No man is an island, as the saying goes, and this is true for evaluating art, as well.
I very often hear in conversations, “Well, that’s just your opinion. It’s subjective, so what’s true for you might not be true for everyone else.” I hate this statement. Often, what this boils down to is a very lazy dismissal of someone else’s opinions. After all, if everything is subjective, all opinions are created equal and your opinion really holds no weight because my contrasting opinion is just as right. But neither of us can be wrong in anything more than the logic by which we support our opinions and argue for our side. In the end, it’s all meaningless because when we reach the (theoretical possible, but practically impossible) point when we have both perfectly articulated defenses of our opinions, we are right back where we started. The thing is, if you are making an argument for why Madoka Magica is terrible because you subjectively find the story to be poorly plotted and I am making an argument for why Madoka Magica is amazing because I subjectively find the story to be excellently plotted, we’ve reached a fundamental disconnect in the way we individually and subjectively relate to the show. Thus, after we both theoretically argue our way to the perfect expression of our reasoning, we are both right and Madoka Magica is simultaneously poorly plotted and excellently plotted respective to us. But can Madoka Magica even be both?
Ah, what a wonderful thing it is to be the center of the universe, where everything around us relates specifically to us! The individual reigns! Our opinions are supreme…in our tiny, inconsequential worlds in which we are both the sole ruler and sole citizen.
The argument that everything is totally subjective is representative of a self-absorbed relativism that places every individual at the center of their own little universe, where everything they encounter relates to and is defined by them. What an utterly narrow and pathetic existence. In that world, I can subjectively deny the beauty of a sunrise, the vastness of the mountains or the deepness of the sea. That’s right, I can subjectively say that mountains are not big, as largeness is a relative concept relating to me and if I consider myself bigger than mountains in some abstract way, it’s my prerogative to believe that.
The inherent problem with subjectivity (what I would eventually call the rejection of all standards) is that it places everything we encounter on a totally arbitrary scale. As much as people want to claim total subjectivity over all art, that’s just not how it works. There are fundamental techniques that work for human persons when they engage with a piece of media; it’s why archetypes exist. Artistic craft, no matter which discipline it is, contains a certain number of techniques that enhance the functionality of the artwork. And these techniques are not arbitrary, as one might argue; they, in fact, exist in relation to a defined reality (the nature of this reality coming up in just a few paragraphs).
There will always be subjectivity in degree, (i.e. how well something worked for a particular person) but to claim total subjectivity is to claim that the craft of producing art is a totally arbitrary construction. I may be on a slippery slope here, but it seems to me that the logical conclusion of all this is the assumption is that the narratives crafted in works like Shakespeare are not inherently better than the narratives crafted in works like Twilight or than narratives crafted in pornography.
To widen the scope further, it comes down to whether or not you believe there can be objective truth in the universe. If you do, then you will believe that there is a perfection of the artistic craft (storytelling, the visual medium, anime, etc.). If not, then it seems to me that you force yourself into believing that all standards are arbitrary and without meaning. I don’t see much of a middle ground here. What would it be? That some standards are subjective while others are not? At that point, everything becomes circular, as you have to make objective judgments on which standards are subjective and which are not. And if those judgments are subjective, then you end up with another mess of relative positions.
Neither of those paths is one I’m willing to take, because to throw all guidelines, rules and standards out the window is, to me, to invalidate the very nature of art. Art exists to affect the human person, and I don’t think that happens in a world where everything is totally arbitrary.
One of the convenient things about believing in God is that it allows me to also believe in an objective truth (goodness) to which all things in the world can be compared. It’s very abstract, but all art can be evaluated on a scale where God is the theoretical perfection of good art. That being said, I’m well aware that just saying, “Well, there’s a God, so everything’s objective,” is an invalid argument for anyone who doesn’t accept the basic premise that God exists, so humor me a bit longer.
If I am not going to make an argument for objective truth in art from the position that God exists, what am I going to do? Instead, I go to the truth of the shared human experience (I think this is inherently at odds with the self-centered mentality of subjectivity), what I think can be summed up quite simply as life and death. These are the two ultimate truths of being human, unless you want to play mind games and say we’re all just brains in vats, at which point I would say this conversation is pointless anyway, because it’s all just an illusion. So we have life and death, the two incontrovertible realities of human existence: we live, and we die. I daresay that they could even be called indisputable TRUTHS of human existence. And look where we are now. That’s not one, but two objective truths about being human. As a human you will be alive, and you will die.
