Uneasy with ideals

by Paul Burmeister

Here, well into the 21st century, what are we to make of the “eye of the beholder” and ideal aesthetic observer theory? What little I know of Hume’s philosophy, and aesthetics in general, wants me to assign value to the idea that some observers are more prepared and more reliable than others. As I get older I lean toward criteria and away from craziness. Okay, so an ideal aesthetic observer does not exist and, instead, a process—impartial, knowledgeable, and affectively balanced—for making sound judgments about beautiful things should be promoted. Becoming a better prepared observer can be among the important goals of an education in the arts. Getting past “I don’t know what it is, but I know what I like” ought to be an aspect of one’s growth in appreciation.
But still, I can’t lean all the way toward criteria that are reason-ably ideal. In the same way, I prefer symmetry but not perfectly bilateral symmetry. Here’s where I’m at: two centuries removed from the ascent of modernism, one century after Duchamp and the Cubist revolution, more than six decades after Pop’s rejection of Romantic genius, and in my third decade of teaching in higher ed . . . I ask students to consider a balanced approach, between universal and personal, between rational and intuitive processes, and between excellence and faithfulness.