That’s Just, Like, Your Opinion, Man: An Argument that Art is Objective

Art is objective.

Keep calm, art majors. Your postmodern art is not wasted effort. Hopefully not, anyways. It’s a well-understood fact that art has a degree of subjectivity to it; that is, not everyone will agree on what is and what is not art. In fact, arguing about what is and what is not art has become a cultural past-time for first-world countries. This site is a testament to that fact. With article titles such as “Silent Hill 2: A Pinnacle in Gaming Symbolism” and “The Rise and Fall of M. Night Shyamalan,” assertions are made that there really is a pinnacle to make in gaming symbolism, or that the filmmaker M. Night Shyamalan has fallen from a previous high point. These factual suggestions are incongruous to the cultural acceptance that art is entirely subjective-that is, art is whatever the audience wants it to be. In a more academic sense, subjectivity in art means that anything can be art, regardless of any sort of criteria.

Jackson Pollock's Number 1. Is it just swirls of color on a page, or something more?
Jackson Pollock’s Number 1. Is it just swirls of color on a page, or something more?

A pen laying on a card table, without author or audience, would be art. A lamppost on the side of a road, engineered for an entirely different purpose beyond the artistic, would be art. And, of course, an art piece hanging in a museum would be art-and its purpose would be entirely subjective to the audience.

The issue with this belief is already evident: though culturally the belief is that art is fully subjective, in the same breath people make objective claims, opinions, and statements about art. These claims underlie a set of objective criteria that society and logic dictate must exist in order to argue about art in this first place. If these criteria do indeed exist, then art would have to be objective.

Understand, this doesn’t mean that art cannot have a degree of subjectivity to it- the difference between each human in terms of experiences, intelligence, and physical form would causally link to subjective opinions of art. But what makes those opinions valid? Why listen to a critic deride a video game if his opinion has no objective base to work from? Why call your favorite film your favorite if it’s no less favorable than anybody else’s? Surely there must exist some objective criteria upon which people can refer to art.

The Defining of Terms

Of course, already the word “art” conjures up a range of human memories and emotions, suggesting that the brain is already attempting to make a connection of properties of art to an actual definition of the word. Because the word “art” is going to be thrown around a lot in this article, there should be some distinctions as to what that word means.

Art can refer to the medium upon which art pieces are produced. It can also refer to the piece itself. Often it refers to something beyond the art piece: a certain moment upon which human consciousness, intellect, or emotion finds something stimulating in an incomprehensible way. It can also refer to the art piece after that feeling, as a distinction from other art pieces that did not give them that feeling. Finally, it can refer back to that feeling given by a particular piece of art; an echo of the original feeling, that is entirely different but perhaps doesn’t feel as stimulating or is comprehensible enough that it can be worked through.

Let’s create these as formal definitions.

Art Form-The medium upon which art pieces are produced.

Art Piece-The piece itself.

Sublime-The incomprehensible stimulation of particular art pieces.

Art Work-Art pieces that evoke the sublime.

Artistic-That echo of the sublime, which does not reach the same feeling of sublime but rather mimics it.

Let’s apply these definitions to an example. John watches the art piece No Country For Old Men, which was created using the art form of film. As he is watching, he finds himself simultaneously terrified and humored by the antics of Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem) in a way that he cannot fully explain-this experience that he has is the sublime. From then on he tells people that No Country for Old Men is an art work because he experienced the sublime. However, his friends Dan and Lucy do not believe No Country for Old Men is an art work, but instead is simply an art piece. Dan does not comprehend the plot of the film, which he finds too complicated for his tastes. Lucy does comprehend the plot of the film, but fully comprehends Anton Chigurh’s antics and her emotions regarding the situation, and so does not experience the sublime. While those antics remind her of a past movie that created the sublime for her (the film Fargo), they do not fully reach the same level of Fargo. She remains confident that Fargo is an art work, while No Country for Old Men is simply artistic.

