Please, Please Disagree About Wine or Anything Beautiful

disagreementOne of the most pervasive ideas in modern aesthetics, including wine aesthetics, is the idea that when I claim an object is beautiful (stunning, elegant, or whatever genuine aesthetic term one might use) I think others should agree with me. (Most books on the philosophy of wine, e.g. Scruton’s I Drink Therefore I Am,  or Skilleas and Burnham’s The Aesthetics of Wine endorse this idea)

Unlike judgments of personal preference, aesthetic judgments claim a kind of universality, according to this view. I’m not just expressing my personal feelings about a work of art or glass of wine; I’m making a normative claim that the work or wine should be liked by everyone even though I know such agreement is unlikely. Any evaluation of a work is complete only when critic and audience reach a shared assessment of aesthetic value. It’s that shared assessment that we aim at as an ideal.

We don’t have such an expectation with regard to ice cream or the color blue. If someone doesn’t like ice cream we just shrug our shoulders and say to each his own. Not so with genuine aesthetic objects.

This idea comes from Kant, the 18th Century philosopher who still dominates most discussions of philosophy. I will spare you the gory details; essentially his reasons for thinking aesthetic judgments aspire to be universal is that we share basic psychological capacities and if we try hard enough we can bracket idiosyncratic personal desires and judge the object for what it is, independently of our interests.

I think this idea is nonsense, not because wine tasting or art evaluation is subjective, but because aesthetic judgments are not evaluations of the properties of objects but a guess about what further interaction of the object will reveal. I judge an object beautiful when I sense it contains something mysterious that only further interaction with it can uncover.

Or to put it differently, aesthetic pleasure is about mystery. And that is something particular to each work. Aesthetic judgment is about what makes something distinctive—the more you learn about the object the more you see how it is different from everything else.

This search for novelty and individuality is no doubt shareable. It is certainly not a solitary pursuit since it is enhanced by sharing it with others. But it is deeply related to my own interests and form of life and the interests and form of life of others who are like me in sharing the same sense of mystery. What I seek in making aesthetic judgments is at best community among the like-minded, not universal agreement, and maybe not even community. For what I discover in unpeeling layer upon layer of individuality in a work is layer upon layer of my own individuality.

And at the point where everything is revealed, where there is nothing mysterious left to uncover about an object, it can no longer sustain its beauty and the community formed around it collapses.

It’s not agreement we’re after in aesthetic judgment but a quest for distinctiveness. That doesn’t make aesthetic evaluation subjective since you can’t find distinctiveness without communication but agreement won’t get you there either.

The day we all agree about aesthetics will be the death of aesthetics.

2 comments

  1. Very interesting. You probably know Alexander Nehamas’s book, Only a Promise of Happiness: The Place of Beauty in a World of Art, where he agrees with much of what you say on aesthetics, though he doesn’t apply it to wine. I think what I find interesting about Kant is that he denies wine the capacity for beauty entirely and relegates it to the merely agreeable and private. I hope to write a post at some point on what some of the reasons for Kant holding onto this idea might have been, beyond the fact that it was an ancient and traditional view insofar as wine had to do with the lowly, bodily sense of taste.

    1. Thanks for commenting. Yes, I enjoy Nehamas’s work and he is the inspiration behind some of what I write about aesthetics. You’re right about Kant. Basically his objection to wine as an aesthetic object was that our motivation to drink was driven solely by a desire and thus we could not be disinterested. Our preferences would always overwhelm our judgments about form. As you might guess, I have little sympathy for Kant’s notion of disinterestedness. Desires are fundamental to all artistic appreciation.

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