The Standard of Taste

To look at a work of art in order to see how well certain rules are observed and canons conformed to impoverishes perception. But to strive to note the ways in which certain conditions are fulfilled, such as the organic means by which the media is made to express and carry definite parts, or how the problem of adequate individualization is solved, sharpens esthetic perception and enriches its content.

—John Dewey, Art as Experience

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Thank you!

When an aspiring poet approached Hermann Hesse—winner of the Nobel Prize in literature for his prolific body of writing, including poetry, fiction, and political essays—asking the great writer to review his poetry and to provide honest feedback about his qualification as a poet, Hesse responded:

Thank you for your charming letter and for your poems and stories. The letter expresses a confidence that I must, alas, disappoint. . . . for what you ask of me is something I do not have to give.

You present me with your poetic efforts and request me to read them and then tell you what I think of your talent. You ask for severe judgment and candid appraisal, flattery will be of no use to you. Simply put, your question is: Am I a poet? Am I talented enough to be entitled to publish poems and, if possible, to make writing my calling?

I would like nothing better than to be able to give a simple answer to this simple question, but that is not possible.

Explaining the reasons for his inability to give the aspiring poet meaningful feedback, Hesse continued:

I consider it altogether out of the question to draw from sample poems by a beginner whom one does not know personally and intimately any conclusions about his lasting qualifications to be a poet. Whether you have talent can, of course, be made out, but talent is no rarity, the world is teeming with talent, and a young man of your age and education would have to be actually lacking in normal endowment if he were not able to write acceptable poems and essays. Further, I will no doubt be able to see from your work whether you have read Nietzsche or Baudelaire, if this or that present-day poet has influenced you; I will also be able to see whether you have already formed a taste for art and nature, which nevertheless has not the slightest thing to do with poetic endowment. At best (and this would speak well for your verses) I will be able to discover traces of your experiences and attempt to form a picture of your character. More is not possible, and whoever promises on the basis of your early efforts to appraise your literary talent or your hopes for a poetic career is a highly superficial character, if not a swindler.

Only for a Moment

Who can we turn to for feedback and critique of our work?

Before discussing what qualities may be desirable in a person entrusted to judge artistic merits (qualities I concede from the outset I don’t possess), it’s fair to ask whether artistic merits lend themselves, at least in some significant respects, to objective judgment to begin with. If the answer is no, then the judgment of any person, regardless of any qualification, should not matter any more or any less than the opinion of any other person. The existence, variety, and prevalence of so many art competitions suggests that many people, at least implicitly, believe that the answer is yes: that some criteria exist which may be applied objectively by qualified judges to form meaningful comparisons among works of art, and therefore the opinions of these qualified judges should be considered as more credible and important than the opinions of other people. This was the belief promoted by Scottish philosopher David Hume.

In 1757, Hume published a seminal article on aesthetics, titled, Of the Standard of Taste, detailing his thoughts regarding who should be trusted to evaluate art: to pronounce judgment on the public’s behalf in matters of “beauty and deformity.” Acknowledging that “It is natural for us to seek a Standard of Taste,” and conceding that “There is a species of philosophy, which cuts off all hopes of success in such an attempt,” Hume nonetheless declared: “It is impossible to continue in the practice of contemplating any order of beauty, without being frequently obliged to form comparisons between the several species and degrees of excellence, and estimating their proportion to each other.” He then went further to proclaim that such a comparison can indeed be made decisively and objectively, but only by a rare few who possess certain characteristics qualifying them for the job of setting a standard of taste for the rest of us.

According to Hume, the ultimate judge of art, is history. While some works of art may be popular during certain periods and/or only among certain populations, the measure of truly great art is that it survives the test of time and appeals to audiences beyond just the contemporaries or cohorts of its maker. But how can we tell today whether any given work will ultimately prove itself great and someday become considered (in hindsight) as timeless and universally celebrated? More specifically, who can we turn to today to estimate most reliably what, and to what degree, specific works of art may meet the criteria that make such greatness possible?

In comparing works of art, Hume suggested, we must first separate judgment (or opinion) from sentiment. Sentiment, being subjective and having no reference to anything beyond itself, is always right for any given individual, even if it disagrees with another individual’s sentiment; but judgment, being by nature objective and referenced to understanding, must be either right or wrong. (Although we may not learn until later whether any judgment was in fact right or wrong).

