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Judging Saddam’s Pictures

Stuart Greenstreet on how to justify your taste in art.

When American soldiers seized Saddam Hussein’s palaces in Iraq they found paintings and murals in his private quarters that presumably reflected his personal taste. There were photos of them in the press. Jonathan Jones, who writes about art for the London Guardian, described them as paintings of “naked blonde maidens menaced by dragons and trolls, warriors wrestling serpents and a wet dream of missiles ... They look spraypainted, in rampant hyperbolic style where all men are muscular, all women have giant breasts, and missiles are metal cocks.” [15 April 03]

It is Jonathan Jones’s judgement of these pictures that is of philosophical interest. They are, he wrote, “from the universal cultural gutter — pure dreck ... These are art for the barely literate, or barely sentient.” In “a lumpen absence of aesthetic, a shining hideousness” Jones saw “proof of the dictator’s execrable sensibility.” His judgement has the same factual-sounding ring as the description. It seems to imply that our taste would be as bad as Saddam’s if we failed to see what is patently true: that these pictures are just about as bad as art can be.

Descriptions of what a painting depicts (“dragons and trolls”) and how it was made (“spraypainted”) are factual and normally unarguable. Judgements of artistic value, in contrast, are never about matters of fact. They never assert anything objectively true about a work of art. The art critic Edward Lucie-Smith wrote to the Guardian pointing out that Saddam’s pictures derive from the work of the comic book artist and science fiction illustrator Frank Frazzeta, who is honoured with a museum in East Stroudsburg, Pennsylvania. Another Guardian reader said she liked the ‘missiles’ mural, and doubted whether the same works would be critically damned if they were in the new Saatchi gallery. All judgements of taste are contentious just because they are necessarily subjective. How could we decide whether to accept Jonathan Jones’s judgement in this case?

Your impromptu response to a work of art, say of delight, expresses how you feel about it. A painting causes pleasure in you, and the pleasure you feel imparts a value to it. Hence David Hume’s claim that “beauty and deformity are not qualities in objects, but belong entirely to the sentiment” (to our feelings). The artistic value of a work is the intrinsic value of the experience it offers. And experience by its very nature is subjective. However, Hume is not implying that aesthetic judgements are subjective in the sense of being merely personal. It isn’t true that beauty is purely in the eye of the beholder. If it were true, then anything goes, and Saddam’s taste in art would be immune from attack. But we suspect that Jonathan Jones was probably right to condemn it.

A work of art that gives you pleasure has aesthetic qualities that match your taste. But this spontaneous feeling is not in itself a judgement of these qualities. It doesn’t count as judgement because sentiment is always self-vindicating for a reason which Hume gave in his essay Of the Standard of Taste: “All sentiment is right, because sentiment has reference to nothing beyond itself, whenever a man is conscious of it.” A judgement of artistic value would occur if the work were assessed by criteria that are somehow independent of sentiment. What are these criteria, and where can we find them?

Hume thought he knew. The instinctive response (‘sentiment’) had to be tested against standards of artistic merit. These norms were to be found empirically among the “general observations concerning what has been universally found to please in all countries and all ages.” In the case of literature, for example, Hume believed that “avowed principles of art” could be defined when “the beauties of writing” are “methodized, or reduced to general principles.” What he unfortunately failed to notice, however, is that he had circled back to what is always right because it has reference to nothing beyond itself, namely sentiment.

Hume needed to base his norms of artistic merit on something in the world that is distinct from sentiment, for it is sentiment that he sought to test. His criteria needed to be specified without reference to anyone’s responses. As it is, they refer to the responses of his ‘true judges’. The ‘principles of art’ are ‘avowed’ only in the sense of being derived from what certain knowledgeable critics prefer, from what happens to suit their (albeit refined) taste. Their ‘standards’ are therefore still rooted in their own sentiment.

That was inevitable, for there simply are no sensibility-independent rules or principles of art. There is nothing in the world that we could possibly refer to in making our aesthetic judgements apart from human sensibility. As Kant declared, “there neither is, nor can be, a science of the beautiful, and the judgement of taste is not determinable by principles.” Anyone may copy what a scientist does by following the rules he defines. But an artist just isn’t able to specify guidelines for making or judging any work of art. Judgements of taste are in a word ‘anomalous’. They fail to fall under any set of laws. The panel on page 32 explains why this is so.

