Can We Make Objective Judgements of Taste?
This essay aims to tackle the question of subjectivity and objectivity in aesthetic judgements. Proving that we could ground matters of taste in any kind of objectivity seems a much greater task than perhaps in knowledge or ethics — and I think it is. But in my view, it is hard to see how different these things really are. My argument is that, as people come together and produce art, an intersubjectively grounded notion of it emerges that sets objective constraints on what could be deemed art. It takes the form of a set of rules which implicitly determine good and bad art. So, while art could not exist completely independent of any mind (as a feature of nature), its rules and determinations exist as good or bad art independent of what any one person might say of them. It takes reliable practices of aesthetic critique to be someone who can find and make objective judgments about those emergent truths of taste. Throughout I also discuss failure of a purely subjectivist account in lieu of this but also the particular persistence of agreement about aesthetic judgements in history. Finally I dispel any elitist illusions this view often brings with it that I do not share.
Subjectivity in Action
Ask anyone the question: “Do you think art is objective, that is, that some art is just in itself better than other art?” Most people I have talked to vehemently deny this. They say, “art is subjective; it is something only up to each to individuals unique experience.” Our emotional reaction to a piece of art cannot be wrong. It is what it is. It has no reference to anything outside of itself. In other words, they may say there is no truth of the matter about whether something is good or not. And this is reasonable, the culture, time in history, class — or any other contingent circumstances can easily sway these judgements. A brief survey of history tells us how absurd tastes of the past were, especially in fashion: mullets, leg warmers, powdered wigs (why?). All of these would surely vindicate this opinion. That is the old saying: beauty is in the eye of the beholder.
Now, ask that same person (a couple of days later, so they forget you asked the previous question) whether they think if the recent Korean hit film Parasite is better than uncanny-valley-dystopian-masterpiece Cats. If you cringed a little bit in my application of “masterpiece” to Cats, you might get my next point already. The point is that the prior characterisation of the pure subjectivism of art is precisely not how we engage with each other about it. In pronouncing one’s preference for Cats over Parasite David Hume tells us what will happen:
“no one pays attention to such a taste; and we pronounce, without scruple, the sentiment of these pretended critics to be absurd and ridiculous. The principle of the natural equality of tastes is then totally forgot … it appears an extravagant paradox, or rather a palpable absurdity, where objects so disproportioned are compared together.”
How are we supposed to make sense of this? On the one hand, we have a commitment to subjectivism; on the other, we become betrothed to hostile argumentation about this being better than that. (This is what Kant called the ‘antimony of taste.’) If the first is true, then in the second case we must be arguing about well, nothing. There is no content or meaning, except maybe a personal report of our experience. While some might be content with this, they must give up any notion of better or worse judgement — they must not dispute those who posit Cats as a masterpiece, in fact, they must say there is no basis for disagreement about matters of taste, at all. If they do argue (which we all often do), they fail on their own account. My claim here is that in arguing about good and bad art, we seem to be arguing about something.
Responsiveness to Reasons
One reason for thinking we are genuinely arguing about something objective when we are discussing matters of taste is that we are responsive to reasons why we ought to think differently. And, more importantly, we can be convinced of such expressions. That is, our subjective experience of art is responsive to objective reasons why we ought to think this is better than that. It is hard to appreciate John Frankenheimer’s underrated film Seconds without being shown or appreciating the unique camera work. It is hard to appreciate The Velvet Underground and Nico’s self-titled LP for what it is unless you realise that no one was really doing what they were at the time. What begins as a mere opinion, becomes common features, reasons and analyses of art that eventually come to be mutually understood among groups of people. They eventually amount to a co-operative exercise among persons, a constant and mutual working-out of what it means to be art — of what it means to be good art. From this working-out emerge some rules of the game or a conception of art, independent of any one mind.
An Objective Conception of Art
To be arguing at all about it, art must have a shared conception of its meaning. One that fixes boundaries upon what is considered under its umbrella. This is something fixed upon by the cultural-historical epoch of the community of art admirers under consideration. (Rather optimistically, I think this has the potential to come under relative universality with the advent of the internet, globalism, and technology.)
