Most discussions of the arts by critics and philosophers could be characterized in terms of a rather studied neglect of folk and popular art. This neglect is hardly absolute, however, for it is important in order to articulate a specific conception of aesthetic taste, beauty, or style to contrast the standard being used or praised with some other, less desirable, even degraded way of producing or appreciating something similar. It is perhaps more than a historical coincidence that the formation of the modern concept of taste and aesthetic judgment, in the eighteenth century, coincides roughly with the discovery and valorization of folk poetry and folk culture by the early romantics. In fact the historical connections are often quite close. Immanuel Kant is generally credited with having articulated the most comprehensive and influential statement of the modern conception of taste and aesthetic judgment, in the Critique of Judgment of 1790. There Kant argues that to judge something to be beautiful is to pronounce simply upon its formal values; in particular a genuine judgment of taste is to be distinguished from any response to that which gratifies our appetites or interests. At the same time that Kant was developing this significant statement of the aesthetic point of view, his former student J.G. Herder was celebrating the culture of the Volk and publishing their ballads and stories. Now it might be claimed that there is no inconsistency between these perspectives; it could be said either that productions of folk-art may meet the same aesthetic standards of disinterested pleasure which obtain for taste generally, or one might admit that folk art did not as a rule meet such standards but that it ought to be valued in some different way, for example, as the expression of a culture or way of life rather than as an object of aesthetic appreciation. Yet this is a route not usually taken; friends of folk art and of higher art seem to be at one in recognizing that they involve quite different standards of excellence. Still, one might ask whether these differences might simply co-exist in a peaceful fashion; perhaps they are so different that comparisons are irrelevant or misleading. Nevertheless, the history of discourse about the arts is marked by either explicit or implicit polemics against one or the other of these forms. For the differences in question are, of course, not simply natural differences but social distinctions. It is precisely by affirming one's taste in art (or one's general cultural taste) that one affirms one's own value; the differences spoken of here are distinctions, in the sense in which good taste is said to be a sign of a distinguished person, a man or woman of distinction. The object of this exploratory study is to observe some of these differences and their associated forms of distinction at work in the discourse of aesthetics and criticism. The treatment will be partial and episodic; that is, I will be examining only a few thinkers drawn from an even smaller number of national traditions. The limitation is a consequence of both the limits of my own reading and of the fact that while there is much said about high art, folk art, or popular art, comparatively little has been written about the way in which the formation of an audience or standard for one form involves the making of distinctions between itself and others.

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Copyright © 1989 The University of Kansas Department of Anthropology. This book chapter first appeared in The Folk: Identity, Landscapes and Lores.

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