« PreviousContinue »
for 'when we have recourse to general opinion and general practice, we are betrayed into endless pelplexities. History informs us, that nothing is more variable than talte in the fine arts : judging by numbers, the Gothic taste of architecture must be preferred before that of Greece, and the Chinese taste probably before either. It would be endless to recount the various tastes that have prevailed in different ages. with relpect to gardening, and still prevail in different countries. Despising the modest colouring of nature, women of fashion in France daub their cheeks with a red powder ; nay, an unnatural swelling in the neck, peculiar to the inhabitants of the Alps, is relished by that people. But we ought not to be discouraged by such untoward instances, when we find as great variety in moral opinions ; was it not among some nations held lawful for a man to fell his children for llaves, to expose them in their infancy to wild beasts, and to punish them for the criine of their parents ? was any thing more common than to murder an enemy in cold blood ? nay more, did not law once authorise the abominable practice of human facrifices, no less impious than immoral ? Such aberrations from the rules of morality prove only, that men, originally savage and brutal, acquire not rationality nor delicacy of taste till thcy be long disciplined in society. To ascertain the rules of morality, we'appeal not to the common sense of favages, but of men. in their more perfect state : and we make the same appeal in forming the rules that ought to govern the fine arts : in neither can we safely rely on a local or transitory taste; but on what is the most general and the most lasting among polite nations.
In this very manner, a standard for morals has been ascertained with a good deal of accuracy, and is daily applied by able judges with general fatisfaction. The ftandard of taste in the fine arts, is not yet brought
to such perfe&ion; and we can account for its slower progress: the sense of right and wrong in actions is vivid and distinct, because it's objects are clearly distinguishable from each other ; whereas the sense of right and wrong in the fine arts is faint and wavering, because its objects are commonly not fa clearly distinguishable from each other, and there appears to me a striking final cause in thus distinguishing the moral sense from the sense of right and wrong in the fine arts. The former, as a rule of conduct, and as a law we ought to obey, must be clear and authoritative. The latter is not entitled to the same privilege, because it contributes to our pleaf ure and amusement only: were it strong and lively, it would ufurp upon our duty, and call off the atten tion from matters of greater moment : were it clear and authoritative, it would banish all difference of taste, leaving no distinction between a refined taste and one that is not fo : which would put an end to rivalship, and consequently to all improvement.
But to return to our subject. However languid and cloudy the common sense of mankind may be as to the fine arts, it is notwithstanding the only standard in these as well as in morals. True it is indeed, that in gathering the common sense of mankind, more circumspection is requisite with respect to the fine arts than with respect to morals : upon the latter, any person may be consulted: but in the former, a wary choice is necessary, for to collect votes indifferently would certainly mislead us. Those who depend for food on bodily labour, are totally void of taste; of such a taste at least as can be of use in the fine arts. This confideration bars the greater part of mankind ; and of the remaining part, many by a corrupted taste are unqualified for voting. The common fee of mankind mult then be confined to the
few that fall not under these exceptions. But as such selection seems to throw matters again into uncertainty, we must be more explicit upon this branch of our subject.
Nothing tends more than voluptuousness to corrupt the whole internal frame, and to vitiate our taste, not only in the fine arts, but even in morals : Voluptuousness never fails, in course of time, to extinguish all the sympathetic affections, and to bring on a beastly felfishness, which leaves nothing of man but the shape : about excluding such persons there will be no dispute. Let us next bring under trial, the opulent who delight in expense : the appetite for superiority and respect, inflamed by riches, is vented upon costly furniture, numerous attendants, a princely dwelling, sumptuous feasts, every thing superb and gorgeous, to amaze and humble all beholders : simplicity, elegance, propriety, and things natural, sweet or amiable, are despised or neglected : for these are not appropriated to the rich, nor make a figure in the public eye : in a word, nothing is relished, but what serves to gratify pride, by an imaginary exaltation of the poffeffor above those who surround him. Such sentiments contract the heart, and make every principle give way to self-love, : benevolence and public spirit, with all their refined emotions, are little felt, and less regarded ; and if these be excluded, there can be no place for the faint and delicate emotions of the fine arts.