Thus, when we encounter art, we should be assessing it in terms of how it relates to and engages with the two great truths, life and death, not how it relates to our particular and small place in the world. Now, we can subjectively disagree with our assessment of how art interacts and intersects with the two truths, but arguments can be made for and against positions with actual results once there is an objective scale established and a real framework is manifested. Life and death are the concrete realities with which we humans grapple each day; all art we encounter, by its very nature as a human creation, must contact these realities. But because individual interaction with these realities differs, a level of ambiguity does exist. This does not, however, change the fact that the ultimate facts of life and death exist the same for all.
So, if we return to the idea of the theoretically perfect argument for a particular view, we can also suppose a theoretically complete experience of life and death. That is to say, there is a theoretical level of participation in the world in which a single person could have fully contacted every element and instance of being alive, as well as every aspect of death. This person would, then, be the perfect judge of art as it relates to the truths of the human experience.
Obviously, there is no such person, as we are all limited by our individual human experiences of life and death. In other words, some of us are better equipped to evaluate certain pieces of art from certain perspectives, because they relate more specifically and more accurately to our experiences of the world than they do to others. For example, some one who has been in the army is far better armed to judge the relation of a war movie to the realities of war than I, who have never been in so much as a fistfight, could possibly be. On the other hand, I may be better prepared than that person to judge the verisimilitude of a show about show choir than the solider. HOWEVER, both the war movie and the show choir show intrinsically contain certain universal human elements that allow both of us to understand and (on some basic level) relate to the art.
I don’t mean to totally diminish the value of the personal experience when relating to art. The personal experience and response to a piece of art is the reason we engage with art in the first place. Just because I am ill-equipped to judge the emotional realities of the war movie doesn’t mean that my personal experience of that piece of art is invalid. It simply means that my perspective is somewhat lacking, just as everyone’s perspective is. Thus, I want to call for a recognition of our own limits, of the barriers around our personal experiences of art that both aid and hinder our responses. We cannot deify our own opinions above all else because it simultaneously undermines the experiences of others and discounts the intrinsic unity that inherently comes from being human.
My point is, simply, that to glorify the subjective individual experience above all else creates a useless system that seeks to ignore the collective identity of the human race. I will admit, the application of what I am saying is difficult, and perhaps even practically impossible. But what I seek to counter is the self-centered mindset that everything is always totally subjective, that truth is fluid, and that the world is only useful in how it relates to ourselves.
There’s a bigger world out there than just us and our experiences.
17 thoughts on “Everything’s Not Totally Subjective”
“Not everything’s subjective”?
That’s just, like, your opinion, man.
You do realize that the “collective identity of the human race” is necessarily a subjective concept within you mind, right? Just saying…
But more the the point:
“Thus, when we encounter art, we should be assessing it in terms of how it relates to and engages with the two great truths, life and death, (…)”
This is ultimately the problem. When you propose the existence of objective value to art, you will necessarily end up with a SHOULD/MUST BE sentence. That SHOULD/MUST BE sentence will define the “one proper objective of art” that you want to believe in… and be totally subjective. For example, while I respect your ideas, I don’t really seen any particular reason why the two states of life and death should be the universal metric for art. Why not the yin and yang elements, or anything else for that matter? And further, even if you choose those two concepts as your points of reference, how do you “score” art on that scale? Should it parallel truths or subvert them?
You do have a point that we might be able to propose a “most common subjective view” based on certain characteristics of the human brain etc. Notably, that would be much closer to the much-reviled “lowest common denominator” than to the “high art” you apparently support. which has always been mostly a minority thing.
1) You do realize that the “collective identity of the human race” is necessarily a subjective concept within you mind, right?
But is it? I don’t see how you could deny that there is a certain intrinsic identity in each human person that lends itself to our collective categorization? By the very nature of us identifying ourselves as human, we are forming ourselves as a single unit.
2) “one proper objective of art” that you want to believe in… and be totally subjective.
