Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Against Subjectivity

When Alexander the Great told Plato that there is nothing bigger in the world than his kingdom, Plato replied "but of course there is!" Confused, Alexander asks "what is that?" and Plato replied: "my eyelids! because when I close my eyes, your entire kingdom is covered up!"

Everything is relative, and the only reality is perception. This we know well.

But serious problems occur when an universal truth like this is blindly applied to specific human endeavor; and we come to the single most irritating remark anyone can make in regards to art:

"it's all subjective."

This mistake is often made by otherwise reasonable people, and is nothing short of lazy, irresponsible, and so unjust that it borders on being amoral in its carelessness.

what does it mean to make this blanket statement?

that all conversations about art are pointless because it's all personal likes and dislikes? that anything anyone ever makes, whether a lewd drawing in a public restroom or the Sistine Chapel, should be equally valued?

There are no absolutes, but with anything we humans do, there is one or more convincing sets of criteria with which to judge it. A plate of pasta can be judged on the quality of the noodles and the richness of the sauce. A hiphop track can be judged in terms of quality of production, dexterity of flow. and conceptual art can be judged by a combination of its economy, grace, originality, ingenuity, wit, contribution to discourse, profundity of its message, etc.

things can be only compared to other things within the same "genre", and judgement is more problematic and complex in some areas compared to others (conceptual art is more difficult than pasta), but none the less we use existing or invent new sets of criteria to determine the quality of man made things every day of our lives, and in most cases agree with what these sets of criteria include and how they function.

perhaps there is one over-arching criteria above all else: fitness to purpose. (if a thing does what it has proposed to do and does it well, then it is good.)

Sartre had this to say about it:

"Opinion" reduces all ideas to the level of "taste" and ofcourse all "tastes" are valid. it is what a hostess says when a discussion threatens to become unruly: 'you are all entitled to your OPINION, so everyone, shhhhhhh!'"

people who are anti my stance on this subject (including a few friends), who insist on absolute subjectivity (creepy parallel to the moral relativism of the neo-cons), will often accuse me of being an ego-centric fascist who thinks he can impose his own (priveledged, "educated", "western") values onto the entire world.

not so.

Because when I see contemporary Arabic Typography, look at a porceline vase from 4000 BC China, read a novel by Viginia Wolfe, listen to an 18th century Raga from India, use a piece of designer silverware from Sweden -- I perceive the same level of accomplishment - attention to detail, sophistication in simplicity, inventiveness, and resolution of formal elements into a finished, cohesive whole which is greater than the sum of the parts. (this incidentally may be a good definition of art)

And I do believe that to some extent, people all over the world of all times, of varying degrees of "education" (whatever that means), will feel the same way -- a well made thing is a well made thing, easy to tell from the badly made things.

Again, obviously nothing is absolute and there must be countless exceptions - due to cultural differences (Westerners love cheese and most of Asia thinks it is disgusting) or entirely different functional nature of the object (modern art), but the bigger picture remains the same.

so people please, you know who you are, stop saying this ridiculous thing... because not only does it make you seem utterly banal and moronic, but everytime you do, something in me dies.


mynaah said...

You're still not addressing the issue of who is the arbiter of these universal "standards", and so I continue to disagree. Your thoughts are well-written and persuasive, but I find no solution at their core. Sure, at any moment in time someone is making a value judgment based on their own experiences, predilections and understanding of history. At any one point and space in human civilization, there is surely a dominant preference, yet this will no doubt shift with the passage of time. Your universal standards seems to refer to the preference of the urbanized, civilized, first-world population. But it's certain the that the indios of South America found Edith Piaf's voice to be demon-like at a time when she was taking The Continent by storm. I don't think that by refusing the idea of a standard, one necessarily becomes a victim of an aimless relativism. To believe that is to indulge in a very stale reactionary dialectic of oppositions. A healthy sense of subjectivity demands one to be on one's toes, muscular and delicate as a hummingbird, able to hold your opinions while acknowledging your ulitmately limited knowledge of what is. Otherwise, we become a bunch of self-congratulation har-de-hars congratulating ourselves on the staunchness and good taste of our collective opinions.

