How Art Can Be Good

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  • Topic: Art, Arts, 2005 albums
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  • Published : May 29, 2012
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December 2006

I grew up believing that taste is just a matter of personal preference. Each person has things they like, but no one's preferences are any better than anyone else's. There is no such thing as good taste.Like a lot of things I grew up believing, this turns out to be false, and I'm going to try to explain why.One problem with saying there's no such thing as good taste is that it also means there's no such thing as good art. If there were good art, then people who liked it would have better taste than people who didn't. So if you discard taste, you also have to discard the idea of art being good, and artists being good at making it.It was pulling on that thread that unravelled my childhood faith in relativism. When you're trying to make things, taste becomes a practical matter. You have to decide what to do next. Would it make the painting better if I changed that part? If there's no such thing as better, it doesn't matter what you do. In fact, it doesn't matter if you paint at all. You could just go out and buy a ready-made blank canvas. If there's no such thing as good, that would be just as great an achievement as the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Less laborious, certainly, but if you can achieve the same level of performance with less effort, surely that's more impressive, not less.Yet that doesn't seem quite right, does it?AudienceI think the key to this puzzle is to remember that art has an audience. Art has a purpose, which is to interest its audience. Good art (like good anything) is art that achieves its purpose particularly well. The meaning of "interest" can vary. Some works of art are meant to shock, and others to please; some are meant to jump out at you, and others to sit quietly in the background. But all art has to work on an audience, and—here's the critical point—members of the audience share things in common.For example, nearly all humans find human faces engaging. It seems to be wired into us. Babies can recognize faces practically from birth. In fact, faces seem to have co-evolved with our interest in them; the face is the body's billboard. So all other things being equal, a painting with faces in it will interest people more than one without. [1]One reason it's easy to believe that taste is merely personal preference is that, if it isn't, how do you pick out the people with better taste? There are billions of people, each with their own opinion; on what grounds can you prefer one to another? [2]But if audiences have a lot in common, you're not in a position of having to choose one out of a random set of individual biases, because the set isn't random. All humans find faces engaging—practically by definition: face recognition is in our DNA. And so having a notion of good art, in the sense of art that does its job well, doesn't require you to pick out a few individuals and label their opinions as correct. No matter who you pick, they'll find faces engaging.Of course, space aliens probably wouldn't find human faces engaging. But there might be other things they shared in common with us. The most likely source of examples is math. I expect space aliens would agree with us most of the time about which of two proofs was better. Erdos thought so. He called a maximally elegant proof one out of God's book, and presumably God's book is universal. [3]Once you start talking about audiences, you don't have to argue simply that there are or aren't standards of taste. Instead tastes are a series of concentric rings, like ripples in a pond. There are some things that will appeal to you and your friends, others that will appeal to most people your age, others that will appeal to most humans, and perhaps others that would appeal to most sentient beings (whatever that means).The picture is slightly more complicated than that, because in the middle of the pond there are overlapping sets of ripples. For example, there might be things that appealed particularly to men, or to people from a certain culture.If...
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