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Aesthetics and Philosophy of the Arts

Putting Value into Art

Andrew Ward
The University of York

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ABSTRACT: The attempt to base a standard for assessing the value of works of art upon sentiment (the feeling of pleasure or displeasure) was famously made by David Hume in his essay "Of the Standard of Taste." Hume's attempt is generally regarded as fundamentally important in the project of explaining the nature of value judgements in the arts by means of an empirical, rather than a priori, relation. Recently, Hume's argument has been strongly criticized by Malcolm Budd in his book Values of Art. Budd contends that Hume utterly fails to show how any given value judgement in the arts can be more warranted or appropriate than any other if aesthetic judgements are determined by sentiment. This is a remarkable charge, since Hume explicitly sets out to introduce an aesthetic standard for "confirming one sentiment and condemning another." I examine Budd's arguments and conclude that Hume's position-and the empiricist tradition that it inaugurated-can withstand them.

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The attempt to set up a standard for assessing the merit of works of art, based upon contingent connections between these works and the sentiments (feelings of pleasure or displeasure) of spectators, was famously made by David Hume. His attempt remains the locus classicus for those philosophers who attempt to found the aesthetic judgment upon empirical, rather than a priori, grounds. I have myself given it a limited defense (1). Recently, Hume's argument has been severely attacked by Malcolm Budd (2). His central contention is that Hume completely fails to introduce any normative element into the aesthetic judgment; he fails, that is, to give any content to the claim that some judgments on the value of a work are more warranted or appropriate than others. This is a remarkable charge since, in his most extended essay on the topic, "Of the Standard of Taste" (3), Hume's explicit aim is to introduce a rule for "confirming one sentiment and condemning another". If the charge can be made out, it would undercut the most promising empiricist attempt to understand the nature of value judgments in the arts. I shall argue that the charge fails.

Hume seeks to introduce his standard of taste via the notion of a true judge or critic, whose principle attributes he identifies as delicacy of taste or imagination, on the one hand, and good sense or sound judgment, on the other. The latter capacity is required for (among other things) discerning the structural arrangements of the work and, where appropriate, its psychological insight; the former capacity is required for perceiving and relishing small or subtle presences of given features, especially when they are mixed in with so many other qualities. On the Humean view, a spectator's verdict, ie his normative judgment, is determined by the sentiments of pleasure and/or displeasure consequent upon a survey of the work; and only those spectators who possess delicacy of taste and sound judgment are in a position properly to pronounce concerning the worth of any work of art.

Now Budd acknowledges that Hume's true judges possess a finer discrimination than the rest of us with respect to the presence of certain properties of works of art. But he denies that anything thereby follows with regard to the appropriateness of the sentiments that ensue upon this more discriminating survey, even assuming unanimity among true judges. Hume, it is held, gives no reason for supposing that the sentiments of the true judges are the proper ones to have. Their occurrence shows only that those who have the greatest discriminatory capacity, with regard to certain details of a work, happen to experience a given sentiment (and in fact the same sentiment) about those details.

Accordingly, the true judges' sentiments (and so their verdicts) do not have the same authority as their claims about the presence of certain details of the compositions studied. So, Budd maintains, "whereas the expression of a more finely detailed (veridical) awareness is correct with respect to that detail, and the expression of a less finely detailed awareness—if this is taken as a denial of the presence of the detail—is thereby incorrect, the expression of a sentiment induced by a finer awareness is not thereby correct, appropriate or warranted" (4). Yet since Hume bases the normative force of the aesthetic judgment upon sentiment, and since he gives no grounds whatever for thinking that the true judges' sentiments are more appropriate than those of others, it follows that his account completely fails to show that those whose evaluations differ from the true judges' ought to accept the latter's verdicts rather than their own. Indeed, the very notion of one aesthetic verdict being better than another is, on the Humean analysis, empty of content.

In order to examine the force of these objections, we need to see first how Hume himself seeks to defend a normative standard. He does so, as Budd is well aware, by drawing an analogy between aesthetic taste and the taste of the palate, as illustrated by a story from Don Quixote. As this story is related by Hume (and simplified by me), one of Sancho Panza's kinsmen, together with a number of other people, taste a hogshead of wine, reputedly mature and of good vintage. Whereas the rest of the group simply pronounce the wine to be excellent, the kinsman agrees with this verdict except that he could detect a slight, but distinct, taste of iron which mars its excellence. The rest have no suspicion of this alleged taste of iron, regarding the kinsman as a pretender to better taste than themselves. But later they are silenced: on emptying the hogshead, there is revealed an old iron key lying at the bottom.