zhao said...

the Piaf/Natives thing is a good example of the many exceptions borne of cultural differences that I cited in the post.

but I think there is a foundational set of standards which transcends specific taste engendered by culture.

balsaczar said...
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balsaczar said...

amen. isn't extreme relativism just the absence of taste, you anti-superlative communists? good is good, mediocre is mediocre. bad is bad.

mynaah said...

once again, who is creating these standards? what are the criteria? there seems to be a very definite opinion that these standards exist, yet no definite ideas as to what they are.

zhao said...

the tribes of indonesia and art professors of French art schools will probably agree that the criteria to determine the quality of a rug include durability, comfort, and aesthetically pleasing.

while the last part has the most room for cultural differences, I would say that these differences are incidental, arbituary, and in no way eclipse or more important than the common ground that people of all walks share.

zhao said...

I'd give my creative director's left index finger to know what that deleted comment says...

mynaah said...

what constitutes aesthetically pleasing? it is this last, most numinous point that you are gleefully sidestepping that holds the code which you are positing yet unwilling to define. why? because it is NOT DEFINABLE. i may find the intersection between radio stations, when static interferes with the strains of a gospel choir peppered by a news commentary a lovely chaos, absolutely aesthetically appealing, yet another person would find the same noise completely distracting and even painful.

i, for my part, like all my art durable, comforting, and aesthetically pleasing. the same thing goes for pasta, sweaters and national leaders.

Lee said...

I'm not a philosopher but any means, so please excuse my 'lack of fancy talk'.

I agree with Confucius; it's dangerous in some respects to have *such* a lazy attitude towards culture, and being so accepting of all of it. Lately, more crap is tolerated (validated by it's popularity), but people who don't like it because it's below their 'standards' are labeled as snobs. I can't tell you have much that annoys me.

But sadly, I also believe our society is way beyond fixing this.

I like cheese.

zhao said...

"what constitutes aesthetically pleasing? it is this last, most numinous point that you are gleefully sidestepping that holds the code which you are positing yet unwilling to define. why? because it is NOT DEFINABLE."

I bet 99.9% of all the people on earth will agree that the colors of a certain sunset is beautiful. or that chocolate tastes good.

cultural differences aside, artifacts from disparate regions of the world bear the same aesthetic sense - you will see the same sort of beauty in Islamic architecture and a bracelet from Indonesia. and certainly the indiginous music from all over the world display the same sets of aesthetic concerns - harmony / dissonance, compositional intrigue, emotional expressiveness, economy of means, etc.

the greeks defined beauty as harmony of proportions. and this definition works well, if not for all times and places due to the said cultural differences we have talked so much about.

but despite all the incidental and surface differences between people, I see a foundational, basic commonality that unites all humans.

we are much more the same than we are different.

mejae said...

love it. love the topic of both posts - the rise of pluralism, moral/ethical (and as addressed in your blog) aesthetic relativity/subjectivity, and even pragmatism among people who consider themselves educated and socially and culturally aware has been a source of intermittant frustration for me. i believe it leads to a paralysis of intellectual scrutiny and thought that allows for a practically unstymied (and lazy) free for all. not too long ago i was called a moral absolutist by a friend in a way that suggested that my beliefs made me moral kin to folks like HItler and Stalin. his "social awareness," respect for "multiculturalism" lead him to be unable to make as simple a pronouncement as murder is usually wrong. really.

this is such a huge can of philosophical worms, and to be able to do the topic justice, i would have to write forever. let me just say that i agree with leo. there are simple, even intuitive, standards with which to judge actions, ethics, art, food, whatever that are not simply the narrow, culturally specific, fascist opinions of the speaker.

i will, however, say this - i have at times used "it's all subjective" myself. usually it's because i so completely disagree with whomever i'm speaking with and feel that further discussion will be a complete waste of time. it's a lazy conversation ender.

zhao said...

the following are from Dissensus, I asked them but these geezers couldn't be bothered to post their comments here.

from Blunt:

it was was about as much reactionary twaddle as I could bear. All you've done is outline the qualities that you look for - and very admirable qualities they are too, as far as they go - and then declare them to form the basis of a good working - objective - definition of art; presumably by virtue of the fact that you believe it to be so.

