The Bad Taste of Others

Faced with the potential chaos of an expanding literary market Montesquieu, Voltaire, Diderot, and other Enlightenment writers used the damning label of "bad taste" in order to claim the authority to shape the French literary heritage in their image.

The Bad Taste of Others
Judging Literary Value in Eighteenth-Century France

Jennifer Tsien

2011 | 280 pages | Cloth $49.95
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Table of Contents

Chapter 1. Too Many Books
Chapter 2. What Is Good Taste?
Chapter 3. The Barbaric, or Of Time and Taste
Chapter 4. On Foreign Taste
Chapter 5. The Obscure, or Enigmas and the Enigmatic
Chapter 6. The Disorderly

Works Cited

Excerpt [uncorrected, not for citation]


Everyone expresses opinions about taste, but almost no one can define it; in fact, it may be easier to say what good taste is not than to give a formula for what it is. As the anthropologist Mary Douglas remarks about the choices made by present-day consumers, "Taste is best understood by negative judgments. The discourse of dislike and ugliness is more revealing than the discourse about aesthetic beauty." For this reason, examples of bad taste may tell us more about a society's conception of manners, fashion, and artistic value than any rules of good taste. In our day, many would claim that society is so fragmented that no overarching rules of taste exist. Yet museums, art galleries, magazine editors, shoppers, nightclub doormen, judges of television reality shows, and university professors make decisions based on taste every day. In many cases, these decisions determine the social status of individuals or the success of a business, or they may shape the cultural legacy of an era.

While our society is not always conscious of the influence of taste, the eighteenth-century literary world was very openly preoccupied with matters of taste or goût, if we are to judge by the frequency with which it is mentioned and by the number of works on the subject. For instance, a quick overview of works from 1700 to 1750 in the catalogue of the French National Library yields the following sample: Le Bon goût de l'éloquence chrétienne; Le Passe-temps des gens de goût; Discours sur l'origine de la poésie, sur son usage et sur le bon goût; Trois lettres sur la décadence du goût en France; Les Principes de la morale et du goût; Le Dénonciateur du mauvais goût; Les Adieux du goût; and numerous others. To eighteenth-century France, good taste was a necessary component of human nature and of national influence. Luc Ferry, in Homo aestheticus, even puts innovations in theories of taste on par with the early modern revolutions in epistemology and politics. One could even say that the difference between good and bad taste was as important in the eighteenth century as the difference between good and evil or between truth and illusion. In all of these areas of human experience, philosophers attempted to resolve the problematic relationship between subjectivity and authority, and they sought to mark the difference between a savage and a civilized man.

To a large extent, eighteenth-century theories of taste developed together with other areas of philosophy: for critics such as Dubos and Diderot, for example, arguments about taste and beauty were closely intertwined with new conceptions of sensibility, ethics, subjectivity, and even the workings of the human body. In other ways, reflections about artistic judgment seemed to diverge sharply from other Enlightenment ideas, particularly in matters of equality, cultural relativism, and human perfectibility.

Given the importance of taste in this period, it is not surprising that it produced significant new ways of thinking about the artistic experience. Because the discussion of taste rose to the foreground so conspicuously in the eighteenth century, many present-day scholars have seen this period as the cradle of modern aesthetic thought. Why do scholars focus on this period as "The Century of Taste"? While one could mark 1750 as the birth of aesthetics, based on the fact that the term first appeared as the title of a book by Alexander Baumgarten, the meaning of the term—either perception through the senses or the judgment of beauty—was hardly new.

Since antiquity, thinkers had speculated about the nature of sensory perception and of beauty, and at least since the seventeenth century many had tried to determine the nature of taste. It may be impossible to pinpoint a clear break between premodern and modern reflections on beauty, especially if this break is identified with the second half of the eighteenth century.