In taking subjectivity seriously, there are no objective physical qualities of ‘good art’ in the world that can be fixed upon by reasoning from first principles. There would be no art at all absent of subjective human imposition of meaning. Yet art itself is not a solipsistic project; it is firstly the product of experience and secondly the product of a meeting of minds, in which the concept itself is fixed intersubjectively. What this means is that judgements of taste in art presuppose some conception of what it means to be art in the first place, as determined by culture or society at large. The title of art can be said to be truthfully applied to certain things while not to other things. For example, it would seem an error to call a regular hammer a work of art (the pure subjectivist cannot suppose this to be an error), it is a category error.
The concept of art is fixed intersubjectively and can be said to apply truthfully to particular objects.
If we accept this story, the concept of art is then both subjective and objective. The concept of art itself is subjective in the sense that it exists as the product of thought, of the impressions of objects imposed upon individual human minds. But on the other hand, the intersubjective basis for the concept of art fixes it with objectivity (mind-independence). It is objective in the sense that its reality takes on an independent existence, independent of what you or I may think about art. No amount of my testimony to the contrary will ever make doing the dishes art, for example. On the other hand, it can be said that Caspar David Friedrich’s Wanderer above the Sea of Fog is objectively a piece of art. This means there are finitely malleable objective standards (as determined by the collective human experience) for what is art.
There are objective standards for what is considered art; no individual subjectivity can simply redefine what it is to be art.
The subjectivists have a couple of outs that I would like to address quickly. She could say that I am wrong to think the dishes could not be art — they could! If I achieve sublimation from rubbing steel wool on my pots and pans (or leaving them in the sink to ‘soak’), who is anyone to gatekeep my subjective experience! In doing this (and in pronouncing Cats just as worthy of praise as any great achievement of history) we cease to be talking about anything interesting. It brings the same energy as saying: “money is just a social construct, it’s not even real.” Real in what sense? Money is the same as art; the product of collective subjectivity imposing meaning onto it, but also objective in the sense that I can say true things about, say, hundred-dollar notes. My declaration that it is not real does nothing to quell its profound practical effect on my life — in the same way, art continues to have a practical bearing in that we argue. They are real in the same way.
The Sports Analogy
Any set of constraints by their nature implicitly determines better or worse instantiations of the aim of the practice. In its objective communal formulation, art must have a set of characteristics that make it so and therefore, a collection of features that make it good. To try and explicate this, I think a pretty robust analogy can be made between it and sports. The rules of a sport entail in them a way of determining the winner. Ends emerge.
In a game of cricket, for example, the team who gain more runs can be said to have objectively won. Notice that the rules of cricket were not features of the world but intersubjectively agreed upon whereupon we can say, objectively, this team played better than that team. There are also actions that that are simply not cricket — you cannot just underarm roll the ball across the pitch as a bowl (oh wait). It is just not cricket, in the same way, doing the dishes is just not art. If the subjectivist wishes to say it is, then he will simply be expelled from the field and ignored. Even more importantly, though, these constraints create ends which are sought in better or worse ways. A fast-paced yorker in the block-hole (good cricket) is much more conducive to preventing runs than a slow short ball to their star batter (bad cricket). A subjectivist batter can choose just not to hit the ball, but his indignant jubilance in doing so still does not make him a good cricket player.
I wish to make quite the strong argument that the rules of what it means to be art also entail in them a way of determining the winners, that is, objectively better or worse art. The immediately obvious and admittedly titanic objection to this view is the impossibility of finding stable standards. I do not exactly have a satisfactory response to this; I do not think we can find any eternally true general principles. The determination of our conception of art is something uniquely more malleable than in any other domain and is continuously calibrated to its agitators. Quite often things are deemed great art in their retreat from the normal not their adherence to a norm (see the appendix for a further discussion of this point). Anyone who outlines a criterion, I think, is not only doomed to fail but also fails to understand art at all. That being said, I think you would be lying if you told me you did not at least have a sense of what good art might entail. Not only that, but we are able to be convinced of such quality through reasoning, as discussed earlier. That’s kind of the beauty of it, anything can become art and given good enough reasons to think it is and that it’s good — it can be true of the piece and subsumed under a conception that includes in it the piece argued for. While these may seem tenuous foundations for a standard of taste it must be remembered that relativity is not the same as subjectivity. But also, I hold out faith because other domains in which we investigate — and take to be objective and truth-tracking — I argue, have similar foundations.