Who, then, are those venerated people possessing sufficiently deep understanding so that their judgments are most likely to be proven right in time? Hume answered: “Strong sense, united to delicate sentiment, improved by practice, perfected by comparison, and cleared of all prejudice, can alone entitle critics to this valuable character; and the joint verdict of such, wherever they are to be found, is the true standard of taste and beauty.”

We may consider “strong sense” to mean subject-matter expertise, but such expertise alone, according to Hume, is not enough. Those we should consider as qualified to judge art are not just people who happen to possess knowledge about certain genres of art, but those whose expertise was honed by repeated practice over a prolonged span of time; those who are sensitive to delicate nuances in a work of art that may not be obvious to others; those whose knowledge is not just deep but also broad beyond the confines of just one style, discipline, or period (or just a handful of styles, disciplines, and periods); and those we can trust to apply their judgment ruthlessly and objectively, without any prejudice or the influence of subjective bias.

Whereas many people can discern the general qualities of beauty and use these qualities to form an opinion about the general appeal of a work of art; true judges of art—those who may be trusted to set a standard of taste on the public’s behalf—must not limit their impressions to just the obvious. Hume wrote, “It is acknowledged to be the perfection of every sense or faculty, to perceive with exactness its most minute objects, and allow nothing to escape its notice and observation.” He then added, “A good palate is not tried by strong flavors; but by a mixture of small ingredients, where we are still sensible of each part, notwithstanding its minuteness and its confusion with the rest. In like manner, a quick and acute perception of beauty and deformity must be the perfection of our mental taste; nor can a man be satisfied with himself while he suspects, that any excellence or blemish in a discourse has passed him unobserved.”

Regarding the need for a judge of art to possess great breadth and depth of knowledge, Hume wrote, “A man, who had had no opportunity of comparing the different kinds of beauty, is indeed totally unqualified to pronounce an opinion with regard to any object presented to him . . . One accustomed to see, and examine, and weigh the several performances, admired in different ages and nations, can alone rate the merits of a work exhibited to his view, and assign its proper rank among the productions of genius.” For this reason, it is eminently important for judges to know in depth the history of art and to be able to compare a given work, not just to other works considered alongside it but also to other great works from other times and places.

Emphasizing the importance of objectivity, Hume wrote, “to enable a critic the more fully to execute this undertaking, he must preserve his mind free from all prejudice, and allow nothing to enter into his consideration, but the very object which is submitted to his examination. . . . when any work is addressed to the public, though I should have a friendship or enmity with the author, I must depart from this situation; and considering myself as a man in general, forget, if possible, my individual being and my peculiar circumstances. A person influenced by prejudice, complies not with this condition.”

Further, Hume contended that it is not even enough for a judge to possess all these qualities. The judge must also be in the right state of mind when judging. Even a person with the finest taste is prone to errors in judgement when distracted by personal concerns, when feeling uncomfortable, tired, hungry, or anxious. Hume wrote, “A perfect serenity of mind, a recollection of thought, a due attention to the object; if any of these circumstances be wanting, our experiment will be fallacious, and we shall be unable to judge of the … universal beauty.”

This concern with the judge’s state of mind, often neglected, is now shown by recent research to be profoundly consequential, and a major cause of errors in judgment. Beyond just innate bias leading to errors in judgment, another cause for error, which is driven by circumstances, is “noise”—statistical inconsistencies. This is the subject of Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman’s latest book by this title. In the book, Kahneman wrote, “Some judgments are biased; they are systematically off target. Other judgments are noisy, as people who are expected to agree end up at very different points around the target. Many organizations, unfortunately, are afflicted by both bias and noise.”

Dangerous Seduction

While I generally agree with Hume, there are two aspects in which I consider his theory of aesthetic judgment incomplete, if not in some ways untenable. First, Hume considered art as synonymous with beauty (i.e., aesthetic appeal). This may have been the paradigm in his day, but art has since come to serve many more important purposes than just to give aesthetic pleasure. Second, Hume’s theory is formalist in nature, meaning that it assumes that all the information one needs to judge the worthiness of an artwork is contained within the work. Although Hume acknowledged that art must be considered in context of its intended audience, he did not consider as relevant other factors external to the work, such as the artist’s intent in making the work, or the work’s relation to other works or ideas.

