denis_dutton's picture
Philosopher; Founder and Editor, Arts & Letters Daily; Author, The Art Instinct
Philosopher of Art, University of Canterbury, New Zealand; Editor, Arts & Letters Daily

In a 1757 essay, philosopher David Hume argued that because "the general principles of taste are uniform in human nature" the value of some works of art might be essentially eternal. He observed that the "same Homer who pleased at Athens and Rome two thousand years ago, is still admired at Paris and London." The works that manage to endure over millennia, Hume thought, do so precisely because they appeal to deep, unchanging features of human nature.

Some unique works of art, for example, Beethoven's Pastoral Symphony, possess this rare but demonstrable capacity to excite the human mind across cultural boundaries and through historic time. I cannot prove it, but I think a small body of such works—by Homer, Bach, Shakespeare, Murasaki Shikibu, Vermeer, Michelangelo, Wagner, Jane Austen, Sophocles, Hokusai—will be sought after and enjoyed for centuries or millennia into the future. As much as fashions and philosophies are bound to change, these works will remain objects of permanent value to human beings.

These epochal survivors of art are more than just popular. The majority of works of popular art today are not inevitably shallow or worthless, but they tend to be easily replaceable. In the modern mass art system, artistic forms endure, while individual works drop away. Spy thrillers, romance novels, pop songs, and soap operas are daily replaced by more thrillers, romance novels, pop songs, and soap operas. In fact, the ephemeral nature of mass art seems more pronounced than ever: most popular works are incapable of surviving even a year, let alone a couple of generations. It's different with art's classic survivors: even if they began, as Sophocles' and Shakespeare's did, as works of popular art, they set themselves apart in their durable appeal: nothing kills them. Audiences keep coming back to experience these original works themselves.

Against the idea of permanent aesthetic values is cultural relativism, which is taught as the default orthodoxy in many university departments. Aesthetic values have been widely construed by academics as merely contingent reflections of local social and economic conditions. Beauty, if not in the eye of the beholder, has been misconstrued as merely in the eyes of society, a conditioning that determines values of cultural seeing. Such veins of explanation often include no small amount of cynicism: why do people go to the opera? Oh, to show off their furs. Why are they thrilled by famous paintings? Because they're worth millions. Beneath such explanations is a denial of intrinsic aesthetic merit.

Such aesthetic relativism is decisively refuted, as Hume understood, by the cross-cultural appeal of a small class of art objects over centuries: Mozart packs Japanese concerts halls, as Hiroshige does Paris galleries, while new productions of Shakespeare in every major language of the world are endless. And finally, it is beginning to look as though empirical psychology is equipped to address the universality of art. For example, evolutionary psychology is being used by literary scholars to explain the persistent themes and plot devices in fiction. The rendering of faces, bodies, and landscape preferences in art is amenable to psychological investigation. The structure of musical perception is now open to experimental analysis as never before. Poetic experience can be elucidated by the insights of contemporary linguistics. None of this research promises a recipe for creating great art, but it can throw light on what we already know about aesthetic pleasure.

What's going on most days in the Metropolitan Museum and most nights at Lincoln Center involves aesthetic experiences that will be continuously revived and relived by our descendents into an indefinite future. In a way, this makes the creations of the greatest artists as much permanent achievements as the discoveries of greatest scientists. That much I think I know. The question we should now ask is, What makes this possible? What is it about the highest works of art that gives them eternal appeal?