Anton Chigurh, one of many three-dimensional characters in No Country For Old Men
Anton Chigurh, one of many three-dimensional characters in No Country For Old Men

Notice a few details in this example. Dan, Lucy, and John all disagree on whether No Country For Old Men is an artwork; however, all of them agree that it is an art piece. This is because the definitions of “art forms” and “art pieces” are not subjective to the audience, but exist in logical terms, and are thus objective. However, the terms “art work” and “artistic” always rely on the subjective experience of the “sublime.” Thus, “art work” and “artistic” are always subjective to the audience.

Artist, Art Piece, and Audience

One of the objective criteria as to what makes art is that all art requires an artist, and art piece, and an audience. The artist makes the art piece, which is then experienced by the audience. These three entities could all share in the same object. For example, the artist could be the piece or the audience as well- performance art such as Marina Abramović’s Rhythm 2 or Vito Acconci’s Seedbed would be examples of this. Because the artist will always be a part of the audience (as they are simultaneously experiencing and creating during their art) there can be no audience.

Rhythm 2, in which Abramović took pill to experience seizures, then another to immobilize herself. Was it art?
Rhythm 2, in which Abramović took pill to experience seizures, then another to immobilize herself. Was it art?

An art piece must exist, though it may in fact be nothing at all (thus imparting the piece back onto the artist or audience), such as in the case of Andy Warhol’s “invisible art” exhibition examined the relationship between art pieces and audience by leaving canvasses blank and sculpture stands untouched. What is most important here, however, is that no art piece can be created ex nihilo. An artist must create the art piece; if there is no artist, it cannot be art, even if it evokes the sublime. A person may marvel at an Alpine mountain’s majesty and find it sublime, but without a creator it does not make the mountain art.

The Purpose of Art

The importance of an artist’s relationship to their art piece comes from their intention. Why is the artist making the art? There are plenty of art pieces that have been made for the sake of their own existence; in fact, the entire catalog of kitsch art could be claimed as art that has been made solely to perpetuate existence. Kitsch art is that which is made to decorate or ornate, and has no real value beyond its own existence. Think of paintings of kittens in baskets, or of a Velvet Elvis. These objects exist purely for their own sake; people decorate with them because of attached sentimental value, but they have no meaning beyond what the audience has prescribed it. This is important because it means that the artist must have intention behind his or her creation, apart from that which the audience gives it. In other words, the art piece must have a means other than its own end in order to become art work. For example, a doodle absentmindedly drawn on the back of a notepad exists as an art piece, but its absent-minded nature means it lacks the ability to become an art work. However, if during the process of doodling the artist suddenly became aware of the doodle and began to draw with earnest, then it has the ability to become an art work.

This declaration points to the heart of the purpose of all of art: to create a lasting impression. Whatever else art does, it starts with evoking something within a person. That something can be an almost infinite combination of different emotions, intellectual stimulations, memories, experiences, and more, but it still requires the creation of impressions. Above all, art is intentional and relational.

Dogs playing poker, one of many examples of kitsch art.
Dogs playing poker, one of many examples of kitsch art.

The Sublime

So now that art forms and art pieces have been objectively defined, what about art works? Can art works be objectively defined? Well, as stated earlier, the sublime is experiential. It occurs differently person to person. Some people may never feel it towards a certain art piece, some people may feel an artistic element from art piece, and some people will experience the sublime. This variation from person to person is part of the subjectivity of art, and so it can be made clear that no art work will be fully objective. However, there must be criteria upon which people argue about art works; these criteria would help narrow down definitions of what makes an art work versus an art piece.

The answer has been sought by many different philosophers, the most notable being Immanuel Kant. Kant’s aesthetic philosophy is most famous for defining the sublime: that experience of the greatest clashing set of feelings, reason, and sensations that can be had. However, his belief was that the incomprehensible nature of such a clash showed that a person was unfit to actually analyze whatever the art piece was (even though ultimately he thought it good for them to experience, because it would develop character). In Kant’s view, if a person saw a Jackson Pollock painting and experienced the sublime, then they were inferior to those who did not. The problem with this view is that a person may not comprehend the painting to begin with, let alone experience something from it. Everyone knows that person who only enjoys the biggest blockbuster films, and when they are shown a more artistic movie they do not understand the themes behind them. Kant would say that this person was actually fitter to critique the artistic movie than the person who experienced the sublime-a reasoning that does not add up.

