On the Objectivity of Taste
Post #1822 • June 18, 2018, 6:18 PM • 1 Comment
In the talk “Can Taste Be Objective?”, delivered in 1971 and collected in Homemade Esthetics, Clement Greenberg posited that “the problems of taste do seem to boil down to one in the end: namely, whether the verdicts of taste are subjective or objective.” He notes that Kant grappled with it in Critique of Aesthetic Judgment but concludes that “He doesn't solve the problem satisfactorily.”
Kant believed in the objectivity of taste as a principle or potential, and he postulated his belief on what he called a sensus communis, a sense or faculty that all human beings exercised similarly in esthetic experience. What he failed to show was how this universal faculty could be invoked to settle disagreements of taste. And it's these disagreements that make it so difficult to assert the potential or principled objectivity of taste.
Greenberg attempted this by way of remedy:
In effect—to good and solid effect—the objectivity of taste is probatively demonstrated in and through the presence of a consensus over time. That consensus makes itself evident in judgments of esthetic value that stand up under the ever-renewed testing of experience. Certain works are singled out in their time or later as excelling, and these works continue to excel: That is, they continue to compel those of us who in time after look, listen, or read hard enough. And there's no explaining this durability—the durability that creates a consensus—except by the fact that taste is ultimately objective.
Greenberg writes later in the essay, “I realize that I take my life in my hands when I dare to say that I've seen something better than Kant did.” I feel the same way regarding Greenberg. Nevertheless, similarly, I think that I've seen something better than he did, at least a bit.
Consensus demonstrates the objectivity of taste. That demonstration is as close as we can get to proof about an aesthetic matter. It does not, however, explain why taste differs enough from individual to individual to make us think that it may be subjective, or have a considerable subjective component. I intend to show that it can be done, through further consideration about what objective means.
First of all, what we're really talking about is the objectivity of quality. Taste is the ability to detect quality. Taste is objective because quality is objective. It's a little easier to talk about quality inhering in the independently existing, material universe than to talk about taste inhering in it. Consequently, it's easier to to talk about quality inhering in the art object than to talk about taste inhering in it. So we'll start there.
To clarify, by “quality,” I mean art quality: the goodness of “art qua art” as Greenberg put it, the value of art as art, or as I'll refer to it hereafter, art-value. Art-value inheres in the art object. It must, because there's no other mechanism to form the consensus. Also this is the only way it would be possible for us to be drawn to each others' art objects, crossing enormous gaps of culture and time periods.
When we humans assess the material world, we do so with many contingencies in place. For instance, consider a wooden chair. I could call the chair “hard.” When I sit on it, it holds me. When I rap it with my fist, the impact makes a knocking sound. Yet from the standpoint of a table saw blade or a bit on a drill press, a chair is not all that hard. That difference in hardness how the chair got built in the first place. But now the contingencies have changed from those of using chairs to those of building chairs. These judgments about hardness or softness aren't subjective, they're contingent on how we're going to consider a chair.
The same goes for an art object, but there are even more contingencies involved: the contemplation of myriad related and unrelated art objects, connoiseurship, backstory, iconography, trends in art history and related trends in intellectual life, comprehension on mental and emotional levels, sensual pleasure—it goes on and on. In fact we may never finally suss out the right set of contingencies for a particular example of art-value. Taste differs because the contingencies are so numerous and variant. But where it exists, the art-value is objectively there, waiting to be discovered.
This is why Greenberg had to emphasize that the objectivity of taste was demonstrated by the consensus over time. It's only over time, and by implication over a significant number of people, that the right contingencies can be sure to fall out around an innovative art object. I'm reminded that even Caravaggio suffered 150 years of critical neglect.
Again, taste is the ability to detect quality. Looked at this way, taste is a kind of super-contingency. It's a capacity for contingencies themselves in the context of art, an informed intuition about what factors of attention and knowledge to bring to the experience of art and how to deploy them. And again, this is not subjectivity. This is awareness akin to the awareness of whether we're appreciating the use of chairs or the construction of chairs, complicated a thousandfold. Hence taste, like art-value, is objective, contingencies notwithstanding.
One of the unfortunate corollaries of the objectivity of taste is that it implies that when taste is wrong, it's objectively wrong. That is, if I like an art object and you don't, there must be something wrong with you, either cognitively or perceptually. I would say instead that if one of us is wrong, it's in the contingent part of the objectivity. You or I are not wrong in the sense that calling a chair a banana is wrong. You or I are wrong in the sense that calling a chair “soft” is wrong, even though, as discussed earlier, from a certain standpoint it actually is.
I anticipate a counterclaim at this point: If taste in art isn't subjective, contingent objectivity is essentially the same thing. For all we know, art-value is ubiquitous and it's just a matter of bringing the right contingencies to it in order to detect its value. This allows us to designate absolutely anything as an art object, and enjoy it as such.
