Can You Judge Art Objectively?


So there’s a particularly flawed idea about media criticism that has gained a lot of popularity recently. It’s the idea that we can judge art quote-unquote objectively. A kind of criticism that focuses exclusively on things like plotholes and whether the events of a story makes strict logical sense. The goal of this criticism is to establish that a piece of art is objectively good or bad. I find this position pretty damaging to film discussions as a whole so today I’m going to explain all the many reasons there is no such thing as objective criticism. It’s going to take me quite a while to get there, so I just want you to hold on to this one idea before we begin. The Dark Knight, the movie every film bro keeps on a shrine at his bedside has more plot holes than virtually any other movie you can name. Just hold on to that real tight because we’ll come back to it. So first, let’s get the semantics straight. You can make objective statements about art. Star Wars was written by George Lucas, there are spaceships in it, the main character is Luke Skywalker. These are called… facts. You enter subjectivity the moment you make a qualitative statement about those facts. George Lucas is a brilliant writer. These spaceships are cool. Luke Skywalker is well-written. These are what’s called… opinions. I know this is some simple stuff so far but I need to say it because the idea I’m reacting against is the all too common phrase, “This movie is objectively bad,” which presents an opinion as a fact. The proponents of this idea will assert that the objective critic is only speaking about the tangible facts of the matter, while so called subjective critics only talk about their feelings. But this is a false binary. It’s totally possible to speak entirely emotionlessly about the themes of a particular work. For instance, I could say that the original Star Wars film is about why nature is superior to technology. And I could point to the climax where Luke puts away the targeting system and embraces the force and that doing so helps him defeat the technologically superior Empire. Nowhere in that analysis have my emotions factored in but I haven’t described an objective quality of the film either. I’ve used evidence from the text to support a position and in the process I’ve revealed something about my subjective perspective. But someone else could say the scene isn’t really about nature versus technology, it’s about atheism versus religion. The rebels won because Luke had faith, while the Empire lost because they belittled religion. “Your sad devotion to that ancient religion has not helped you conjure up the stolen data tapes. Or given you clairvoyance enough to find the rebels hidden for…” We’ve come to two slightly different readings of the same film and neither of them is objective. They are steeped in the perspectives of whoever believes them to be true and both of our hypothetical critics here could use their analysis as a reason to claim that the movie is well-made and they would be speaking just as subjectively as someone claiming it is well-made because the plot makes logical sense. They are opinions based on evidence that are held up to a personal standard. But this lands us in a bit of a pickle that is a sticking point for a lot of people. If all value judgments are subjective, then how do we know what’s true? Doesn’t that make everyone’s opinion equally valid? I mean, why can’t we just agree on a standard of quality and then judge everything against that? Wouldn’t that be objective? Well, these are questions that plagued two 18th century thinkers most responsible for how we think about this today David Hume and Immanuel Kant. Historically speaking, thinking that you can judge art objectively is not entirely unheard of. To many ancient and medieval thinkers, the idea of beauty being located in an object was a very popular position. It was as objectively true to say that a rose is red as to say that it is beautiful. But in 1757, Desmond, I mean David Hume published “Of the Standard of Taste” which relocated beauty to the eye of the beholder.
“Beauty is no quality in things themselves. It exists merely in the mind which contemplates them; and each mind perceives a different beauty. One person may perceive deformity where another is sensible of beauty and every individual ought to acquiesce in his own sentiment without pretending to regulate those of others.” Oh, you sweet summer child! If you had only lived to see YouTube! For Hume, you need a perceiver to exist for beauty to exist. But of course this creates the problem we’re running into. If everything is subjective, then how can we make any truth claim about a piece of art? Hume’s answer is in the title – taste. Basically, people can improve their taste over time and make well-founded judgements that we can trust. “Strong sense, united to delicate sentiment, improved by practice, perfected by comparison, and cleared of all prejudice, can alone entitle critics to this valuable character; and the joint verdict of such wherever they are to (be) found, is the true standard of taste and beauty.” So Hume’s answer is we can’t know what’s good for sure but we can get pretty close by listening to an expert and that anyone can become an expert with practice. It’s also better if we listen to critics as a whole instead of just one person because by joint verdict he means that critics tend to come to a consensus on great art over time. Basically, since great pieces of writing tend to withstand the test of time, the fact that they have been well regarded by so many critics in so many times and places, functions like an objective standard. Making it uncontroversial to say that Hamlet is an excellent play for instance. It’s sort of like polling data. A few decades later Immanuel Kant was a little disappointed by Hume’s essay, thinking that he hadn’t gone far enough to solve our problem. In 1790, he published The Critique of Judgment, a landmark and enormously influential book that tried to get as close as possible to figuring out how we perceive the