Taste and Order

  1. The Antinomy of Taste.

Kant argued that judgements of the beautiful are subjective – namely, that they arise from, depend upon and express, our immediate perceptual apprehension of their object. In talking of the beautiful I am not telling you how the world is independently of my perception: I am expressing and rationalising that very perception. Aesthetic judgements concern the way the world seems – and indeed, that is contained in their name (aesthesis, in Greek, is the capacity for perceiving or feeling). And from this observation it is tempting to draw the conclusion that they are therefore subjective in another sense – of being without objective authority, mere impressions, saying nothing about their object even if they say a lot about the person who makes them.

        Here we reach the heart of the philosophical problem, and again it is Kant who saw it most clearly. On the one hand, aesthetic judgements are rooted in subjective experience, with an essential reference to how things seem to the person who makes them. Therefore they have no claim to objective authority. On the other hand, they proceed from an interest of reason, from a stepping back from all interests and an appeal to our shared nature as rational beings. Therefore they have a claim to rational authority. There seems to be a contradiction in the very idea of aesthetic judgement, a contradiction which Kant referred to as the ‘antinomy of taste’.

        Kant’s derivation of an ‘antinomy’ in The Critique of Judgement is influenced by a metaphysical theory that he had, concerning the tendency of Reason to over-step the limits of experience, and to make claims that are either nonsensical or overtly fallacious: hence his ‘Critique of Pure Reason’. Aesthetic judgement, like moral judgement, being an expression of an interest of reason, is therefore subject to the same temptation, to over-reach itself, making claims that conflict with its own premises. However, other 18th century authors had noticed the same tension within aesthetic judgement: Shaftesbury, for example (to whom we owe the original statement of the idea that taste is ‘disinterested’) and Hume (‘Of the Standard of Taste’). We want taste both to express our likes and dislikes, and the sensibility that motivates them, and also to claim a kind of authority for the judgements in which it issues.

  1. Community of Sentiment.

Some people dismiss that kind of argument by saying that the idea of an ‘interest of reason’, and the implicit appeal to a rational consensus is a mere illusion – maybe a product of 18th century manners, with no real power to outlast the culture that suggested it. Judgements of beauty are just expressions of approval, and that is all there is to it.

        But here we should pause to consider the facts. In a democratic culture it is true that people are inclined to the view that it is presumptuous to claim to have better taste than your neighbour. By doing so you are implicitly denying his right to be the thing that he is. You like Bach, he likes U2; you like Leonardo, he likes Mucha; you like Jane Austen, he likes Daniele Steele. Each of you exists in his own enclosed aesthetic world, and so long as neither harms the other, and each says good morning over the fence, there is nothing further to be said.

        But things are not so simple, as the democratic argument already implicitly admits. If it is so offensive to look down on another’s taste, it is, as the democrat recognizes, because taste is intimately bound up with our personal life and moral identity. As the 18th century moralists recognized, it is part of our rational nature to strive for a community of judgement, a shared conception of value, since that is what reason and the moral life require. And this desire for a reasoned consensus spills over into the sense of beauty. This we discover as soon as we take into account the public impact of private tastes. He fills his garden with kitsch mermaids and Disneyland gnomes, polluting the view from your window; he designs his house in a ludicrous Costa Brava style, in loud primary colours that utterly ruin the tranquil atmosphere of the street, and so on. Now his taste has ceased to be a private matter and inflicted itself on the public realm. We begin to dispute the matter: I appeal to the town council, arguing that his house and garden are not in keeping with the street, that this particular part of town is scheduled to retain a Georgian serenity, that his house clashes with the classical facades of adjacent buildings, and so on. We know from experience that there is much to argue about here, and that argument does not aim to win by whatever means, but rather to generate a consensus. Implicit in our sense of beauty is the thought of community – of the agreement in judgements that makes social life possible and worthwhile.

