There were some little puzzles that kept my mind busy all the time when I was a child. Some were very primitive questions, yet I could not answer them fully. One such question was “What about my perception about the colors? Do I really see the same color as everybody else? What if I see the red jacket as a green one and the green jacket as a red one?” The only difference is that whatever people call green would be red to me, although I would still call it green, and vice versa. It’s not a dramatic thing as if I have been living my life wrong or my life is turned upside just because of this. But it was still an open question to me which I wanted to get to the bottom of.
Once you realize these things about you and the life that you are living, then it really sounds outrageous when people think they have made a good work of art or they have great taste in art. Could it not be that all people have the same taste but only each individual’s perception is different, as opposed to all people having the same level of perception but different taste?
Most people think that taste is something subjective, that is, everybody has their own taste and that is the end of it. There is nothing more to discuss about taste. Hence, there is no such thing as good taste or bad. Everybody has things they like and things they do not, but no one can say that their taste is any better than someone else’s. Thus, we are all tempted to accept the unquestionable character of taste as the truth since almost everybody agrees on it. Although the majority view is often considered acceptable as a way of ascertaining the truth, there are quite a few examples that show that is just not correct. This article is about one of those examples.
If you are part of the big majority of people that thinks there is no such thing as good taste, you should also think that there is no such thing as good art. I can imagine if I was giving a talk about this article and presenting this exact same argument, there would be fifty hands going up objecting: “That can’t be true; there is Mona Lisa, there is Tortoise Trainer, there is this, and there is that.” But then, whoever did not like Mona Lisa or Tortoise Trainer would just have worse taste than yours, or anybody else who liked it might have better taste for that matter. Hence, we arrive at the conclusion that if there is no good taste, then there is no good art. If we follow the argument further, then there is no good artist.
Suppose you are making a painting or writing a poem, what do you think would be guiding you throughout the whole process? The inevitable answer to this question must be “taste” because each stroke of your brush or each line you add is a decision made by you with the help of your taste. Every move you make is a result of your conscious or subconscious thought that it would make your piece better. But then, if you think that there is no place for a concept of being better in art, you should not be able to make any moves. Not only that, by the same token a brand new blank canvas would be just as good as the ceiling of the Hagia Sophia. What is more, by saving a lot of time and energy, you are doing even better with the blank canvas than the guy who painted the ceiling of Hagia Sophia.
Probably you are thinking that the author of these lines has really lost it now! And maybe, you are thinking that it is about time to move on to the next article. But hold on a second!
I think I may have a solution to this nonsense. If Da Vinci was in Robinson Crusoe’s place, he would still draw the Mona Lisa on that island, but surely, he would be happier if thousands of people came to see it every day. So, there is more to art than pure taste; art has people who appreciate it. It could be argued that an artist enjoys his piece for two possible reasons. First, just because he likes what he does; second, there is an audience who will appreciate what he does.
But before appreciation come attention and interest. People must pay attention or need to have an interest before they understand or even think about something. Only after that do they recognize something is beautiful, and after that comes the appreciation.
Attention and interest are two very broad terms. There are so many different things that attract my attention or interest me, often without me knowing it. Sometimes the rhyme of a poem is so soothing and pleasant that I do not even know, when I read it the first time, that I have actually fallen in love with it. I realize this when I figure out that I have learned the whole thing after a few recitations without expending any special effort to memorize it. It is as if, all of a sudden, I start hearing the constant relaxing whistle of a tall reed in my ears along with the wind. It is a great pleasure to fall asleep in the ambiance of that reed. The bed is no different than a throne for me at that moment.
Once I discover such a lone reed with a soothing melody, I visit her from time to time when I get really tired and need some rest. Then, on one of those visits, just before I fall asleep, I see a ray of a different color through the leaves of the reed; one which I had not noticed before. It is an irreplaceable touch. Surely the poet must have hidden it among the leaves and the branches only for his loyal visitors. Exhilarated by the discovery of this beauty, I start telling the fellows in the shade around me about it. I hear you saying now, “Oh! I thought you were alone under the tree.” No, no! That is impossible. If there is a reed, there will always be fellows under the shade, some for the whistle, some for the colors, some for something you do not know, but there will be always some people enjoying it.
I tell you the little story about me and the poet just to make a point about the type of art that intrigues us. Some art lies in the background quietly, some shakes our very souls and makes us tremble. Some gets carved into our brains immediately, whereas some types challenge our intelligence. In all of those different kinds of good art there is a very essential thing in common. It is the common things that the audience shares.
Although poetry is a type of art with a very broad audience, we can always imagine some people who would have no interest in it at all. Maybe a better example would be a type of beauty that would interest absolutely everybody in this world. Is there anything like that? There are tons of things like that. Who would not like a nightingale singing near dawn, or a warm breeze on the cheek, the harmony of different tones of green in a broad forest, human faces, and the like. Let us focus, for example, on that last one. All of us find human faces interesting, right? I believe that it is encoded in our DNA. A parallel to this is the obsessive compulsion of sculptors to make human faces all the time. Or, think about the number of people whose faces you know but not their names and vice versa. Which number is bigger do you think?
If you are not convinced by these arguments or think that maybe I am biased due to the conditions that I developed in, let us put the same question to babies, who are not biased, at least not just yet! Let us see what they have got to say about this. If you are worried that we cannot really understand what they are saying, there is some help from the psychologists. “In 1961, the psychologist Robert Fantz devised an ingenious method to find out about babies and faces. He designed a stand in which, on the bottom level, the baby lies on his back, looking up. A few feet above is a display area where the experimenter puts two large cards, each containing a design-a white circle, a yellow circle, a bull’s eye, or a simple sketch of face. The researcher, peering down through a tiny peephole, can watch the movement of the baby’s eyes and time how long they are directed at one or the other of each pair of patterns. Fantz found that at two months babies looked twice as long at a bull’s eye as at a circle of solid color, and twice as long at a sketch of a face as at a bull’s eye. Evidently, even a two-month-old can distinguish major differences and direct his gaze toward what he finds more interesting.”1
With this in mind, we are compelled to acknowledge that the human face appeals to an innate common taste in all humans, either because it is beautiful in itself or because it contains most, if not all, of the things that are to “the common taste” of all humans. Then we can conclude that, as humans, our design is such that we are at least able to appreciate the same things.
Finally, we are in a position to define good art. Good art is such that it passes from its creator and reaches a lot of people who enjoy gazing upon it. Good art attracts attention and interest from a lot of people with different characteristics from different cultures and regardless of all their differences, the essential thing is they all have the same aptitude to enjoy the same thing in various different ways. In other words, good art is a manifestation of unity in multiplicity.
1. Hunt, M., The Story of Psychology, pp. 366, Anchor Books, 1993