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.