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.

  • Debbie

    You are going way deep here, but here is a thought I had regarding AI and the decisions we make about liking one contestant over the other. The judges are always harping that it is a singing contest, however, by Ryan always saying, “Don’t let your favorite one go home: VOTE!” The show is also telling us that likability and favoritism regardless of how the contestants did that week do matter.

    So. yeah. THe fact that Taylor beat Katherine proves that the good don’t always win over the ones that are liked.

  • http://jandysmeanderings Debbie

    You are going way deep here, but here is a thought I had regarding AI and the decisions we make about liking one contestant over the other. The judges are always harping that it is a singing contest, however, by Ryan always saying, “Don’t let your favorite one go home: VOTE!” The show is also telling us that likability and favoritism regardless of how the contestants did that week do matter.

    So. yeah. THe fact that Taylor beat Katherine proves that the good don’t always win over the ones that are liked.

  • http://www.the-frame.com/blog Jandy

    Oh, yeah, they say it’s a singing contest, but it isn’t. I mean, how many times does Simon say no to someone in auditions because he doesn’t think they’re marketable enough? He doesn’t always say that, but that’s what he means. Ultimately, they’re giving the winner a million dollar contract, so “who can sell records” is always more important to the show than “who is good.” I suspect this year, that’s one of the Davids. Plus, if they were going just by singing, they wouldn’t be dogging Syesha (and lots of other people over the years) for being “too Broadway.” Some of the country’s best singers are on Broadway. It’s a “singing+personality+charisma+record-selling+pop-style” contest.

  • http://www.the-frame.com/blog Jandy

    Oh, yeah, they say it’s a singing contest, but it isn’t. I mean, how many times does Simon say no to someone in auditions because he doesn’t think they’re marketable enough? He doesn’t always say that, but that’s what he means. Ultimately, they’re giving the winner a million dollar contract, so “who can sell records” is always more important to the show than “who is good.” I suspect this year, that’s one of the Davids. Plus, if they were going just by singing, they wouldn’t be dogging Syesha (and lots of other people over the years) for being “too Broadway.” Some of the country’s best singers are on Broadway. It’s a “singing+personality+charisma+record-selling+pop-style” contest.

  • http://www.the-frame.com/blog Jandy

    Dr. Veith commented on the Livejournal duplicate of this post (everything here is automatically crossposted there; why he found that one instead of this one, I don’t know, but oh well); I’m going to copy his comment and my response over here as well.

    —–
    [his comment]

    Fine thinking about aesthetics. Yes, judgments will vary, but notice that you are applying criteria, and they are objective, not subjective. We can value different criteria. This has some to do with (subjective) taste but also one’s (objective) philosophy about things. I’m thinking that the breakthroughs and new styles in literature and the other arts have to do with calling our attention to other criteria and making us appreciate them too. You are studying aestheticism–check out Ruskin’s aesthetic. I found him very helpful on lots of levels. (Gene Veith @Cranach)

    —–
    [my response]

    Thanks for the comment, Dr. Veith. I definitely agree with being able to appreciate multiple criteria; perhaps you could say that works that meet a lot of different criteria are objectively better than works which only meet a few. Still, when it comes to contradictory criteria, I’m not sure how choosing between them is not subjective. You mention philosophy; I suppose the argument there is that your choice of criteria is going to depend on your overall worldview. That makes sense. I’m currently working through that, too, since my aesthetic taste runs to Modernist and Postmodernist works, but I’m not sure what that means in relation to my conservative Christian doctrines.

    Thanks for the Ruskin tip. I’ve been reading about Ruskin a bit, but haven’t delved into his original texts yet.

  • http://www.the-frame.com/blog Jandy

    Dr. Veith commented on the Livejournal duplicate of this post (everything here is automatically crossposted there; why he found that one instead of this one, I don’t know, but oh well); I’m going to copy his comment and my response over here as well.

