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Is artistic value objective?

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Dylan of Rivia Posted: Wed, Jul 4 2012 9:36 AM

And when I say artistic value I mean artistic value, not economic value. It is not about how much are people willing to pay for it, but how ‘good’ or ‘bad’ as an artistic work, piece or play it is.

 

Many people seem to believe that art is absolutely subjective, i.e. you like that film and I didn’t but both opinions are equally valid, as art is subjective. For the sake of the post, I will call this argument SA (subjective art). I think this extended view is both untrue and dangerous for a number of reasons.

 

First, it is based on a non sequitur. From the fact that art is not (or at least doesn’t seem to be) 100%, wholly objective, it doesn’t follow that it is entirely subjective and that all opinions are equally valid. For example, science, as Heisenberg knew, is not always 100% objective, but from that assumption it doesn’t follow that belief in science is just as valid as belief in Zeus. But it goes both ways: from the fact that we may all agree that art is always a human creation, thus introducing an objective element, it doesn’t follow that art is entirely objective.

 

Also, people who believe in SA fall into an insurmountable contradiction, if art is so subjective, why are there always many of them blabbering about whatever they like or not this or that book, this or that music? If art is so subjective, why are many of them trying so hard to convince others about the superiority of certain works?

 

Many SA supporters say “hey, but art is always a subjective experience!”. To which we can respond “so what?”. Life is a subjective experience, does that mean it has no value or that all lives, whatever human or bug, are just as important? Love is a subjective experience, hatred is a subjective experience, does that mean that both are equally desirable, that both have the same value? It’s a non sequitur again.

 

Another major problem I have with SA is that it contradicts a priori knowledge. This can easily be seen with an example: James is a theatre lover, he has spent all his live working on a theatre and has seen literally thousands of plays, Tom doesn’t like theatre that much, and rarely goes to see a play. Both go together to see the same play, James loves it but Tom thinks it is bad because it is boring. Any rational being, even without any experience, would have the same intuition: James is, at least, more likely to be right than Tom. Both opinions don’t seem to be equally valid as James knows way more about the topic.

 

And why do I think SA is dangerous? I think it discourages people to get interested in art. After all, why should we care about a topic in which we are certainly not going to acquire any knowledge? And furthermore, why should anyone make massive efforts in order to create art if it really is just as valuable as the silliest think you can imagine?

Well, that’s pretty much all I had to say. Any respectful thoughts and ideas are welcome.

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gotlucky replied on Wed, Jul 4 2012 10:02 AM

Art is subjective. People have different tastes. Some tastes we refer to as classy, while other tastes we call trashy. Sometimes we call it good taste, sometimes we call it bad taste.

I happen to love classical music. Others love poetry. I don't appreciate poetry very much, even if it is considered good by others. This doesn't mean that I am wrong when I say a poem is boring but it is considered absolutely wonderful by poetry connoisseurs. It just means that we have differing tastes.

So, what about those people who don't appreciate any "high art"? What of it? They just have different tastes. It's a waste of time trying to convice them that classical music is "better" than whatever they listen to. It's just not going to interest them any more than trying to convice me that poetry is "better" than classical music.

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Torsten replied on Wed, Jul 4 2012 10:07 AM

Gotlucky got a point. But I heard that there is research that some aestethic criteria are kind of more general and in a sense objective. It's a bit like having harmony in an artwork over disharmony. 

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gotlucky replied on Wed, Jul 4 2012 10:26 AM

Well, I can't speak to any other kinds of art, but in classical music, harmony is pointless without disharmony. The music is essentially boring without any kind of disharmony ever. This may be different in other forms of art, though I imagine that it just manifests in different ways.

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Autolykos replied on Wed, Jul 4 2012 11:03 AM

Dylan of Rivia:
And when I say artistic value I mean artistic value, not economic value. It is not about how much are people willing to pay for it, but how ‘good’ or ‘bad’ as an artistic work, piece or play it is.

That definition of "economic value" is not the one used by praxeology and Austrian-school economics, just so you know. Rather, they define "economic value" as "the amount/level of satisfaction something brings to someone". In that sense, the value of art as you yourself put it is a form of economic value.

Dylan of Rivia:
Many people seem to believe that art is absolutely subjective, i.e. you like that film and I didn’t but both opinions are equally valid, as art is subjective. For the sake of the post, I will call this argument SA (subjective art). I think this extended view is both untrue and dangerous for a number of reasons.

