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Taste In Art

( Originally Published Early 1900's )


Mention, perhaps, should be made of taste, a term in common use, indicative of that within the mind enabling one to recognize an artistic effect, and to judge in some way of its quality. The term originated in an adaptation to a feeling in the mind of that which can be actually experienced in only one of the senses, and this a lower sense. As originally used, too, taste indicated a passive state; but even when referring to the lower sense it may indicate an active. A cook whose taste is good can prepare a dish to the taste of others. In a similar way, in art, the word may indicate a man's appreciation and also his application of the laws of beauty. Again, when referring to the lower sense, men are said to have a natural and a cultivated taste; and the same is true with reference to their attitude toward beauty.

As applied to the whole range of artistic effects, the relation of taste to the aesthetic nature seems to be precisely that of conscience to the moral nature, and of judgment to the intellectual. Enlighten a man's soul, his conscience will prompt to better actions; increase his wisdom, his judgment will give better decisions. According to the same analogy, cultivate his aesthetic nature,—i. e., improve the accuracy of his ear or eye, his knowledge of the different appearances of life, or of modes of each life,—and his taste will be cultivated and improved. He may never reach a position where he can know what is absolutely beautiful any more than what is absolutely right or wise; but he may be constantly approaching nearer such a knowledge. Hence, as applied to art, the old adage, "De gustibus non est disputandum, " is not, in every sense, true. Essentials of Aesthetics, II.


The fact that the whole human form and every part of it owes the beauty which we recognize in it largely to its representation of a certain phase of significance, furnishes the best possible explanation for those discrepancies in taste, which are nowhere more apparent than in the judgments which different persons, equally cultivated, form with reference to precisely the same human proportions. These judgments differ because men differ in their views of adaptability and fitness, and in the recollections which they associate with persons characterized by certain features; but more than all, because they differ in their feelings of companionship with those possessing traits which these features represent. Owing to one or the other of these reasons, there are, for all of us, certain forms so adjusting themselves into the framework of vision and mind that they fit into what men term their ideals as into a vise, and hold sympathy spellbound. Certain movements in these forms seem regulated to such a rhythm that, in unison with it, all our currents of vein and nerve leap from the heart and brain and thrill along their courses. They do so very likely because of the operation of those universal laws of vibration, the connection between which and the effects of beauty was suggested in Chapter XII., and also in Appendix I. of "Art in Theory." But the exact reason lies deeper in nature than any plummet dropped by human means can fathom. We cannot know the cause any more than what, when all conductors are in place, speeds the impulse of an electric current. We only know that a reason exists at all because of the results which we experience. Just as certain organs of the ear or eye respond and glow with a sense of complete freedom and delight in the presence of certain harmonious elements or combinations of sounds or sights, so does the spirit as a whole. There may be some so constituted physically, or so incapable of analyzing what they feel, that they confound this apprehension of beauty, which only we are now considering, with something less pure and elevating. But those who have never made their souls the servants of their bodies, and whose aesthetic as well as ethical natures have, therefore, developed normally, are aware that the influence which flows from beauty and beauty alone is different in kind from any-thing debasing, and allied to that which is wholly spiritual. It is not without strength in extreme youth, nor lost in old age, and in its power to give delight and even to arouse romance, it is stronger, often, when exerted by man upon man and woman upon woman, than when exerted by one upon another of another sex. These aesthetic effects, when they reveal their sources through the outward forms in which they are expressed and embodied, do this mainly through what we term the proportions. What if these latter in them-selves be merely a collection of like or related measurements? Is this not exactly what we should expect of anything the effects of which can be ultimately traced to vibrations? Cannot the same be affirmed not only of the minute waves that underlie results in melody and harmony of tone, but even of the larger waves of rhythm? And, if without rhythm there can be no effective music or poetry, how should there be effective painting or sculpture without proportion? -Proportion and Harmony, VII.


Just as moral or intellectual character is shown by the way in which the balance is maintained between conflicting material and spiritual motives appealing to the conscience or the judgment, so artistic character is shown by the way in which the balance is preserved between the physiological and psychological requirements of art. To a great extent, as has been shown, the former requirement follows fixed natural laws, as is the case, in fact, with everything merely material; but the latter requirement depends upon the range of thought and feeling characteristic of the mind of the individual artist as a result of his temperament or experience. While therefore two artists may equally preserve the balance of which mention has just been made, they can never do it in exactly the same way. The psycho-logical contribution, in each case, must be different. It seems to be mainly for this reason that some argue that there can be no standard of taste. But the same kind of logic would lead one to conclude that there can be no standard of right for conscience or judgment. It is undoubtedly a fact that moral and intellectual standards are actually accepted to an extent and in a sense that is not true of those of taste. But why is this the fact?—Why but because the decisions of conscience and judgment lead to actions; and actions always have some tendency to become injurious to others. Therefore, for mutual protection, men have agreed to accept conventional codes and creeds, and to abide by them. Artistic taste, on the contrary, does not, as a rule, lead to actions, or at least not directly; and accordingly it is not supposed to be injurious and is not treated as such. In it the expression of personality, and with this of originality, is left unfettered. Spiritually considered, the artist is almost the only freeman. But the fact that he is this is due, more than to anything else, to the lucky accident of his not happening to be engaged upon that which has a direct practical, utilitarian bearing. There is nothing in the condition to rid him of the obligation to endeavor, at least, to discover and to fulfil certain artistic principles, any more than the fact of living where no conventional creeds or codes had been framed, would rid one of the obligation to endeavor, at least, to discover and to fulfil the principles of truth and righteousness. Art in Theory, XIV.


What kind of taste is being cultivated to-day? It is safe to say that, twenty-five years ago, no American publishers of respectable standing would have allowed their imprint to appear on the same page with the artistic vulgarities which our foremost firms are now flaunting upon one's eyes from the posters and even covers of their periodicals; nor, if so flaunted, would any one, old enough to live outside a nursery, have looked at such effects a second time. But now they are supposed to commend them-selves to the taste of several millions of people, many of whom, after the schooling that they have received through gradations downward to the present low level, are actually expected to think them interesting and, if critics, to speak of them as artistic! Nor is there any commercial excuse for this abuse of artistic opportunity. It seems to be owing to sheer aesthetic wantonness irresponsibly debauching popular taste.—Painting, Sculpture, and Architecture as Representative Arts, XII.


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