Taste, Ethics, and Science
So far, I have outlined the antimony of taste: that taste seems to be entirely subjective, yet we argue vociferously over it. Then I have shown how there is an objective definition of art that emerges from intersubjectivity which, even though contingent upon the cultural-historical epoch in question, is objective, nonetheless. Following this, I argue that the constraints of the definition implicitly determine the qualities of good art. Yet, our knowledge of such qualities may be uniquely hard to fix upon and uniquely relative to the times. It is precisely this contingency in which I wish to ground an objective standard of taste.
The product of a historical contingency is not exactly the kind of foundations in which to ground an ‘objective,’ timeless, eternal, spooky, truth for the end times. But to this I ask you, dear reader, what kind of foundations do you seek? Because if you feel at all strongly about the objective foundations of ethics, science, or knowledge, I invite you to share their foundation. (If, as a subjectivist, you do not, you may stop reading.) We come across the same paradoxes of taste in matters of ethics and science too.
We regularly tout our modern sensibilities as objectively superior to our ancestors in terms of ethics (rightly, in my mind). See attitudes towards slavery, democracy, war, sexuality, inequality, and gender for just a few examples. Yet these attitudes are also at once emergent properties of historically situated minds. Nevertheless, I would think a lot of people would like to hold on to the truth of these attitudes. It is objectively true that senseless murder is wrong because that is what we mean for it be wrong. The spirit of my argument is that denying all kinds of objectivity in taste is akin to denying long-held-to-be-true moral precepts.
Even in science we claim to (and often do) find the truth of many propositions, but a brief survey of the history of physics will show constant crises in foundations. Aristotelian mechanics reigned as truthful for centuries, followed by the triumphant success of Newtonian mechanics, only for that to be eventually toppled by Einstein a mere hundred years ago. The two most successful theories of physics in known history, general relativity and quantum mechanics, are for the time being incompatible with each other. I think science is (very obviously) on a much firmer ground than aesthetic judgment, yet it is not so utterly infallible as the layman may think. There are many wrongheaded theories (phlogiston, for example) that turned out just not being particularly good, just like how in 200 years we will probably never see Cats mentioned but will still (hopefully) see Edward Hopper’s work.
The reason I bring these cases up is that judgements and taste in ethics and science are really no different in form from aesthetic judgements. Yet, we ask for a much stronger foundation for their validity. I think this is mostly due to the practical imperative of attaining truth in the other domains but also the seemingly infinite varieties in taste we come across in day to day life. The trivial demands of aesthetics to agree result in the sheer quantity of good art to experience, while the urgent demands of good scientific theories or ethical attitudes result in the relatively low amount of plausible options. I think the varieties in taste and the weakened normative demand for aesthetic convergence has so thoroughly habituated us to think one is fundamentally different from the other. Pull back the curtain and it is hard to see how.
But even the assumption of variety and flux in aesthetic judgements can be questioned further. Certain foundational aesthetic tastes may be one of the more stable historical phenomena — suggesting it has external validity in the way that longstanding ethical and scientific propositions do. David Hume once again makes the point better than I. He writes that:
“the difficulty of finding, even in particulars, the standard of taste, is not so great as it is represented … Theories of abstract philosophy, systems of profound theology, have prevailed during one age: In a successive period, these have been universally exploded: Their absurdity has been detected: Other theories and systems have supplied their place, which again gave place to 26 their successors: And nothing has been experienced more liable to the revolutions of chance and fashion than these pretended decisions of science. The case is not the same with the beauties of eloquence and poetry. Just expressions of passion and nature are sure, after a little time, to gain public applause, which they maintain for ever. Aristotle, and Plato, and Epicurus, and Descartes, may successively yield to each other: But Terence and Virgil maintain an universal, undisputed empire over the minds of men.”
