How can we judge what good art is? David Hume- of The Standard of Taste

The question “what is art?” has been covered by very many people, and has received very many answers.  The question “how do we judge what is good art?” is a much more interesting one. When we concern ourselves with the arts, we all have opinions about what we feel is good or bad, pleasing or displeasing, interesting or uninteresting. In Hume’s essay of the Standard of Taste, he took up the challenge of answering this question.

Hume’s concern is with a standard which he calls the ‘delicacy of taste’. The importance of the delicacy of taste is that the more delicate our tastes are, the greater our ability to notice and appreciate the most subtle aspects of a piece of art. We increase the delicacy of our taste by experiencing and comparing greater numbers of pieces of art. It would be difficult to judge the value of cubism if the only cubist painting we had ever seen was Mandora by Georges Braque. If we had seen three thousand cubist paintings, and studied cubism in art classes, however, our ideas on the subject would be more refined. The subtleties of the pictures would be more prominent, but also have greater significance.

Georges Braque, Compotier, bouteille et verre, 1912

Hume retells the story of from Don Quixote where two wine aficionados are tasting a hogshead of wine. One judges it to be good because of the rich taste of leather, whilst the other judges it to be good because of the deep irony taste. When they drink the hogshead dry, they find an iron key attached to a leather strap at the bottom! What do we learn from this? When we judge something to be good, we do it from a preconceived set of notions, against which we measure the value of a piece of art. The two aficionados were looking for particular qualities, but in reality, those qualities were making the natural character of the wine. This teaches us that bias is the enemy of a great art critic.

We all share general notions of what is good art, but we vary on specific articles of taste. Our personal predilections can not be decided against any standard, they merely are what they are. There are things which can be understood to qualify our predilections at times though. Age is one thing. As we get older, our tastes and understanding of the world both grow. As we grow, our tastes change to match the people we become. At fifty, we will be reading different books from the ones we chose at twenty. Considering this, we must see that we have a disposition within us to choose the art which reflects who we are, or ideas and feelings within us. Therefore, the critic should view a piece of art in as unbiased a manner as possible, however, doing this whilst applying the understandings and ideas we have gained through experience. We can talk about why a piece of art is good to us, but it is more important to talk about why it is generally good.

Hume enlightens us by asking us to appreciate sentiment and judgement (sometimes referred to as reason) as two distinct things. Reason/judgement is our abstract rationality, independent of how we feel, whilst sentiment is that faculty by which we judge how we feel about something. Ideas which we arrive at through sentiment can never be wrong because they are always true TO US. However, the truths of sentiment are subjective truths, and aren’t therefore universal facts. “I like Af Klint” is a statement of sentiment, “Af Klint is good” is a statement of judgement.

One useful way of regulating our bias to favour a more useful understanding of art is by applying reason. When we use the faculty of reason, one thing we can ask of a painting, film, book, poem etc is “does it achieve what it sets out to do?”. With a more acute delicacy of taste, we can better answer this question. This is because we better understand the reasonings of artists, and the significances of brush strokes, symbols, uses of light, forms of narration, as a few examples.

Delicacy of taste is how we gage the value of art when we are talking about one piece of art against another. Our standards of taste which (A) inform us to our general choices, and (B) influence people to create art, are created both by individuals, but also by the consent of the masses over time and by the uniform ideas of cultures and nations.

One standard which decides taste in general terms is morality. Great art can often (I say ‘can often’ because we do not want to fix ourselves to saying what art SHOULD do, merely what it CAN do) be relevant to us because it reflects our morality. Morality changes over time, that is demonstrably true. Very few philosophers believe that there are nothing but moral absolutes, and even those who do believe in moral absolutes do not often believe that those moral laws reflect the instinctively and emotionally driven form of our morality. They are two separate things. The fact that morality changes shows us why we do not see Homer’s Odysseus as the unquestionable hero he was once thought to be. Robert Solomon famously said that when he taught Camus’ The Outsider, he could tell how his students would receive it by who was president at the time, since he had taught it for so many years.


Another thing which makes art meaningful to us is familiarity. A piece of literature or a painting which shows us the aspects of culture we are most familiar with will resonate with us better because we can more comfortably identify with it. This is one reason that some people struggle with reading ‘classics’, the places, culture, and morals have changed, so they take a little effort of vicarious understanding to really engage with well. This shows us why, although art works well when it mirrors our culture and morality, we should still allow it to progress. Culture and morality move on, and so should art.

One further point is that the objects of art should not be measured in value by how well they reflect truths to us. Much great art uses metaphor and hyperbole to confer its meaning. Much modern art obfuscates the picture because the artist feels that meaning is conferred better when exact pictures are not being shown- the picture gets in the way of the meaning. This is also true because what the art reflects, beauty, for example, exists as a notion in the mind of the perceiver, not in the actual painting. Somebody who finds beauty in a painting finds beauty true to their sentiment, whilst somebody who finds horror in that same painting finds horror true to their sentiment. Beauty and horror are not truths governed by strict rational rules. We can agree that a painting is generally considered to be beautiful, but not that a painting is beautiful.


To conclude, Hume believed that the best way to judge art was by developing a more refined delicacy of taste, which could be done through greater number of experiences. There are ways in which the value of art is wholly determined by the person experiencing it, such as whether it is beautiful or not. There are also ways in which a piece of art can be judged by rational reason, such as whether the technical skill of the artist achieves what the artist set out to do. When you look at a piece of art, it has worth in and of its self, but that worth is also qualified by the art we have known before that piece. The more art we know, the better a piece of art is understood.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s