I anticipate this counterclaim because it would seem to justify Duchamp's Readymades. The contemporary art world as we typically understand it can no more function without justification for Duchamp's Readymades than Christianity can function without Jesus, and for largely the same reasons.
In fact, I concede the claim. Later on in Homemade Esthetics Greenberg talks about what he calls “unformalized” or “raw” or “solipsistic” or (unfortunately) “autistic” art, basically the brute stuff of reality waiting for the individual to come along and make an aesthetic experience out of it by dint of a certain kind of attention. About this he says:
...Duchamp and his sub-tradition have demonstrated, as nothing did before, how omnipresent art can be, all the things it can be without ceasing to be art. And what an unexceptional, unhonorific status art as such—that is, esthetic experience—really has. For this demonstration we can be grateful. But that doesn't make the demonstration in itself any the less boring. That's the way it is with demonstrations: once they've demonstrated what they had to demonstrate they become repetitious, like showing all over again how two plus two equals four. That's not the way it is with more substantial art, good and bad: that kind of art you have to experience over and over again in order to keep on knowing it.
The narrow point is that if you want a trickle, a drinking straw and a glass of water will do. If you want a torrent you're going to need a fire hose and a water main to feed it. It's possible to reduce your demands on art until they shrink to match the limited art-value of a particular art object. Up to a certain degree, this is a valid exercise of taste—lesser but nevertheless complete enjoyment of lesser art. That is, complete compared to its own capacities, not complete in the sense of all that is possible in great art.
I do this not infrequently as an art critic. I don't want to embarrass anyone by naming names, but I could point to many examples where I've praised a minor artist, even a less-than-minor artist, in terms of the limited ambitions that he has successfully fulfilled. It would be pinched and a little stupid to go around hating the grand majority of all the art out there because it's not as good as Rembrandt's Jewish Bride in the Rijksmuseum.
On the other hand, it's a mistake to regard the fullness of the drinking straw as if it were the fullness of the fire hose. This is where we move into the realm of bad taste, taste unaware of its own position in the grand scheme of taste. It would be pinched and a little stupid in a different way to think that the latest example of the Duchampian sub-tradition is just as good as the Jewish Bride, and one could see it that way with just a slight change of perspective.
Some art is simply deficient in art-value. That said, sufficiently bad contingencies might result in a detection of quality in it.
The broader point is that reality is not infinitely malleable in the way that “subjective” would seem to suggest. Recognition of subjectivity does not require me to take your UFO abduction story seriously. A chair is not a banana. There are countless things that could be called a “door” but the vast majority of them cluster around a size and configuration that is convenient for a human to open, close, and pass through. Like objectivity, subjectivity depends on many contingencies. But with subjectivity it's contingencies all the way down, everywhere running up against the dictates of culture, then biology, then chemistry, then physics.
Back in 2013, Christopher Knight wrote this in a review about the Calder show at LACMA:
Einstein, upon seeing the 1943 Calder exhibition at the Museum of Modern art, understood. As quoted in the show's catalog, he lamented: “I wish I had thought of that.”
Einstein got what eluded art critic Clement Greenberg. The writer savaged the MOMA survey as sculpture inappropriately mimicking paintings by Picasso and Miró.
But Calder's mobiles were important in the radical development of the concept of drawing in space. That technique became the structural lingua franca for much that came after, including art as various as Henri Matisse's paper cutouts, Jackson Pollock's drip paintings, Eva Hesse's sculptural skeins of latex, Gordon Matta-Clark's chain saw cuts into walls, Lucio Fontana's neon squiggles, Robert Irwin's translucent scrims and lots more.
In 2014 the show traveled to the PEM and moved Sebastian Smee to write this:
It seems crazy that the sheer loveliness of Calder’s work — its very tendency to trigger smiles — has had an adverse effect on his reputation. But over the years, that’s exactly what seems to have happened.
Clement Greenberg, the trenchant, agenda-setting critic in New York at mid-century, dismissed Calder’s works as “racy and chic,” claiming they were guilty of an “easy facility” and a “jejune reliance on tastefulness and little more.”
Misrepresenting him as an American interloper in avant-garde Paris, others have accused him of stealing ideas from such friends as Duchamp, Arp, Alberto Giacometti, and Joan Miró, when in reality Calder was a respected peer of these artists, engaged in open dialogue.
What prompts the need to trot out a seventy-year-old opinion from an art critic who has been dead for two decades in order to set up a contrasting point? Peter Schjeldahl did this just two months ago in the course of writing about Soutine.
