Perhaps one thing most people can agree with is the idea that art is subjective: the value lies in the eye of the beholder.
This is the reason why not everyone has the same opinion when you go to an art museum–some will say Rothko’s art is ridiculous, while others will praise it as sublime. The same thing happens with music and film: believe it or not, some people genuinely thought The Rise of Skywalker was good….
However, today, I’d like to argue that it is possible to objectively evaluate art.
Yes, prima facie, this does sound like a very controversial claim to make, but I’m confident that if properly understood, most will be able to agree with it.
To uncover how objectivity is possible, it’s important to understand the opposing view. Those sticking to a purely subjective stance on art believe that objectivity is not possible, because objectivity requires measurable and identifiable standards (or as the word suggests, objectives). They argue that any attempt to set a set of standards is an end with no means–which is certainly reasonable: there’s no denying that it would be extremely hard for Scorsese fans and MCU fans to find common ground without feeling that they are just compromising.
Objectivity seems to be best defined as the requirement for standards to be universalizable.
Although critics are certain that standards in art cannot meet this criterion, I believe we can find a reasonable way to universalize them. To do this, it’s essential to understand that standards are meant as benchmarks–for something to meet a standard, it has to meet a clear and specific goal or objective.
But how do we determine the objective?
I argue that we can reasonably say that the objective that matters is the one set by the artist. What I mean with this is that the artist is the one who gets to choose which benchmark to aim for. The goal can be to please one’s own taste, to please a specific person’s taste, to please a specific group’s taste, to please everyone in the world, or a combination of the above.
For instance, if the goal J.J. Abrams set for Star Wars VII was to please his own taste, and at the time of completion, he was satisfied with his work and indeed pleased his own taste, then although Star Wars VII is a horrible film for my standards, the film is objectively good because it met the standard that it was made for (aka, J.J. Abrams’ taste).
Three problems seem to arise from what I just suggested.
The first one is that it seems to be an absurd framework. If everyone gets to choose the standards they want to meet, does that mean that if I’m satisfied with a banana taped on my wall, it gets to be objectively good art? My response to such objection is that people are getting confused about semantics and what objectivity means. Objectivity is about meeting specific goals–and in art, the goal of the art piece is chosen by the person who creates the piece of art: it’s made with that objective in mind.
The goal can also be something like “becoming the highest-grossing film of all time” or “getting a reaction from sensitive people”, which falls into the category of personal taste (i.e., what the artist finds good or desirable). Of course, I’m not trying to say that all standards set by artists should be enshrined and applauded. We can (and should) criticize artists when they choose inappropriate or irrational standards–for instance, if they are creating the final film of a cinematic universe that many people care about (like Star Wars, Marvel, or Indiana Jones), setting the goal of the film to “personal taste” would reflect poor decision-making skills. Nevertheless, if the film was made to meet the standard of the director’s personal taste, then that’s the benchmark that it should reasonably be judged by.
The second problem is regarding the ephemeral nature of taste. Our preferences change all the time, so it is reasonable to think that the taste of artists changes as well. But if this is the case, can a piece of art that was objectively good according to the standards set by the artist become objectively not good if the artist’s preferences shift? The concern is a very valid one, but the simple answer is no.
The standard that matters is the one that the artist set when working on the piece of art. To be more specific, the benchmark the artist was aiming for at the moment when the art work was finalized (because tastes could have shifted while the work was in progress). This means that if the artist was satisfied with the piece of art the moment it was finished, then it seals its status as objectively good. Of course, if the goal is based on meeting others’ taste, then the artist has to wait until the art is viewed and experienced by the intended audience to determine if the objective was met. The important thing to understand is that the goal that matters is the one that was set up to the point of completion. The standards that the artist will set for themselves in the future will not affect the objective status of works of art that have already been completed.
The third and final problem is that the framework seems to be pointless. Who benefits from this idea of objective art? This is a very relatable sentiment, especially considering that even if a piece of art meets the standards to become objectively good, it won’t change the way I perceive it or rate it with my own taste. My response to such skepticism is that I believe that the framework is useful not so much for the audience, but for the artist.
Artists can be influenced by what others think about their art, even to unhealthy extents. What the objectively good art framework offers is a solution to this phenomenon. While the standards that the artist will use in the future might change due to outside pressure or the reception from the audience, they will be able to look back at their past art with a rational lens. If the art work met the standard you set when you finished it, then it’s irrational to expect more from your past self. Of course, you can cringe at the objectives you set for your art in the past, but back then, meeting those benchmarks was the reasonable thing to do in other to make what you considered to be good art.
This was certainly a longer blog post than usual, but I hope that readers will be able to reflect on the possibility of judging art with objective criteria. Next time you look at a piece of art and you cringe, stop for a second to think if you were part of the intended audience: chances are that your personal taste was not what the artist had in mind when setting their objectives…