Of course, examples like this from the taste of the palate, do not have the complexity of examples in the fine arts, where discernment of design, and often psychological insight, are typically required before the critic can be in a position properly to exercise delicacy of taste. Sound judgment, on Hume's view, is inseparable from a fine aesthetic taste: "In order to judge aright of a composition of genius [in the sciences and liberal arts], there are so many views to be taken in, so many circumstances to be compared, and such a knowledge of human nature requisite, that no man, who is not possessed of the soundest judgment, will ever make a tolerable critic in such performances" (5). Nonetheless, as regards the introduction of normativity into judgments in the arts, I agree with Budd that Hume thinks he sees an important analogy between the correct procedure for judging the merit of what is presented to the taste of the palate and the correct procedure for assessing artistic merit. So a crucial question is whether, even in the case of the palate, Hume does successfully introduce a normative element into the kinsman's judgment. Budd argues that he does not, and for an exactly parallel reason to the one that he urges against Hume's account of aesthetic merit. Although the story from Don Quixote shows that the kinsman has a better discriminating capacity for the wine's flavours, this in itself gives him no right to claim that his verdict on the wine is any better or more appropriate than the different verdict of the others.

Certainly, the kinsman's superior power of flavour discrimination does not, by itself, give him the right to claim that his verdict on the wine's quality is more warranted. For nothing has yet been said about how to justify the kinsman's further claim that the flavour of iron, anyway as an ingredient in wine, is unpleasant, thereby vindicating his overall judgment of the wine's quality. However let us ask, "Why do we admit that the kinsman has superior discrimination even with respect to the wine's flavours?" Surely, it may be replied, that is obvious. It is the discovery of the iron key lying at the bottom of the hogshead: that is what settles the question in favour of the kinsman. But how is it settled? For the fact that, on emptying the hogshead, there is revealed a lump of iron lying at the bottom—and such a discovery could only be made by visual and/or tactual criteria—does not prove that anyone who ascribes a specific taste to that object (and thereby to the wine) has made a correct judgment. Perhaps a given metal, identified by visual and/or tactual criteria, has a certain taste to some people and not to others. (The substance phenol is said to taste bitter to some and tasteless to others, under the same circumstances).

Accordingly, the mere discovery of the old iron key does not show that the kinsman, even in respect to the presence of an alleged flavour, a taste of iron, has made a more correct or warranted judgment than the others, who denied its presence. What is required to enforce the kinsman's judgment is the acknowledgment by the others that, by their own taste, iron (identified by visual and/or tactual criteria) does have a specific taste. This acknowledgment is, of course, forthcoming because when iron is present in much larger quantities and/or not mixed in with numerous other substances, it is in fact found by all of us to have a specific taste, which we call an iron flavour. With this acknowledgment, together with the further acknowledgment—which Hume explicitly mentions—that those who can achieve the finest discriminations with respect to given types of flavour have a more perfect taste of the palate, it does follow that the others ought to accept that their judgment, with respect to the flavours of the wine, is less good than the kinsman's. His judgment, concerning the presence of the flavour, is warranted; theirs, concerning its non-existence, is unwarranted. Not because of the mere discovery of the iron key; but because there is agreement among the group concerning the taste of that metal, when present in larger proportions and/or unmixed with many other substances.

On the Humean account, this position is parallelled by the kinsman's normative judgment on the wine. The reason why the others ought to accept the kinsman's verdict of a blemish in the wine, despite their own unawareness of an unpleasant flavour, stems from their acknowledgment that iron not only has a specific taste but one that is, by their own sentiment, agreed to be unpleasant. This acknowledgment is made possible because when they have tasted iron, either unmixed with many other qualities or present in proportionately greater quantity than in this case, they too have found it unpleasant. Given this acknowledgment, plus the further acknowledgment that those who can spot a pleasant or unpleasant taste when present in very small quantities and/or mixed in with many competing flavours have a more perfect discrimination, it follows that the others ought to accept that their judgment, with respect to such blemishes, is less good than the kinsman's. But this procedure for vindicating his judgment depends on agreement among the group concerning the unpleasantness of the given type of taste.

In sum, with regard to the taste of the palate, the Humean has set out a method by which we can assess the appropriateness of people's claims concerning the excellence of given flavours that parallels the method we actually have for assessing the appropriateness of their claims concerning the presence of given flavours. Now since it is admitted by Budd that we do have a genuine method of assessment for the latter claims, he should equally recognize that Hume has successfully defended the possibility of a standard for the former. It should be admitted thatthe Humean account has successfully explained how to incorporate a normative standard into judgments of the palate.

Having dealt at some length with the taste of the palate, we can deal more quickly with how the Humean applies the same ideas to taste in the fine arts. In order to convince a sceptic, who is eg unmoved by a given work, that an allegedly true critic does have better judgment of its merits, we need to find the equivalent of the iron key. That is, we need to find the principle(s) of art by which the features in the work derive their influence upon the sentiments of a true critic. But since the sceptic failed to feel anything, how can we suppose that the principles of art that engage the true critic's taste also apply, and apply similarly, to the sceptic's? Unless this question can be answered, the charge that the Humean has failed to introduce any justifiable normative element into aesthetic judgments remains. But the answer is, I hope, now clear. The aesthetic sceptic is to be silenced in exactly the same way as the discovery of the iron key is employed to show the superiority of the kinsman's judgment, both with regard to the presence and merit of a flavour. That is, by demonstrating that the very same principle(s) that are governing certain features in the present work, and which are responsible for the critic's sentiments, equally apply to the sceptic's own aesthetic taste, when each of the principles is operating either on its own (ie not competing with the operation of other principles) or in a much more pronounced and obvious manner. In this way, the sceptic can be shown (by principles he himself accepts) that the features in question really are valuable and do have an effect on a more finely discriminating aesthetic taste. He ought, therefore, to accept the superiority of the other's judgment. But, as with judgments of the palate, this procedure can succeed because we not only locate the principles governing the true critic's taste but convince the other contender(s) that these principles govern their tastes as well.

