« PreviousContinue »
many ages and countries on the subject, satisfactorily proving that the good taste of antiquity is good taste still; and that the leading principles, according to which such works are produced, are acknowledged, when understood, by all men. Many reasons may be assigned for partial and superficial difference; but only one can account for universally radical agreement.
There is ground, then, for the distinction of tastes into correct and false, or good and bad, and errors can be controverted here, as well as in other fields of intellectual effort, not by appeal to a standard, but by adducing arguments drawn from the unchanging principles of human nature, and the material world. The decision upon the accordance or non-accordance to the human spirit, of all things external to itself, is not the fickle, accidental and isolated choice of the individual; but the inevitable, universal determination of the mind in obedience to a law of its being; and the agreement of those decisions is not effected, nor to be effected by the procrustean method of measuring all by an arbitrary standard, but by the exhibition of conformity to acknowledged principles.
Such being the case, the author or artist is under no necessity of cleaving to a given model, and of reproducing forms already familiar, effects already attained; he may contemplate results hitherto undreamed of by others, and yet, if those principles are kept steadily in view, and he is able in his work completely to fill their requisitions, he may produce what shall certainly please the correctly informed and unbiassed, and what
posterity will not readily suffer to die. · Radical principles being universally acknowledged,
inferior differences may be reconciled by comparison of opinions, and reasoning on the basis of common feeling. The subject is a fair field of argument. So far is the adage, that “ tastes are not to be disputed,” from being true, that few things are more frequently disputed, and in view of some principles, more easily disputed, than bad taste. Good taste, resulting from the union of natural sensibility with judgment, assumes a different character as one or the other predominates. Where the sensibility is active, there must be delicate taste, and warm enthusiasm toward its objects; where the sensibility is under the control of a sounder or severer judgment, there will be greater correctness and a firmer attachment to the objects preferred. The existence of both in a high degree in one mind, constitutes what is called refined taste, which is never attained without much observation and patient thought. For the first natural susceptibility can be improved and further developed by exercise, and I need not add that the judgment has to be cultivated by extensive and careful comparison.
OF SOME OF THE MORE PROMINENT AND DANGEROUS
FORMS OF BAD TASTE.
HAVING come to the conclusion that the elementary principles of good taste are the common inheritance of humanity, it very naturally occurs to enquire, why then do we see so few in whom those elements are developed in any eminent degree.
I reply, in the first place, it is due to the same cause which gives rise to that other phenomenon, that though men are generally possessed of reason, few are philosophers. Abilities of ordinary degrees are best for ordinary purposes, and the highest are not conferred upon all: and if the emotion is capable of being rendered more active by exercise, it may also become more sluggish through neglect. Secondly, the judgment is not often sufficiently trained to make any approach toward perfection in its decisions. Thirdly, indolence, the cause of various other deficiencies, induces men to forego many an intellectual pleasure, which they are fully competent to enjoy. Fourthly, ignorance of the true relations of things, leads to many a false decision
of taste. The law may be just, the judge correct, and yet if the evidence is false, the decision will certainly be wrong: and fifthly, many errors of taste are introduced by habits unconsciously acquired, and by servile imitation. The latter accounts for many fashions in dress which are in very bad taste. So unthinking and imitative of their superiors in social standing are most of those who pay great attention to personal adornment, that they will follow almost any leader who is wealthy enough to secure their respect. A few persons enjoying the advantages of superior rank and wealth, may therefore, in either good or bad taste, set a fashion in dress and style of living which the giddy ranks of ton will implicitly follow; while many sensible men, regarding the matter as utterly beneath their concern, submit to be clothed as the tailor thinks best. But even here the prostration of individual taste is not complete ; and the native sense of the most thoughtless would revolt against many of our fashions in dress, were the attempt made to perpetuate them. Novelty must come to the aid of authority; the only way to keep up absurdity is to vary it. Fashions in other things owe their origin to similar causes; and consequently furnish no argument against the certainty of æsthetic principles, although they contribute to show how many people may for a time support a bad taste of which they do not approve.
It is easy, therefore, to perceive how persons indulging in bad taste themselves, may be ready to testify to
the superiority of a man of good taste. The intellectually obtuse and thoughtless need to have their susceptibilities awakened, the indolent aroused to observation, and the ignorant instructed in a knowledge of the properties and relations of that concerning which a judgment is to be made. In examining the works of a correct thinker, the critics learn to surmount their own faults, and to coincide with him whom they study; and thus feel and acknowledge the truth of what they might otherwise never have taken the trouble to discover the existence in themselves. For the action of taste is not like hunger and thirst, involuntary: we must give attention to its objects before we can enjoy them, and study its principles before they can guide our practice.
SECTION II.-OF THE PROPRIETY OF ORNAMENT.
The abovementioned faults are negative; but there is also another class, which may be called positive, in which the artist and writer are no less likely to sin. It arises from excessive ambition to excel, and to produce something finer than consistent with the nature of the materials and subject. The greater amount of errors, and those of the most offensive kind, which occur in literary and artistic productions, are to be ascribed to an undue and undiscriminating passion for ornament. The lover of simplicity seldom errs in matters of taste; but true simplicity is by no means a