First, it is based on a non sequitur. From the fact that art is not (or at least doesn’t seem to be) 100%, wholly objective, it doesn’t follow that it is entirely subjective and that all opinions are equally valid. For example, science, as Heisenberg knew, is not always 100% objective, but from that assumption it doesn’t follow that belief in science is just as valid as belief in Zeus. But it goes both ways: from the fact that we may all agree that art is always a human creation, thus introducing an objective element, it doesn’t follow that art is entirely objective.

It depends on what you mean by "objective" and "subjective". Those two terms can be defined in ways that make them mutually exclusive with respect to one another - that is, under certain definitions of "objective" and "subjective", something can only be either entirely objective or entirely subjective. Since you don't explain what you actually mean by "objective" and "subjective", I'm unable to evaluate your statements further. I'd appreciate it if you'd provide the definitions you're using for those terms.

Dylan of Rivia:
Also, people who believe in SA fall into an insurmountable contradiction, if art is so subjective, why are there always many of them blabbering about whatever they like or not this or that book, this or that music? If art is so subjective, why are many of them trying so hard to convince others about the superiority of certain works?

I think there are many reasons for this - vested interest in the art in question, wanting to have common values with the person(s) they're trying to persuade, wanting to feel more powerful due to having persuaded them, etc. None of those have anything to do with the notion that art is objective.

Dylan of Rivia:
Many SA supporters say “hey, but art is always a subjective experience!”. To which we can respond “so what?”. Life is a subjective experience, does that mean it has no value or that all lives, whatever human or bug, are just as important? Love is a subjective experience, hatred is a subjective experience, does that mean that both are equally desirable, that both have the same value? It’s a non sequitur again.

As I see it, subjective value means that value doesn't inhere in objects themselves. So life in general (and really this is a "meta-object", if you will) has no inherent value. Nor does any particular life. Nor does any experience (another "meta-object" really).

Dylan of Rivia:
Another major problem I have with SA is that it contradicts a priori knowledge. This can easily be seen with an example: James is a theatre lover, he has spent all his live working on a theatre and has seen literally thousands of plays, Tom doesn’t like theatre that much, and rarely goes to see a play. Both go together to see the same play, James loves it but Tom thinks it is bad because it is boring. Any rational being, even without any experience, would have the same intuition: James is, at least, more likely to be right than Tom. Both opinions don’t seem to be equally valid as James knows way more about the topic.

I don't see how notions of objective validity and correctness apply to subjective valuations. The play brings more satisfaction to James than it does to Tom. That simply means their preferences are different. How can one set of preferences be proven or demonstrated to be "correct" or at least "more correct" than the other?

Dylan of Rivia:
And why do I think SA is dangerous? I think it discourages people to get interested in art. After all, why should we care about a topic in which we are certainly not going to acquire any knowledge? And furthermore, why should anyone make massive efforts in order to create art if it really is just as valuable as the silliest think you can imagine?

I see art as a form of communication, primarily emotional in nature. The idea is to communicate one or more emotional experiences to others. Many people apparently care about doing that. The only knowledge involved, if you will, is the knowledge (more accurately "awareness" IMO) of the emotional experience(s) the artist wishes to communicate.

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Autolykos replied on Wed, Jul 4 2012 11:07 AM

gotlucky:
Well, I can't speak to any other kinds of art, but in classical music, harmony is pointless without disharmony. The music is essentially boring without any kind of disharmony ever. This may be different in other forms of art, though I imagine that it just manifests in different ways.

Disharmony can convey emotional experience just as well as harmony can. They just tend to convey different emotional experiences. There are also different levels of disharmony operating in music. Changes in key during a musical piece can be disharmonious even though any chords used may still be harmonious. I see a change in key as creating a temporary disharmony that's meant to denote a change in the "mood" (emotional state) communicated by the piece.

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That definition of "economic value" is not the one used by praxeology and Austrian-school economics, just so you know. Rather, they define "economic value" as "the amount/level of satisfaction something brings to someone". In that sense, the value of art as you yourself put it is a form of economic value.

