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I Like It, But is it Art?


I Like It, But is it Art?

A series of blog posts based on Leo Tolstoy’s What is Art? Chapters 5 and 15.

You look at all the wonderful books of Great Literature on your bookshelves and admire your collection. You occasionally hang out at a coffee house called Monk’s or some such down the road on open mic night and listen to poetry readings. I’m from Texas and Oklahoma, so here you drive over to Fort Worth, in Texas, to go to the new Impressionist exhibit at the prestigious Kimbell Art Museum. But when you get there you are torn, because just across the street is the Amon Carter Museum, equally opulent and well funded. But the Amon Carter is devoted to Western Art, or as sneering elites say, Cowboy Art. Inevitably the question arises: Can Western paintings really be art? You know the Kimbell has real art. But what about the Carter? Or, is all the slam poetry and spoken word stuff from the coffee house actually art? Why is this novel by Charles Dickens on my shelf unquestionably Great Literature but the paperback down on bottom by John Grisham maybe a bit questionable? You may like something, but, you ask yourself, is it art? (Of course, yes, I’m really talking about myself here.)

Ok, then, let’s take up in The Literary Life the biggest question of all about literature as art: What is Art?

That’s really the biggest question of all. Click on my list of categories and you’ll see another series on “What is Taste?” which you might read (though it’s not essential) before you read this series on “What is Art?” There I take up such questions as Who Has Taste? Is Literary Taste Indisputable? And so forth.

And as I based the questions of Taste upon a classic text by David Hume—“Of the Standard of Taste”—so too I will be working out the ideas of what makes one work of literature art and another not art from Leo Tolstoy’s “What is Art?” You may find the full text of Tolstoy’s book numerous places on line. But here is one link to a site that will give you several viewing options. “What is Art” actually is a short book. But I intend to just focus on a couple of chapters (5 and 15). Here’s link for the curious:

But don’t worry. I’m not going to assume everyone will have read Tolstoy or read his piece recently anyway. We will take a gentle approach, I promise.

This series is in twelve parts with 14 posts.

So, you like it, but you really wonder if it’s art? Let’s find out what some answers are to this very Big Question. (Spoiler Alert: the answers usually tend just to be more questions.)

Paul Varner


John Ruskin: What Determines Greatness in a Work of Art? Part 1

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October 27, 2016

Yesterday I posted to The Literary Life a short excerpt from John Ruskin’s Modern Painters that handles one of the biggest of the Big Questions relating to art or literature: What makes one work of art great and another one not great. So I urge you to scroll back in the blog one day to that selection from Modern Painters. Now, all of Ruskin’s examples are from painting, but as far as I know everyone agrees, it is a given, that what Ruskin says about great painting also applies to Great Literature.

Ok, let’s think for a minute. How do we evaluate literature? Do we just say I like what I see and that’s good enough for me? Well, of course, sometimes it really doesn’t matter. But if you are like me, especially as I was when I was pretty young, you surely have wondered why it a universal given that, say, William Shakespeare is a great–with a capital G—GREAT playwright and poet whereas (I know I am going to get into trouble for this) J. M. Barrie, author of Peter Pan, is not a GREAT playwright and writer. Or substitute any two extremes of writers that you like. There clearly is a difference that goes way, way beyond “O gee whiz everybody has a right to their [sic.] own opinion.” This might be a good time for you to go way back into the archives of The Literary Life to that series I had last year on “What is Good Taste?” in literature.

As then, I am not promoting my opinions so much as I am merely asking you to think about these Big Questions by seeing what some of the great minds of the past have thought about them.

I have posted several celebrated facts of John Ruskin’s life and reputation recently. So here, let’s see what Ruskin has to say about the matter at hand: how do we evaluate a work’s tendency to greatness?

First, what is the importance of an artist’s carefully trained technique or lack thereof in determining greatness?

Ok, go John Ruskin. Tell us. How about this quote: “Painting, or art generally, as such, with all its technicalities, difficulties, and particular ends, is nothing but a noble and expressive language, invaluable as the vehicle of thought, but by itself nothing.”

What, you say? You mean all that work you did at the Chicago Art Institute the last four years for your MFA doesn’t make your painting great? Or, look buddy, I got an MFA in creative writing at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop and that’s not good enough?

Well, ahem, let’s get back to Professor Ruskin who says, “He who has learned what is commonly considered the whole art of painting, that is, the art of representing any natural object faithfully, has as yet only learned the language by which his thoughts are to be expressed.” All that technique and craftsmanship is not enough.