The whole problem of judging artistic merit comes down to this. Saddam’s pictures produce feelings of contempt in Jonathan Jones. He loathes them and Saddam likes them. How can he convince us that his sentiment is the right one? He should give us good reasons why we should feel as he does about these works. As we saw, these reasons could never be of a normative kind, when by ‘normative’ we mean being derived from a standard that is independent of sentiment. He cannot show how the paintings violate certain recognised rules of art or canons of taste because there are none. If Jones’s particular reasons are good, they are so only because they do actually convince us that they vindicate his judgement. Good reasons should bring us to see for ourselves why his response to Saddam’s pictures is right or appropriate, merited or justified. And if we do see, then we will share his contempt for them, and accept his evaluation of the experience they offer as intrinsically worthless.

The process of coming to see for yourself a work’s qualities is analogous to psychoanalysis. A therapy does not succeed unless the patient recognises and consciously accepts the analyst’s interpretation. The psychoanalyst and the art critic have essentially the same task: to help others to come to see. A patient cannot just ‘decide’ to accept an analyst’s interpretation. Nor could I just ‘make up my mind’ to enjoy Verdi’s operas because critics praise them. The acceptance of either an analyst’s diagnosis or a critic’s judgement cannot be characterized only as taking up an attitude. It involves genuinely coming to see in a new way.

It is easy to be misled about how reason-giving is used to support judgements of taste. A good critic makes the invisible visible. She can help you see something in a work of art that she has seen by guiding your attention towards it. Knowing what to look for enables you to see it. But the critic cannot reason you into seeing that because a work has certain properties it has such and such artistic value. Nothing follows logically from its having certain properties. But there is another kind of reasoning that certainly does have a place in the critical evaluation of art. Judgements of taste are supported not by inferential reasons, but by explanatory reasons. Wittgenstein once remarked that there is a ‘Why’ to aesthetic discomfort not a cause to it, and when we ask ‘Why’ we expect an explanation. If you wish to justify an aesthetic judgement you cannot give reasons which could prove that a work has aesthetic qualities A, B and C just because it has features X, Y and Z. But you could give reasons which explain why the work has the valuable qualities A, B and C, and how these depend on properties X, Y and Z.

If I followed this procedure to criticise Saddam’s pictures I would start by saying why I find them banal, so devoid of qualities I value. Their failure as art cannot be blamed simply on their use of images from pulp science fiction. Artists who began borrowing from pop culture in the 1960s created works now found in most major museums of modern art. What made artists Pop is that they parodied styles of the mass media. What gave their work qualities that Saddam’s pictures lack is the attitude they had towards their material (brand labels, packaging, etc.) and the aesthetic sensibility they added to it. The attitudes which Pop Art took to pop imagery included irony, pastiche, nostalgia, celebration, subversion and a tendency to glamorise. By turning soup-cans and bottles into artworks valued for their uniqueness Andy Warhol celebrated the mass-market.

In Roy Lichtenstein’s work we see both irony and the addition of the aesthetic dimension. Newspaper cartoons are composed to be read — to communicate — not to display a nice sense of order or coherent design. Lichtenstein put into cartoon images what they hadn’t got — an aesthetic quality. He took a frame from a comic strip and made a few adjustments to it. By thinning or thickening a line here, slightly shifting the position of a line there, he transformed a vulgar journalistic image into a design that, in the eyes of the critic David Sylvester, “has a grandeur and expansiveness and radiance which recall Léger.”

Maybe we can now agree that Saddam’s pictures deserve harsh judgement. Their base material is neither inflected by wit, nor touched by aesthetic grace. It is untransformed. What was literal remains literal, and what was ugly remains ugly. If ‘explanatory reasons’ such as these could bring others genuinely to see for themselves why these works are artistically worthless then it would follow that value judgements (all of which are necessarily subjective) may also be inter-subjective. My personal assessment of a work of art becomes intersubjective when by explaining my evaluation I get others to see for themselves the qualities in a work that make it more or less valuable, and so get them to agree with my judgement of it. And that as is close as we could ever come to anything resembling ‘objectivity’ in judgements of taste.

© Stuart Greenstreet 2003

Stuart Greenstreet, a business manager by day, began philosophy in the evenings at Birkbeck College in the 1980s, and has kept at it ever since because he’s ‘afraid to stop’. He’s currently doing postgraduate philosophy with the Open University.

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