Clement Greenberg, in 1951, adjudged his work “exotic” and “futile,” owing to its lack of “reassuring unity” and “decorative ordering.” But today Soutine feels of the moment, amid quite enough reassurance and decorativeness in recent art.
Greenberg complained that Soutine’s work was “more like life itself than like visual art.” Right he was! Soutine’s best paintings convey nothing so much as a desperate exasperation with “visual art.”
Though he followed it with a reluctant admission that he had gotten something right that he had meant to get right.
Greenberg, while maintaining his authoritative dismissal of Soutine, had to begrudge that “one has to go back to Rembrandt ... to find anything to which his touch ... can be likened.” (That’s spot on. Like Rembrandt’s, Soutine’s brushstrokes can feel sensate, as if talking back to the painter with ideas of their own.)
As is always the case, Greenberg said something far more interesting about Soutine than the decoupage of quotes presented by Schjeldahl would suggest, but that's for another post. My point is that Schjeldahl, now 76 and in the game as long as nearly anybody, ought to be able to set up a narrative in an art review without having to rely on Greenberg as a springboard, particularly an essay written by Greenberg when Schjeldahl was nine.
What is it about Greenberg that so sticks in the contemporary craw?
Greenberg was in no respect a political conservative. He went from being an avowed Marxist to an informal left-liberal. He reported (in a piece collected in Late Writings) that he had never once voted Republican.
Nevertheless, he introduced a problem that turned out to be completely antithetical to contemporary progressivism. The core of the effort of progressivism has been to move more and more human concerns into the realm of social constructions: race, sex and sexuality, economics, and so on, including quality in art. If these things are social constructions, then they are amenable to socialization towards progress, and by undertaking that socialization we move towards a more just society. In theory.
The great enemy of this effort is essentialism, which holds such human concerns to be objective. Where Charles-Henri-Joseph Cordier's La Capresse des Colonies (1861) appears in the Met's online catalogue, it reads,
In his unpublished memoirs Charles Cordier cites the law of April 27, 1848 that abolished slavery in France and its colonies, writing: “My art incorporated the reality of a whole new subject, the revolt against slavery and the birth of anthropology.” In pioneering ethnography as a subject for sculpture in the nineteenth century, Cordier aimed to illustrate what he described as “the idea of the universality of beauty.” His busts often paired couples of the opposite sex but of the same race. This rare instance of matched busts of women was desired by the purchaser, a gaming club in Marseilles, that also commissioned the sumptuous Second-Empire pedestals from Cordier.
The busts revel in the period taste for polychromy in sculpture, an international phenomenon sparked by artistic debates about the painting of ancient statuary and inspired by ancient Roman and Renaissance sculpture composed of variously colored marbles. On a trip to Algeria in 1856 Cordier discovered onyx deposits in recently reopened ancient quarries and began to use the stone in busts such as these. He ingeniously fitted enameled bronze heads into the vibrantly patterned stone, creating exciting though costly representations of Africans that appealed to the highest levels of European society.
Cordier’s early portraits of black people were intended for France’s new ethnographic museum in Paris, where they would empirically document the “pure” racial types of “other” cultures. These representations are composites of individuals Cordier encountered during his travels to North Africa. Exquisite though they are, and despite his ambitions to expand the Western definition of beauty through his art, Cordier’s generalized portraits contributed to the French colonialist fascination with non-Western cultures through their spectacular racial essentialism.
Again there's a narrow point and a broad one. The narrow point is that a white man can't catch a break from the progressives these days even if he's a committed abolitionist. The broad one is that as the tenor of the art world drifts ever further into progressivism, art-value as a feature of the extant, material universe becomes an increasingly intolerable notion. If it's possible for quality to be objective then it's possible for certain fundamental qualities—of race, sex, economics, etc.—to be objective as well. They are therefore not so malleable and perhaps not amenable to socialization. That would oblige an admission that Russell Kirk may have been right about the principle of imperfectability.
Human nature suffers irremediably from certain grave faults, the conservatives know. Man being imperfect, no perfect social order ever can be created. Because of human restlessness, mankind would grow rebellious under any utopian domination and would break out once more in violent discontent—or else expire of boredom. To seek for utopia is to end in disaster, the conservative says: we are not made for perfect things. All that we reasonably can expect is a tolerably ordered, just, and free society, in which some evils, maladjustments, and suffering will continue to lurk. By proper attention to prudent reform, we may preserve and improve this tolerable order. But if the old institutional and moral safeguards of a nation are neglected, then the anarchic impulse in humankind breaks loose: “the ceremony of innocence is drowned.” The ideologues who promise the perfection of man and society have converted a great part of the twentieth-century world into a terrestrial hell.
The objectivity of taste has gone from being a merely aesthetic nuisance to a political one, a veritable blockade to progress. As long as it has already been going on, perhaps the war on Greenberg has just begun.