Thank you for the explanation. I do not know that much about AE so I may make this kind of mistakes from time to time. :)

It depends on what you mean by "objective" and "subjective". Those two terms can be defined in ways that make them mutually exclusive with respect to one another - that is, under certain definitions of "objective" and "subjective", something can only be either entirely objective or entirely subjective. Since you don't explain what you actually mean by "objective" and "subjective", I'm unable to evaluate your statements further. I'd appreciate it if you'd provide the definitions you're using for those terms.

You make a good point there. But I think going with definitions won't help for what I am trying to say. Let me be clear with an example, given the two following statements, we can somehow know that statement A is more correct than statement B. That it is not just a matter of opinion.

A: Beethoven's 9th Symphony is better than Justin Bieber's songs.

B: Justin Bieber's songs are better than Beethoven's 9th Symphony.

I see art as a form of communication, primarily emotional in nature. The idea is to communicate one or more emotional experiences to others. Many people apparently care about doing that. The only knowledge involved, if you will, is the knowledge (more accurately "awareness" IMO) of the emotional experience(s) the artist wishes to communicate.

If art is a form of communication, there will be artistic works which are capable of communicating more than others. According to this, we may well say that more communicating art is 'better' than less communicating art.

Also, art is about aesthetic experience. For me, it is more than just mere casuality the fact that most people who have seen a lot of cinema tend to have Chaplin's 'Modern Times' in high regard. There must be something there that goes beyond the realm of mere opinion. If it was just about opinions people with 'classy' tastes wouldn't tend to agree about how 'good' or 'bad' are certain works.

For example, gotucky has heared a lot of classical music and I haven't. In fact, I don't know anything about classical music. Thus, when it comes to assess how 'good' or 'bad' a classical musical concert has been, his opinion will be more correct than mine, as he knows way more about the subject. He is able to have a more sophisticated aesthetic experience thanks to his higher knowledge about the subject.

And now I have to say: please, don't take for an absolutist, or even worse, an elitist. In fact, I really like pop culture. All I am trying to say is that through emotional intelligence and experience we can improve our judgement about what is and what is not artistically good. And if, instead of 'judgment', you think the correct term is 'awareness', I am absolutely OK with that.

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You make a good point there. But I think going with definitions won't help for what I am trying to say. Let me be clear with an example, given the two following statements, we can somehow know that statement A is more correct than statement B. That it is not just a matter of opinion.

A: Beethoven's 9th Symphony is better than Justin Bieber's songs.

B: Justin Bieber's songs are better than Beethoven's 9th Symphony.

But that's the thing, neither one is objectively true. We can say objectively that you feel that A is true, but the feeling that you have that A is true is subjective.

Forget comparing two different types of music. Let's just compare music by the same person, Mahler in this case. It is my opinion that Mahler's best symphony is his first. Some people agree with that, though most don't. I believe that Mahler suffers from pacing problems in his symphonies, and I think that his first symphony does not have this problem. However, many other musicians prefer his other symphonies to his first. Who is right?

And let's compare Mahler and Beethoven. Who has better symphonies? Well, something that you might find interesting is that many wind and brass players prefer Mahler to Beethoven for the simple reason that Mahler is more fun for them to play. You see, in Beethoven's symphonies, the wind and brass players are usually harmony and occasionally have the melody. But in Mahler, well, they have a lot of really big solos. So, you find an extraordinarily high amount of wind and brass players preferring Mahler to Beethoven.

But what about (classical) singers and instrumentalists? Well, it depends upon whether it is opera or art songs. You see, a lot of singers really love Schubert over Beethoven, and this is because Schubert wrote over 600 art songs, whereas Beethoven only wrote a few. And then Beethoven also only wrote 1 opera, but other composers such as Puccini wrote many operas. So you'll probably find a lot of opera singers who prefer Puccini to Beethoven.

So, it really isn't right to say that one of these composers is objectively better than another. All we can say is that different people value these composers differently, especially considering that many of them specialized in different types of classical music.

 

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Value only makes sense within the context of means and ends. Something can only be good if it serves a particular end; so a car is good in that it gets you accross the country quickly whereas walking, ceterus paribus, is not. So in the artistic realm we can judge a piece on how well it fufills the creator's intention. 