Again, “He has done just as much towards being that which we ought to respect as a great painter, as a man who has learnt how to express himself grammatically and melodiously has towards being a great poet.” And, it is “nothing more than language.”

But relax. You didn’t waste your time learning technique. Ruskin does provide a caveat to all the above. Matters of technique of all kinds are necessary for a work of art to be great, but they are “not the tests of their greatness. It is not by the mode of representing and saying, but by what is represented and said, that the respective greatness either of the painter or the writer is to be finally determined….”

Now, unfortunately, it seems to me as a critic that there are way to many writers or would-be writers who skip right past the whole technique and craft thing and head right toward saying (or “saying”) something great.

Of course, before Modernism, what mattered as far as technique and craft was pretty clear-cut. It’s always a good question to explore, for readers and writers, what matters by way of craft and technique, for us as postmodern readers and writers. Again, clearly some technical details do matter. What are they? Some things are obvious in, oh, say film production. but what about for poetry? For fiction? What about drama? I don’t know if I can tell you.  I could make a few guess, but I’ll bet there are those ready to tell you.

There we go, John Ruskin beginning his discussion on what makes a work of art great. Stay tuned for more.

If you like what you see be sure to sign up for the blog in your email.

Paul Varner




Literary historians usually credit Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882) with initiating the movement in the U.S. of developing its own literary traditions apart from European traditions. One of Emerson’s most important essays about literature as such is “The Poet.”

We have been examining the idea of proper literary taste over the last several weeks, and I have played off several common ideas about the whole idea of literary taste currently assumed by many against the seemingly conservative ideas of the Enlightenment thinker David Hume. Following up from those posts I would like to take up very briefly another idea about the nature of taste from Emerson.

Since critics in his day, in Hume’s day, and in our own day have had profound influence on what proper literary taste is assumed to be, let’s see what Emerson says about these critics.

So here’s the question: What is the most important qualification for a person of taste, for a critic—for you?

At the beginning of “The Poet” Emerson says, “Those who are esteemed umpires of taste, are often persons with knowledge of admired pictures or sculptures, and have an inclination for whatever is elegant; but if you inquire whether they are beautiful souls, and whether their own acts are like fair pictures, you learn that they are selfish and sensual.”

Have you ever thought about the quality of one’s soul in determining his or her taste and as a qualification for prescribing such taste upon you? This may seem like a funny question, perhaps even quaint. But don’t dismiss it. Has Emerson got a point?

Now don’t confuse Emerson’s idea of a soul with conventional ideas in some branches of Christianity about one’s soul. Emerson was a New England transcendentalist, after all.

Take this idea of the beautiful soul even further, though. How important is the quality of one’s soul in reading, appreciating, and responding to great literature? Write your ideas in the comment box.

To finish up here, Emerson expounds on his idea of the beautiful soul in reference to literary taste in this, one of his most famous statements:

But the highest minds of the world have never ceased to explore the double meaning, or, shall I say, the quadruple, or the centuple, or much more manifold meaning, of every sensuous fact: Orpheus, Empedocles, Heraclitus, Plato, Plutarch, Dante, Swedenborg, and the masters of sculpture, picture, and poetry. For we are not pans and barrows, nor even porters of the fire and torch-bearers, but children of the fire, made of it, and only the same divinity transmuted, and at two or three removes, when we know least about it.



Ok, so here you are, a person who loves to read and unlike so many others you know who profess to read a lot, you really like to read the classics. You can work your way through a Shakespeare play, a Henry James novel, even a David Foster Wallace novel (how about that?) with no problem. You even like great poetry. You are a certified person of taste. You deserve a sticker for your sticker book. Enjoy being smug.

Or maybe you just like to read and you’ve always wanted to know who it is that decides what literature matters and what doesn’t. In other words, who decides proper literary taste?

I would love to say I can tell you what proper literary taste is, but I have spent much of my professional life reading more cheap paperback Westerns than anybody you probably have ever known. Believe me, I know from experience: tell somebody with real taste that you read paperback Westerns and you’ll find out quick just what kind of taste people think you have.

Our friend David Hume, the Enlightenment thinker we have been looking at the last few weeks, in Of the Standard of Taste, felt he knew pretty well who it is that decides proper taste: the critics, that’s who.

Does he have a point? After all, the critics writing in The Times Literary Supplement, the New Yorker, The Paris Review, and other similar media certainly maintain powerful influence.