world around us. And I mean how we perceive the entire world around us. Kant isn’t just talking about art here and is actually trying to find a way to describe why art is different from just about every other kind of object we encounter. So, I’m not gonna read all this out because Kant doesn’t write like a regular human, but instead like a computer describing math equations. But what he says here is that taste is inherently subjective. When we feel pleasure or pain when looking at something it has nothing to do with that object. It is taking place within our own minds, the essence of subjectivity. Now as Kant often does, he splits things into categories. When you experience pain or pleasure, the object responsible for that belongs in one of three groups, actually four, but we can safely ignore the sublime for the purposes of this discussion, since it alone would be its own hour-long video. Ok, so three categories. There’s the agreeable, the beautiful and the good. The main difference between them is based on which we desire. Let’s say you’re starving and a man offers you food. Because you need the food, you’re in no position to judge how it tastes. You can only say that it is agreeable. Likewise, our judgments of what is good are also prejudiced by our desires. We want things that fulfill their function so we say that they are good if they do. But when we look at something like a flower, we can call it beautiful because we don’t need it for a specific purpose. It’s an unbiased judgment. There’s another important distinction between the agreeable and the beautiful and it helps us solve part of the problem of total subjectivity. Things that are tied up in the idiosyncrasies of our senses can never be anything more than simply agreeable. You may find the color purple agreeable, I prefer blue and there is no conversation that we can really have there. Our senses just like different stuff. But the beautiful is different. When we see something beautiful, we actually feel that we have a good reason to believe that everyone should see it the same way as us. We actually believe it to be a true quality of the object, even though it isn’t. This phenomenon is what Kant calls and bear with me through all of these terms: Subjective Universality. Yeah, that is that is a big weird phrase. So, I know what you’re thinking. This sounds like an oxymoron. How can something be universal if it is subjective? And I hear you. But Kant is using this phrase to talk about the fact that while we can’t irrefutably prove that we are right about something being beautiful, what matters here is the fact that we feel like we have a good reason to believe that other people should agree with us. We have a justifiable opinion. It’s in this space that all conversations around art take place. So to recap Kant’s theory so far: taste is inherently subjective. However, to talk about the beauty of something you can’t be biased towards it. You cannot need it or see practical value in it and the terminology of the agreeable let’s us set aside totally abstract personal opinions from those we think should have universal validity. Whoo boy! That is a lot of stuff! Kant is literally the most difficult literary critic to figure out. But there is one more distinction to clear up and it’s between the beautiful and the good and I think this one helps to explain the impossibility of objective critique. I said earlier that things that are good have a specific purpose and we can say objectively whether or not they are good at achieving that purpose. The weird thing about things that are beautiful, is that while they don’t serve practical purposes, they feel like they do. So, when we say that a flower is beautiful, we’re not talking about the practical purpose it serves as the reproductive organ of a plant. What’s beautiful about a flower is that it feels like it was designed to please, Even though that is not its purpose. Man, Kant really does talk about flowers a lot! A piece of art is a little different than nature though since we are constantly debating what the purpose of a piece of art is. A painting or a film doesn’t serve an obvious practical function. And even if the author creates it for a specific purpose, art tends to take on a life of its own and can fulfill many unforeseen functions and this is really important. If there’s one idea I want you to take away from this video it’s this one: because how can you establish the objective criteria for a piece of art when art doesn’t serve a definitive describable purpose? Like you can say that a particular hammer is a good hammer because it is good at hammering nails since hammering nails is the purpose of a hammer. But with art, the perceiver has to invent the purpose of whatever they’re looking at. Is it to entertain, provoke thought, communicate a message, stir emotions or nothing at all? With every piece of media you encounter, those questions are up for debate. So if your criteria for a story is whether or not it has logical consistency, if that’s the box you need check to have a good time… that’s fine. What I’m arguing is that implicit in that belief are a lot of assumptions about what the purpose of a piece of art is? For instance, you may believe that movies are primarily about escapism. And so anything that takes you out of the narrative is an enormous flaw. There’s just nothing that makes that belief any more correct or incorrect than any other assumption about what art should be. So whenever we critique the quality of art, we first make an arbitrary assumption about what its purpose is. Then we invent criteria to decide whether that purpose is achieved and it’s only after that that the analysis proceeds logically. Let’s look at a concrete example, perhaps you’re writing a review of oh, I don’t know, Star Wars: The Last Jedi, to pick a film totally at random and for no other reason. In the first scene, the rebels use these big bombers against the first order and they get destroyed really quickly because they are big and slow. But aha! You’ve been watching Star Wars your whole life and you know that