Even if limited to just Hume’s criteria for what makes a good judge of art, I do not consider myself qualified for the job. Although I have a keen interest in the history and philosophy of art and photography, I can easily name several people who possess greater breadth and depth of knowledge in these areas than I do. I would not want my own ignorance of some important history, philosophy, or other relevant context to become a factor in influencing or limiting another artist’s work.

I am also aware of my own biases and don’t consider myself truly objective as a judge of art. Being an artist, I have my own preferred styles, subject matter, definitions, and aesthetic sensibilities that I favor openly over others. Some of my close friends are also artists, meaning that my opinion will (and should) always be considered susceptible to subjective bias, even if unintended. Indeed, Hume’s characterizations make a good case for why some of the most effective critics and judges of art are/were not themselves artists.

Being a professional artist (in the traditional sense of earning all my income from art-related activities), some of my personal and professional relationships (and by extension my livelihood) may demand reserving strong judgments, occasionally giving potential clients and colleagues what they want even if it doesn’t always fit with my own sensibilities, and not offending (too severely) certain influential people or common beliefs.

Being a consummate naturalist and passionate believer in the value of originality as a measure for art, I admittedly find some practices common in landscape and nature photography (the disciplines I am most likely to be asked to judge) ethically suspect, undesirable, even condemnable. These ethical considerations will no doubt interfere with my ability to judge works objectively, strictly on their aesthetic merits.

As an artist, I believe I am, as Albert Camus put it in his Nobel Prize speech, “obliged to understand rather than to judge.” If nothing else, the pursuit of understanding makes me, over time, a better judge of my own work. It also gives me greater freedom to change my mind and my methods as I learn and understand new things, without risking those whose works I may have judged previously feeling slighted if it turns out that I have misunderstood or lacked sufficient knowledge when expressing an opinion about their work.

A Place to Recover

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11 thoughts on “The Standard of Taste

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  1. Guy, I really enjoyed this article! Had been wondering about how you were doing and I see you are in fine shape based on this excellent essay. I, for myself, no longer enter photography contests. I produce images pleasing to me and that is enough. Having said that I do not mind receiving opinions and critiques from a few trusted mentors, who share my approach and whose opinion I value. If this seems contradictory so be it! Life in many ways is a contradiction as is photography! Take care old friend!!

  2. Let me echo the comments from Tom Coverdale. In essence I make photographs for me. I am happy to show them to friends and to members of my local photo club, because many times they see things that I did not when making the image. I learn from their comments. Presumably this helps me in future image-making.

  3. I hear your stance on competitions is loud and clear, and generally agree with it, but I was wondering what your thoughts are on giving critique for educational purposes? I think when people ask for educational critique, they are well aware that the person they are asking has “their own preferred styles, subject matter, definitions, and aesthetic sensibilities” and perhaps are actively seeking it out. Surely they do on your workshops? That isn’t to say that they are trying to copy or be unoriginal, but the reality is that we learn from each other. Thanks!

    1. Thanks, Brent! On my workshops with Michael Gordon we conduct a review session at the end. I hesitate to call it a critique since it implies a judgment. In these sessions we discuss a handful of images from each participant and provide targeted feedback related directly to the concepts we teach on the workshop (i.e., not a general evaluation, but demonstrating how aspects of the image and its making align with the material we covered). Before Michael and I chime in, participants introduces their images, describes their thoughts and decisions, and any questions they may have for us and for others in the room. We always ask for images that are creative and expressive, even if they have flaws, even if unprocessed. The point is the conversation, not measuring how successful the image is by any criteria. Our goal is strictly educational.

      One challenge with public critique is that the reviewer rarely has a chance to hear from the photographer, learn their intents, consider the image in context of the creative decisions made, etc. Such critique by necessity ends up about the formal aspects of the image (what can be inferred from the image, without further context). Formalism is generally not considered a useful approach to art these days.