    —–
    [his comment]

    Fine thinking about aesthetics. Yes, judgments will vary, but notice that you are applying criteria, and they are objective, not subjective. We can value different criteria. This has some to do with (subjective) taste but also one’s (objective) philosophy about things. I’m thinking that the breakthroughs and new styles in literature and the other arts have to do with calling our attention to other criteria and making us appreciate them too. You are studying aestheticism–check out Ruskin’s aesthetic. I found him very helpful on lots of levels. (Gene Veith @Cranach)

    —–
    [my response]

    Thanks for the comment, Dr. Veith. I definitely agree with being able to appreciate multiple criteria; perhaps you could say that works that meet a lot of different criteria are objectively better than works which only meet a few. Still, when it comes to contradictory criteria, I’m not sure how choosing between them is not subjective. You mention philosophy; I suppose the argument there is that your choice of criteria is going to depend on your overall worldview. That makes sense. I’m currently working through that, too, since my aesthetic taste runs to Modernist and Postmodernist works, but I’m not sure what that means in relation to my conservative Christian doctrines.

    Thanks for the Ruskin tip. I’ve been reading about Ruskin a bit, but haven’t delved into his original texts yet.

  • Dad

    You write the question: “and who has the authority to choose that criteria?”

    My answer: “It should be a centralized, government appointed panel of 5 experts. After they establish the criteria, all written material must be submitted to this panel for review and determination, and they must determine how well each submitted article matches the criteria, with a scoring. Only those articles that have a score of 95 or higher are licensed for publication, if the author hasn’t died yet.” :-)

  • Dad

    You write the question: “and who has the authority to choose that criteria?”

    My answer: “It should be a centralized, government appointed panel of 5 experts. After they establish the criteria, all written material must be submitted to this panel for review and determination, and they must determine how well each submitted article matches the criteria, with a scoring. Only those articles that have a score of 95 or higher are licensed for publication, if the author hasn’t died yet.” :-)

  • http://www.the-frame.com/blog Jandy

    Dad – hee! That would certainly save on publishing costs, wouldn’t it? Think of all the now-classic literature that wouldn’t exist, therefore that we wouldn’t study, therefore that academics wouldn’t write about…oh yes, we’d save a bundle on paper.

  • http://www.the-frame.com/blog Jandy

    Dad – hee! That would certainly save on publishing costs, wouldn’t it? Think of all the now-classic literature that wouldn’t exist, therefore that we wouldn’t study, therefore that academics wouldn’t write about…oh yes, we’d save a bundle on paper.

  • http://hornes.org/mark/ Mark

    “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”

    This combination caught me by surprise. I associate focusing on consciousness and “inner life” (quotation marks are to point to my skepticism about such a thing) with being tolde what to think.

    I’m way pressed for time right now to be more specific (I consider it a triumph that I actually read this entry), but maybe you can figure out what I’m getting at despite my lack of explanation…

    (Read any Raymond Chandler?)

  • http://hornes.org/mark/ Mark

    “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”

    This combination caught me by surprise. I associate focusing on consciousness and “inner life” (quotation marks are to point to my skepticism about such a thing) with being tolde what to think.

    I’m way pressed for time right now to be more specific (I consider it a triumph that I actually read this entry), but maybe you can figure out what I’m getting at despite my lack of explanation…

    (Read any Raymond Chandler?)

  • http://hornes.org/mark/ Mark

    “Still, when it comes to contradictory criteria, I’m not sure how choosing between them is not subjective. You mention philosophy; I suppose the argument there is that your choice of criteria is going to depend on your overall worldview.”

    But is it not obvious that cause and effect work in exactly the opposite way? Really it comes down to a prescription: you *ought* to think out a world view and then allow it to dictate your subjective preference for criteria. And this imperative is made by certain types of people who obviously *enjoy* thinking and talking about thinking or thinking about talking. Their subjective tastes are dictating their world view and criteria just like everyone else, but they have found a way to impose this as a universal good by which to judge all others.

    Just channeling Nietzsche for fun.

  • http://hornes.org/mark/ Mark

    “Still, when it comes to contradictory criteria, I’m not sure how choosing between them is not subjective. You mention philosophy; I suppose the argument there is that your choice of criteria is going to depend on your overall worldview.”

    But is it not obvious that cause and effect work in exactly the opposite way? Really it comes down to a prescription: you *ought* to think out a world view and then allow it to dictate your subjective preference for criteria. And this imperative is made by certain types of people who obviously *enjoy* thinking and talking about thinking or thinking about talking. Their subjective tastes are dictating their world view and criteria just like everyone else, but they have found a way to impose this as a universal good by which to judge all others.