Some scholars have seen the so-called birth of aesthetics as the product of a new configuration in the relationship between the creator, his patrons, and the public. For instance, Annie Becq, in her monumental work La Genèse de l'esthétique française moderne, sees the second half of the eighteenth century as the time when the science, or the true philosophy, of aesthetics emerged. She explains that this event resulted from the increased autonomy of writers and of artists through their liberation from the constraints of courtly patronage and a shift to a more market-based relationship with their public: "The increasing autonomy of the intellectual and artistic field created the conditions necessary to conceive of the aesthetic order, strictly speaking, and it consequently favored the emergence of modern aesthetics." While the correlation between the market system and the birth of modern aesthetics described by Becq may seem plausible in some respects, the rise of the authorial autonomy was neither linear nor simple, as she acknowledges herself. For instance, Geoffrey Turnovsky has demonstrated in The Literary Market that it is impossible to demarcate exactly when the system of courtly patronage was transformed into the market system because in many cases the two existed simultaneously; that is, authors depended on a variety of sources for their income at any one time.

Annie Becq may have inherited her views regarding the new creative autonomy and its effects from Habermas's Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere, though she does not cite him explicitly. Habermas maintains that in the period when artists and writers depended on a small and powerful elite (namely the king, his circle, his institutions, and in some cases the church) who had the "monopoly of interpretation," there was no need to argue about what was good art. It was only when there was a growth in the number of people who were interested in the arts—not elites but sufficiently educated individuals of all social backgrounds—and when the bourgeois public sphere emerged that cultural products became accessible on the open market. Consequently, everyone felt that they had the right to make judgments about paintings and books: "The 'taste' to which art was oriented from then on became manifest in the assessments of lay people who claimed no prerogative, since within a public everyone was entitled to judge." From these circumstances, Habermas claims, the art critic was born, in order to speak for the public as its "mandatary."

Habermas's optimistic faith in open discussion, however, is belied by the elitist statements contained in actual eighteenth-century treatises on taste, many of which express horror at the notion that "everyone was entitled to judge." Habermas does hint at an inherent problem in the art critics' self-appointed role as "spokesmen for the public": these critics also presumed to be the public's educators and in some cases, these critics "could turn against the public." But in Habermas's view, the ultimate judgment finally resulted from public debate, so that each opinion would eventually submit to a better-argued one. Even though Habermas's Enlightenment society relied on the use of reason in debates about art and literature, in reality, reason was not always the deciding factor. More often, critics claimed a number of other qualities that made them better judges of artistic productions than other people: their degree of sensibility, which is unverifiable and unmeasurable; their authority, based on greater erudition; and that supremely intangible quality, taste, which in some cases they deemed to be the domain of the chosen few.

Regarding the critics' relationship to the public, Habermas claims that at times, groups of thinkers wished to form exclusive cliques, but this proved impossible because the public debate about art always became accessible to a "more inclusive public of all private people." I agree that the eighteenth century saw constant tension between those who wished to establish themselves as the exclusive authorities of taste and the large number of consumers of art who also wanted a say in these matters. Since the line of demarcation between expert and non-expert was always in flux, perhaps aspirants to the status of critic needed to fend off all encroachments to their position through the language of exclusivity. While Habermas puts the emphasis on the happy outcome of this struggle, in this study I will concentrate instead on the efforts made by critics to discredit the public's choices, even while announcing the universality of taste.

One problem inherent in the concept of taste was that its elusive nature made it difficult, if not impossible, to bridge the gap between one person's subjective perception of beauty and its wider application to a nation or to humanity in general. The majority of the writers I deal with in this study declared that the standards of taste were universal, even though actual differences in opinion forced them to explicitly reject the taste of others. Batteux, for one, affirmed that "there can be but one only good taste in general . . . therefore those who are not pleased with beautiful nature, must necessarily have a bad taste." This ideal of taste supposedly transcended class, nationality, and history—yet the ideal of taste these philosophers upheld undoubtedly depended on their own subjective preferences.

To a certain extent, disagreements about who had the right to judge cultural productions are already inherent in the word public. This key concept for Habermas has been destabilized by more recent scholars such as the art historian Thomas Crow, who finds deep discrepancies between various conceptions of what constitutes a public in the writings of the eighteenth century. On the one hand, officials such as the leaders of the Académie Royale de Peinture et de Sculpture claimed that "public" acclamation gave legitimacy to certain painters and subjects. In doing so, they assumed that the population would passively accept established notions such as the moral didacticism of art, the hierarchy of genres, and artistic conventions. This idea of the "correct" judgment being supported by an imaginary consensus is analogous to the idea in literature, expressed by Dubos, Batteux, and others, that the "public" eventually agrees with those people who have superior taste.