However suppose that the ends of the creator was just to place a rotting human corpse in a glass box. The question then arises is there any non-arbitrary universal end which implies that agent neutral bads exist: that which contradicts the universal end? Given our innate knowledge it seems clear that certain things are bad, such as rape, murder etc. and particular things are ugly, such as the rotting human corpse. However it also seems clear that there is much disagreement within aesthetics, far more than in ethics.

So we are left with wanting to retain some subjectivity but within definable boundaries. This is where I think the Christian doctrine of the Trinity is rather interesting: it posits three distinct persons (Father, Son and Spirit) who love one from eternity to eternity and as such are God. They share a nature (like we share a human nature) but are different like humans are. Given this being true it provides a metaphysical foundation for an aesthetic which encompasses both objectivity, like the shared nature, but subjectivity, like the three persons.

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Dylan of Rivia:
Thank you for the explanation. I do not know that much about AE so I may make this kind of mistakes from time to time. :)

No problem. smiley I strongly recommend learning more about Austrian-school economics.

Dylan of Rivia:
You make a good point there. But I think going with definitions won't help for what I am trying to say.

Why not? I don't really know what definitions you're using for "subjective" and "objective", so I'm still unable to evaluate your statements much further.

Dylan of Rivia:
Let me be clear with an example, given the two following statements, we can somehow know that statement A is more correct than statement B. That it is not just a matter of opinion.

A: Beethoven's 9th Symphony is better than Justin Bieber's songs.

B: Justin Bieber's songs are better than Beethoven's 9th Symphony.

Here you seem to be claiming that Beethoven's 9th Symphony being better than Justin Bieber's songs (or vice-versa) is an objective fact that we can discover. How, then, do you propose to measure "betterness"?

Dylan of Rivia:
If art is a form of communication, there will be artistic works which are capable of communicating more than others. According to this, we may well say that more communicating art is 'better' than less communicating art.

Sure, but all people don't have to equally like what's communicated to them. Understanding something and liking something are two different things. In other words, your new definition of "better" seems to take (necessarily subjective) valuation out of the picture entirely.

Dylan of Rivia:
Also, art is about aesthetic experience. For me, it is more than just mere casuality the fact that most people who have seen a lot of cinema tend to have Chaplin's 'Modern Times' in high regard. There must be something there that goes beyond the realm of mere opinion. If it was just about opinions people with 'classy' tastes wouldn't tend to agree about how 'good' or 'bad' are certain works.

Why must there be? People with certain "unclassy" tastes also tend to agree about how "good" or "bad" certain works of art are. This again goes back to (necessarily subjective) valuation. Some people think watching NASCAR is better than watching an opera (i.e. they prefer the former to the latter). Others think the reverse. Who's correct? Just because one group of tastes is called "classy" doesn't mean it is "classy". That itself is a matter of opinion.

Dylan of Rivia:
For example, gotucky has [heard] a lot of classical music and I haven't. In fact, I don't know anything about classical music. Thus, when it comes to assess how 'good' or 'bad' a classical musical concert has been, his opinion will be more correct than mine, as he knows way more about the subject. He is able to have a more sophisticated aesthetic experience thanks to his higher knowledge about the subject.

In my experience, when people say that some work of art "is good", that typically means they like it. I think what's misleading is the syntax used - it's the same syntax as that used for factual statements. It's no wonder to me, then, that people get confused and think value judgements are facts in the same sense as "Earth is roughly spherical" is a fact.

Let me ask you this: why do you think you have to "know something about classical music" (what does that even mean?) in order to "truly" enjoy it or not enjoy it?

Dylan of Rivia:
And now I have to say: please, don't take for an absolutist, or even worse, an elitist. In fact, I really like pop culture. All I am trying to say is that through emotional intelligence and experience we can improve our judgement about what is and what is not artistically good. And if, instead of 'judgment', you think the correct term is 'awareness', I am absolutely OK with that.

That implies there's some single objective standard of "artistic good". What is that standard?

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why are many of them trying so hard to convince others about the superiority of certain works?

You're confusing "objective" with "universal." Maybe a piece of art is liked universally, which means that it happens that everyone likes it, but this does not mean that the liking is objective.

You are making the exact same mistake Marxists make when they ask "If value is subjective how come everyone likes food and shelter?"

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Clayton replied on Mon, Jul 9 2012 2:08 PM

My thoughts on this subject. I would slightly revise a few things I wrote then but most of it I still stand by.

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