Dave Hickey in Houston, TX

Glasstire is presenting Dave Hickey this coming weekend (12/14/2013) at Rice University. Hickey is one of America’s great intellectual art heroes, and the author of “The Invisible Dragon: Four Essays on Beauty,” “Air Guitar: Essays on Art and Democracy,” and his newest, “Pirates and Farmers,” all of which will be available (and signable) during his appearance according to Glasstire’s page. You’ll be able to (see and) hear him in Sewall Hall, Room 301, at 2pm.

Rice University’s directions to the front entrance

Rice University’s map pdf link

Dave Hickey's "The Invisible Dragon" on amazon.com

“The Invisible Dragon,” by Dave Hickey, on Amazon.com

Dave Hickey's "Pirates and Farmers" on amazon.com

“Pirates and Farmers,” by Dave Hickey, on Amazon.com

Dave Hickey's "Air Guitar" on amazon.com

“Air Guitar,” by Dave Hickey, on Amazon.com

A Matter of Taste

“Good taste” for art carries with it the seed of its own befoulment; better to have “bad taste” and find happiness in art than the opposite.

The above is a thought I had after reading a chapter from Giorgio Agamben’s The Man Without Content. A friend and I discussed the matter, and the following was roughly my conclusion.

There’s definitely a strong element of cultural influence, if not dictum, in “good” and “bad” taste, especially in regard to art. “Taste,” in terms of “preference,” is a subjective thing. My liking some piece of art for any number of reasons, or just liking it at all, is a matter of this type of taste and is irrefutable in the same way that my taste in food is simply what I like, whether someone else thinks the same food is good or not. But there’s another element of tasteful evaluation that is more formal and less subjective.

I imagine that most of us can appreciate considerable skill and beauty on a level that’s more intersubjective, at the least, and possibly something akin to Kant’s universal subjective (where it’s not out-in-the-world objective but tends to be something almost everyone is in agreement upon). Think of natural wonders, outer space, classical/ancient Western and Asian art, and magnificent architecture; you’d have to be nuts to not think the paintings in the Sistine Chapel are beautiful, even if you don’t agree with the content or the color choice or whatever else. Everyone would find it easy to tell someone that they had bad taste if they thought it wasn’t beautiful or that it was valueless. I think what is meant with this sense of “taste” is partly a matter of some mental organ associated with this intersubjective or universal subjective discernment and also a matter of culture, as in, “you are uncultured if you fail to find this beautiful.” Both of these are sort of judgmental; we’d be saying that their minds are somehow flawed if they didn’t agree with us about this beauty.

But is it not possible that we’re actually right? Some of our considerations on human rights and morals are rationally based, but most of them are very natural and universal (but are also rationally defended). Murder is wrong; lying is often bad; stealing is punishable; cheating should get you kicked out of a game. It’s definitely possible but rare to find a culture in which any of these are acceptable (see the side note at the end of the post for a clarification of the issue of murder). Is it not possible that beauty and an appreciation of art can arise in the same way, universally?

Another element of valuation that can be appreciated universally regards effort. I’m thinking, in my own experience and opinion, of this one massive and quite ugly painting that an artist constructed over many years (I believe it was a constant project over at least one decade). It weighs in at over a ton and it’s just layers upon layers of gray paints that vaguely resemble a flower. There’s the question of “is it art,” but that’s for another time. Looking at this painting I couldn’t possibly say that it is aesthetically pleasing, but there’s an important context that makes it highly valuable to me and is similar to one of these elements of taste, and that is effort. To me, this ranks up there with skill, content, composition, color and form, and all that good stuff. I can appreciate it because of the effort and force of will alone that it took to complete this work. And, yeah, I would say that if you can’t appreciate that then yer doin’ it wrong, which is to say, “you have bad taste.” I think I would be right about it, too.

Here’s the clincher, though. Having “good taste,” or recognizing to a greater degree what is more or less valuable, does not exclude liking things that don’t fit into the higher end of that spectrum. My partner can easily tell you the difference between a good book and a bad book with a variety of criteria, but that doesn’t stop her from liking bad books. She’ll say, “I know it’s awful, but I like it.” Most of us do this same thing, with movies, music, books, and visual art. We all internally distinguish the difference between something of quality and something we like. A problem only arises when you let the quality completely dictate the appreciation, and that’s where the negative judgment comes in.

Maintaining the two spectrums of taste and preference is a good thing, in my opinion, if neither dictates a reassessment of the other. I’m totally comfortable seeing a famous painting and calling it valuable and good while not liking it, and liking some Nickelback while agreeing that it’s crap, musically. It’s true; don’t judge me!

(Clarification of murder) In the case of murder, we certainly find a variety of acts that are considered murder by some cultures and not by others; consider the death penalty, abortion, genocide, and human sacrifice. Nonetheless, all of the societies in which these are not murder nonetheless have a sense of murder being wrong, but exclude certain actions from the consideration of murder. The point is that we still find a ‘universal wrongness’ of murder among the other moral considerations.