Taste in Art and Music

September 9, 2016

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today's post.

First, something to listen to while you read more about taste: “The Lass of Peaty's Mill” from Francesco Geminiani's Treatise of Good Taste in the Art of Musick (Susan Hamilton, The Rare Fruits Council, Manfredo Kraemer). Find the full cd here.

Taste, according to Merriam-Webster: a] critical judgment, discernment, or appreciation b] manner or aesthetic quality indicative of such discernment or appreciation

Immanuel Kant finds that taste is instructive, since it links back to a priori categories of goodness and morality. Taste functions on an instinctual basis, which is why Kant claims that “a poem, a musical composition” and other “would-be work[s] of art” can be the product of “genius without taste”. It seems to be an odd statement, which makes us look deeper into Kant's definition of both genius and taste. Kant's version of genius is that of an artist who is inspired or has a specific talent. It does not mean that the artist is all-knowing or extremely educated, but has something more akin to divine inspiration. (Genius in this sense is also separate from science because science can be proven from beginning to end.) Artistic genius, however, is more along the lines of an illogical leap in understanding, or an artist who combines notions without a complete understanding of why or what inspired the idea. Someone composing art will not always be able to trace their work back to the idea and they will not be able to judge it accurately. So, when Kant says “genius without taste” he means that the artist has not tapped into some communally accepted and approved idea and imitated it. The idea is revolutionary, new and fresh. The artist creates anew almost ignorant of taste and/or reception.

Plato comes at the idea of art from a different direction. Plato represents the idea of art as more of a skill as it progresses to art. However, Plato does acknowledge that one cannot become good or bad, but is already. This idea would be similar to Kant's in that an underlying genius exists which may not always present itself, but the potential already exists in the artist. The artist cannot become virtuous, but must always be. In other words, they must have the connection with inspiration, which is something that they cannot learn or study.

In The Physiology of Taste, Brillat-Savarin also has a lot to say about taste. Much of the book is dedicated to taste in the sense of gastronomy, but he acknowledges that taste enters into our discussion of all aesthetic worlds. He writes:

“Taste can be considered under three different headings:
In physical man it is the apparatus by which he distinguishes various flavors.
In moral man it is the sensation which stimulates that organ in the center of his feeling which is influenced by any savorous body.
Lastly, in its own material significance, taste is the property possessed by any given substance which can influence the organ and give birth to sensation.
Taste seems to possess two main functions.
1] It invites us, by arousing our pleasure, to repair the constant losses which we suffer through our physical existence.
2] It helps us to choose from the variety of substances which Nature presents to us those which are best adapted to nourish us.”

In other words, Brillat-Savarin adds to the discussion of taste the idea of nourishment. This important element is part of our relationship with taste in general. He does not limit the understanding of nourishment to a physical pleasure such as one gets from eating. Rather, Brillat-Savarin is talking about the moral and emotional satisfaction granted by our ability to appreciate something else. Food nourishes us, obviously, but so do words and discussion and music and art. Therefore, it is not surprising to discover that Brillat-Savarin discusses all of these art forms in his treatise on food.

And finally, the music which accompanied today's post comes from Francesco Geminiani, a composer, music theorist and philosopher of the late 1600s. His Treatise of Good Taste in the Art of Musick was rediscovered (and expanded) by Joseph Haydn. In it, he summarizes a point in which all these philosophers agree: art is not about imitation, but about refining surpassing a sense of taste and, instead, finding something new. Taste may be an instrument, barometer or compass, but if it is the sole guide, then the work falls into the category of imitation. Geminiani writes: “To say All in a few Words, the Road to Emulation is both open and wide; the most effectual Method to triumph over an Author is to excel him; and he manifests his Affection to a Science most who contributes most to its Advancement.” In other words, a work of art surpasses taste, and is found through study, knowledge of the field, and a particular sense of genius. And we take pleasure in its nourishment.

You can access Geminiani's full treatise here.

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