Well, cheers. That settles it then... If that's not a self-reinforcing argument, I don't know what is.

Oh, and in case you couldn't tell... I'm with Wilhelm Worringer: "Aesthetic enjoyment is objectified enjoyment of self." It sounds better in German, but you get the gist

zhao said...
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zhao said...

from me:

right... quality of the noodles, flavor of the sauce, freshness of vegetables - these are my PERSONAL criteria for judging pasta, shared by no one else.

production, flow, lyricism, beats - these are things I PERSONALLY pay attention to when judging a hiphop track - and no one else does.

and I wish to impose these purely subjective set of standards on the universe!

why, I'm basically like Joseph Stalin!

zhao said...

from Troy:

Be careful, Confucius!

I see you painting yourself into a corner... You better, better, better NOT say that you love Wesley Willis!!!

zhao said...

frome me:

sorry but I don't know what this means! I had to wiki Wesley Willis and I still don't understand...?

zhao said...

My point is that Wesley Willis does not measure up to any possible widely held standards for great art... and yet... he's friggin GREAT!

How can this be?

zhao said...

last one was from Troy.

from me:

for the last time:

I am not arguing for some rigid, unchanging, old-testament criteria for the judgement of art set in marble.

the criteria changes all the time, and does not adhere to what ever position the "authority", whether the Roman Catholic Church or MOMA NY, takes on things.

I'm sure there are qualities about this man's work that makes it great, I don't have to list them for you becuase you know what they are. and these same qualities can be found in other work which is worth our while.

zhao said...

from Troy:

I think maybe you are confusing "art" with "craftsmanship".

I think that great craft can be great art. But "art" can also encompass things like "genius" or "divine intervention" or "protest" or "dadaism", things I suppose are very difficult to judge.

zhao said...

from me:

just by saying that it is "difficult" you are admitting that it is not impossible.

people do it EVERY FUCKING DAY. what does a collector of conceptual art spend $50,000 on? which post-dada prankster does a gallery represent?

these decisions are each based on a criteria. not everyone will agree, and it changes all the time, but there is always a criteria, and a lot of people will agree.

I don't think denial of this is a position that anyone in his right mind can take... hell, it's not even a position!

zhao said...

Troy brings out the big guns:

The words of the Buddha...

The mind-system which is the source of the evil out-flowings consists of the five sense-organs and their accompanying sense-minds (vijnanas) all of which are unified in the discriminating-mind (manovijnana). There is an unending succession of sense-concepts flowing into this discriminating or thinking-mind which combines them and discriminates them and passes judgement upon them as to their goodness or badness. Then follows aversion to or desire for them and attachment and deed; thus the entire system moves on continuously and closely bound together. But it fails to see and understand that what it sees and discriminates and grasps is only a manifestation of its own activity and has no other basis, and so the mind goes on erroneously perceiving and discriminating differences of forms and qualities, not remaining still even for a minute.

zhao said...


wow. that is some good stuff there... thanks...

zhao said...


Thanks for the give and take, Zhao. It's fun to argue (in the good sense) about things you are passionate about.

But I was wondering... what propted you to write your "Against Subjectivity" blogpost in the first place. Did you encounter some horrendous art in some gallery you paid big bucks to enter? Or did you hear one too many crap Chili Peppers song on the radio? What?

zhao said...

Thanks for the give and take, Zhao. It's fun to argue (in the good sense) about things you are passionate about.

But I was wondering... what propted you to write your "Against Subjectivity" blogpost in the first place. Did you encounter some horrendous art in some gallery you paid big bucks to enter? Or did you hear one too many crap Chili Peppers song on the radio? What?

zhao said...