        Nor is this desire for consensus confined to the public realm of architecture and garden design. Think of clothes, interior decor, and so on: here too we can be put on edge, excluded or included, made to feel inside or outside the implied community, and we strive by comparison and discussion to achieve a consensus within which we can feel at home. Many of the clothes we wear have the character of uniforms, designed to express and confirm our inoffensive membership of the community that includes us. (The office suit, the tuxedo, the baseball cap, the school uniform.) Others are designed to draw attention to our individuality – women’s party clothes and so on – though without offending the proprieties. There is, here, a world of aesthetic signals, which are directly connected to moral claims that are made on us, and to our life as social beings. (Here we see why concepts like decorum and propriety are integral to the sense of beauty: but they are concepts that range equally across the aesthetic and the moral spheres.)

        And then there are the private arts like music and literature. Why are we so concerned that our children should learn to like the things that we regard as beautiful? Why do we worry when children like literature that is, in our eyes, ugly, stupefying, sentimental or obscene? Again Plato was a pioneering thinker in addressing such questions. He believed that the various modes of music were connected with specific moral characteristics of those who dance or march to them, and that in a well-ordered city only those modes would be permitted which are in some way fitted to the virtuous soul. (The argument occurs in the Republic.) This is a striking claim, and the concept of ‘fit’ implied in it is not properly explained by Plato. But the suggestion and the problem remain pertinent today. When someone stops his car next to you, and you hear the loud, relentless pulse of techno music inside, you ask yourself ‘what is he doing to himself?’ – not to his ears, only, but to his soul. Is this just snobbery? Or is this one of those places where aesthetic and moral thinking meet?

        All those questions suggest that once we admit the judgement of beauty into our worldview, we admit along with it a distinction between good and bad taste, and we give a place to that distinction in our lives which is of the first importance to us. Is this all founded on wishful thinking, or are the foundations for the judgement of beauty which will justify our pursuit of consensus?

  1. Subjectivity and Reasons.

Someone might respond that there is no real argument here – consensus, if it is achieved, arises in some other way, by emotional infection, rather than by reasoning. You like Brahms, say, and I detest him. So you invite me to listen to your favourite pieces, and after a while they ‘work on me’. Maybe I am influenced by my friendship for you, and make a special effort on your behalf. How it happens, I do not know – but if it happens, that I come to like Brahms, then this is not a rational decision, nor a rational conclusion of mine: it is a change comparable to that undergone by children when, having begun life by hating greens, they learn at last to relish them. An experience that repelled them now attracts them; but it was not an argument that persuaded them. A change of taste is not a ‘change of mind’, in the way that a change of belief or even of moral posture is a change of mind. This doesn’t mean that there are no extraneous reasons that might justify the change in taste. After all, there are extraneous reasons that justify the child’s change of taste, when graduating from burgers to greens. Greens are far more healthy, maybe part of a superior lifestyle, maybe even a spiritual improvement, as the vegetarians might argue. But those reasons are not internal to the change in taste, in the way that the premises of an argument about belief or action are internal to the change of mind. They do not motivate or compel the change in taste, as reasons compel a change of mind. They rationalize the change in taste, but do not bring it about – since it is not the kind of change that could be brought about by rational argument.

        We are in deep water here. But it is worth mediating on what actually happens, when you argue about matters of aesthetic taste. We have been listening to Brahms’s fourth symphony, say, and you ask me how I like it. ‘Heavy, lugubrious, oily, gross,’ I say. You play me the first subject of the first movement on the piano. ‘Listen,’ you say. And you invert the intervals in the right way, so I hear how it goes down one ladder of thirds and up another. You show me how the harmonies are also built up of thirds, and the second subject too – until after a while I understand that there is a kind of minimalism at work here – everything is unfolding from a concentrated seed of musical material, and after a while I hear this happening and then – suddenly – it all sounds right to me, the heaviness and oiliness vanish in a moment, and instead I hear a kind of breaking into leaf and flower of a beautiful plant.

