This week in the Tate Modern course Sensing Art we examined questions of taste. There are two basic senses of taste: the taste of something (e.g. does it taste of strawberries), and the discrimination bewtween better and worse examples of something (as when we make a judgement of taste, that e.g. Picasso is a superior painter to Braque).
Discrimination of flavours isn't merely subjective. Some people are better at recognising objective qualities in the things they taste. Analogously, there are better and worse discriminators of the subtleties of what is in a work of art.
Are judgements of taste completely different from such judgements? Are they completely subjective, or are some art critics better at making judgements than others? In the 18th Century David Hume used the anecdote from Don Quixote of two wine tasters one detecting a metallic taste, the other a leathery taste, being vindicated when a key on a leather thong was found at the bottom of the barrel. We would like to have such an objective confirmation of our apparently subjective value judgements about art... See David Hume's 'Of The Standard of Taste' (the link here is to the full text with useful annotations and commentaries).
First, a good critic needs what Hume called 'delicacy of taste'. This is what the wine tasters in the example above demonstrated.
Secondly, a good critic needs practice. The skill of making judgment about works of art is one that benefits from repeated use.
Thirdly, a good critic needs to be free from bias. Not easy to achieve, but that's the ideal goal.
And lastly, a good critic needs to have a sound understanding of whatever he or she is assessing. So if looking at a landscape painting, the good critic will be aware of other great landscape paintings, of work by the artist's contemporaries, and so on. This would allow a critic to judge that a work was derivative or heavily influenced by someone else. It would also, incidentally, allow the critic to recognise qualities such as originality or allusion.
In contrast with Hume, Clive Bell, writing just before the First World War, in his book Art (good title!) argued that to judge the aesthetic quality of a work of art requires no special background knowledge. What is needed is sensitivity to what he called Significant Form (patterns of lines, shapes and colours capable of evoking the aesthetic emotion in the viewer). For Bell art history is interesting, but not a pre-requisite of engaging with artworks seriously...(more on Bell's theory of art in chapter one of my book The Art Question).
There is also the possibility that much (or all) of what we call taste in art is a self-fulfilling prophecy of the rich and powerful who determine which works are 'in' and which 'out.' They come to a consensus about which artists merit attention, but this consensus may not be based on any objective quality of the work (it might simply be a matter of 'investment potential'): if they'd focussed their hype on a different artist, the same effect might have been achieved in terms of reputation...This is the cynical view...but if you read the interviews in the recent Collecting Contemporary ed. Adam Lindeman you will find some support for this.
If you are interested in doing some further reading on philosophical questions about 'Taste and 'Taste'', Carolyn Korsmeyer's essay on Taste in the Routledge Companion to Aesthetics is a very good place to start.