I was listening to the Philosophize This podcast on David Hume. It’s a four part series on Hume and I recommend listening to the whole series (and in fact I recommend every episode of the podcast as a whole) but part four in particular was really interesting. Here’s a link to the episode: http://philosophizethis.org/david-hume-art/.
For background and context, David Hume is a radical skeptic who asks people to critically examine their own beliefs and to decouple one’s understanding of the world from moral judgements, never saying one ought to act a certain way because of the way the world is. We can never be truly certain of causal relationships. Hume is a staunch empiricist, i.e. we can only make inferences through observation, not logic, because our limited human understanding makes identifying causal relationships effectively impossible. All of your beliefs require a “leap of faith” no matter how small or inconsequential. It’s your job to figure out exactly how big of a leap your beliefs must take you.
That said, he also believes that not all beliefs are equal. As Socrates would say, the unexamined life is not a life worth living. In Hume’s eyes, someone who blindly stumbles through life believing everything their parents told them and never challenging themselves to reexamine their closely held values does not have the same right to defend their beliefs as someone who has made the effort to critically examine how and why they came to their beliefs.
This brings us to the actual topic at hand. The fourth episode in Stephen West’s series on Hume talks about the qualities of being a good art critic. After all, not all beliefs are held equal, and while art is subjective, we’d be naive to say that all art is made with equal skill. Subjectivism is really common in creative communities, with people trying to avoid critiques that say that a work is badly made. No, we can only say that it doesn’t work for us. Maybe for someone it’s the best work of art ever created! You never know. Hume would scoff at this.
He actually has five criteria that you need to uphold if you want to critique art in such a way that your opinion becomes meaningful in accordance with the work’s true merit. These don’t necessarily prove that you can identify a piece of art’s objective quality, but they do indicate that your abilities as a critic can be trusted above others.
- Strong Sense
- Delicate Sentiment
- Lack of Prejudice
First, you have the capability to perceive the work as it was fully intended using your senses.
Second, you have a familiarity with the conventions of the piece of art and can isolate specific details. You can see the work of art for what it is, rather than just an impression.
Third, you have a lot of experience in criticism and can draw on your training and practice to inform your opinions.
Fourth, you have a lot of exposure to similar works through which you can draw comparison.
Fifth, you have to be able to separate yourself from the work of art and disregard any personal prejudices like nostalgia, melancholy, bigotry, attachment, etc that would obfuscate your ability to look at the work with clear eyes.
I think these are all very achievable. We should strive to emulate them as much as possible when giving feedback. We must practice leaving our preconceptions at the door and go in with an open mind, while simultaneously being rigorous with our craft and our critiques.
I’ll end this post with a quote from the podcast which I enjoyed:
One of the most profound points in the entire essay to me is his idea that as subjective of a matter as art seems to be on the surface, there’s definitely something consistent about great art. A consistency that you don’t see in other areas of inquiry where things seems more set in stone. The greatest scientist of our generation will probably not be the greatest scientist of the next generation. The philosopher we recognize as the best today will probably change as the centuries go on. But the da Vincis, the Homers, the Shakespeares … the brilliance of these people is oddly timeless. I mean, how crazy is it that we can read a poem written thousands of years ago and still recognize it as greatness?
Anyway I liked this episode a lot and thought I’d share.