While Hume would not rule out our present-day very powerful critics from his treatise on standards of taste, he also would include qualified readers who have discriminating critical taste as judges of literature. Some people, he says, must be acknowledged to have better judgment than others about the aesthetic value of art, of literature.

Maybe that’s you and me. Let’s see.

So, what are the qualities required to have such taste? David Hume gives his qualifications for this discriminating critic. And he is writing about the person, not just the process of critical reading.

A proper judge of taste must have a strong sensibility, “A perfect serenity of mind, a recollection of thought, due attention to the object.” These qualities are not optional, according to Hume. Without them, “we shall be unable to judge of. . . catholic and universal beauty.” Without a strong sensibility, a person will be unable to determine the relationship “which nature has placed between the form and the sentiment will at least be more obscure; and it will require greater accuracy to trace and discern it.” If the only kind of literature you care about is cheap shoot ‘em up Westerns, you might ought to question your sensibility of discernment in literature.

“One obvious cause,” Hume says, “why many feel not the proper sentiment of beauty, is the want of that delicacy of imagination, which is requisite to convey a sensibility of those finer emotions. . . .” A delicate sentiment does not come easily and in our time with the prevailing tastes in popular culture for violence, physical and emotional, as well as anything with shock value, delicacy of sentiment rarely seems even to exist.

A proper judge of taste must be someone with great experience in literature who has plenty of opportunity to compare artworks. How can we expect any sort of measure of taste, be it ever so general or undefined, from someone whose knowledge of literature, from the greatest to the basest, is significantly limited?

Thus Hume says, “Strong sense, united to delicate sentiment, improved by practice, perfected by comparison, and cleared of all prejudice, can alone entitle critics to [this] valuable character; and the joint verdict of such, wherever they are to be found, is the true standard of taste and beauty.” A person of proper literary taste, then, must be able to clear the mind of all prejudice.”

“But where are such critics to be found?” Hume asks, and perhaps you are asking. Especially in the second decade of the 21st century?

What do you think? As I said in my last post, we have plenty of critics around us today, publishing their ideas everywhere—in books, on the web, in blogs like mine, in peer reviewed journals, everywhere. Clearly they can’t be dismissed and aren’t dismissed. What they say carries plenty of weight. But they disagree with each other at seemingly every point of discussion, right?

David Hume ends his essay on the standard of taste saying, “It is sufficient for our present purpose, if we have proved, that the taste of all individuals is not upon equal footing, and that some men in general, however difficult to be particularly pitched upon, will be acknowledged by universal sentiment to have preference above others.”

Do you agree that in fact some people do have very bad taste in literature? If so, would you not also agree that other people have better taste than those with very bad taste in literature? Do you agree that in our culture of the 21st century there is such a thing as bad taste and, at least, better taste? Whether you or I accept prevailing standards of taste, don’t they exist anyway? We can ignore them if we wish, but does that change anything ultimately?

These are the questions that matter. Not what David Hume said or thought. I used David Hume in this series on taste simply to place in front of you ideas about taste that much of our culture would find outdated but which nevertheless might still have some validity no matter how much we might deny them.

So, who decides proper literary taste today?

Write your comments in the comment box. And let’s see your comments no matter when you read this blog. None of the ideas I am approaching are time sensitive.

Let’s start a conversation. Re-blog. Re-tweet. Follow The Literary Life. The more readers who are posting comments the better.



If you are a person for whom great literature matters and are clicking into The Literary Life for the first time as a result of seeing my title above on one of the social media sites, you might be a bit put off by a question about proper literary taste, or more to the point, about bad literary taste. If so, please read the other short posts on my blog from recent weeks on the idea of #Taste to have a context of a question like this.

David Hume in Of the Standard of Taste, with whom we have been working, gives several criteria for good taste, which we will look at next. But first he takes a look at improper taste and why people have it. Taste is universal, he claims, but not all people possess taste.

People who are disordered, for example: “A man in a fever would not insist on his palate as able to decide concerning flavours; nor would one, affected with the jaundice, pretend to give a verdict with regard to colours.”

Are you “disordered?” Ok, not a fair question. But do you trust your Uncle Louie who you only see at Thanksgiving to have the same proper taste as you presumably have? Or maybe ask yourself, do you know people who clearly do not have proper taste under virtually any definition of taste? Forget good taste for the moment. Is there in fact such a thing as undeniably bad taste? (Case in point, velvet paintings of Elvis.) Well, ok, then. Why?

