Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Can art be judged by 'objective' standards?

In a number of opinion pieces over at ‘Not PC,’ Peter Cresswell has articulated a fairly outrageous position on what constitutes art, to the extent that I felt moved to respond at length.

In essence, he began by ridiculing Alan Gibbs for buying art that he claimed was a ‘con’ and entirely devoid of merit. As argument with several commenters on his arrogant position wore on, he appealed to his own intellectual authority in stating that he could discern real art as he was ‘someone with a mind’ who ‘knows what art looks like’.

The argument took a further twist when I challenged him on the subjectivity of art, and he announced that ‘subjective [taste] could be judged objectively’.

So, here follows an attempt at distilling the actual argument from the deluge of words that PC has poured out on the subject.

- Not all that is claimed to be art, is in fact art
- What is art can be determined by appeal to certain objective principles
- These objective principles can be known and defined
- The manner in which they relate to the ‘art object’ in positively defining it can be known and quantified

In order to make an objective value judgement of the kind PC claims to be able to make (ie “This is art” – “This is not art”) all of these predicates must hold true. My position is that this is ridiculous.

The ramifications of such a position are huge! We could quickly isolate what was art and what was not, biff a whole lot of newly-discovered non-art on to giant bonfires all around the world, and start retraining our aesthetic palates. It is, of course, a crock.

But what is my position? Quite simply that art is art because we ourselves make a personal judgement that it is – it speaks to us in some way. This will vary from person to person, culture to culture, and individually shift and migrate over time as our personal history and knowledge base changes and shifts. There is nothing within this schema that confers authority to state objectively that something definitely is or definitely isn’t ‘real’ art. This is a judgement we have to make for ourselves.
You can relax and let PC tell you what has artistic worth and what has none and for what particular reason, or you can undertake your own journey, form your own opinions, and enrich yourself with art that fulfils your own personal wants and needs.

The challenge to PC is to respond to my formulation of his argument, and defend it if he agrees, or explain which predicates I have miscontrued, and what he actually means, in as succinct a way as possible.

18 comments:

PC said...

Hi Den,

I'm pleased you've tried to get to grips with the argument, and with the distinction between what's subjective and what's objective, but I'm not sure that you have, so your understanding of my argument falls down right at the start.

My position here isn't about me telling you what to like, or me being some sort of 'style guru.'

It's simply about understanding the power that art has for us, and attempting to explain that power: understanding that the power art has for us is not causeless, and beginning to determine what that cause is, and from where it derives.

But before heading off on to anything else, I'll try and restate just that basic subjective/objective distinction for you .

Let's say you like vanilla ice cream. Your taste for that is subjective; it's your personal, subjective taste. Does it mean much beyond that? Well, probably not.

But let's just say that your taste for it is because it brings back good memories from childhood; from long days at the beach or walking along Oriental Parade with your favourite uncle or aunt. That would be an objective fact to which you could point that might explain your taste, or tell you something about your taste.

The concept I'm talking about is not that different to that, merely talking about something much more important than what flavour of ice cream we like, and much, much more fun: our taste in art.

A piece of art appeals to you. That it appeals to you but not to me shows that your 'taste' for that piece is (somewhat) subjective.

That's the subjective part of the equation. It's our taste; our choice; our decision.

But does that taste say anything about us? If one person likes, say Rodin's 'Thinker, and another personal finds spiritual fulfilment in watching Paul McCarthy shoving hot dogs up his arse, then that does show us that there is some difference between us. It shows us that what we like is open to analysis, to an explanation as to what it is about our taste for this or that piece that causes one person to like one thing, and another person another.

Our likes are not causeless.

A taste for example for art that is uplifting, adventurous, and colourful says one thing about a person. A taste for art that is sombre, uneasy, uncertain and vague shows another.

These aren't value judgements. They're just basic facts about the art we like and our relationship to it.

Can we say anything about the art we like, and therefore our taste for it? Yes, we can. We can assess the art and our like for it, which are both facts open to analysis, and from that we can learn something about ourselves: something that tells us about our most fundamental view of existence ands our place in it, which is what art does for us.

Here's another very simple example. You find that you're really enjoying listening to sad music. That you do is a fact. That the music expresses sadness is also a fact. Your taste for this music at this point in your life is subjective, but it tells you something about yourself, which might be that you're sad.

