Subjectivism in Aesthetics

July 12, 2006 at 12:31 am 2 comments

I don’t quite understand why so many people (even philosophers) find subjectivism in aesthetics so compelling… I suppose I used to, but then I became a philosopher, and ever since have found myself wondering why this doctrine is so pervasive.

Subjectivism is the view that there are no good or bad works of art, its all subjective (relativistic).

The best approach to subjectivism is to give a soft defense of a more objective approach to art,

(S) With regard to art, things such as beauty and status may be true even given a diversity of opinion.

Points commonly made in defense of subjectivism,

i. No one can agree on what is ‘good’ art and what is ‘bad.’ This does seem to be true sometimes, especially with movies or abstract art. But is this really true. Many times it is true, but many times it isn’t. Many of the people who claim art is subjective, will avoid going to see a “bad” movie-and they aren’t the only ones. Movies and other arts forms can be seen as good and bad by a number of different people, i.e. whether a book, or movie has a good story. If we really believed this about movies and other forms of art, what would be the point of movie and books reviews and art critics? Of course this doesn’t mean they are always accurate, or that disagreements don’t exist. It is rather that there is more of a consensus than the subjectivist would have us believe.

But let us suppose this isn’t true. Let us suppose that there aren’t a number of times when consumers and critics can predict popularity/unpopularity with regard to specific pieces of art. Let us also suppose that no two people see exactly the same thing about any one piece of art. So what?! This would only prove that a number of people believe different things. If everyone disagreed about the existence of the sun, it wouldn’t suddenly cease to exist. In other words, something can be true independent of what people believe. This hardly proves subjectivism.

2. The standards for deciding what is “good” art and what isn’t aren’t very clear. This seems to be a very bad objection to the notion of objectively deciding between good and bad art. First off, this has little to do with the actual truth of whether there are objective differences between good and bad art, but rather what criteria we could appeal to in order to justify our claims that this piece of art is good or bad. In other words, the objection fails to distinguish metaphysical claims with epistemic ones; just because we lack knowledge of x, it does not follow that x does not exist. In other words, lack of consensus does not prove (by itself) subjectivism.

This is a criteria issue rather than lacking a metaphysical basis for making a claim that a piece of artwork is good or bad. But it is more than a general-criteria issue. It is about an empirical-crtieria issue; there is nothing we can point to in order to make the judgement that this or that piece of art is good.

Ultimately, the problem with aesthetic subjectivism is that it is inconsistent. Many of the reasons given for aesthetic subjectivism could easily be given for religious, ethical and empirical subjectivism, and yet they are not, which is partly why arguments for aesthetic subjectivism don‘t work. What criteria can we use to justify sense perception, WITHOUT begging the question? One need only look back to the history of philosophy to understand how hard such a task would be, unless one is prepared to beg the question. Of course far fewer people have questioned the basis for making perceptual judgments rather than aesthetic judgments, but this doesn’t make perceptual judgments any more grounded; truth isn’t decided by numbers. It does demonstrate an inconsistency, in that people who lack a solid basis for making “objective” perceptual judgments, use the lack of criteria as a criticism of aesthetic judgments. I am not maintaining that one cannot make perceptual judgments, but rather that one can make aesthetic judgments; at least some of the time.

(Some who advocate subjectivism also mistake the notion of something being subjective with something being certain, private or individual. Something can be certain and yet private or individual. Something can be private and yet not individual or certain. And something can be individual without being certain or private. These varieties of subjectivism need to be distinguished. We can also take subjective experiences to be very certain, ie. the content of one’s own conscious experience).

There are a few others, but they are just as weak as the two “defenses” of aesthetic subjectivism already discussed. It is not unreasonable to maintain that at least on a few occasions, valid aesthetic judgments can be made– its not all individually-subjective!


Entry filed under: metaphysics, social philosophy.

Compatiblism and Theism Burgess-Jackson and What Philosophers Do, Part Two

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