To some degree all of us have some defects in taste: “In each creature, there is a sound and defective state; and the former alone can be supposed to afford us a true standard of taste and sentiment.” Remember that for Hume “sentiment” is the subjective element in taste whereas “judgment” is the objective and universal side.

So consider how this helps explain our own occasional bad taste even when we really have good taste.

But, probably more importantly, many of us simply do not possess what Hume would call “those finer emotions of the mind” that are “of a very tender and delicate nature.” And even when we possess such, often circumstances get in the way of our proper taste: “Those finer emotions of the mind are of a very tender and delicate nature, and require the concurrence of many favourable circumstances to make them play with facility and exactness, according to their general and established principles.”

Ok, it looks like we are not to rely upon ourselves when developing proper taste. Our sentiments might guide our preferences for this author or that. Some of us might think the Harry Potter novels are tasteful reading and others might shun anything written after 1900. These are simply our sentiments at work guiding our reading. But what about universal proper taste? Who decides for all the rest of us what matters and what doesn’t?

Well, that’s always the sticking point as we have put up in front of us from the beginning. For David Hume, only properly qualified critics have acumen enough to discover universal principles of taste.

Let’s just consider what a properly qualified critic is in the next posting. But even before we see what our representative from the eighteenth century thinks, what do you think? We have plenty of critics around us today, publishing their ideas everywhere—in books, on the web, in blogs like mine, in peer reviewed journals, everywhere. Clearly they can’t be dismissed and aren’t dismissed. What they say carries plenty of weight. But they disagree with each other at seemingly every point of discussion, right? What about the critics? Stay tuned.

Write your comments in the comment box. And let’s see your comments no matter when you read this blog. None of the ideas I am approaching are time sensitive.

Let’s start a conversation. Re-blog. Re-tweet. Follow The Literary Life. The more readers who are posting comments the better.



Let’s continue the ideas from the previous posts as we compare our 21st-century ideas of literary taste with those of the Enlightenment philosopher David Hume that represent fairly well ideas common until the latter part of the 20th century.

For Hume, as we have seen, the principles of taste are universal, and, nearly, if not entirely the same in all humanity; yet few are qualified to give judgment on any work of art, or establish their own sentiment as the standard of beauty.

Hume bases his claim for “eternal and immutable” taste upon his Enlightenment views of the universality of ideas, and he claims the standards of taste share common sources with the sciences: “Their foundation is the same with that of all the practical sciences, experience; nor are they any thing but general observations, concerning what has been universally found to please in all countries and all ages.”

For most of you today these are extraordinary claims at odds with our cultural assumptions and general democratic principles of human equality.

But Hume piles it on in Of the Standard of Taste. Of poetry specifically, he says “though poetry can never submit to exact truth, it must be confined by rules of art, discovered to the author either by genius or observation.”

Of course, even for Hume, there are exceptions to this basic standard. Obviously some poets in English literature prior to the 18th century had not always followed the rules. (Ahem, what about that most un-Enlightenment-like William Shakespeare?) Yeah, but so what, Hume concedes: “If some negligent or irregular writers have pleased,” he obviously sneers, “they have not pleased by their transgressions of rule and order, but in spite of these transgressions.” Ah, David, oh boy.

So there are exceptions to the universal elements of taste. It’s just that for all these poets who don’t follow the rules of order, “They have possessed other beauties, which are conformable to just criticism; and the force of these beauties has been able to overpower censure.”

But regardless of the exceptions, “the general rules of art are founded only upon experience and on the observation of the common sentiments of human nature.” And less we start saying that these ideas leave open to everyone having any opinion about their personal taste, Hume qualifies: “we must not imagine that, on every occasion, the feelings of men will be conformable to these rules.” But, and here’s the point to end this discussion and take up next time, BUT “few are qualified to give judgment on any work of art.” Only the few, the select, and the proud can decide what proper literary taste is.

Let’s take this idea up next time.

But do you agree or not? Write your comments in the comment box. And let’s see your comments no matter when you read this blog. None of the ideas I am approaching are time sensitive.

Let’s start a conversation. Re-blog. Re-tweet. Follow The Literary Life. The more readers who are posting comments the better.

David Hume in the News

For the several posts I have been discussing some of the ideas of the 18th-century Enlightenment thinker David Hume. Turns out he’s still popular. Check out this month’s Atlantic Monthly at

Paul Varner




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.



Plenty of people would deny that standards for literary taste are important or even desirable. Doesn’t everybody have a right to his or her own tastes? These are important questions for anyone living the literary life and for whom serious literature matters. Who decides what is serious literature anyway?

