently prepared food items, but there are interesting exceptions, for example, that Parisian restaurant meal that, to crib from Dewey, was “an experience.” Of course, such an experience is not seen as just “nice.” But Zangwill wants to exclude this whole domain from beauty and relegate it to the realm of the nice and nasty.  On my view,  “nice” plays an important role in the aesthetic continuum that goes from the pretty and nice to the beautiful and the sublime.  (More criticisms of Zangwill on this and related points can be seen in my 2012a, 147-8, 168 and 191-2.)

Zangwill is basically arguing that the parallel Hume is drawing between taste in wine and taste in literature is irrelevant.  But it is not.  This line of thinking leads him to the following, in my view, outrageous statement:  “As far as food and drink go, we can be more or less finely discriminating, more or less well practiced [etc.]….So it seems dubious whether any of these virtues [listed by Hume as the virtues of a good judge] …can do the job of earning normativity in the case of the sensibility whose products are judgments of beauty and ugliness.”  That’s just wrong.  The point is not dubious at all.  The contrast between niceness and beauty is just not as deep at Zangwill wants it to be.

Back to evolution: I suppose whether Zangwill is right all depends on what one means by “evolutionary explanation” and “adaptive.”  Obviously, if you are a philosopher committed to naturalism (for example, a pragmatist like myself), some sort of natural explanation, perhaps enhanced by a cultural/historical explanation (which ultimately is based on biology anyway), is needed, since no other kind of explanation is rationally conceivable.  Now if Milton is to be preferred to Ogilby it is because his writing better fits the “principles” (and, one should add, more amenable to the special pleasures of perception available to those who have delicacy of taste….consider this “the principle of enhanced value through subtlety” or “the principle of subtlety” for short….something I will build on later) and that these principles, viz. invention, unity, realist portrayal (and the pleasure we take in response to these), and subtlety must have some sort of adaptive value.  Actually, contra Zangwill, it is pretty obviously adaptive, even though evolutionary theory hasn’t yet gone far enough to fill in the details.  (How long would a hominid species last if it got no pleasure from invention, reality or perception of unity?)   Zangwill says, “it is difficult to say where the evolutionary story would begin” although he admits that it is possible that such a story could be told.  But beginning is not difficult at all:  it is the actual evolutionary account that is difficult.

Zangwill also observes:  “It might be objected that, given a teleological account, it is quite contingent that certain things are apt for pleasurable contemplation.  Hume thinks that normativity is in the last resort merely statistical, since it is just a question of what most human beings find beautiful over the long term.” (161)  Zangwill solves the problem simply by saying that sentimentalism (which Hume and I advocate) implies a “statistical conception of normativity.”  This seems to put Zangwill in the catbird’s seat since he rejects sentimentalism and a statistical conception seems implausible.  What he neglects (and perhaps Hume does too) is that the “principle of subtlety” which I set forth above is the most important principle of all, since, after all, it is the central idea in Hume’s final definition of the standard of taste (corresponding as it does to delicacy of taste), and the principle of subtlety is going to trump any statistical or majoritarian view of why things have stood the test of time.  Great works pass the test of time because they are appreciated by the “good judges” all of whom have, most notably, delicacy of taste.  The majority of readers may have long ago rejected the value of Homer (as is probably the case today) but the value of the work remains and can easily be seen by a “good judge” with delicacy of taste in literature, or more specifically, ancient Western literature. 