A better answer comes from Martin Heidegger, a German philosopher of the 20th century. He understood that all of art is part of a community’s shared understanding of the realities of the world. In fact, to Heidegger art pieces could only transition to being art work if it was continually engaging with the surrounding community in a way that reflected its purpose; if it ever stopped engaging with the community using its purpose, then it would no longer be an art work, but instead would transition back to being an art piece. An example would be Leonardo da Vinci’s The Last Supper. Originally created in the Santa Maria delle Grazie, its purpose was to help facilitate religious experience. As culture changed and the region secularized, its purpose would no longer facilitate religious experience in society and progressed from being an art work to an art piece.

The Last Supper, one of the most famous pieces of art ever-and an art piece that Heidegger would declare as no longer artistic.
The Last Supper, one of the most famous pieces of art ever-and an art piece that Heidegger would declare as no longer artistic.

Furthermore, Heidegger believed an art work would have to resist rationalization. Much like Kant’s incomprehensible nature of the sublime, Heidegger understood that an art work could not have simplistic themes, but instead must be something upon which only experience could truly meditate the material. For example, the horror and dread in H.P. Lovecraft’s At the Mountains of Madness is apparent when reading the novella, but if a person was to hear a summary secondhand that summed up the main themes and ideas, they would not fully experience Lovecraft’s work, and thus not be able to experience the sublime. It was here that Heidegger contended that there was a conundrum-once an art work is fully understood by a person, it no longer resists rationalization, and reverts to an art piece to that person. Thus, art work can only exist so long as the sublime has been experienced by a person, and that person has not yet rationally worked through that experience.


So where does that leave society in relation to art? Well, just because the criteria for art pieces and art works are objective does not mean that the audience opinions will also be objective. As seen, there are two places where the audience might differ amongst themselves on how good or bad an art piece is. First, the sublime experience can differ between each individual, so people will argue whether the art piece actually transcended to an art work based on their experience of (or lack of) the sublime. Second, there can be arguments for how well an art piece fit the objective criteria. For example, did the piece properly fit in its medium (ex: “Cloverfield’s editing was so bad I couldn’t even tell what was going on”)? Did the artist’s intention become clear, or did it not show in the audience interpretation of the art piece (ex: “Hotel California is supposed to be about drugs, but instead all I can think of is an actual hotel”)? Subjective opinions about objective criteria can exist, and it is here that the majority of people argue how well art conveys its experiences.

You are safe for now, art majors. Art may not be fully subjective, but that still doesn’t mean there can’t be good or bad art. The real question still exists: is a particular piece good or bad? Now, people can argue either way-just don’t fall into the trap of saying “It’s whatever you want it to be.”

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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TheRaptorFence is a philosophy graduate from California with a love of the arts, cycling, and kittens. Oh, and he's deathly afraid of velociraptors.

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44 Comments

  1. Beatris
    0

    I think drawing the line between subjective and objective judgement of an artist’s work can be difficult in any medium.

  2. Emil
    1

    I’m an art student. I think a work of art can be evaluated both subjectively and objectively. A subjective evaluation would answer these sorts of questions: “How do I feel about this piece? Do I like this piece? Will I return to this piece?” An objective evaluation requires a clear criteria. “Does this piece evoke this emotion in members of this demographic on average?”

  3. jolie
    0

    Art is conversation.

  4. epz
    0

    The idea… of ART.

  5. Leonel
    0

    Most people are dilettantes who will dribble and dabble in the world of art, but they will remain crafts people copying and reproducing creativity of the past. A viewer’s idea/perception of art is subjective and it is the artist who is objective, but the movement, the idea of art itself, is neither. It is unpredictable.

  6. Blank
    0

    Touché.

  7. Eulalia
    2

    Artists will try to convey something in their work and if you don’t see what they were trying to convey you haven’t got the message. However, art is very subjective, most artists would be facinated to learn from the viewers what thoughts it provoked in them. Although art can carry one message from the artist, other messages found in the art still have value and may have been added by the artist subconciously. Thus the artist can learn about themselves through other peoples views on their work.