As Thomas Crow indicates, however, this imaginary, passive public did not coincide with what he calls the "audience"—the actual crowds of people who looked at the art in the Louvre's salons and who bought paintings in the outdoor markets. For example, historical and mythological paintings, which represented the top level of the hierarchy of painting, did not please consumers as much they were meant to. Instead, people often chose to admire, and to buy, paintings that were not meant to edify them: for example, modest interiors by Chardin and frivolous fêtes galantes by Watteau. Like the leaders of the Académie Royale de Peinture et de Sculpture, the philosophes, self-appointed leaders of the literary world, were frustrated when the reading public became unruly and chose different works that they would have desired, especially from what they saw as the tasteless genres of fairy tales, chivalric novels, biblical poetry, or magazines. When the people who constituted the actual ensemble of consumers expressed their preferences for the "wrong" art or the "wrong" texts, they challenged the critics' assumption that the majority of the public would eventually consecrate the works that the experts had deemed most worthy of passing on to posterity. Despite the difficulties involved in identifying a public and determining its exact effect on the birth of aesthetics, it is still very probable, as Habermas assumes, that the increasing size of the public had a significant bearing on the conceptions of taste of the eighteenth century. The rise in literacy and the growing access to culture, as we can see in the opening of the Louvre's salons to all, surely made it possible for anyone to consider himself or herself a judge of the arts, whether this status was acknowledged by others or not.

This growth of the public for art and literature, which Habermas sees in a positive light, caused critics such as Dubos, Diderot, and Marmontel to react with horror. But their motivations, they claimed, were not merely self-serving or elitist; in fact, they were protecting the public from itself—or rather, they were protecting their abstract, idealized public from the actual, less manageable public. More specifically, these philosophers portrayed themselves as protectors of a national cultural legacy that was constantly under the metaphorical threat of either decadence or barbarian invasion. They claimed that after the eras in which Italy and Spain had dominated European culture and French culture had wallowed in an inchoate state, French letters were now ready to rise to the top rank. This intense focus on French pride may seem surprising when one considers the well-known cosmopolitanism of these same authors in other areas, such as customs, morals, and religion. Nevertheless, these critics, particularly Marmontel, reconciled their nationally centered view of culture with their interest in the outside world by elaborating theories of a supposedly natural process by which the world gradually looked to one country to set the standard of taste. In their view, France had reached a point at which it could take its position as the leader in matters of taste.

This ambition explains, for example, the philosophes' anxious desire to safeguard the advances made during the previous century in establishing correct French usage and in expunging so-called tasteless words, which they judged to be too foreign, archaic, or vulgar. Eighteenth-century critics expressed the need to sweep away foreign influences not only on vocabulary (for example, Italian-style diminutives) but on literature as well, as we can see in Dubos's denunciations of Spanish farce or Voltaire's mockery of "Oriental" biblical style. Even the supposedly shameful parts of France's literary past, such as Frankish words, gaulois humor, or préciosité, had to be purged from the canon that would be handed down to posterity. La Harpe's survey of literature, from the Greeks to Voltaire, contained in his Lycée, ou Cours de littérature ancienne et moderne, consecrated this eighteenth-century view of the French literary patrimoine, especially in an era when the study of French literary history had not previously existed as a discipline.

While critics such as La Harpe often connected the foreign with the tasteless, they saw ancient Greeks and Romans not as foreigners but as the ancestors of French culture.17 This perceived kinship was central to the Quarrel of the Ancients and the Moderns, which was just ending as the first eighteenth-century treatises on taste, those by Dubos and Crousaz, were beginning to appear. Although the Quarrel remained unresolved, I believe that its influence could be seen in French writers' self-image as both the inheritors of Greek and Roman culture and as the founders of a new and better culture, as we will see in the discussion of Corneille's Horace.

