How should we judge art?

How should we judge art? More importantly for us, how do we judge whether Percival Everett’s works are good or not? In order to answer this question, I spent some time looking into the philosophy of David Hume. For those unfamiliar with the guy, he was a renown Scottish Enlightenment philosopher that, among other things, concerned himself with how we should evaluate art. He wrote a scholarly essay on this topic titled “Of The Standard of Taste” where he revealed, in his opinion, what constitutes an exceptional critic of art.

Most people today maintain that beauty is in the eye of the beholder. In their eyes, no art is simply better or worse than other art. It’s just different. Yet, we still have our favorite musicians, artists, and writers. These beliefs are typically justified using these three flawed reasons: nostalgia, novelty, and complexity.

I want you to think of your favorite book. Does it remind you of a better time in your life? If so, you could say that the reason that the book is exceptional is that it reminds you about the past. However, a person who didn’t experience what you did could read that same book and feel nothing, concluding that it wasn’t that great. Put this way, it’s easy to see how subjective nostalgia is. Therefore, it can’t be a legitimate reason to critique art. Is this book groundbreaking? Does it go where no book has gone before? Although something might be new to you, it doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s new to everyone. People older than you could easily think nothing of the plot of said book because they’ve read similar plots a thousand times before. Thus, they are unimpressed. Are you amazed at the intricacy of the language, or the number of allusions in the work? Just because something can be seen as complex doesn’t automatically mean that it’s good. In fact, for many people, the simpler something is the better. Certainly, complexity isn’t satisfactory justification as to why something is good.

So, this brings me back to my original question. Luckily for us, David Hume supplies us with an answer! In his essay, he reveals that in order to be a proper critic, one must have a  “strong sense” that is “united to delicate sentiment” which is “improved by practice, perfected by comparison, and cleared of all prejudice.” Let’s unpack this. If you’re going to consider yourself an ideal critic, you have to at least be able to see all the details of a piece and understand how they fit together. I know I’m guilty of reading a book and overlooking crucial details which results in an inferior experience at the end. To judge art, one must develop a keen eye. This is where the idea of practice comes in. I’m in college to develop my ability to dissect stories so that I can understand how one is created. As with anything, this only comes with practice. The next key aspect of this quote is the idea that you must compare art. I firmly believe that not all art is equal, and that distinctions must be made on the quality of the piece from others. Of course, the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel is a better work than Garfield, but you must understand why one is better than the other in order to critique art. Most importantly, one must look at every piece of art with an open mind. If you already hold biases concerning who created the piece, or where it is located, or even what the painting/book/movie depicts, you are probably not going to be able to give a pure opinion on it.

I feel as if I’m inclined to like Percival Everett and his work because I’m being taught it in college. My thinking is, if I’m reading it at this level of academics, it must be good. Yet, I never identified and became conscious of why I liked it. By utilizing the principles outlined by Hume, I feel more confident of my own opinion of Everett’s works and my ability to engage with works of art that I encounter in the future.




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