  8. Tyree Yi
    0

    Very thought provoking.

  9. gadmn
    0

    If you see something as art, then it is art to you, it does not matter what anyone else says.

  10. Alline
    0

    “art” is a highly abstract concept.

  11. culter
    0

    Art is anything made to be aesthetically appealing or elicit a certain emotional response.

  12. Maynard
    0

    To discuss, analyze, debate, & evaluate it with others, there has to be some objective criteria applied, otherwise you end up with nothing but proclamations.

  13. Tompkin
    0

    Art remains subjective to the viewer. Yes, there are often times where individuals react similarly to a piece of art, yet that is not to say, there is a predominating sense of objectivity in art. Art allows for those who view it to interpret it as they please. While the artist has his or her own intentions in making the art, it is ultimately up to the viewer to draw from the piece whatever they choose based on their own personal experiences and knowledge.

    • Strunk
      0

      This. Art is inherently subjective as its interpretations are mostly based on the perspective of the viewer.

  14. Munjeera

    I like your use of the word “evoke” because effective art does give you that visceral or sublime reaction. When an artist is successful, he or she will bring together elements in their choice of mediums and somehow produce a painting, movie or sculpture that causes the audience to pause and reflect.

    We need art to raise our thoughts whether it is the mundane like Warhol’s Campbell soup or Banksy’s social commentary. Creative expression is what defines our humanity, exposes it and celebrates it. I would not consider myself creative at all as I lack the creative gene, so I deeply value art and admire artists.

  15. Megan Finsel

    This is such an interesting article! Your analysis of what differentiates art work from a piece of art is quite intriguing. As both an artist and an author, I believe that art is subjective and that it all depends on the personal experiences of the audience, whatever the medium. Take for example spoken-word poetry. Two different people can listen to the same poem performed by the poet and have two completely different experiences. It all depends on context. It can also be speculated that the “sublime” is rooted in human emotions. The experience of the artwork can evoke strong memories, which trigger stronger emotions, which in turn connect the audience to the artwork and (ultimately) the artist. This is why art is such a good way to convey messages to the public. But I also think it is the subjective nature associated with art that makes the whole art experience itself worthwhile. Overall, very thought provoking and thoroughly enjoyable!

  16. Adnan Bey

    Funny story: One of my favorite pieces of art are the melting clocks. I was once asked what it means, and I said what I thought. I said I believed it meant the death of time, maybe wasted time, and the ants crawling over meaning such death, monotone time. I was subsequently criticized for not having depth and said I was wrong on that and blah, blah, blah. To some people, art is purely fixed, with one single interpretation. In my opinion, it is most certainly subjective.

  17. cash
    0

    Art is an idea, it is not an object, it is not a medium; this confuses a lot of people, who do not have the greatest understanding about art.

  18. Crafty
    0

    For everything the artist intentionally puts in, another thousand things can be taken from it.

  19. hickman
    0

    Sometimes you do art and you don’t even know how many things you put in there. Later you might interpret your own work and find that unconsciously you wrapped some additional meaning in. Creating/recieving art is not linear, it’s about meanings/layers of understanding. Theoretically, you creat something in 3D, which is (necesserily) interpreted in another way in 2D and 4D or 5D. It may be percieved loss of information or added information – it’s all a matter of perspective.

  20. Delta
    0

    A piece of art is created solely for the artist. But if anyone else has an agreeing, disagreeing, or miscellanious feeling or opinion of that piece of art, it can be for them too.

  21. Mi Searcy
    0

    Art is art if you call it art. Period, that simple, The rest is pure BS,

  22. kurran
    0

    All art is subjective.

  23. Emily Deibler

    Excellent article with a clear, concise voice and opinion. I thoroughly enjoyed reading it.

  24. Bea
    0

    I studied this in University, and the answer seems to be that all art forms are subjective. There is no art form that has an inherent beauty or superiority to it as some might believe. There are certain people who have the cultural capital to define what is art (e.g. gallery owners, artists, critics) in any era. However, what is considered art (and what is high art) can change with time as cultural tastes change. Jazz is a good example; it was originally music for an oppressed people, then it became popular music, and now it’s listened to by mostly upper middle class people with refined tastes. Over time Jazz music has changed it’s meaning by the way it’s perceived and who listens to Jazz.