Many of the great works of the past have already much outlasted any coherent and successful scientific theories. While the continued observance of the profundity and genius of Homer’s works seem to have the same authority as the thought that unprovoked murder is wrong. While it seems a silly comparison at first, it is worth reflecting upon whether aesthetic judgements of taste are fundamentally different from those of ethics and science. The seeming universality of human thought expressed through art seems just as perennial.
Reliable Data Collection
If you accept my story, we have an objective conception of art and a set of conditions in which a particular piece of art, insofar as it partakes in those conditions, can be truthfully judged against. Unfortunately, these principles are in principle unattainable. Nevertheless, interestingly, other domains, whose tenets we accept, seem to have a similar such problem.
The thing these domains do seem to have in common, though, is agreement, corroboration, and reliable practices for reaching the truth of the matter. In here lies the key. There are good and bad practices in science; those that lead to reliable data and those that do not. There are those who are virtuous and a reliable guide to action and those who are not. There are batters and bowlers in cricket that reliably lead to the production or prevention of runs. In all these domains a set of reliable actors, and perhaps the most qualified to comment, even holding opposing views, still converge towards some kind of consensus, ‘general will,’ or ‘joint verdict’ on any given question over time. I believe it is the same for art. Time tells, and I am very much in accordance with Peirce here, who writes (of inquiry):
“As each perfects his method and his processes, the results will move steadily together towards a destined center … different minds may set out with the most antagonistic views, but the progress of investigation carries them by a force outside of themselves to one and the same conclusion … No modification of the point of view taken, no selection of other facts for study, no natural bent of mind even, can enable a man to escape the predestinate opinion.”
It seems then, the practice of reliable criticism is the answer we might seek. The most robust foundation we can ask for in making objective and true judgements of aesthetics is, like anything else, through experience — familiarity with our collective human projects and therefore the knowledge required to put our tentatively true judgements out there.
The Good Critic
David Hume (once again) in his essay On the Standard of Taste offers a provisional, non-exhaustive but very eloquent list of characteristics of the critic primed to make sound judgements (that I partially reproduce below). This will give you something of an idea of what I have in mind about the good critic. Something else to keep in mind is that, as previously pointed out, these characteristics are often picking out objective facts of the matter that can substantially contribute to our experience of the piece and can count as reasons for liking it more or less. These qualities might just as easily, with a few modifications, be said of good scientific or ethical practice.
Delicacy: Since many qualities in great works of art are only found in small degrees, the good critic notices the subtle idiosyncrasies and flourishes of the work. For example, I love the song Giant Steps by John Coltrane. Still, I know that a jazz musician with any knowledge of music theory would appreciate the unorthodox chord progression much more than I. They can also make an objectively valid appraisal and give convincing reasons why it may be better or worse (and I would hardly be one to dispute her). The good critic notices the small stuff.
Practice: One needs to survey and experience a domain of art to make a sound judgement of it. Our first experience of art in any one of its great forms is almost always confused and unable to pick out the qualities that make it good or bad. It is hard even to make sense of what to think at all. For the same reason that I really ought not to be listened to about what I might think about the foundations of quantum mechanics, I really ought not to be taken seriously in my judgements about good or bad contemporary dance. I would have no idea where to even begin with either of these — I have no experience in them and therefore no way of intuiting the objective notion constructed among the relevant voices. The good critic is familiar with the domain as a whole.
Comparison: Sound judgements of particular works of art require suitable comparison within the domain. The reader of one novel may love it, but they have no way appropriately situating it in the whole corpus of literature. Many pieces of art are good only in, or made better in, their relation to adjacent works. For example, one of the greatest Westerns, Unforgiven, is, in part a masterpiece only in relation to the genre. It signifies the death of the genre not only in its story but also in that it features an old and dying Clint Eastwood who was something like the poster boy for the darker era of the genre in the 60s and early 70s. The good critic recognises, compares, and situates the work in its particular context in relation to other works.