The exclusion of claffes so many and numerous, reduces within a narrow compass thole who are qualified to be judges in the fine arts. Many circumstances are necefiary to form such a judge: There must be a good natural taste; that is, a taile appioaching, at least in some degree to the delicacy of taste above dcfcribed :* that tafte mut le im
proved * Chap. 2. part ?.
proved by education, reflection, and experience : it must be preserved in vigour by living regularly, by using the goods of fortune with moderation, and by following the dictates of improved nature, which give welcome to every rational pleasure without indulging any excess. This is the tenor of life which of all contributes the most to refinement of taste; and the same tenor of life contributes the most to happiness in general.
If there appear much uncertainty in a standard that requires fo painful and intricate a selection, we may possibly be reconciled to it by the following consideration, That, with respect to the fine arts, there is less difference of taste than is commonly imagined. Nature hath marked all her works with indelible characters of high or low, plain or elegant, strong or weak : thefe, if at all perceived, are feldom mitapprehended ; and the same marks are equally perceptible in works of art. A defective taste is incur.
* That these particulars are useful, it may be faid necessary, for acquiring a discerning tase in the fine arts, will appear from the following fa&ts, which show the influence of experience singly. Those who live in the world and in good company, are quick-lighted with respect to every defe&t or irregularity in behaviour : the very lightelt fingularity in mo. tion, in speech, or in dress, which to a peasant would be invisible, escapes not their observation. The most minute differences in the human coun. tenance, ro minute as to be far beyond the reach of words, are distinctly perceived by the plainelt person ; while at the same time, the generality have very little discernment in the faces of other animals to which they are less accusioned: Sheep, for example, appear to have all the same face, except to the shepherd, who knows every individual in his flock as he does his relations and neighbours. The very populace in Athens were critics in language, in pronunciation, and even in eloquence, harrangues being their daily entertainment. In Rome, at preseni, the most illiterate shopkeeper is a better judge of fatues and of pi&ures, than persons of refined education in London. These facts afford convincing evidence, that a discerning taste depends ftill more on experience than on nature. But these facts merit peculiar regard for another reason, that they open to us a sure method of improving our tafte in the fine arts ; which, with those who have leisure for improvements, ought to be a powerful incitement to cultivate a taste in these arts : 20 occupation that can:ot fail to embellish their manners, and to (weeren society,
able ; and it hurts none but the poffeffor, because it carries no authority to impose upon others. I know not if there be such a thing as a taste naturally bad or wrong ; a taste for example, that prefers a groveling pleasure before one that is high and elegant : groveling pleasures are never preferred ; they are only made welcome by those who know no better. Differences about objects of taste, it is true, are endless ; but they generally concern trifles, or possibly matters of equal rank, where preference may be given either way with impunity : if, on any occafion, persons differ where they ought not, a depraved taste will readily be discovered on one or other fide, occafioned by imitation, custom, or corrupted manners, such as are described above. And confid. ering that every individual partakes of a common nature, what is there that should occasion any wide difference in taste or sentiment ? By the principles that constitute the sensative part of our nature, a wonderful uniformity is preserved in the emotions and feelings of the different races of men ; the same object making upon every person the same impresfion, the fame in kind, if not in degree. There have been, as above observed, aberrations from these principles ; but foon or late they prevail, and restore the wanderer to the right tract.
I know but of one other means for ascertaining the common sense of mankind ; which I mention, not in despair, but in great confidence of success. As the taste of every individual ought to be governed by the principles above mentioned, an appeal to these principles must necessarily be decisive of every controversy that can arise upon matters of taste. In general, every doubt with relation to the common sense of man, or standard of taste, may be cleared by the fame appeal ; and to unfold these principles is įhe declared purpose of the present undertaking.