I do see your point, and I recognize that I have, in essence, formed my argument around the presupposition that everyone agrees with me as to the proper objective of art. However, I think, in defining that objective as “art mirroring life and death,” (which I may or may not have failed to adequately articulate) I have summoned a goal which encompasses all other potential goals for art that people may have. If someone thinks art’s objective should be to entertain, that still resides underneath the umbrella of “mirroring life and death,” as being entertained is part of life.
3) And further, even if you choose those two concepts as your points of reference, how do you “score” art on that scale? Should it parallel truths or subvert them?
I did admit in the original post that the practical application of the theory is potentially impossible. But I don’t think it needs to be defined on a binary between paralleling truths or subverting them, as long as it illuminates truth in some way.
4) Notably, that would be much closer to the much-reviled “lowest common denominator” than to the “high art” you apparently support. which has always been mostly a minority thing.
I’m glad you bring this up! I’m actually working on a post regarding the importance of accessibility in art. It’s probably a few weeks off in the future, but I’ll be campaigning for a sort of middle ground between “high art” and the “lowest common denominator.” It will be interesting to see if I can maintain my philosophical integrity between this piece and that one.
Finally, thanks for the comment! 🙂 I’m pretty new to this whole blogging thing, so it’s nice to get feedback-hope to see you around more!
I brought up yin and yang because death can be defined as merely as aspect of yin and life as merely an aspect of yang, and therefore you have yet another all-encompassing system. It is actually possible to propose an infinite number of such systems, even if many of them would seem stupid. It’s like the binary and decimal systems, where one might be tricked into believing that the decimal system is the “more natural” one.
From a Buddhist school of thought, any single thing (and thus any single piece of artistic work) “illuminates truth in some way”, because they are an expression of the Ultimate Truth. A skilled writer, an inexperienced writer, an honest writer, a writer aiming for a cheap buck – all their works unavoidably reflect the nature of humanity, and behind it, the nature of being/everything. They just reflect that truth in different ways. So unless you categorize and judge that “some way”, “illuminating truth in some way” becomes an argument for subjectivity.
In an ideal situation, I like my art multi-layered, amusing many different kinds of people and allowing for a wide variety of interpretations. I’m harsh on works trying to achieve deeper significance without first clearing the “lower” condition of establishing some degree of connection with the audience (those are playing a higher-stakes game to begin with), lenient on shows that aim for fun and deliver fun without overreaching themselves. This is my personal preference, something that I obviously see as subjective. I’ll be looking forward to your middle ground, and how you present it as “objectively optimal”.
It was fun reading and I hope you’ll have fun blogging on topics and shows you like!
I do think that, in the end, I would want to argue for a sort of objective-subjective duality, because I do agree that it is impossible to totally erase subjectivity from artistic evaluation.
I just have a problem with the ways in which people try to express their subjective opinions, as if those opinions cover the totality of art. It’s extremely and sadly limiting to rely solely on subjective experience of art. As a friend of mine said of this topic, “There comes a point where it doesn’t matter what you THINK about the Sistine Chapel, you will GODDAMN RESPECT IT.”
A lot of people I see want to discount all standard of art for their own perspective, and I just think that’s a foolish way to interact with the world.
It’s more that attitude that I wanted to address through the post, rather than laying down the definitive rulebook on how to assess art. Obviously, I’ve written what I think to be a solid case for a more objective perspective on art (even if the application is impossible), but of course I don’t expect it to work for everyone.
Objectivity isn’t even that difficult, as long as you are up front about your criteria. People do choose their own interpretations of the “objective of art” and “criteria used to judge art”, but once those are established, meaningful evaluation becomes entirely possible. Recognizing the multitude of possible criteria while also accepting the validity of each separate evaluation might work as the middle ground between subjectivity and objectivity.
I guess where I might go from there would be to say that if objectivity is possible on all criteria, unless certain criteria directly oppose each other, there ought to be a theoretical piece of art in which all criteria are applied and all are perfectly accomplished.
I haven’t done enough research/put in enough through, however, to say whether or not I think this could actually work in practice. I think that perhaps there would be certain criteria inherently at odds with each other, at which point a subjective opinion of which criteria are more valuable might need to be requested.