Prejudice: The critic ought to free himself from prejudice. He should put himself in the shoes of the intended audience — especially among older works. While some works of literature do betray some fatal moral sensibilities from many years prior, many stand the test of time. To reject the validity of any art based merely on the idiosyncrasies of culture, time, or otherwise is undoubtedly a perversion of sound judgement. The strange aversion to black and white or foreign film among blockbuster audiences comes to mind. (Hopefully, Parasite is a boon for an already long-thriving South Korean film industry.) The good critic tries to free oneself of contingent prejudices and therefore open themselves up to the potential merit of any and all art.
Ends: All art has an end; a purpose for which it is created. Any work is better if it achieves what it is going for. A comedy is good because it is funny, and a tragedy is good if it is tragic (obviously there is overlap, but you understand my meaning). Mike Leigh’s masterpiece Naked is at least partially great because it made me uncomfortable, Cats is emphatically not good because it made me uncomfortable. The good critic has the experience to determine, in comparison to other works, how well a specific work achieves its aims.
Some Concluding Remarks
The only thing I would like to say at the end is to dispel any elitism sometimes implicit in views like this. I have a very open-borders view of art. We can be better or worse critics, but that does not mean the better is always right and the worse always wrong — the critics we respect the most we often disagree upon a great many things. Plus, taste is, in an important way, still subjective and harbours with it all of the idiosyncrasies of our particular being.
There is a delineation between personal preferences and aesthetic judgements. Our subjective experience of something is incorrigible — it cannot be wrong that we enjoyed something. But, when the subjectivist enters the public conversation with claims to judgements about things as good or bad art they are entering the public domain, making claims about things that are fixed by the public, whose rules are not determined by the whim of the individual. I will no doubt enjoy my baby nephew’s early forays into painting but will obviously not hail it as objectively great in the way I have described.
In this way, we have our preferred styles and quirks of art. My love of David Lynch and Ingmar Bergman gives me great personal enjoyment but, in some sense, I must put that aside. It is the same thing we do in sports; my favourite cricket player is Daniel Vettori, but would I call him the greatest ever? No, probably not, I am just predisposed to like the way he plays. It is the same for art, I will continue to watch more David Lynch than any other filmmaker, but do I think he is the greatest? Not at the moment, no (of course the long run consensus could prove me wrong, hopefully). But do I think he is great? Absolutely and I can tell you why. Hume affirms a similar sentiment when he says
“Comedy, tragedy, satire, odes, have each its partizans, who prefer that particular species of writing to all others. It is plainly an error in a critic, to confine his approbation to one species or style of writing, and condemn all the rest. But it is almost impossible not to feel a predilection for that which suits our particular turn and disposition. Such preferences are innocent and unavoidable, and can never reasonably be the object of dispute, because there is no standard by which they can be decided.”
We do not have to be afraid to make objective judgements in the domains of taste. I honestly believe that Parasite is objectively better than Cats and always will be. I can present objective features of them as reasons why I think that. I can corroborate and validate that proposition among peers. I can convince you. It is a hypothesis, ultimately fallible, but one I can find support for. In posturing to make an objective judgement of taste, we are ultimately saying: “I think this is better than that and I will be vindicated in this view by the long term convergence of taste among art admirers of the future.”
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Appendix: A Note on Artistic Dialetheia
One could take the seemingly infinitely mallaeable conception of art as particularly hopeless for grounding any static notion of taste at all and therefore making my project here a failure. The point would go that ‘the conception is so broad and open to interpretation that literal not-art is art’ (the subjectivist dream). The most obvious example of this is Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain. Which was just a ready-made urinal intended to be placed for display as art. Its success may be a hint that my project here is a failure that it is all just a free-for-all. I do not think it does, though. Landmark anti-art pieces can only be art because of context and a consciousness of the existing notion of art. The same goes for John Cage’s 4’33 or the few successful highly experimental films. They are all well and good in the sense that they deconstruct and critique existing art. Still, their nature is co-existent with and dependent upon that same objective conception they exist in opposition to. They’re often just not very good at all, abstracted from context. In a way they need me to be right to be considered art at all. A quick test to confirm this view is to look at how long these styles last, or how many successful particular pieces of art like this are created — you can’t just do them again.