I kept meaning to write this post, and here it is! I know this was covered before elsewhere on this blog; but that was before my time, so I couldn’t contribute my pearls of wisdom.
This is the theory I find most convincing about who’s to say what a good work of art is. I totally did not come up with any of it myself; I’m just describing what has persuaded me. It’s mostly lifted straight from Hume with one or two add-ons by some later people.
So, for reasons I outlined earlier, I am unwilling to admit that there is absolutely no right or wrong about whether a particular work of art is good or not. On the other hand, I don’t want to say a work of art’s goodness is entirely independent of the pleasure anyone takes in it. It would be mighty strange indeed to point to a work of art and say that even though no one likes it, feels any pleasure when regarding it, and gets nothing out of it, since it meets a bunch of rules it must be good art.
Both Kant and Hume agree with me. (That’s the problem with Kant and Hume. Never an original thought! They always just follow my lead.) That is, that there is is something ultimately subjective about art. If we had different cognitive systems, what we construe as beautiful would be different. It is only good if someone likes it. But…there is also something universalizable about it. People can say that a work of art is good, and be right or wrong. Both also agree that there is no single quality all works of art must have, or a rule all artowrks must follow, to be good. The good artworks are too amorphous a bunch to categorize this way.
So here’s what Hume says in a nutshell. (Here‘s where he says it – it’s not long at all, if you are so inclined.) What makes a work of art good is simply if the true judges of art, on the whole, like it. The opinion of any one judge may be wrong. It’s their joint view that counts. And what it means to like of art is to enjoy regarding it for its own sake. So we’re not counting porn, where a true judge may be enjoying it plenty, but his goal is his sexual gratification. His goal and pleasure should just be the regarding of the work of art.
So who are these true judges? Not necessarily the people who currently decide what’s in the canon, although plenty of them may be. Here’s what it takes to be a true judge:
- Your sense organs should be acute and able to pick up slight differences (think the people who can listen to a piece of music and identify every instrument, every amplification and recording method, etc.).
- A lot of experience regarding that particular kind of art.
- A lot of practice comparing different works of art to one another.
- The ability to rid oneself of any personal, unique reasons for liking or disliking a work of art – such as personal dislike of the author, etc. (with an exception for morality – you don’t need to rid yourself of your morals to like a work of art). This includes trying to overcome the prejudices of the culture in which you happened to be born.
- Good sense, so you can tell if the work of art meets its intended goal.
To this I would add:
- Emotional maturity
- Psychological insight
So Hume doesn’t address an important question. Why should anyone who is not a true judge care what the true judges say? (I think he doesn’t address this because he is really just trying to do some conceptual analysis – i.e., trying to define what exactly it means to say a work of art is good, and is not really concerned about settling disputes. But others disagree with me on this.) Why should one try to cultivate one’s taste to be like the true judges’, if it isn’t already like them? Why not just like what you like?
The answer lies in a famous line from John Stuart Mill:
Of two pleasures, if there be one to which all or almost all who have experience of both give a decided preference, irrespective of any moral obligation to prefer it, that is the more desirable pleasure.
All the criteria of the true judges point to those who have more experience of works of art and the pleasure they give. (Except possible sense, but that seems intuitive.) Emotionally mature and psychologically insightful people have more experience of the different varieties of emotion and psychological states. Basically, these are the people who have experienced the most variety of pleasures, and are best equipped to give an opinion on each one. (I, for one, feel far more confident to give an opinion on movies, of which I’ve seen a boatload, than music.)
So people who meet these criteria might have something to say about a work of art that might be worth listening to, even if we don’t disagree. You can improve on a lot of these.
Hume thinks that the preferences of different ages and temperaments shouldn’t matter (so tragedies are not better than comedies) – I agree.
One thing I’m not sure about is the test of time – should we wait and see if a work of art can survive the faddishness of a given moment? Or should we think that a local, contemporary audience makes the best judge? I could see that one going either way.
So, in short, when we say a work of art is good, we mean the true judges like it. The true judges are not necessarily the same people who actually get hired in academic departments and newspapers, or who donate money to create new wings of museums. The opinion of any one judge may be off on a particular work of art. And we may not have enough information to determine if any given work of art is good.