        Or take another example: we are looking at Titian’s Venus of Urbino, say. You find it offensive – maybe for the reason that Mark Twain found it offensive, namely, that Venus is touching her sex. I respond that you should not look at it in that way. It is not ‘touch’ but ‘hide’ that is the right description: and the lie of the woman’s arm guides your eye away from her lower parts. As Kenneth Clark pointed out, in his celebrated study of the nude, the reclining Venus marks a break with antiquity, when the goddess was never shown in a horizontal position. The reclining nude shows the body not as a statue to be worshipped but as a woman to be loved. Even in this most provocative of Titian’s female nudes the lady draws our eyes to her face, which tells us that this body is on offer only in the way that the woman herself is on offer, to the lover who can honestly meet her gaze. To all others the body is out of bounds, being the intimate property of the gaze that looks out from it. The face individualises the body, possesses it in the name of freedom, and condemns all covetous glances as a violation. The Titian nude neither provokes nor excites, but retains a detached serenity – the serenity of a person, whose thoughts and desires are not ours but hers. Having argued in that way I have the good fortune to persuade you: no longer do you see her as touching herself; no longer does her body radiate sexual temptation in your eyes: on the contrary, the body is now fully personalised, not an object but a subject, filled with the personality and the freedom of the woman who looks out from its face. The aspect of the painting has changed for you; and it has been changed by argument.

        We can find simpler, and logically more transparent, cases of this kind of change in ambiguous aspects – like the celebrated duck-rabbit discussed by Wittgenstein. There may be a right and wrong way to see such figures – and I can reason you out of seeing a duck, where you ought to be seeing a rabbit. (Say the figure appears on a packet of rabbit food.) Such cases are not exceptional. On the contrary, in every perspective picture there are choices to make, concerning what size to attribute to which figure, and what distance to see between the various grounds. And the reasoning here will be like that which I gave in connection with the Titian: reasoning concerning the meaning of the picture, and how you should see the picture if the meaning is, as it were, properly to inhabit it.

        The criticism of poetry, too, follows this pattern. When you dismiss Blake’s ‘Oh rose, thou art sick: The invisible worm That flies in the night’ as a piece of evocative image-mongering, and I reply with a theory of its Christian iconology, and interpret the worm and the bed of crimson joy as lust and the soul respectively, you begin to hear the words differently – that ‘dark secret love’ has a new resonance, and one that is filled with ominous meaning for your own life. Such criticism is not just saying: here is what the poem means, as though you could now discard the poem and make do with my superior translation. The poetry is not a means to its meaning, as though a translation would do just as well. I want you to experience the poem differently, and my critical argument is aimed precisely at a change in your experience.

        The argument can be mounted for architecture, for sculpture, for novels and plays; it can be mounted for natural objects too, such as landscapes and flowers. In every case we recognize that there is such a thing as a rational argument, which has a changed perception as its goal. Moreover, any argument that did not aim at a changed perception could not be considered as a critical argument: it would not a relevant reflection on its object, as an object of aesthetic judgement or taste.

(Consider here some simple examples: is the Grand Canyon breathtaking or corny? Is Bambi moving or kitsch? Is Madame Bovary tragic or cruel? Is The Magic Flute childish or sublime? And so on.)

  1. The Search for Objectivity.

Suppose you accept, in broad outline, what I have just argued for – namely that there is a kind of reasoning that has aesthetic jujdgement as its goal, and that this judgement is bound up with the subjective experience of the object. It doesn’t follow, you might point out, that this kind of reasoning is objective, in the sense of being rooted in, and invoking, standards that must be accepted by all rational beings. There are important considerations to the contrary:

(a) The cultural rootedness of aesthetic taste. This is sometimes expressed in terms of ‘cultural relativism’; though that begs the question in favour a certain kind of sceptical position. The premise from which we should begin is that taste is rooted in a broader cultural context, and that cultures (at least in the sense that we here have in mind) are not shared. Consider the ragas of Indian classical music: these belong to a long-standing tradition of listening and performance; conventions, allusions and applications resonate in the minds and ears of those who play and enjoy this music, and the difference between a good and a bad performance cannot be established in terms that might equally be used to evaluate a Mozart symphony or a work of Jazz.

(b) The purely ‘persuasive’ nature of aesthetic reasons. There is no deductive relation between the arguments and the conclusions in my examples; nor will you ever find such a relation in the work of critics, however persuaded you may be by their reasoning. Indeed, this lack of a deductive connection lies in the nature of the case. If it existed, then you could confer my aesthetic judgements upon me at second hand, contrary to the arguments given last time. In an important sense I am always free to reject a critical argument, in a way that I am not free to reject a valid scientific inference or a valid moral claim.