A strong and civilized society, as opposed to barbarism or decadence, was the ambition of these eighteenth-century thinkers: it was not the France that they saw around them but the France that they aspired to. Good taste played an important part in creating this national self-image. The concern with the national literary legacy can be compared with the call for the heroic "grand goût" in the visual arts during the same period. In both cases, writers of treatises blamed the petty, the feminine, and the foreign for bringing about the bad taste that would weaken the French nation.

The aspiration to establish France as the new world leader in matters of culture underlies many of the calls to crush examples of bad taste in their midst. In order to accomplish their goal, eighteenth-century critics needed not only to set the standard of good taste but also to assume the authority to pass judgment. Among these critics, it is important to distinguish two connected groups. The first group belonged largely to the first half of the eighteenth century and the other the second half, though in some cases the two overlapped. In Chapter 2 I will provide more detailed discussions of each particular author, but for the moment I will explain, in broad outlines, what each group represented and what was at stake in their conception of taste.

In the first group, one can include critics such as Dubos, the marquise de Lambert, and Montesquieu. Whether noble or bourgeois, they frequented elite social circles, and the marquise de Lambert even hosted a literary salon attended by partisans of both the ancient and the modern camps during the Querelle d'Homère. These critics owed much to their seventeenth-century predecessors' ideal of good taste, which emanated from worldly politeness. They also inherited the honnête homme's disdain for those they saw as pedantic, including philologists, pedagogues, and, in Dubos's case, even artists themselves. Despite their connection to the recent past, however, these critics from the early eighteenth century truly innovated in the realm of taste and aesthetics by concentrating on the functions of the viewer's mind as he or she reacted to a work of art. This particular kind of taste depended on an extremely fine-tuned sensibility or an innate sense of "tact," both in the sense of touch and in the sense of politeness.

In their works, we can see that the focus on sentiment does not imply a belief in egalitarianism but rather in a closed community of the ultra-sensible. The marquise de Lambert, in her Réflexions sur le goût, describes taste as depending on "an extremely delicate sensibility in the heart, and a great justness in the [the mind]." She says it cannot be learned, but instead, "nature gives us what we have of it, we never can acquire it, and the more refined part of the world alone are acquainted with it in any degree of perfection." Similarly, the abbé Dubos proves his faithfulness to the honnête homme ideal in his Réflexions critiques sur la poésie et sur la peinture by granting the authority to judge art exclusively to the "public," which, he makes clear, does not refer to the peuple but to a polite and educated elite. He also explicitly bypasses the opinions of critics who write "dissertations" and even the producers of art, calling the latter artisans rather than artistes.

We can see how this insistence on feeling contains the seeds of the trend in sensibility that would flourish in Europe during the late eighteenth century. But inherent in the concept of sensibility is the problem of exclusiveness and inclusiveness. One could see sensibility as a democratizing trend, in which people of all backgrounds who can feel strongly may claim membership in an elite of the heart, as Rousseau would try to demonstrate, for example, with himself as a model of a low-born man of feeling or with his hero Saint-Preux in the novel La Nouvelle Héloïse. One could even be led to assume that sensibility is an aspect of human nature that is common to all. But this application of the concept of sensibility was far from the thoughts of high-society denizens such as Lambert and Dubos. I believe that they intended this concept of sensibility as way of distinguishing the refined from the vulgar, a distinction that they assumed would naturally coincide with the person's social station.

In the realm of visual arts, the early eighteenth-century mondains correspond to the amateurs whose influence has been documented by scholars such as Thomas Crow, René Démoris, Florence Ferran, and Charlotte Guichard. These amateurs were private collectors of art, mostly aristocrats, who claimed that their goût exquis and their active support of artists sufficed to give them the authority of taste, especially when government patronage was on the wane. These amateurs, who frequented some of the same circles as Dubos, Lambert, and Montesquieu, demanded and received a semi-official role to play in the Académie Royale de Peinture et de Sculpture. These were surely the types of amateurs to whom Dubos referred when he defined the true public as the educated elite, neither professional artists nor critics. But these amateurs' influence would come under fire when a new generation of thinkers came to dominate artistic discourse.