      Another challenge in such critiques is that there is no advance understanding between critic and photographer about the criteria used in the evaluation. For example, if I were to review an image on its creative or expressive merits, photographers should know in advance not to submit images of common views, or derivations of common compositions, no matter how aesthetically impressive they may be. In this sense, the evaluation will not be fair for either the reviewer or the photographer.

  4. I know you are responding to my invitation to host a Critique Group session together, so I will clarify on what I meant by that, since I was no way implying that you would be “judging” people’s images as if it were a contest. While I agree with your stance on competitions, (although there are other reasons to enter competitions that you seem to ignore or not acknowledge) I wouldn’t lump in giving critique along with that as people can have entirely different motivations behind it. At least when I critique people’s images–which I do very often, not because I have appointed myself as some kind of voice of artistic authority, but because they seek me out and are interested in my opinion for whatever reason–I don’t do it as a judge; meaning I don’t even attempt to evaluate the image in terms of “good” or “bad” or even successful or unsuccessful, as that would not be fair to the artist. Rather, I discover their intention behind the image by first asking questions and if there is anything they feel unsatisfied with or that is still lacking that they’d like to improve on. It is not about making them change their image in order to please my preferences and biases, but rather to make suggestions to help them achieve their own personal vision with the scene and perhaps point out things they have not been able to notice themselves with their limited perspective, perhaps due to having less experience or not being aware of every possibility available to them in post-processing or lighting and composition. I also make the point that if any of my suggestions don’t resonate with them, they shouldn’t feel obligated to implement them. My Critique Groups are also private, done in small groups instead of in the public eye like competitions.

    I will say that I agree that critique in general is not useful and I wouldn’t recommend seeking critique from strangers. It’s important that your mentor or whoever is helping you respects your personal vision and is able to see your images more objectively.

  5. As a competition organizer I of course don’t agree with much of what you say here, but I do appreciate that you recognize that just because competitions aren’t for you, they can still offer value to other people and can be a catalyst for moving artwork in a certain direction. Most competitions are poorly organized and not very thoughtful, so I think they generally deserve a bad reputation; however, the competition we’ve created for NLPA is way different.

    Anyways, in regards to Critique Groups – I think you may have jumped the gun on that one. Having heard about these and seen videos of them, it has nothing to do with competition. It’s more like a masterclass format where students learn from each other much like a workshop setting. It has nothing to do with judgment. The way these are run, the organizers offer up suggestions for improvement based on what the student wants to learn and what types of images they want to make. The diverse selection of people serving as instructors allows for a diverse set of opinions. I for one would have loved to take one with you Guy. 😉

    1. Thanks, Eric and Matt! Sorry to respond to both of you together, but I think you both read something into my writing that I did not intend. The purpose of this article is not to discuss the usefulness of competitions or critique sessions; it is to elaborate my reasons for not judging contests or providing public critique (for many years now). I only mention contests and critique sessions in the introduction as a lead-in to the philosophical discussion.

      Rest assured, my views have not been influenced by either of your offerings. You can find my thoughts on competition expressed in writings (books and articles) that pre-date these offerings by many years.

  6. As an occasional enterer of competitions, mainly in our local club, and for the county exhibition, I’ve seen how judging is subjective and prone to bias. I think the most important judge of my own work is myself – I do this for my own pleasure and I do want to improve constantly but I don’t want to fit into a meme or accepted fashionable style to please others. If the judge likes it then fine, but I do want constructive criticism of what I present but only if it leads to changes in my thought processes about what I’m up to. Obvious faults in technique or composition shouldn’t really get through to the competition stage surely but there tends to be a focus on minutiae rather than on what the image is trying to say. I did judge once and the club that requested me asked for a spreadsheet of scores for some reason. I added ‘Emotion’ as one of the parameters I was able to judge by and this was accepted. I enjoyed your essay a lot and appreciate why you are not a judge or exhibition enterer.

    1. Thank you, Allan! (Both for the comment and for the support.) I agree with your sentiments. I find that this kind of feedback requires a more elaborate exchange between artist and critic than any aspect of the image: a conversation about goals, expressive intent, etc.
      In a larger sense, I think that a good mentor (perhaps the truest form of critic) should not dwell on any one image at all, and instead help a photographer explore and evolve in whatever direction ends up being right for them, even if this direction ends up being very different from (or even beyond the understanding of) the mentor.

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