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DOES BEAUTY IN ART EXIST MERELY IN THE MIND?

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Is there such a thing as a correct standard of taste for literature? This is a question I have been dealing with in the last few posts concerning taste in The Literary Life. For the mere sake of having a text off which we might bounce our ideas, I have been referring to David Hume’s treatise from the Enlightenment, Of the Standard of Taste.

So Hume differentiates between our personal sentiment for a work, author, or type of literature and literary judgment which is not personal and is not determined by us as individual readers.

And here’s the rub for us today so far removed from the eighteenth century. Who determines the judgment of literary works? What determines a literary work’s worth? Who decided Fydor Dostoevsky was such a great novelist?

I remember years upon years ago when I entered graduate studies in English at the University of Tennessee (Go Vols!) that these were burning questions for me. Who decides who or what matters? And how do we decide? I wanted to be able to decide. I wanted to be a critic. Years after I finished I never came any closer to answering these questions than when I entered—or so I thought.

Hume, in his Enlightenment way, develops his argument first by shooting down the idea that all opinions about art matter equally. Isn’t it true that “Beauty is no quality in things themselves: it exists merely in the mind which contemplates them; and each mind perceives a different beauty”? In other words, isn’t beauty merely in the eye of the beholder?

No, it’s not merely in the eye or mind of the beholder, Hume responds. To illustrate, he refers to extremes. Take two very different writers, one a great genius, the other—well, the other extreme. Most people have no problem seeing differences between extremes. Here’s Hume’s statement as he pits John Milton, still overwhelmingly regarded as second only, perhaps, to Shakespeare and Joseph Addison, the greatest essayist of his time, against a lesser light: “Whoever would assert on equality of genius and elegance between Ogilby and Milton, or Bunyan and Addison, would be thought to defend no less an extravagance than if he maintained a molehill to be as high as a mountain, or a pond as extensive as the ocean.”

Nobody has a problem seeing obvious disparities in the extremely great and the extremely bad. (Of course, we know that is not always the case.) But if there are clear extremes such as comparing taste for the greatest of writers, such as Shakespeare, with tastes for the very worst (I’ll let you fill in names here), then there must surely also be distinctions in taste among preferences for writers or types of literature at all levels, right? Henry James or Gustav Flaubert? Which one?

That’s the argument. Clearly there are differences between good taste and bad taste at extreme situations. If so, then there must be differences for judgment elsewhere.

What do you think? Make comments. Let’s start a conversation. Re-blog. Re-tweet. Follow The Literary Life. The more readers who are posting comments the better.

But, the obvious next logical conclusion is that therefore there must be universal standards of taste that we agree upon though we may be unaware. What are those elements of taste that are universal? Stay tuned.

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