Friday, February 17, 2006

Taste and Morality

“…Where the ideas of morality and decency alter from one age to another, and where vicious manners are described, without being marked with the proper characters of blame and disapprobation; this must be allowed to disfigure the poem, and to be a real deformity.” (246, Of the Standard of Taste)

If, as Hume states, we “cannot prevail on ourselves to enter into [the artist’s] sentiments” when the object does not fit into the morals of our age, must we also reject all art forms which were at any time in disagreement with our virtues? It is understandable that Hume places such importance on the current moral similarities. After all, it is difficult to appreciate cultural relativism when we are faced with an image or idea which affronts our very concept of humanity and virtue. Even anthropologists, who are trained to objectively view cultural differences, may be challenged by artwork which highlights the importance of genocide or cannibalism in a society. Despite such cultural and moral differences, must an artwork become entirely “deformed” in the eyes of the viewer? Since Hume ultimate concedes that beauty lies within both the subject and the object, then even an artwork which is morally repulsive to viewers from our society must be possessed with some amount of beauty. If an object possesses beauty in one culture, mustn’t it still have that beauty in another culture, or does Hume’s notion of the objectivity of beauty apply only to groups with similar taste?

"The Babbling Barista" or "Suspension, Suspension"

As a barista at North Tacoma’s most widely trafficked hangout, I have the misfortune of being privy to a spectrum of human “taste and apprehension” (Hume, 227). I tend to think myself sided with Scott in his argument that people with Taste are “better people,” even while being exposed to the tantrums of full-grown adults over, literally, spilled milk (Scott, 2.17.06). Yet, I was surprised at how strange it sounded to hear the proposed close relationship between aesthetic taste and moral behavior pontificated. It seems like a rather quick leap. As artists of one vein or another, we the liberally educated tend to try and believe in our lifestyle. If we were to “give art a chance,” we may be so lucky as to soon notice that it “saves lives,” and better enables us to “envision world peace” (per bumper stickers). But I find it difficult to defend the spray painting of walls and typing of words as fortified vehicles to moral good: especially when my economic equals back home are slaving in kitchens to support siblings; working combines to pay child support; and packing their duffel bags because the only the army will pay their white ass to get a degree.

Hume asserts that it takes sense, imagination, practice, aesthetic awareness, exposure, and a suspension of being for a person to even begin to acquire taste. But before all this, he defines taste as the thing we relay on when we judge “an act to be virtuous” as much as it is our touchstone when we “judge a work of art to be beautiful” (Hume, 226). The issue I take with this is that a.) It’s economically elitist in practice and b.) Those in the economic strata that have leisure to gain Hume’s taste, so called, don’t seem to practice the morality side of it. Now, this is a sweeping generalization. Let’s confine it to the café, shall we?

When I’m at work, I notice that the people who wear expensive clothing items tend to leave their dishes and newspapers strewn about the table, napkins on the floor, spilled coffee in puddles and sometimes, a nickel or two. Although busing your own table is a particularization of the golden rule, and not among the Ten Commandments, per say, it is an act of basic kindness. And one I would go so far as to deem “virtuous” when I’ve got a colicky staff to handle and a line of under-caffeinated junkies (Hume, 226). And granted, common sense dictates that if you’re wearing a white mink jacket (they do) you probably don’t want to risk a spill on the way to the dish bucket (they don’t). Let the lackeys do it. Simultaneously, these are the folks who can tell a late Baroque brushstroke from an early Rococo brushstroke, and deem one more beautiful than the other, per Hume’s theory of relativity. Don’t get me wrong. These multi-millionaires (yes) have plenty of sense—they know which vote will protect their 401K and which won’t. They have imagination—they find many topics of artful conversation to fill their café time. They practice aesthetic values by going to so many high-art events, and therefore appear, if not per their attire alone, to have aesthetic sensibility. They are most certainly exposed, and many practice art themselves; painting huge leather canvases, publishing photos taken with high-tech digital cameras, and accessorizing, nay, embellishing, their spacious offices and businesses. They belong to a social class, the economic understudy of George W’s social class, that propagates unmoral (in my opinion) acts. War, for example. As far as I can tell, they lack only one element. The suspension of being.