(c) Any attempt to lay down objective standards threatens the very enterprise that it purports to judge. Rules, precepts, canons are all there to be transcended, and because originality and the challenging of orthodoxies are fundamental to the aesthetic enterprise, an element of subjectivism is built into the very project of art.

        How persuasive are such arguments?

(a) Cultural rootedness. Cultural variation does not imply the absence of cross-cultural universals. Nor does it imply that those universals, if they exist, are not rooted in our nature, or that they do not feed into our rational interests at a very fundamental level. Symmetry and order are two examples. Proportion; closure; convention; harmony. Now of course those words are all vague and multiply ambiguous, and you might well object that they are themselves likely to fragment along the fracture lines that divide culture from culture in the human lot. The early medievals regarded the fourth as harmonious, the third as dissonant: for us, if anything, it is the other way round. Harmonia for the Greeks consisted in the relation between successive sounds in a melody, and not the consonance of simultaneous notes. And so on. Still, there do seem to be universals that we abandon at our peril. The universal desire for boundaries and closure in architecture, for example.

(b) Purely persuasive reasons. This objection simply reiterates the point, that aesthetic judgement is rooted in subjective experience. Yet so is the judgement of colour. And is it not an objective fact that red things are red, blue things blue?

(c) Originality etc. This kind of objection is more serious. There may be rules of taste, but they do not guarantee beauty, and the beauty of an aesthetic object may reside precisely in the act of transgressing them – as in the late Beethoven quartets. Bach’s 48 illustrate all the rules of fugal counterpoint: but they do so by obeying them creatively, by showing how they can be used as a platform from which to rise to a higher realm of freedom. Merely obeying them would be a recipe for dullness, as in all the exercises from which we begin our lessons in composition. Likewise in architecture, there may be buildings which we understand as entirely rule-governed, like the Parthenon: but this does not explain their perfection. The serenity and solidity of the Parthenon come about through that extra creative something – the scale, proportions, detailing that arise from the thinking that begins when the rule-following stops. And again there are beauties that arise from the overt defiance of rules, as in Michelangelo’s Laurentian library.

        In discussing such examples, however, we have left the realm of natural beauty behind us. There is no ‘rule-following’ or ‘rule defying’ in nature. Yet there are symmetries, harmonies, proportions, and also the aesthetically challenging lack of those things. 18th-century thinkers, who wished to take natural beauty as their paradigm of the object of taste, were very struck by the contrast here, and Burke invented the language with which they discussed it. When we are struck by the harmony, order and serenity of nature, so as to feel at home in it and confirmed by it, then we speak of its beauty; when, however, as one some wind-blown mountain crag, we are struck by the vastness, the power, the threatening majesty of the natural world, and feel our own littleness in the face of it, then we speak of the sublime. The distinction between the sublime and the beautiful was regarded by Kant as fundamental to understanding what the judgement of taste is about. He realized that aesthetic interest can be directed to almost anything, and that it was necessary to break down its objects into distinct kinds, if we are to arrive at any kind of standard. There is no meaningful comparison to be made between the kind of serene and soporific pastoral landscape that we know from Constable and the wild torrents of an Alpine slope. Yet towards both we direct our aesthetic interest, find pleasure and emotion in the presented scene, and seek it out as a thing of significance.

        So too in art, we might usefully distinguish those works that please us on account of the order, harmony, and rule-governed perfection which they display, like the fugues of Bach, the Holy Virgins of Bellini, or the poems of Horace, and those which, on the contrary, please us by challenging and disturbing our routines, by throwing off the shackles of conformity and by standing out from the traditions to which they nevertheless belong, like King Lear or Tchaikovsky’s Sixth Symphony. But as soon as we make this distinction we realize that, even in the most orderly and rule-governed work, there is no way of fixing a ‘standard of taste’ by appeal to the rules. It is not the rules, but the use of them, that appeals in a Bach fugue or a Bellini Virgin. Anyone who seeks a standard in the rules opens himself to refutation, by showing that obedience to the rules is neither necessary nor sufficient for beauty. For it were sufficient then once again we could acquire taste at second-hand; and if it were necessary, then that would rule out the kind of originality that we esteem in art.

Read Lecture 3. Form and Expression