This new generation largely coincided with what we call the philosophes, the most prominent among them being Voltaire, d'Alembert and Diderot. They came from a wide variety of social backgrounds, ranging from the rank of artisans to the high bourgeoisie, but they sought to transcend their past to create a new society of men of letters, or a "société de gens de lettres," as a number of them identify themselves in the title page of the Encyclopédie. These authors wished to take their distance, on the one hand, from the mondains who were previously in the ascendant and, on the other, from hermit-like pedants. In the article "Philosophe" of the Encyclopédie, for example, the anonymous author points to the difference between the mere society wit and the true philosophe: "The world is full of intelligent people and very intelligent people, who always judge; they always guess, because to judge without a sense of when one has a proper reason to judge is to guess. . . . The philosopher . . . judges and speaks less, but he judges more surely and speaks better." In this passage, this writer seems to be attacking the position of Dubos and Lambert, who granted the members of "le monde" (a common abbreviation for "le beau monde" or high society) the right to judge spontaneously by instinct rather than by study. Nevertheless, the author insists later in this article that a philosophe is also an honnête homme, in the sense that he is not dishonest and that he does not isolate himself from society.

To mark a further distance from the high-society mondains, the philosophes stated that the authority to judge literature no longer depended only on sentiment; it also depended on rigorous training. As Voltaire asserts in his article "Gens de lettres" of the Encyclopédie, a true man of letters possesses a deep understanding of a number of fields; he can "pass from the thorns of Mathematics to the flowers of Poetry, and [can] judge equally well a book of Metaphysics and a play." This type of man also differs from the beaux-esprits of elite circles because these are incapable of true "culture" and "philosophy": "A man of letters is not what is called a 'wit' [un bel-esprit]. Wit alone assumes less culture, less study, and requires no philosophy; it consists primarily of a brilliant imagination, pleasant conversation, assisted by general reading. A wit can easily not deserve the title of man of letters at all; and the man of letters may not at all claim the brilliance of the wit." Thus the philosophes of the eighteenth century, even while admiring many aspects of the aesthetic of the honnêtes gens, were intent on showing that they were a new breed of thinker—more erudite, more profound, and less intent on pleasing their social circle.

On the other hand, several passages by Diderot and Voltaire show us that they also wished to distinguish themselves from the pedants that the honnêtes gens disdained so much. In Le Temple du goût, for example, Voltaire shows his contempt for mere philologists; on the way to the eponymous Temple of Taste, he passes by a cluster of dust-covered scholars who do not even have an interest in approaching the temple. He lists some by name, such as André Dacier, and others by comic pseudonyms, such as Lexicocrassius and Scriblerus,28 and he describes them as follows:

Their faces wan, their fire quite spent,

With pouring o'er Greek authors bent.

Soon as the squalid troop I spied,

I raised my voice, and to them cried,

"To Taste's famed Temple do you bend?"

"No, sir, we no such thing intend.

What others have with care expressed,

With accuracy we digest,

On others' thoughts we spend our ink,

But we for our part never think."

Instead of writers who have the ability to please, or philosophers who can judge, these men merely compile, and they keep their distance from matters of taste.

While Voltaire shows a spatial separation from these pedants in the Temple of Taste, leaving them behind in the dust, Diderot and d'Alembert separate themselves chronologically from the pedants in their Preliminary Discourse to the Encyclopédie. In the section of this text that contains an imagined history of knowledge, Diderot and d'Alembert maintain that the order of succession was as follows: memory, imagination, and reason. Memory is represented by the compilers, or the scholars who rediscovered ancient texts during the Renaissance; imagination refers to the authors of the seventeenth century who embellished literature; then, in the final stage, that of reason, the philosophers appeared. In Diderot's and d'Alembert's view, the present-day philosophers benefit from the erudition of the first group and the style of the second, but they have surpassed them intellectually.

These philosophes declared their autonomy from the previous patronage system, as Annie Becq states in La Genèse de l'esthétique française moderne, but they also cast a look of suspicion on the market system that would dominate literature in future centuries. We can see that their new independence existed, to some extent, on a purely rhetorical level. As Geoffrey Turnovsky demonstrates in The Literary Market, royal pensions, aristocratic influence, sinecures, and honorary positions all contributed to writers' economic survival, even if they would have liked to see themselves as independent gens de lettres.