By the way, I just realized that I am strongly influenced in my rejection of Zangwill by a wonderful article by James R. Shelley, “Hume and the Nature of Taste,” Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 56:1 (1998) in which he finds a clear distinction in Hume’s essay between what he calls the “perceptual stage” of taste and the “affective stage.” Zangwill, basically, is not aware of the distinction and talks as though there were only a perceptual stage.  Shelley argues (and I will quote here at length, since this argument needs to be widely disseminated in order to avoid the kind of mistake Zangwill makes to the benefit of a cognitivism): that there are two principles of taste in the parable of the wine:  “one stating that the perception of iron in wine naturally causes displeasure in the human mind, and another stating the same thing with regard to the perception of leather.  The fact that the discovery of the key and thong silences the ridicule of the townspeople reveals the naturalness or universality of these principles, since were it not true that the tastes of iron and leather in wine naturally causes feelings of ‘deformity’ in the human mind (and not true that the townspeople realized this), the discovery of the key and thong would impute nothing about the merit of the wine.”  He goes on: “What separates the taste of the kinsmen from that of the townspeople, then, has nothing to do with its relative naturalness.  Each person’s taste is equally natural: each feels the appropriate pleasure or displeasure in accordance with the qualities in the wine perceived by each.  What separates the taste of the kinsmen is their perceptual acuity, their ability to detect qualities of the wine which are undetectable by the rest… According to Hume, there are, as it were, two separate stages involved in every judgment of taste:  a perceptual stage, in which we perceive qualities in objects, and an affective stage, in which we feel the sentiments of pleasure or displeasure that arise from our perceptions of qualities….he is claiming, in effect, that there are no failures at the affective stage…that although people do fail to perceive aesthetically relevant qualities in objects, once a quality is perceived an inappropriate sentiment never arises.  Thus, while everyone’s taste is not equal, given the dependence of taste on the perceptual faculty, everyone’s taste is equally natural, in the sense that no one ever feels an inappropriate sentiment base on the qualities perceived….it follows that none of the “defects”…of which Hume speaks…occur at [the affective] stage.”  (33)  and finally “if you perceive all the same qualities in an object that I do, but in addition perceive qualities I do not, you and I do not merely perceive the object differently:  you perceive better than I do.  And it is this, ultimately, which is the (chief) source of the normativity of Hume’s standard.”  (34)  Better perception is obviously an evolutionary advantage too.  (For example, sightedness is more adaptive than blindness.) 

Zangwill’s main problem with Hume, however, just comes down to the old debate between metaphysical realists and pragmatists.  He asks rhetorically, “If being better or worse does not consist in producing or being disposed to produce better or worse judgments or sentiments as the output of the sensibility, then what does it consist in?” (163)  He thinks that the goodness of a good judge can only be confirmed by whether or not he/she makes the right choice as to whether the object is in fact beautiful (that’s the realist position) and so, an appeal to the ideal of the “good judge” as having certain qualities, and as providing quasi-objectivity, is without merit.  For him, principles like simplicity and comprehensiveness are only valuable if they “hit on the truth.”  My James/Dewey pragmatism makes me wonder why Zangwill has this religious-like faith in this human activity-independent notion of “truth,” especially in thisrealm of human activity, i.e. the realm of art.  I think he thinks that if it works well in science then it should work well in art.  But that is not enough of a reason.  His second rhetorical question, “What can the virtues or vices of a sensibility consist in if it is not a disposition to produce correct or incorrect judgments or appropriate or inappropriate pleasures?” therefore holds no water with pragmatists like myself.  The really good reason why Hume came up with a quasi-objective theory of taste is that there is no conceivable epistemological ground for the metaphysical realist claim.  My own rhetorical question in reply would be, “How can we guarantee that a work of art is good independent of the work of the good judge?”  I recognize, however, that this debate, which is really deep and, in Zangwill’s case, would involve a thorough analysis of his claims for realism as developed throughout The Metaphysics of Beauty and elsewhere, cannot be resolved here.  A short point to make in that direction, however, is that from the pragmatist perspective, realism is probably true, but only in the James/Dewey pragmatist sense of “true,” not in the realist sense, and only to the extent that (and in the places in which) it works.  Again, that debate cannot be resolved here.  I hope, however, that I have sufficiently shown that Hume, and sentimentalists in general, have more to stand on than Zangwill is willing to admit.  

Problems remain, of course, for supporters of Hume — in particular, one that Zangwill points out, that people who seem eminently qualified as good judges in a particular art-form often disagree in a way that Hume’s standard of taste has no way to resolve (beyond just assuming that one of the pair has some hidden prejudice).  Zangwill calls this “Hume’s optimism.” (162)  I agree that Hume is too optimistic on the ultimate agreement of good judges.  But I think the problem is with Hume’s residual objectivism, which he shares with Zangwill, i.e. in thinking that there is a final or absolutely correct judgment, and thus final agreement amongst good judges at the end of inquiry.  Hume should have been a more consistent quasi-objectivist on this point. That is, in conclusion:  Hume has it basically right as long as his optimism is corrected from a James/Deweyan pragmatist perspective (Peirce, who was perhaps equally an optimist, at least about the “end of inquiry” in science, is deliberately left out here.)