When enjoying a work of art, is it ever possible to pursue an objective evaluation, without any influence of one’s personality at all? And if so, to what extent? How do we judge what merit, if any, a work of art has?
If you’ve ever discussed a work of art with your friends or family, chances are somebody proclaimed at some point that art is subjective anyway. What’s the point of discussing it if the immediate perception varies from individual to individual?
At first, there seems to be merit in this approach. As an individual, certain works may speak to us more than others; one person’s poem is another one’s gibberish. What purpose could there be in discussing something which will vary in its perception from person to person?
Moreover, such discussions often stay firmly away from discussing any form of technique, instead concentrating on ‘the message’. If a person believes firmly in the underlying philosophy of the artwork, that person is much more likely to consider it a success, regardless of its technical qualities.
But these approaches are inherently problematic. First, while the perception of an artwork can vary, there are real-life differences which make one painting/poem/movie more powerful than another – things like technique, how well thought out the idea is, how it is presented. Second, evaluating an artwork along the lines of the idea alone is flawed, since the evaluation will result in the viewer merely feeling confirmed in his or her beliefs, rather than actually bringing something new to the debate and highlighting why something works.
What makes a work canonical? A cynic may view it as a form of conspiracy, whereby a circle of elitists makes a point of suppressing any dissenting voices and tries to maintain those writers who represent a certain group. But this hardly acknowledges why people actively seek out, say, Sappho’s poetry or George Eliot’s novels even centuries after their deaths and why they were popular in the first place. Or why, for example, Yeats’s plays aren’t performed particularly often, whereas his poetry is widely regarded as some of the most powerful literature ever written.
That’s not to say that many highly talented artists don’t get lost throughout the centuries. Seeking to revive the interest in forgotten artist is most certainly worth it. There are even cases when some established writers may use their influence to suppress others. But to see this as the norm, rather than the exception, is to undermine the sheer beauty of Shakespeare’s tragedies, Bach’s concertos etc.
So while we can hardly say that ‘the canon’ represents the greatest art ever created, we can say that among the canon are some of the greatest works ever created. So how to we establish what is great art? We can probably approach it along two lines: the idea and the execution.
The execution in creating a work of art refers to anything related to technique. The palette or brushstroke in a painting, the sound and rhythm in a poem, the shots and pacing in a film are all aspects of this. Along these lines, it is probably the easiest to make a strong point for the ‘objective quality’ of a work of art.
This also includes knowing when to break a rule. This, too, requires strong knowledge of the technique being broken, and how to break it to create a certain effect. Just creating the artwork without knowledge of any rules at all results in a convoluted mess, and I know of no great artist who hasn’t been thoroughly interested in technique at least to some extent.
The trouble with this is that most people don’t have enough time, energy or sheer (nerdy) interest in technique to get to grips with it, resulting in few people arguing from a technical standpoint – meaning that the only aspect which can truly be judged objectively goes unnoticed by most.
The idea – the underlying philosophy, politics, ‘moral’ – is the other aspect which critics often put to scrutiny, and it is here that we find it difficult to make an objective statement. Certainly – again regarding the technique – we can discuss how well an idea has been transferred to the reader via the artwork, but putting that aside, how does one evaluate an idea?
A Marxist may frown upon anything written by a conservative; a liberal may frown upon anything composed by a medieval writer. A firm critic of Emerson may find it extremely difficult to take anything by Walt Whitman seriously.
I suppose the success of any objective evaluation of the idea can only emerge through the open mindedness of the observer. Being open to new ideas means you’re more likely to get joy out of perceiving something you generally disagree with – but that is obviously difficult, if not impossible, to embrace completely. And, obviously, even with a good knowledge of technique, it doesn’t mean that one is capable of throwing one’s subjective opinion out of the window, either.
So… is it possible to evaluate art objectively?
Well, to a certain extent I would say yes. By ignoring the ‘message’ of the work of art entirely, one can definitely make a good and well-founded argument regarding the technical quality. But that doesn’t guarantee that the artwork will be enjoyed by all equally – or even by anyone, for that matter. A perfectly executed poem may still be incomprehensible or just plain unpleasant to read by merit of having less insight than a tax declaration.
The trouble with evaluating art purely objectively is that it’s… well, just plain uninteresting. Knowing how a certain technique is working doesn’t necessarily mean you can ‘feel’ it for yourself. The subjective experience must go into the evaluation, otherwise it isn’t useful – we are human, after all, and therefore want to know why we experience what, not the why without the experience.
Is objective evaluation even necessary?
‘Why do you even want to discuss art objectively? Do you just want to go out of your way to condemn certain artists?’ No, to the latter question. The purpose of discussing art in an objective way isn’t to create hierarchies, lists and the like. On the contrary, it’s to get to grips with the artwork and to understand why and how it is achieving its effects.
What’s the alternative? Viewing it as untouchable, as a sacred relic which may not be considered critically by anyone. It merely exists to be admired, and that’s the end of it. This is both unproductive and cowardly – since it evades the discussion – and results in a form of idealisation of the artist. But nobody is perfect, artists among them; putting their art up for scrutiny can help us see how they did what, and thus help us create more great art – or rediscover lost art with the same tools and see how they are just as powerful.
Moreover, without critical engagement – as objective as possible – with the work of art, it becomes difficult for us to gain a greater understanding of it. If you wish to know more about something, you question it – and there is absolutely nothing wrong with that.
In the end, viewing a work of art entirely objectively isn’t impossible, but not necessarily desirable. However, that doesn’t mean that one shouldn’t discuss aspects which can be evaluated objectively, since it feeds into the appreciation of the subjective aspects of art – neither can exist without the other, and using them to achieve a greater understanding and interest in the art can help anyone in their endeavour to grow.
What do you think? Is art purely subjective? Am I wrong? Then please leave a comment below and tell me why. Did you like the article? Then please share it on the social media of your choice by clicking one of the tender buttons below.