Good Art: Taste or Instinct?

Is human behavior innately in our genes or acquired through socialization, and how do these factors interact? The debate of nature vs. nurture is applicable to many facets of human life, including the way people think about art. The “taste” theory of Hume and the “instinct” theory of Conniff represent these different views.

Scottish philosopher David Hume based his idea of “taste” on the premises that evaluating art is a learned skill. As Freeland wrote, “Hume emphasized education and experience: men of taste acquire certain abilities that lead to agreement about which authors and artworks are the best” (Freeland 9). Hume acknowledged that individuals have unique preferences, but was confident that “men of taste” would reach a general consensus on what good art is. This “standard of taste” is then universal. He said these cultured men must “preserve minds free from prejudice,” but also assumed they will reject immorality or excessive violence (Freeland 9). This theory is compatible with his general philosophical view that all human knowledge is gleaned through the senses.

The theory presented in “The Natural History of Art” by Richard Conniff places no such emphasis on education or life experience. In fact, his evolutionary view attributes aesthetic preference to humans’ “innate propensities,” not inculcated morality. Referring to psychology professor Richard Coss, he wrote, “Coss made the startling suggestion that we respond to art, and to our visual world, not just as aesthetes…but as animals” (Conniff, 95.) Certain characteristics—water, open grassy spaces, scattered groves of trees, elevation changes, winding trails, bright clearings—are almost universally preferred in art and in habitat, perhaps harkening back to our ancestral days on the African savanna.

Understandably, the Hume view and the Conniff view clash occasionally. A nearby example of this disagreement is Jim Dine’s “Technicolor Heart,” which is installed on the WSU campus along Stadium Way. When it first appeared there in 2004, the heart received a large number of negative comments about it and at least a few attempts at sabotage. From a Conniff instinct perspective, perhaps this outcry is related to the heart’s location on a grassy open space. Looking at that space, it has number of the characteristics that are innately appealing to humans: A clearing-like grassy space with an uphill path and a few branchy trees. Perhaps those who disliked the heart were responding to innate indignation that it violated their ideal landscape. In addition, such bright and startling colors are only present in nature on poisonous creatures such as the poison dart frog of South America. Student Shawn Wallace perhaps unknowingly supported this theory in a letter to The Daily Evergreen when he wrote, “It should have been painted green and stuck between some bushes” (, Oct. 28, 2004). He might as well have said he wanted the garish thing to stop disrupting his savanna.

On the other hand, the Hume perspective on the blue heart is represented by the comments from Keith Wells, the WSU Museum of Art curator. “You should have some sort of background in art—especially modern art. I really like the piece, it’s stunning and it has a little bit of everything,” he was quoted as saying in an Evergreen article. He is trying to imply that “men of taste” like it so everyone else should like it, too. Art critics and museum curators are contemporary equivalents to Hume’s educated men.

Another disagreement between the two theories would arise over the paintings of Thomas Kinkade. Loathed and maligned by designated art critics, his work is nonetheless displayed prominently in homes all around the country. From a Conniff instinct view, Kinkade’s paintings are appealing because he emphasizes warmth and light in green landscapes, and usually there’s a cozy cottage appealing to the need for nighttime shelter. Critics dislike his work for being too pastel, commercialized, and meaningless. Those with knowledge and experience with art generally have come to the consensus that Kinkade’s painting are not good art, just as Hume expected they would.

However, the two theories do not always clash because they are not perfect opposites. For example, the gardens at Versailles appear to fit the evolutionary description of desirable art, yet they are also admired by experts and contain mythology references that only the very educated would understand. It makes sense that the two theories would not always contradict, for even “men of taste” share a common evolutionary ancestor with the hoi polloi.

The evolutionary theory is simple to understand, even if the influences are complex. The theory of taste is the intriguing one, especially when considered from an evolutionary view. Perhaps taste is the acquired ability to overcome instinctual aesthetic reactions for other qualities deemed important by the era. For example, it’s doubtful that an infant would be soothed by listening to an opera solo, yet adults can learn to appreciate it as an art form. On the darker side, perhaps taste is merely a self-serving construction so those who attain the status of expert are needed by the ordinary people. The average layman will typically say he likes an abstruse, experimental film if he thinks he’s “supposed” to like it. Hume’s “man of taste” emerges even in small groups of friends, where one is considered the most knowledgeable about music and the others adopt her preferences as their own.

Though it’s true that neither theory makes sense when considering some art, it seems the most famous and enduring works of art appeal to both the innate aesthetic sense and the acquired taste that comes with education. The Mona Lisa, for example, combines a classic savanna landscape with an enigmatic woman who tickles our evolutionary curiosity and sympathy. Of course, critics also say it’s very good for the perspective, technique, and skill. Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel speaks to humans’ innate propensity for expansive scenes, the sky, and a higher being or god. And, of course, it’s remarkably detailed and a tremendously difficult project that experts appreciate. It seems, then, that while neither Hume’s nor Conniff’s theory can fully explain the world of art as we know it today, both humans’ nature and nurture play a significant role in the way we evaluate art.