Are there objective standards of beauty? Or is beauty in the eye of the beholder? Must art be beautiful to be great art?
Lots of us have tastes in music, movies, stories, or art—and we generally know what they are. I really enjoy depressive British sadcoms. One friend enjoys almost all political dramas. Another enjoys genuinely absurd, surreal horror films. A family member won’t watch anything that uses cartoon animation, and another can’t stand romantic comedies.
These groups of things we like tend to fall into genres: groups of movies, music, or other arts that have readily identifiable descriptive features in common. (This may not be accidental; maybe the reason we label the genre groups we do is that people who really like some members of one genre group tend to like other members of it as well.) This is partly what makes it useful to figure out which genres of movies, music, etc. you tend to enjoy. Knowing what you like in genre terms allows you to search through a relatively homogeneous category with some confidence that you’ll find something in that category to enjoy.
In a certain light, though, the fact that our tastes tend to fall along genre lines can look really remarkable. Is there really anything inherently better about sadcoms than the optimistic, colorful American comedies that I love to hate? (Sorry, Parks and Recreation, I’ll never get it.) The answer is probably ‘no.’ But then what explains my liking sadcoms so much? At best, my liking can look like a merely subjective reaction to something I recognize or identify with; at worst, it can look like an absurd fetishization of a certain kind of irony.
What these two interpretations have in common is the idea that my liking some members of a genre has purely subjective content. It’s either just blank, inexplicable joy in sadcom misery (which others may or may not share) or it’s a recognition of sadcom features as something that scratch a particular itch of mine—or both. It’s become a truism that there’s no explaining—and no disputing—these tastes. It would be just as silly to try and justify them as it would to justify my preference for chocolate ice cream over vanilla.
This basic thought has led a lot of philosophers to ignore genre-tracking tastes in studies of Aesthetic Value. Aesthetic Value (which I capitalize here in order to express its Very Serious Weightiness) is often thought to have aspirations beyond merely subjective likings. When you talk about “beautiful” or “great” works of art, you seem to be implying that they have such Aesthetic Value. And in doing that, you aren’t just saying that you like them. It seems like you are saying they have something in them to be appreciated. You are suggesting that others should appreciate them as you do. In more extreme cases, you might even suggest that others who don’t appreciate them as you do are mistaken or even defective in their faculties. (The classic source of this point is Immanuel Kant’s Critique of Judgment.) There’s having taste, you might think, and then there’s Having Taste. The first is merely subjective, the latter of Great Weight (and perhaps even Genuine Objectivity).
Now, I think it is true that when you like many members of a genre you don’t necessarily think they have any real Aesthetic Value. But I do think philosophers are too quick to draw a sharp distinction between taste and Taste. There are all sorts of ways in which liking something, and thinking it has genuine Aesthetic Value, may be related. Here are just a few ways of thinking of the connection between subjective liking and judgments of Aesthetic Value:
(A) Perhaps there is a feeling in common between cases in which you just simply like something, and cases in which you find something to have real Aesthetic Value. In this case, the common feeling might lead you to mistake some things you merely like for things with Aesthetic Value.
(B) Perhaps liking something in a merely subjective way is a way of attributing some form of Value to an object—but not necessarily Aesthetic Value, whatever that is. If so, what is this other kind of Value? It might be a special sort of value for each of the genres we care about; perhaps there is a standard of excellence inherent to period mysteries, and an entirely different standard of excellence inherent to experimental film noir.
(C) Perhaps liking something in a merely subjective way is to attribute Aesthetic Value to it, in some way. In this case, you might overvalue the things that belong to the genres you have a soft spot for. This might be something like a persistent perceptual illusion; you can’t help making this attribution of Aesthetic Value, but you can learn when to discount it, and to avoid recommending (e.g.) psychological thrillers to those who don’t themselves enjoy them.
(D) Perhaps there is an essential relationship between liking the works of art of a genre and the ability to judge their Aesthetic Value accurately. Liking (e.g.) British sadcoms revs up your attention, motivates a lot of consumption and comparison, and puts you in the position to draw subtle distinctions in form within exemplars of a genre. These abilities, it is often noted, are abilities that are themselves central to recognizing genuine Aesthetic Value. We often rely on expert testimony of critics to judge whether or not to go see a movie—perhaps we should also understand each of us as experts of limited kinds about specific genres of art. Far from overvaluing works in the genre you like best, then, you might be best placed to judge their Aesthetic Value.
It’s not obvious to me which of these views is most nearly right. Nor is it clear that these are the only options. But I think it’s worth teasing apart the options available to us when we think about the relationship between taste and Taste.