Just for the sake of having a text to respond to for these questions I have been showing you some things David Hume, our friend from the 18th century, says in Of the Standard of Taste had to say.

I ran into Hume years ago as an undergraduate. It took me years, though, really to appreciate him (or Hume). Maybe it was because I read him in a used textbook from the college bookstore.

Anyway, Hume distinguishes between sentiment and judgment. Sentiment is what most of us think of when we refer to individual tastes. It is solely personal and therefore indisputable.

Literary judgment is something else altogether. Unlike sentiment, judgment resides outside of our selves. If I say I don’t like Steven Spielberg’s movies because I hated E.T. and all his movies were spoiled after that, I am merely expressing my personal sentiment, Hume would say.

But if I condemn outright all Steven Spielberg movies and insist they are all trash produced by an idiot, I am simply showing up myself to be the foolish one. I am displaying my poor taste. Wouldn’t just about anyone agree? Sure I can dislike Spielberg’s movies all I want. But I really cannot judge them based simply on my experience with E.T., can I? Why? Because the standard judgment of Spielberg’s movies is different from my personal sentiment?

What do you think? Use whatever terminology you like, but are there differences between personal and impersonal responses to a work of literature?

So Hume says, “It is natural for us to seek a Standard of Taste: a rule, by which the various sentiments of men may be reconciled; at least a decision, afforded, confirming one sentiment, and abandoning another.” Hmm.

Artistic beauty, then, Hume goes on to say, appeals to our common sentiments shared by all simply by reason of our being human? Do you agree? Is Hume right? Are we, by chance, human still today in postmodernity the same way Hume thinks of being human in 18th-century mid to upper class England?

While opinions might vary, Hume would continue, emotional responses are universal–to readers of sound judgment.  Alas, there’s the rub.

Not many people have sound judgment; many are uncultivated, confused, inexperienced, not sufficiently educated, or simply apathetic.

Thus, for David Hume, as I partially quoted in an earlier post, “Among a thousand different opinions which different men may entertain of the same subject, there is one, and but one, that is just and true; and the only difficulty is to fix and ascertain it.”

So there you have it; we just need to distinguish between sentiment and judgment? When I figured this out years ago it was an eye-opener, the difference between sentiment and judgment.

Is Hume right? Is there any application to how we think of literary taste today? Perhaps we can change the terminology. But is the dichotomy still relevant?

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

Paul Varner





So far as a beginning for this blog dedicated to examining the literary life, I have tried to bring up the really big questions of literary taste, big questions that have been unpopular to ask for several decades now. But why aren’t we asking such questions anymore?

In recent blogs I have asked the questions: Who has taste anymore? Is there even anything such as taste anymore? Especially, what about taste in literature? Are you a person of taste? Is good taste in literature merely a matter of opinion? Is good taste indisputable? and what about the obvious great variety of literary tastes?

As always, give your responses to these ideas. I’m not preaching some sort of doctrine here. Now, for a while I would like to expand on some of these topics.

And possibly we ought to attack the pretty major problems of why, perhaps, a standard of taste might be important at all.

I have been using as a basis for our investigation David Hume’s Of the Standard of Taste, the Enlightenment’s standard treatise that is thoroughly out of fashion—out of taste?—nowadays. But Hume makes such extreme claims that his ideas are easy enough to play off of.

Hume claims a universal standard for taste is crucial. And he starts, as we already have seen, by acknowledging the great variety of tastes everywhere, by admitting to the obvious idea that all people have individual preferences, standards, for what they like and don’t like.

But Hume makes a distinction between literary sentiment and literary judgment. See what you think: Our sentiments toward literature are our own individual opinions, our personal likes and dislikes, based upon whatever whim we might have.

Essentially, what Hume labels sentiment is really what most of us mean when we refer to individual tastes. When we say something like “This is what I like, what I consider good taste, and it doesn’t matter what anyone else thinks,” we are simply expressing what Hume calls our sentiment. It is personal. It is our opinion.

Nobody can dispute a claim that begins with “In my opinion,” can they? Not unless we can prove that it’s not really their opinion.

For Hume, sentiment is what it is–indisputable because it lies solely within us personally.

But what about literary judgment? Stay tuned. My laptop is running low and I forgot the cord. But keep with me for the next blog post. Make comments. Re-blog. Follow The Literary Life. The more readers who are posting comments the better.

Paul Varner


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