If you've just experienced a loss, that might of course be no surprise.

Let me hasten to add that assessing art or your tastes like this is not the primary purpose of art (not unless you're an art therapist). In a time of great loss, for instance, you already know you're sad: what you're doing here is perhaps wallowing for a while in your sadness, really feeling it, and perhaps finding a way out -- but while we're enjoying it the music is emotionally reflecting back to us that this is the way we (presently) see the world, and the music we're enjoying is helping us to understand that, and to feel that as an emotional sum.

Does that help you see the distinction better?

You see, there are two questions with every piece of art: the first is, "Is it good art?" This is the question we're addressing when we bring arguments to bear about how well an architect has examined his brief; or how skilfully they've integrated the appearance of a building with its use; or how well a form a decoration (twisted copper wire for example) expresses the condition of the work -- in other words, how much technique has been brought to bear in producing this piece.

The second related sub-question here is to see if the art has been worth all that technique: has it got something to say, and what? -- is there sufficient scope, depth and integration to say anything at all? -- does the artwork succinctly present a worldview, or nothing at all?

So those are all part of the first question, and to answer it we have to repair to an objective standard. What else is there to repair to?

It's the second question that is entirely subjective: "Do I like it?"

And that choice is each of ours to make for ourselves.

More later. :-)

David said...

Typical. In arguing about art, it is only a matter of time before one ponce pulls the 'you aren't clever enough to understand my refined thinking so there's no point going on further' card.

DenMT said...

PC - so reformulate your argument. Nothing in what you have written here constitutes the intellectual authority you appeal to multiple times in claiming that you can discern 'good art'.

I'm glad that you value 'the power that art has for us' etcetera - most of your argument appears to cluster around making this point. The contentious argument, one that you really don't seem to engage with, is contained here:

"... "Is it good art?" This is the question we're addressing when we bring arguments to bear about how well an architect has examined his brief; or how skilfully they've integrated the appearance of a building with its use; or how well a form a decoration (twisted copper wire for example) expresses the condition of the work -- in other words, how much technique has been brought to bear in producing this piece."

We can only ever answer this in subjective terms - it can only ever be true internally for one person, NOT absolutely. To claim otherwise is to subscribe to the argument as laid out in the original post.

DenMT

R. Larson said...

Okay, let's see if I've got the hang of this "objective" evaluation thing.

To me, the scupture that Alan Gibbs bought (http://pc.blogspot.com/2006/08/con-art-in-kaipara.html) represents mankind as possessing volition and as being capable of achieving his dreams. The upright steel implies strength and certainty. The rust represents mortality, and brings a secular spirituality to the work (life is short, so make the best of it now). Orange is the color of fire. Passion. So, speaking objectively, the sculpture is great art because it expresses a positive, potent view of mankind, and it does so very powerfully and deeply. It gives us the feeling that heroism is the ideal, and that we should live gallantly.

Now, why was PC saying that it's not art or that it's not good art?

R. Larson

Anonymous said...

r.larsen says "speaking objectively"and then goes on to speak in a thoroughly subjective manner "does so very powerfully and deeply" Very powerfully and deeply for whom? For her, which is of course, subjective. I certainly don't agree with her viewpoint, which is her own subjective viewpoint, as much as she pretends to be objective.

As an aside, check out Lindsaý Perrigo's comments on Gibbs. That Gibbs is: "philosophically corrupt."

I would agree, but that is of course, subjective.

R. Larson said...

Hey, thanks for the feedback. My last post was my first try at following PC's guidelines on how to be objective about art, and I guess I inadvertently slipped in some subjectivism there. Old habits die hard. I'll rewrite my post to correct the mistakes that you pointed out:

The scupture that Alan Gibbs bought (http://pc.blogspot.com/2006/08/con-art-in-kaipara.html) represents mankind as possessing volition and as being capable of achieving his dreams. The upright steel implies strength and certainty. The rust represents mortality, and brings a secular spirituality to the work (life is short, so make the best of it now). Orange is the color of fire. Passion. So, speaking objectively, the sculpture is great art because it expresses a positive, potent view of mankind. It represents the idea that heroism is the ideal, and that we should live gallantly.

Now, why was PC saying that it's not art or that it's not good art?

R. Larson

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