To conceive of their new place in society, they looked for models in the past, particularly from antiquity and the seventeenth century, pointedly ignoring the Middle Ages and the French Renaissance. They appropriated a number of erudite predecessors while keeping their distance from those they saw as pedants. They also looked to worldly models in more recent decades while disdaining mere society wits. For instance, they praised and frequently quoted from Quintilian, who had earned his living as a teacher; they drew inspiration from seventeenth-century mondains such as Bouhours and Vaugelas and from more pedagogical types such as the grammarians of Port-Royal. From the early part of the eighteenth century, they praised the worldly Dubos, but they also picked up ideas from theology professors André and Crousaz, who described the judgment of beauty as a science.

Despite their defense of what they considered good taste, Voltaire and his partisans did not necessarily practice it themselves at all times. For example, while Voltaire denounced obscure writing, he still reveled in nonsense language and riddles in his contes philosophiques. While Diderot called order a natural necessity in his treatise on beauty (the article "Beau" of the Encyclopédie), many of his writings experiment with a meandering style that follows the capricious functions of the mind. In some cases, such as Voltaire's, one may see the disjunction between theory and practice as a way of reinforcing his principles through parody. In other cases, however, one can simply see a divide between this ideal of good taste in the eighteenth century and the actual practice of literature, no matter who represented each side in the battle of taste.

Nonetheless, the philosophes' self-identification as the new judges of taste necessitated the exclusion of others, even as more and more members of the increasingly literate public wished to participate in the world of letters. One could see part of the title of the Encyclopédie, "par une société de gens de lettres," as declaring this new status. The word société can commonly designate a group of people who assemble to enjoy each others' company, but this definition would better describe the previous model of aesthetic judgment. Instead, the type of société represented by the Encyclopedists conformed more to the limited sense of a commercial company or a religious order rather than the egalitarian, open Republic of Letters praised by scholars such as Habermas. The commercial and the religious definitions of société suggest the image of the Encyclopedists as a closed sect backed by institutions, less devoted to pleasure than to the business at hand.

In establishing their authority to judge literature, this société des gens de lettres needed the expression bad taste to help them police the border between the "real" writers and those who merely aspired to this status. As Pierre Bourdieu remarks about the use of exclusion in the literary world, the formation of a class of self-designated writers implies the negation of others' claim to the title: "One of the central stakes in literary (etc.) rivalries is the monopoly of literary legitimacy, that is, among other things, the monopoly of the power to say with authority who is authorized to call himself writer . . . the monopoly of the power of consecration of producers and products." Although Bourdieu refers, in Les Règles de l'art, to the nineteenth-century literary landscape, he still has some relevant insights for the eighteenth century, especially for their construction of a metaphorical barrier between professionals and non-professionals in the field of literature. The philosophes could use their self-created authority to shape the French literary legacy as they wished to see it, and the label "bad taste" would prove useful in removing elements from the past and present that did not correspond to their vision. It is ironic to consider how the ascendancy over public opinion that philosophes like Diderot and Voltaire so desired paralleled the rule of an absolutist monarch over the people. Although the philosophes are known for denouncing the abuses of the monarchy and its institutions, in many ways they expressed the desire to rule over the literary world in an unchallenged way, even to the extent of excluding the works they disapproved of, just as the king's government could censure books that did not meet with its favor.

In the chapters that follow, I will discuss the efforts of the eighteenth-century critics, in their capacity as authorities on taste, to rein in what they saw as the excesses of the book world. For this reason, I will begin Chapter 1 by establishing that there was a perception among critics that the field of literature suffered from a deluge of books. This excess provided a major motive for imposing criteria of taste that would distinguish the good from the bad in the realm of the intellect. In Chapter 2, I discuss these criteria of good taste, specifically in the treatises of Dubos, Batteux, Voltaire, Marmontel, Diderot, and their contemporaries. The next four chapters explore different aspects of so-called bad taste that were to be rejected: the barbarism of other time periods, the vulgarity emanating from other countries, and the dangers of obscurity and disorder brought by various popular genres. Once these elements could be purged, the critics thought, the French literary legacy would be worthy of being passed down to posterity.