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Are there standards in art criticism?

Image credit: Art Quest [www.artquest.org.uk]
Image credit: Art Quest [www.artquest.org.uk]
Image credit: Art Quest [www.artquest.org.uk]
In David Hume’s variation of a small segment of Don Quixote, two gentlemen sample wine from a barrel. One gentleman recognises a flavour of iron within the drink, whereas the other detects a hint of leather. The ordinary tasters dismiss these claims as nonsense and proceed to drink the wine, but when the supply is exhausted, they discover an old key tied up in leather at the bottom. The gentlemen noticed the specific flavours among the general taste that everyone else enjoyed, setting them apart from the rest of us.

We all have opinions of art. Some art pleases us, other art disgusts us. Artists themselves have their own attitudes towards pieces of art and the media used to create them. But, putting it bluntly, when it comes to assessing quality, not all opinions are of equal weight. Evidently, some works of art, drama and literature are just excellent and only fools would argue otherwise. In fact, such works have been held in high regard across multiple cultures and nations. At over two thousand years old, Homer’s Odyssey is one of the most well-regarded ancient texts in the Western literary tradition. Its reputation as one of the finest classical works has existed for centuries and it continues to influence literature, music, drama and culture today. If so many people from so different backgrounds all agree that Homer’s Odyssey is a brilliant book, it really must be so.

As with the Odyssey, fine work does exist and, unless all opinions are equal and true beauty is nonexistent, there must be a certain number of observers who can distinguish genuine talent and excellence from mediocrity. Art critics are the observers whose task is to recognise the finer details that others miss, to detect the hints of iron and leather in the barrel of wine. Standards in art criticism do exist: they are the conclusions of a consensus of skilled art critics.

According to Hume, a man seeking to become a true critic should maintain respect for the delicacy of taste; he should lack prejudices against the artist or the type of art that would be an unfair influence on his judgment; he should regularly examine art to improve his criticism – practice makes perfect; he should compare artistic works of high quality with those of low quality, to make clear the distinctions; and he should possess the good sense to make sense of the previous four conditions. If he can master those standards, he deserves the respect of being known as a true critic of art.

Maybe Homer’s work adhered perfectly to a consistent standard of taste in literature that true critics have recognised across centuries and cultures. But doesn’t this leave us going round in a circle? We are supposedly able to recognise a true art critic when he recommends a fine work of art, but also that a work of art is good when it is recommended by a true art critic. Is fine art fine because a critic says so, or is a critic good because he recognises fine art? Hume’s circular argument leaves us with no strong idea of what either a good critic or a piece of good art is.

It’s tempting to fall back on the general feeling that some people are better at seeing quality than others. This feels true – for example, we tend to scoff at people who hold authors such as Dan Brown in higher esteem than Shakespeare and Wordsworth – but this isn’t strong enough evidence to say for sure that standards in art criticism exist.

Supposing that true art critics do exist, defining the standards of art criticism by the general conclusion of skilled critics means that, because the consensus of critical opinion can change, the standard can change too. Good works of art are not always instantly recognised. Many modern films, for example, were dismissed upon release but later hailed for their excellence. Blade Runner, Ridley Scott’s adaption of the Philip K. Dick novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, received lukewarm reviews upon release; nowadays Scott’s film is seen one of the great science fiction films of cinema and a sequel is on the way.

Similarly, some well-received works may fall from grace; the Odyssey‘s long-standing reputation as a masterpiece, in and of itself, is no reason to think that it will forever be a masterpiece – a rather Humean criticism – and it might one day crumble in the face of fresh, piercing literary criticism.

The standards of art criticism remain mysterious to the majority of us. Art critics, according to Hume, are the members of society most adept at recognising works of beauty and of depravity, and will master their knowledge and perception of fine art with practice and time. But if art critics’ standards are the conclusions of other art critics, what more is good art but a common opinion?

This article was greatly informed by a lecture delivered by Andrew Ward, Honorary Life Fellow of the Department of Philosophy at the University of York, on November 3rd 2016, titled ‘Are there standards in art criticism?’. This lecture was the fourth and final in a series of public lectures on the relationship between philosophy and the arts.