I’m afraid that “the work helps spread God’s glory” and “the work helps people think scientifically and give up on the illusions of religion” are examples of criteria in common use completely at odds with each other. (Also examples of criteria which could be reformulated into a single variable criteria – “the work reaffirms my personal beliefs/convictions”).
I liken evaluating art to watching a magician. If Person A has no idea how the tricks work, the magician will have them watching his left hand while the right keeps pulling out rabbits. In Person A’s subjective experience, it may very well seem like the magician is literally a wizard. However, if person B happens to be an accomplished illusionist themselves, the magician may seem like a hack. Maybe the trap doors are visible. Maybe his sleight of hand skills are lousy. Maybe his stage performance just isn’t good.
There’s nothing invalid about either of those experiences. If Person A goes home believing they saw real magic, then Person B isn’t going to convince him that they actually wasted their money. However, regardless of how valid Person A’s experience is, it’s simply not the objectively true experience because magic doesn’t actually exist. Person B is closer to objective evaluation simply on the grounds of having a more informed opinion. How can one claim to know the truth of an experience if one doesn’t know what they’re really looking at in the first place?
First off, thanks for commenting! As I said to Cytrus above, I’m pretty new to the blogging game, and it’s nice to know that people were engaged enough by what I wrote to respond.
That’s an interesting analogy you bring up: certainly there is no invalidity to the personal experience, and we seem to be thinking along the same lines in terms of a more informed opinion. When I talked about the soldier being better able to understand the emotional realities of war, that’s essentially what I meant. It doesn’t mean a non-soldier’s experience of those realities through the war movie are invalid, it just means they aren’t as able to comprehend the truth of the experience.
Here are some “damaging” or even “negative” aspects of a pure objective stance on art
The most common example is “public” opinion of modern art pieces. Most people will react to the piece with such statements such as “What is this garbage? My 5 year old can draw the same thing!”, “This can’t be art! It lacks any sort of skill!, “How did the artist past art school with such piss poor technique!”
The glorification of objectivity in art pigeon holds in into the realm of technicality. It forces it’s artist to act as technical scientists or at worst pseudo like sports players, where the best are simply praised for skill. You’re glorified simply because you make high contrast colors or stylistic eye candy. You’re no longer allowed to evolve art into anything. To make art that transcends visual information. To make art that speaks the voices of the generation. Or to bridge art into the realm of philosophy. And even make art to express the unknown.
In the end this question boils down to, are you a meaningless life-form who happened, by accident, gain too much awareness? Or are you a special God created Human destined to do great things? In my opinion it’s all meaningless but since you’re in for a long ride, you might as well give meaning to meaningless. If people dont’ share that definition, then I think it’s completely okay. You can reject the beauty of the sunrise. Because there’s nothing really beautiful about it. It’s a glowing ball full of molecular reactions. It’s only “beautiful” because humans gave it value. Can it’s okay that other human can take away that value.
Also to kind of counter this quoted paragraph –
“he argument that everything is totally subjective is representative of a self-absorbed relativism that places every individual at the center of their own little universe, where everything they encounter relates to and is defined by them. What an utterly narrow and pathetic existence. In that world, I can subjectively deny the beauty of a sunrise, the vastness of the mountains or the deepness of the sea. That’s right, I can subjectively say that mountains are not big, as largeness is a relative concept relating to me and if I consider myself bigger than mountains in some abstract way, it’s my prerogative to believe that.”
Our individual awareness can never be experienced. As of right now, I can never experience iblessall as a person. I can even go further, and argue iblessall is not a person but a zombie. Let’s say iblessall was walking one day by the lake and was suddenly struck by lightning and instantly killed. However in that same instant,a carbon copy of iblessal is born. This copy of iblessal has the same memories, emotions, mannerism, personality, body, and so forth. There would be no recognizable difference what so ever between this carbon copy and our recently deceased iblessall. Can we objectively claim the carbon copy is a fake and the past iblessall as real? No we can’t because we can never actually know. We can however say “Hey past iblessal died and this new iblessal is fake”. Then by that definition, the only “real” people are people who came first. That leads to labeling people as “first born” or fakes. We can’t as people objectively measure our collective awareness. We can never tell if someone, in a very crude term,is an NPC or if someone is actually an individual. Sure we can assume and that’s what most people do. We assume people are people. Hell I can even argue further that I’m the only real person of this world. How do I tell that every person in the world right now is not an NPC? In the end, no matter how much you’re not okay with it, you can never feel Joe Smoe from Beijing, China. Or sample Emily Smith’s life from New York City. The only view of the world is through our very own consciousness. I would rather give you the freedom to choose your meanings than give you some kind of objective reality to strive for. If at the end of the day, you choose something else, even if that choice completely contradicts my views, then that’s okay.