    Just channeling Nietzsche for fun.

  • http://hornes.org/mark/ Mark

    PS. #5 the “triumph” means I’m really swamped, not that your post was too long.

  • http://hornes.org/mark/ Mark

    PS. #5 the “triumph” means I’m really swamped, not that your post was too long.

  • http://hornes.org/mark/ Mark

    #8 aargh Not #5: #6

  • http://hornes.org/mark/ Mark

    #8 aargh Not #5: #6

  • http://www.the-frame.com/blog Jandy

    I know what you’re saying regarding the relationship between focusing on consciousness and being told what to think, and I actually thought about that while I was writing it, but the people I have in mind when talking about consciousness are Henry James and Virginia Woolf. Take Mrs. Dalloway for example. Woolf is relentlessly focused on consciousness in that book – everything we read is filtered through some character’s consciousness – but it isn’t limited to only one. We get some parts from Clarissa Dalloway’s point of view, some from Peter, uh, whathisname, and some from Septimus Smith, as well as various random bystanders. So the overall effect is that there are many voices and Woolf doesn’t dictate to us who to listen to or what to think about each character. You’re perfectly free to think that Clarissa did the right thing marrying Richard or that she should’ve married Peter. There are some things Woolf clearly has a bee in her bonnet about, notably the big fat FAIL of the medical industry, but she doesn’t pull out of the narrative to tell you, in an authoritative narratorial voice, that the medical industry is BAD, the way Dickens does about the school system or the factories. That’s the sort of “telling you what to think” I don’t like.

    Plus, I could be wrong, but I never feel like Woolf would diss me for disagreeing with her, while I think Dickens or (George) Eliot might. She makes me feel like I have agency as a reader, while a lot of earlier writers just want me to passively accept what they’re saying. Which of course makes me much less likely to do so, because I’m just rebellious that way.

    I suspect that if I had read enough Raymond Chandler, I would know why you’re invoking him, but I don’t.

    Hee. I have to say, if that’s Nietszche it kind of makes sense. At least in a “here’s how it works” sort of way if not in a “here’s how it ought to work” sort of way. Which ties back to the prescriptive/descriptive thing you already said. I’m tired.

    Don’t worry, I didn’t think you meant it was too long. Though it might’ve been, and this comment is also probably too long.

  • http://www.the-frame.com/blog Jandy

    I know what you’re saying regarding the relationship between focusing on consciousness and being told what to think, and I actually thought about that while I was writing it, but the people I have in mind when talking about consciousness are Henry James and Virginia Woolf. Take Mrs. Dalloway for example. Woolf is relentlessly focused on consciousness in that book – everything we read is filtered through some character’s consciousness – but it isn’t limited to only one. We get some parts from Clarissa Dalloway’s point of view, some from Peter, uh, whathisname, and some from Septimus Smith, as well as various random bystanders. So the overall effect is that there are many voices and Woolf doesn’t dictate to us who to listen to or what to think about each character. You’re perfectly free to think that Clarissa did the right thing marrying Richard or that she should’ve married Peter. There are some things Woolf clearly has a bee in her bonnet about, notably the big fat FAIL of the medical industry, but she doesn’t pull out of the narrative to tell you, in an authoritative narratorial voice, that the medical industry is BAD, the way Dickens does about the school system or the factories. That’s the sort of “telling you what to think” I don’t like.

    Plus, I could be wrong, but I never feel like Woolf would diss me for disagreeing with her, while I think Dickens or (George) Eliot might. She makes me feel like I have agency as a reader, while a lot of earlier writers just want me to passively accept what they’re saying. Which of course makes me much less likely to do so, because I’m just rebellious that way.

    I suspect that if I had read enough Raymond Chandler, I would know why you’re invoking him, but I don’t.

    Hee. I have to say, if that’s Nietszche it kind of makes sense. At least in a “here’s how it works” sort of way if not in a “here’s how it ought to work” sort of way. Which ties back to the prescriptive/descriptive thing you already said. I’m tired.

    Don’t worry, I didn’t think you meant it was too long. Though it might’ve been, and this comment is also probably too long.