Perceiving Beauty

by John Link

Perceiving beauty is often confused with perceiving truth, especially among the educated. A profoundly wonderful play, for instance, seems less acceptable if we feel it did not teach us something. That's because the intellect is subject to rules and we take comfort in the certainty satisfying them can provide. But beauty sheds rules, sheds criteria, sheds standards, sheds anything a priori to itself, including truth. It forces us to experience art on our own, with nothing to help us except personal taste that we must develop through practice, not study.

The word "taste" is unpopular in a culture that feels obliged to accommodate everything that seems out of joint or freakish, even when it is silly, such as John Cage's "music of silence". The exercise of taste is elitist and therefore narrow, undemocratic, and "biased" -- objective attributes that form the basis of the critique of taste that is so popular these days. While the critics are correct in their observations of the facts that surround taste, they forget that each exercise of taste struggles to acquire the beautiful as only the beautiful can be acquired: in personal experience. This experience satisfies if the art is good enough. It may also teach, but teaching can be the effect of bad as well as good art. Many up-to-date PoMos claim to have learned from Cage. How could anyone doubt them?

In the end, it turns out that when vulgarians say "I don't know anything about art but I know what I like" they are saying something we should all listen to. They may be often wrong in their judgments, but they are right in their approach to art.

Posted December 30, 2004

© John Link, 2004

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