I’m not trying to say that being broke gives you more taste, though I might be saying that Hume wasn’t an economist. But mostly I’m trying to plug a hole in the defense of the relationship between aesthetics and morality in our gritty contemporary world. It seems to me that Hume may be on to something, and as our definition of art changes, as China noticed, maybe Hume’s road to becoming an aesthete becomes more accessible. This all because the art and the virtue seem to cover more ground now than in 1759, when America and all its inventions (i.e. hip hop) were just a twinkle in some patriot’s eye. Likewise, being well-exposed, well-trained and well-practiced doesn’t give or remove your quality of taste. It all pivots on this most consequential and final qualification of suspending being. Otherwise, despite the Vera Wang or the Fubu label, “Life is” merely “an imitation of Art” (Wilde, 40).

Drown My Sorrow

I've been thinking about Lucy Greely lately and how we have been tearing her apart on multiple levels, condemning and crucifying her with almost a sense of glee. I think that one of the strongest reactions that I was able to synthesize out of our class response (and I hope that I'm not taking too many liberties with my analysis) was that we felt as though she had perhaps wasted an opportunity. Again and again we (self very much included) pointed out that her narrative existed as a solipsistic monologue that dwelled upon a seemingly never-ending well of self pity. But what was it about that that we found so wrong? I like to complain about things, to talk about how hard my life is and how I never get a chance to relax and enjoy it. Except, the problem is that everyone feels that way to a certain extent. Honestly, Lucy Greely and I could play the 'My life is harder than your's' game and she would probably win. I'd probably lose against just about everyone. Not necessarily because I have an easy life that I like to imagine is much harder than it actually is, but because I really don't care. As far as I can tell, it doesn't really change anything. If you need the reinforcement that you are going through lots of trials and tribulations, that's your thing and I'll feel bad for you and ask if there is anything I can do to help, but not if you keep harping on it.

Which moves me a step closer to my long-winded point: that Lucy never really accomplished anything with her narrative. She had a unique point of view and the opportunity to reach out to people and tell them about it and rather than delivering even the weakest of Oprah life lessons, she subjected her readers instead to over 200 pages of complaining. I don't want to suggest that she should have always been making lemonade out of her lemons because she was dealing with some pretty sour fruit, but I was hoping to achieve some resolution from her situation. It felt as though the only conclusion that Lucy could come to managed to wrap everything up into a neat little package of realizing that she had been self centered and had manifested the image of how everyone saw her without any confirmation of that reality. Hadn't she missed the chance to tell us that multiple times already? Like when she was talking with her horse trainer and realized that he was looking her in the eye - to which her response was to assume ugliness and duck her head in shame.

Lucy Lucy Lucy, facts of life state that some people are found more attractive than others. Some people need a little bit of help to enhance their attractiveness, others are happy no matter what image they present to the world.
Brad Pitt: attractive (, Steve Buscemi: not so much ( If one allows his or herself to fall into the traditional categorization of Beautiful or Ugly, there isn't a whole lot that can be done. But maybe, just maybe, we should redefine our measuring stick so as to not compare ourselves to celebrities who have far more time and money to indulge in self-beautification. Maybe we should stop worrying so much about what we look like and focus instead on what we can do with ourselves.

So what I'm trying to say is that I think Lucy got perhaps a little too caught up in feeling sorry for herself and acting the role she thought she was supposed to occupy. In writing about what she went through, she presented a great look at how horrible it was, but I fail to see how that results in anything other than a cry for pity and acknowledgement. I'll even go out on a limb here and hypothesize that if this narrative had been presented with more of a sappy 'This is what I've learned from my adversity and the challenges that I have had to overcome' tone, we might have been a little more receptive to it. As it was, though, I ended up losing my patience for the book and closed my eyes to it.