I have made a twenty-minute audio file of the key parts of my presentation from the third session of this course. It is available to students on the course here (email me to get your username and password...or wait till next week when I will gives these out in class).
Further Notes from Session 3
For the first part of this session we focused on Plato's idea that the artists should be banished from his ideal republic and his views about beauty in the Symposium, particularly the thought, expressed through Socrates' account of what Diotima allegedly told him about how erotic love of a beautiful boy could be the first rung on an ascent up a ladder that lead to contemplation of the Form of Beauty (which for Plato was intimately tied to the Good in the sense of moral good). Iris Murdoch in The Fire and the Sun (published in 1977, but given as a series of lectures in 1976) gives a succinct summary of Plato's ideas about art, but she also spends the last quarter of the book opposing them (read a review of The Fire and the Sun). Put simply, she believes that great art can reveal truth in various ways, and even that the pilgrimage from appearance to reality is the major theme of great art; furthermore, lesser art, she thinks, is relatively harmless (I discuss this on the 20-minute audio clip that students on the course have access to, see above).
In the second half of the session we explored some of David Hume's thoughts about aesthetic judgment as discussed in his essay 'Of the Standard of Taste' [download a sensitively-paraphrased version] thoughts which he had presumably already worked out as a young man when he planned the never-published fifth book of his Treatise 'Of Criticism'. This essay is quite difficult to read. At its heart is the paradox that we both want to say that beauty and other aesthetic merit is in the eye of the beholder, and so a matter for subjective judgement, but at the same time think that people who hold views such as 'Tracey Emin is a greater artist than Leonardo da Vinci' (not Hume's example!) are just wrong.
Hume maintains that most of us are not in a great position to make reliable aesthetic judgements because we do not necessarily have accurate perception and understanding of the work under consideration. There must be general principles underlying critical judgments whether or not we know what they are. But above all we need a critic who can perceive what is there. The ideal critic, amongst other things, has
Delicacy of Taste (remember the story of the key with the leather thong at the bottom of the hogshead of wine. You might also want to read the further essay Hume wrote called 'Of the Delicacy of Taste and Passion')
Practice (Hume also includes the requirement that the critic view the work more than once)
The Ability to Make Comparisons (historical as well as contemporary)
Is not Prejudiced and has
Good Sense (i.e. reason that allows him or her to weight the different factors)
(I discuss all of these on the audio clip).
Someone who exercises these qualities can stand as a touchstone against which to measure taste. Others can learn from such a person and recognize the distinctions that he or she draws. Where, over time, there is a consensus amongst such critics this is the strongest evidence we have of a work's worth (people now speak of a work's 'passing the Test of Time'). It may be a matter of subjectivity how we feel about a work of art, but that doesn't mean that any judgement we make, which may well be based on a poor assessment of what it is that we are looking at, is respectable...not unless we possess the attributes of an ideal critic. And if we do, we can set the standard of taste. [For a related discussion about judgements of taste in relation to wine, informed by a reading of Hume, listen to Barry C. Smith, editor of a recent book Questions of Taste on Philosophy Bites. Read my review of this book here and a longer one by Christopher Shields here]
In the gallery we looked at works in the Level 5 'Idea and Object' section in groups, reflecting on the categories of the ideal critic, the degree to which perceptive or knowledgeable individuals could help others to see or understand something about a work they hadn't previously realized was there...