I am not reading into the Humean account this analogous method for settling aesthetic evaluative disputes. Hume himself summarises the method: "when we show him [the sceptic] an avowed principle of art; when we illustrate this principle by examples, whose operation, from his own particular taste, he acknowledges to be conformable to the principle; when we prove that the same principle may be applied to the present case, where he did not perceive or feel its influence; he must conclude upon the whole, that the fault lies in himself, and that he wants the delicacy which is requisite to make him sensible of every beauty and every blemish" (6). (Presumably, for Hume, the principles of art will have the same status as those moral principles that he identifies as explaining why we regard some acts as virtuous and others as vicious. Neither the true critic nor the morally sensitive agent is normally consciously aware of the value qualities under the principles' abstract descriptions).

I conclude that the Humean account can be defended against the charge of failing to introduce any normative standard in the arts. Moreover, it would be a mistake to argue that because that account cannot resolve all conceivable normative disputes, it introduces no worthwhile normative content into our judgments. Admittedly, the account allows the possibility of a given set of features eliciting opposing sentiments from a pair of true critics, ie despite each having equally fine delicacy of taste, sound judgment etc. In such an eventuality, there is no standard by which the verdicts of one critic can be preferred to the other. But although such diversity must be acknowledged as possible, the Humean believes that it seldom happens in fact. (Hume himself also takes this line with moral distinctions). In any case, the very possibility of such diversity no more deprives the account of having provided any worthwhile standard of aesthetic normativity than does the analogous possibility with respect to the discernment of flavours. For the possibility (which must be admitted) that two equally fine discriminators of flavours might yet sort objects, on the basis of flavour, into heterogeneous, though similarly many, bundles does not deprive our everyday flavour judgments of any warranted standard of correctness. Indeed, our objector to the Humean account emphasises that talk of correctness is here in order. So the bare conceivability of disagreement among the finest flavour discriminators cannot be allowed to deprive judgments in this area of any worthwhile standard of correctness. Consequently, it must be mistaken for the objector to contend that the bare conceivability of disagreement (based on sentiment) among true critics means that the Humean account cannot provide a worthwhile standard of aesthetic normativity.

Having rejected the Humean account of artistic value, Budd contends that the requisite normativity is to be captured by tying it to the ways in which a critic may understand or misunderstand a work. For instance, he holds that to judge a work to be aesthetically valuable will be justified insofar as the sentiment felt is intrinsically rewarding and based on an understanding of the work: the judgment will be justified if, when the work is understood, it is found to possess features which constitute good reasons for finding it intrinsically rewarding to experience. But this account is implausible if it means that someone who understands the end or purpose of a work (eg that it is a piece of oratory designed to have a certain effect on a given audience), together with the social and artistic conventions etc. operating at its original performance, is in a position adequately to grasp whether the work has features constituting good grounds for finding it aesthetically rewarding. Such knowledge may often be a precondition for assessing a work of art properly, as Hume is careful to note (7). But the crucial aesthetic question is how imaginatively or creatively the artistic conventions are employed when the work is viewed as seeking to fulfil its purpose within its cultural milieu. Whereas the Humean account offers an explanation of the manner in which we should decide how inventively the artistic conventions have been employed, ie on the basis of the sentiments of true critics, the account given by Budd offers no alternative method whatever. On the other hand, his account is unhelpful if we are to take the notion of "understanding or misunderstanding" a work of art as simply equivalent to "appreciating or failing to appreciate" the work. For although it is doubtless a necessary condition for valuing a work of art that we should appreciate it, this simply returns us to our original question, viz how should the aesthetic merits and blemishes of a work be determined? To this question, no answer other than Hume's is provided.

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(1) See "Judgment, Aesthetic" in A Companion to Aesthetics edited by David Cooper (Basil Blackwell, Oxford: 1992).

(2) See his Values in Art, Chapter I ("Artistic Value"), (Penguin Books, London: 1996).

(3) See David Hume Essays: Moral, Political, and Literary (1777).

(4) Budd, Values in Art, page 23.

(5) Hume, "Of the Delicacy of Taste and Passion", Essays: Moral, Political, and Literary.

(6) Hume, "Of the Standard of Taste" (paragraph 16).

(7) See "Of the Standard of Taste" (paragraphs 21 and 22).

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