I had heard that line one time too many. it was indeed at a horrendous "art" show, and I was like "this sucks ass" and this girl I was hanging out with says, you guessed it, "it's all subjective". we got into it and she absolutely refused to see my points...

the buddhist ideal is profound and is ultimately right, for the paths that we are all on...

but we do live in the real world, and absolute relativism in the realm of aesthetics is bothersome, but when it is applied to ethics and morality, is just horrifying.

I mean, raping and murdering a baby is just WRONG. period. and someone who does it should be punished. no ifs and buts about it.

overtones99 said...

(i haven't really read much of this, and this will be all i say, so apologies if this comes out of nowhere or seems random)

we live in an age of opinionism.

opinions are overrated.
forming an opinion and sticking to it gives us a momentary thrill of power - the power to deny another possibility the right to existence. "this is bad. that's all."

fuck that shit. doesn't work for me.

i wonder if we could ever come to realize that perhaps there is more power to be found in creation and affirmation? somewhat ironic since the opinions espoused here have so much to do with art & music...

form opinions all you want.
be open and admit how you feel about whatever, and hopefully people will listen and then share their ideas and a dialogue can ensue, but please don't hoist your opinions onto others or try to write them off on your taxes as objective truth. opinions represent an ending, a death, when in art and life we are dealing much more with beginnings.

and there is a big difference between opinionism and criticism. opinionism is selfish, while criticism aims to be more self-aware and open to interpretation.

btw, art and rape are not the same thing. (or are they?)

zhao said...

so Mr. Overtones,

is it mere my "opinion" that John Coltrane contributed more to jazz than Kenny G? is it merely "opinion" that the former was a better player, composer, artist, and had more ideas and skill and love in his little pinky than the later can ever dream of?

you are right, this is an age of opinion-ism. where everything is reduced to the level of personal taste. everything is OK, nothing can be debated (because everyone's "opinions" are equally valid), and it's all equally un-important.

this kind of relativism is just absolutely horrifying to me.

ana said...

This is ridiculous, you obviously dislike Kenny G, but maybe my grandmother would prefer him to any other sax player I surely consider better than Kenny G. Also, she would quickly agree to trade a plate of caviar for beans or whatever. I wouldn't. But just because you think a larger part of the world population would find a certain music more pleasing than another doesn't mean that this one is the good and the other bad.

"but I think there is a foundational set of standards which transcends specific taste engendered by culture." - I couldn't disagree more, this sort of thought is mora a religious thought than anything eles.

Bee Sahunalu said...

What do you think about this?

zhao said...

Ana, this objective criteria should sort you out wrt Coltrane vs. Kenny G. : number of formal innovations.

i'm not one, but a jazz theorist can list for you the number of compositional devices, of playing methods, of improvisational leaps, etc., etc., that Coltrane invented, and a similar list for Kenny G.

that would be a pretty objective criteria to judge the CONTRIBUTION an artist has made to his medium, no?

and of course other criteria exists...

zhao said...

Bee, i kept just wanting to look at the paintings these kids made. but the film doesn't show them very well. do you know a site where i can see them?

i think they could be very good. the children could be extremely talented, and possessive of a natural, uninhibited, spontaneous sense of composition, of color, of pictorial space, etc.

or perhaps the adults are helping them a little bit? just things like telling them when to stop, or selecting which ones to show, would be a hugely important factor.

but regardless, this angle that modern art is some kind of a hoax, is simply some imbecilic story cooked up to gain favor with the aesthetically under developed or "mentally numbed"* portion of our society.

i do think everyone, regardless of education level, should theoretically "understand" (bad word because often there is nothing to understand! only shapes! colors! -- just intuition innit?) or appreciate abstract art. but reality is such that our society, through mindless advertising and constant barrage of images devoid of aesthetic content, can have a numbing effect on the mind, which is so filled with rubbish that it is in a state of constant confusion, having forgotten or lost touch with that which it should naturally know, or feel.