1) Abstract Art and Technicality
Interesting that you bring this up, because I often feel modern art is far more guilty of glorify technique than classic art. I also quite strongly disagree that a focus on technique limits arts. The vast majority of truly compelling art rests on a strong foundation of technique. And why have these techniques become techniques? Because they have proven to inherently connect with the human person. You could argue that the reason they do so is because humans have been conditioned to them, but the fact remains that these techniques had to have had a starting point, a moment when they made the first connections and were seen as powerful tools.
2) Creation, Meaning and the Sunrise
As for the sunrise, I think you are selling nature quite short and relying far too much on conditioning. When I was in the mountains of Switzerland recently, I went climbing a hill. At the top of the hill, I crested a small incline and was greeted with the fantastic site of a wide open field, with the wind blowing the grass and the sun shining down and the world world spread out in front of me. (It was incredibly beautiful, by the way; an amazing experience). But I wasn’t reacting to that beauty because I had been conditioned to see it as beautiful. I had, in fact, never seen anything like it in my life before. How could I have been conditioned to believe it was beautiful? No, there was something at the core of that vision of nature that spoke to something in my core and told me, “This is grand and this is beautiful.” I don’t expect that everyone would have the same experience of that vision as I did; however, I think that everyone has had a similar experience in their life with something, even if they don’t know it.
3) Individual Awareness and Experience
I’m definitely not campaigning for everyone to suddenly drop their individuality at think alike (at least, I don’t think I am). However, I see limiting the creation of our own meanings to be a very, very dangerous exercise because of how recursive it can potentially become. If everything in the world always relates back to us, us, us, eventually you will end up with a ball of egocentric narcissism incapable of valuing anything outside itself. I don’t want to falsely paint you are arguing this as okay, because I’m not sure that you are, but that’s what I think your line of reasoning can (not will, but can) lead to. I am simply trying to call for an expansion of awareness, for people to look more outside themselves and their own constructed meanings.
As far as an objective reality goes, I do actually see that as more liberating than the free fall where everyone is finding meanings all by themselves. Humans are inherently limited creatures (gravity, time, physics, etc.). That is in our nature. Now, where these limits end, who can say, but they are certainly there, some more than others. To set ourselves within the limits of an objective reality gives us the freedom to fully explore those boundaries. It’s sort of like how, when you’re in a huge candy shop, you get choices paralysis. But limit the choices down and your indecisiveness is then limited. You are then more free to make a decision than you were before. Freedom isn’t the ability to do anything and everything; it’s the ability to choose.
Finally, as I’ve said to everyone else, I’m very grateful for your comment! Thanks for reading and responding!
1.I don’t share this opinion at all. The focus on technique limits art completely.
To highlight my point, I’m going to use the works of Rothko(http://31.media.tumblr.com/3b1343269c9349169827cc8bc76fcca7/tumblr_msmnytNUWW1ra751wo1_500.jpg) and Davis(http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/e/e4/P0055av_Ring.jpg)
Both of these artist would be completely disregarded and invalided by your definition. The works featured would not be compelling because the works have no actual exemplary technique or skill. A young child with no art background could replicate both of these images. However both artist are recognized by the community. And both artist have their works featured in various museums throughout the country. These artists excel in something beyond technical skill. And in a world where compelling art is defined very strictly, these two creative souls would never had a chance at expression.
I’ll be a little grim here, and admit that I find pictures of people who have pass or even committed suicide at young age, completely beautiful. Their trapped youth is eternally memorialized. Everyone in the world will never see them grow old and change. They stay young forever. Trapped in a moment. Achieving immortality through death.