there is another kind of ship called a y-wing which is also supposed to drop bombs. So why aren’t the good guys using that ship since it’s smaller and faster and would survive longer? That would make more logical sense, checkmate Rian Johnson! Okay now it’s totally fine to dislike any scene in this film, but let’s talk about why this is not an objective criticism. It’s partly because most people do not know what a y-wing is and even fewer know what its military purpose is, so to even make this critique you have to have a certain knowledge of the lore. But on top of that you have to believe that adhering to the lore established in other films is more important than the immediate impact of the scene. The fact that the bombers are big and slow is a nonverbal way of communicating an idea to the audience. It justifies in our mind why the ships are destroyed so easily. Whichever side of the argument you land on, it’s simply a personal preference and it’s based on a bunch of beliefs about which aspects of a story are more important than others. Even though none of them are inherently more important than the rest. Artists are constantly faced with these kinds of trade-offs where they can choose to sacrifice the logic of a scene to a degree, in order to improve other qualities of the film. Here’s another Star Wars example, that is the purest version of this. It’s often said the first Star Wars film was saved in the edit. You can check out RocketJumps’ video for more on that. And one example of the editing changes to the film is that the original edit lacked the ticking clock elements in the finale. Instead of the Death Star being moments away from blowing up the rebel base, which imbues the scene with an incredible amount of tension and makes the heroes feel like underdogs, the original ending has them being the aggressors. The Death Star was just hanging out in space somewhere and the rebels went and blew it up. But changing the ending introduced a handful of plot holes. Leia says that their ship was being tracked and yet the heroes foolishly lead the villains directly to the rebel base on the moon of a planet called Yavin. The Death Star teleports into the rebel bases solar system but on the other side of the planet, meaning that they have to wait to blow up the moon base when they could have just teleported right next to the moon. And at any time they could presumably shoot their laser at the planet and let the rebel base spin out of orbit. Now, if you are in the shoes of the great Marcia Lucas, the editor on the original Star Wars, 2 versions of the film stand before you. The whole thing has already been shot. There is no third solution so you have to choose: do you and Georgie release the cut that has tension or the one that’s more logical? There is not an objective answer to this question. This may just seemed like a semantic grievance to insist that the terminology of objectivity versus subjectivity is wrong here but I think it’s more important than that. Implicit in the terms is a hierarchy. The idea that objectivity is better than subjectivity and that we have to agree on what something is objectively first before we can even get into subjectivity. The terms empower those who want to end discussion rather than those who want to encourage it. Okay, so up until this point I’ve been arguing about why it’s impossible to say whether a piece of art is objectively good or bad. And if you want more on this I recommend checking out Jack Saint’s video on this topic which just came out last week and touches on a lot of stuff I haven’t talked about here. But I also want to speak more broadly about why the things that are typically brought up in these kinds of discussions aren’t as important as they are often treated. Mainly plot holes and I want to make the case for why, in my opinion, other kinds of criticisms are, from my perspective, just plain better. Now a lot of great smart people have already talked about this too. I recommend checking out Patrick H. Willems’ video on it as well as Film Crit Hulk’s essay. The point I want to make about plotholes is this: they are usually not the real reason people didn’t enjoy a movie. There are almost always deeper and more personal issues with a film that prevented people from connecting with it which aren’t as easy to identify or articulate as plot holes are. But plot holes are very easy to explain and since you didn’t like the movie and the plot hole is a problem in the movie, it’s very easy to fall into the trap of saying you didn’t like the movie because of the plot hole. And I believe this because there are a bunch of movies with a ton of plot holes that pretty much everyone really likes. Remember what I said about the Dark Knight a million years ago when this video started? It has more plot holes than any movie you can name. The Joker’s plan makes no logical sense in virtually every scene he’s involved in. It requires him to have information he couldn’t possibly have, move things to places they couldn’t possibly get to, or need literally months of planning despite the fact that he claims that he doesn’t plan anything. Money doesn’t burn this fast, what happens at the party after Batman jumps out the window? How come none of the bus drivers are alarmed that one of them drove into a bank and how did the Joker still get away with this? Why does a cop stand inside the cell with the Joker when they already have him safely locked up since this creates the risk of a hostage situation? Which is exactly what happens. Can you really get a fingerprint off a shattered bullet? How did Batman build the super computer while everything else was happening? Why is Batman so worried about not killing the Joker when he very clearly kills several people in this very movie? You could literally talk for hours about the logic in this movie not adding up and yet people still love the film because it has incredible pacing, great acting, compelling characters, intense action, interesting provocative and relevant themes and gives the viewer the vicarious sense of being Batman along with a hundred other reasons! Which all successfully distract you from its logical failings. To put it simply there are some terrible films where the logic holds up and some excellent films where it doesn’t. This is not to say that the logic of story never matters, of course it does. Literally every choice in the artistic development of a story matters and it’s totally fine to have an appreciation for films that get the logic right. But what I’m saying is that to make a better case against a film, it’s important to demonstrate why the presence of a plot hole impacts other aspects of the storytelling. If you notice a plot hole in one movie and not in the Dark Knight, it’s because the Dark Knight has better pacing. So why does all of this matter? Why am I so committed to the idea that this kind of criticism should occupy a smaller fraction of film discussions? 