Objective and Subjective Aesthetics

There are a couple of month-old posts over on Gene Edward Veith’s blog that I’ve been thinking about for, well, a month. Not constantly, of course. And I haven’t commented on them, and probably won’t, because of the amount of time that’s passed, but still. I’m thinking about them.  It started when he posted briefly about aesthetics and American Idol, noting that Carly Smithson and David Cook were the two best performers, but that he liked Brooke White and Michael Johns the best. His point was that "liking" something or someone is not the same as it being "good." I’d agree with that to a certain extent, but I’m a little bothered by the way he just laid it out there without giving any reason why Carly and David are "good" but Brooke and Michael are only worthy of "like."  Everyone who reads me knows that I like Brooke a lot more than Carly, and I might be willing to go farther.

If you judge Brooke and Carly on vocal range, Carly wins, I’ll admit. If you judge them on vocal tone quality, I’m not sure. If you judge on sincerity, Brooke wins. If you judge on being an artist rather than just a singer, Brooke wins. I sense a singer-songwriter in Brooke that I don’t in Carly. Now, you can say that American Idol is a singing contest and not a singer-songwriter contest, and that’s fine. You might be right (though the judges’ praise of David C’s arranging skills tell a bit of a different story). Given that, you could probably say that within the context of American Idol, Carly was a more fitting contestant. However, my criteria for a good artist involve sincerity, artistry, and originality, and I see more potential for those things in Brooke than in Carly. Hence, I feel justified in saying that Brooke is better.

See what’s happened there? I changed the criteria for judgement. Within one set of criteria, the ones involving purely vocal ability, Carly is objectively better. But within the other set, which involves the way the vocal ability is applied, Brooke is objectively better. Okay, perhaps you can disagree with me about that (I have even more trouble removing subjectivity from musical taste than from taste in other art forms), which means that even that might be a subjective valuation, but my point is that you can make objective judgements, but they still depend on shifting criteria.  Who decides what the criteria are, and is that decision an objective one?

The second Veith post takes off from a comment made on the American Idol post about having to work harder for some great aesthetic pleasures – i.e., something you didn’t "like" at first can become a much deeper pleasure if you work at, which you do because you know it’s "good." I would agree with that, as well, but I still have reservations about the whole thing. The example used was Milton, and I’ll be honest with you, I can’t stand Milton. We were supposed to read parts of Paradise Lost in a World Lit class, and I slogged through as best I could, but I hated every second of it. Last fall, I had the choice between a seminar on Milton and one in Rhetoric and Composition. And I chose the class about teaching composition to freshman, a job I will never have, so that I wouldn’t have to take Milton. So I’m biased on that example. And, of course, since I just admitted that I haven’t read Paradise Lost completely, I can’t in good faith use it in this argument, so I’ll have to take a slightly different tack.

If there are truly objective aesthetic criteria, then theoretically they should be true for all times and places, yes? Yet when you look at literary history, that doesn’t seem to be the case. Values shift over time and from place to place…the French have never embraced Shakespeare, for example, the way English-speakers do, and it’s not merely a translation issue, because Germans valued him before even the English did. Neoclassicals appreciated Homer, but felt that he was too rough and vulgar, especially in comparison with later, more polished writers from the height of Greek civilization; when the Romantics came on the scene, they valued Homer BECAUSE he was rough and had greater vitality than later Greek writers. So which is the right objective criteria? Smoothness or roughness? Polish or raw vitality? The sublime or the beautiful?

The Victorian novel saw itself as, at least in part, a purveyor of moral lessons. Nothing should be depicted that might offend or lead astray. The late 19th-century realist novelists thought their mission was to show life as it was, whether or not it was pretty or moral (some, like Henry James, were sure that it was more moral to be honest about the dark sides of life). By the time High Modernism rolled around, the moralizing narrators of Dickens and Eliot had nearly disappeared to make way for detached, non-committal ones. So is the novel’s job to promote morality? Is it to depict life? Is it to be moral though depicting life? Is it to hold off judgement and allow the reader to do the interpreting?

I gravitate toward 20th century literature, enjoy some from the 19th century, and try to stay as far away from the 18th as possible, so you can probably guess which criteria I tend to pick when I’m deciding what to call good. Narrators/authors who let the reader decide what to think = good. Ones who tell the reader what to think = bad. Books that focus on consciousness and the inner life = good. Ones that focus on detailed physical descriptions and events = bad (or at least, less good – some authors do this to great effect). Art that is raw and vital and creates forms that fit the moment = good. Art that is perfectly polished according to specific pre-determined forms = bad. (And just to bring in Milton again, evocative simplicity = good, pretentious complexity = bad; I’m not a huge poetry fan in general, but I would much prefer to read Langston Hughes or Sylvia Plath or, like, haiku than Milton or most any other pre-Romantic poet, and even the Romantics frustrate me at times. Get over yourself, Wordsworth, for serious. Less is more.)

I can objectively say that given those criteria, the Romantics are better than the Neoclassicals and the Modernists are better than the Victorians. However, those criteria are NOT objective, and are based on, yes, what I like better, but not just me. Large groups of people have championed these criteria. But equally large groups of people have championed the opposite criteria, as well. So my question is – on purely aesthetic matters, how can the criteria by which something is judged be chosen in a completely objective manner, and who has the authority to choose that criteria? Maybe what I think is that you can judge things objectively, but you have to agree on the terms first. Kind of like for logical arguments to work, you have to accept the premises (or prove them, which is usually going to depend on other premises that have to be accepted or proven, and so on). And now I should actually go write my Victorian Novel paper, which is, ironically, about aestheticism.