On a personal note, I used to be Catholic, a Roman Catholic. However as I grew older, I learned there is no good or bad. Because reality has no evil. It has only people who think their right. Why would any sane person really admit that what they do is evil? Can I really judge a person who steals as a terrible? I mean we live in a material world, that’s fueled constantly by money. It’s naive to think you can live an actual life without money. You can’t even eat without money. So, can I in good faith, actually judge a thief as a bad person? No I don’t think I can. I certainly don’t support what he/she is doing. But I’m kind of stuck at this unbreakable neutrality. So in the end I adapted a dynamic form of morality. I know in the end that doing the greater good is probably an illusion, but I’m certainly not going to be selfish and do terrible things. I’ll try to help people not because it’s the right thing to do but because it simply who I am. If on the unfortunate event that my actions has no positive results on anyone then that’s fine.
I do really relate to the topic though. I understand that sometimes we all want the objective satisfaction of being right that scientific fields offer. I want to be able to say “Hey look the sun is bigger than the earth!”, but through the multiple mediums of art. But I know I can’t have my cake and eat it too. I can’t say that I like a simple movies like Spirited Away but turn around and say Evangelion was too complex. I can’t hate on a show like Aku no Hana because it uses rotoscope but fall in love with the inconsistent animation of Kill la Kill. However I think it’s okay to be a little flawed, hypocritical, or even contradictory in your tastes. Subjectivity in art certainly isn’t perfect but, at the end of the day, I certainly prefer it this way.
p.s. I thought my response was vague but I definitely agree on all three of your points. I just wanted to highlight a special case that kind of serves as an exception on point 1, and to flesh out my perspective on the other points. The post isn’t a counter post or anything. But more like an exploration on a different side? I don’t know. But looking back, I can certainly agree with your three points.
It’s funny that you used those two pieces. I’d never seen either before, but I think each of them is actually quite lovely (and I’d bet you that the artists would tell you there was a certain amount of technique involved, such as color contrasts, brush strokes, etc.). Of course, I have no way of proving that, but I’m like 99.99% certain those two piece were made by people who knew what they were doing and were apply certain techniques to their work. I do absolutely agree, though, that an over-focus on technique leads to art that is just dead, or too obscured by the method to communicate meaning.
I don’t think I have much more to say here after my comments and the initial post; but it is nice to hear more of your thoughts, nonetheless.
Eheh, when people tell me things like, “I used to be Catholic,” and talk about morality, I’m always tempted to just dive in and start articulating what I see as the amazingly freeing and beautiful teachings of the Church. Because I have answers for everything you brought up. But I’ll restrain myself here, for the sake of your time and my time.
Once again, I’m not trying to argue for the total abolishment of subjectivity. I don’t really think it’s possible to do that anyways. However, regarding inconsistency in views, I think the reason that happens is because say, the rotoscoping failed to connect with you and the animation in Kill la Kill enhanced your experience. But yeah, there is a sort of difficult binary that seems to exist there. My suspicion is that, from the perspective of my argument, that binary might turn out to be an illusion, but I haven’t really directed my thoughts into that section of the discussion, so I’ll refrain from going further.
P.S. No matter even if it had been a counter-post! I enjoyed reading it!
I can totally relate to this. I have friends who always say the whole “anime is just cartoons, theres nothing deep about it!” And the you just shout that they dont understand.
I don’t think those people really change though. You just have to avoid defining your truth on the anchor of others. Avoid thinking that recognition from others equals credibility. Some people are just always going to dismiss anime as “lol chinese cartoons.” Just keep holding on to your ideals and continue writing for yourself and for others who share those views.
I think its also fine to have differing definitions on media. You can like stupid anime shows like Free! and still like deep shows like Mushishi. You might run the risk of being inconsistent but you have great range in appreciating different shows.
I should say that I think there is a VERY wide range of anime that can fall into my definition. Even something like Free! has moments of depth, like in the desires of the guys in the show to be a team and swim together. People might make fun of it because of the homoerotic overtones, but the fact is that people do think like that.
I tried to pin down some sort of definition that could encompass all potential shows. Because, after all, while I appreciate stuff like Mushishi, I also love some really dumb shows like Nyarko-san and Kill Me Baby. And I definitely don’t think that just because they are not “deep” shows, that they have no artistic value.