3 reasons: first since my channel is dedicated to writing and is meant to be useful to writers I think it’s especially important for writers to embrace other forms of criticism. Analyzing the content of media, the ideas it’s communicating and not just the form is the best way to improve your own writing. If you treat stories purely as logic puzzles to be solved, I think you are only setting yourself up to produce superficial pieces of art. You have to read deeply to write deeply. Second: because the quality of art and the quality of criticism are interrelated. “‘Tis hard to say if greater want of skill appear in writing or in judging ill but of the two less dangerous is the offense To tire our patience than mislead our sense.”
Those lines are the opening words of Alexander Pope’s An Essay on Criticism published in 1711 and in them he makes the case that bad criticism does more harm than bad writing. Since bad criticism will influence more writers in the wrong direction than a bad story would. For Pope, criticism creates the grounds from which great art springs and so if we want better art we need better criticism. Film discussions that are too focused on logical inconsistencies will lead to art that is too focused on logical inconsistencies at the expense of story character and theme. I don’t want future artists to decide actually, I won’t write this story since it doesn’t make perfect logical sense. I mean who wants to live in the universe where the Wachowski sisters don’t make The Matrix because their idea didn’t adhere to the law of thermodynamics? Our culture would be immeasurably poorer for it. Lastly: for both writers and non writers, I think this conversation matters because media analysis can, for lack of a better phrase, nourished the soul. It helps you make sense of the world. Often when we see a piece of art we are confused by it, confounded by it, it’s only through the act of creating and absorbing criticism that we can bring sense to that experience and bring the insights of that process into our everyday life. The kind of criticism I think you should seek out or produce is one that seeks to understand what is being communicated in a piece of art. A criticism that puts those messages into context, one that demonstrates how art affects us both personally and socially and that shares a unique perspective that can make something beautiful even more so. Criticism can do so much more than say whether something is good or bad and I want to do more to show you what criticism can be that’s why this episode is the first in a new mini-series on this channel that I’ll be calling The History of Arguments. We talked about Kant and Hume today, but what about Plato, Aphra Behn and Oscar Wilde? There is a 2000 year long history of critics debating a small collection of interrelated questions that I want to explore. Foundational questions like: what is art? What should it do? And how should we interpret it that still influence how we talk about art today? I’m really excited to get into all that and if you want to help ensure that those videos get made then click on over to My patreon and chip in as little as one dollar a video. So, if you’ve seen my other videos then you know that this one looks very different than my previous work. What with all these hand-drawn animations and stuff! I hope you like the new format because it really helps me free up what I can talk about in these videos and making the videos look this way meant that I had to pick up a few animation skills. So it’s fitting that this episode is sponsored by Skillshare since that’s where I learned how to do this stuff! Skillshare is a great place to learn new skills and has over 25,000 online classes to choose from. If you’re looking for help with animation, then I recommend checking out Jake Bartlett’s courses about After Effects. The first 500 people to click the link in the description of this video will get two months of Skillshare for free. You can also sign up for a premium membership to get unlimited access to all of their classes. Thanks for watching everyone and thank you to my patrons for supporting these videos. Keep writing everyone!

3 comments

  • 4 Eyed Animation

    I was with you till you said you had animation skills ?

    Reply
  • Captain Binome

    Let me get this straight. You go to a debate on this very subject, get fucked so hard your asshole turns red, and get sent home looking like a little boy who tried to convince two college professors that two plus two was twenty-two… and then make this crap. This absolute tripe where you use a 200 year old book in a blatant appeal to authority, and don't comment on anyone who may have taken this gentlemen to task on his beliefs.

    What good is this video, if you won't discuss any responses to it, or dare I say, try and get on another debate about this subject, and not embarrass yourself? It's worthless. It's just you desperately trying to poison the well for anyone who didn't see your embarrassing debate against Word of Wolf, and Mauler.

    Reply
  • Fact / Fraud

    You have officially lost touch with your own sanity. We have come a long way since your Hobbit videos.

    Reply

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