  25. Lexzie

    This was an excellent and well articulated article. I also really admire the title you chose for the article as it gave me a nice chuckle.

    I think that “[s]ubjective opinions about objective criteria can exist” is my favourite conclusion for this piece. Very well done.

    As a side note, I smiled a bit when you mentioned my article “Silent Hill 2: A Pinnacle in Gaming Symbolism” in your introduction. This fact is totally unimportant to the discussion, but I just thought I’d let you know 🙂

  26. Tasia
    0

    I think when being trained as an artist, objectivity is essential. The artist has to master the techniques that will compose his or her work through practice and studies, but after education comes personal taste, which is purely subjective. The choices made towards completing a work are individual (i.e. subject matter, underlying content, form), but the methods themselves are rather objective because skill can be measured.

  27. I don’t know what art is and, in fact, I don’t even know what I like.

    I do know, however, that “art” is an essentially contested concept.

    To “wrap your head around” that notion read W. B. Gallie, “Essentially Contested Concepts” in Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society – New Series, Vol. 56 (1955 – 1956), pp. 167-198

    I also believe that one of the most foolishly neglected approaches to art can be found in the work of Kenneth Burke (1899-1993).

    Start with his 1937 essay, “Literature as Equipment for Living,” available in his anthology “The Philosophy of Literary Form and Other Essays” (Vintage, 1941) and free of charge in pdf at .

    Once done, I’d like to think that all the mushy talk about it being subjective or objective, having its roots in the sublime or the beautiful or just being whatever people say that it is – radical relativism or market mentality, etc., etc., etc., should scrape off your boots like dog poo.

  28. Very well written. Thanks for the article!

  29. Dillon Raborn

    [[ I’m totally commenting because I’m supposed to, so take this as you will. ]]
    This article by TheRaptorFence holds its strongest merit as a conversation starter. I’d be interested to know the opposition this article is addressing. Feels very much like it was written as a response to some recurring, nagging statement somebody made in passing that would cease haunting the author only after it was expressed somehow (which is fine: many of us argue with annoying people whose voices we continuously replay in our heads all the time). However, I believe it could benefit from a more thorough addressing of when and how this conversation on the objectivity of art has been carried out before because it would have actually required less work. For example, I anticipated several recognizable names to show up that never actually made an appearance (Abramović not being one of them, but at least she served as an example to your one of your definitions), but was particularly disappointed by the absence of Marcel Duchamp, whose “Fountain” (1917) became infamous for its brazen challenging of early 20th century American art-world culture.
    Also, not a single reference to The Big Lebowski, yet a quote used in the title? For shame. Should’ve incorporated that in a clever way into the article.
    Concluding: good conversation starter, as long as it’s started with an average-Joe.

  30. This is a great attempt toward definition, and certainly a valiant effort. It’s difficult to know, though, how these definitions can really be applied to everyday objects that you might find in a postmodern exhibition. That’s where it gets a bit dicey. Is it art when it is placed in a gallery to be appreciated, or does it only become art when someone decides to take it out of the dumpster and put it on display? If reaction to art is subliminal, then attempts to define it so rigidly seem futile.

  31. I have one question for you, do you truly believe that art is subjective? Or does it simply put on the facade of subjectivity?

  32. Faron Wade-Lang

    I loved this article. You put forth some very well thought out and thought-provoking ideas about the objective and subjective nature of art. Given how complex this topic is, I think you do an admirable job of working towards an objective definition of art. Still, I think it is important to consider whether the emotional reaction provoked by art is as incomprehensible as you argue it is. Is it not possible that one could understand why a piece of art stirs an emotional reaction in them?

  33. AnaMRuiz

    This article really made me think about definitions of art prevalent among the general audience and specialized groups. I know a former primary school director who taught art, worked for the government as an arts consultant, and simultaneously affirmed that murals created by students could hardly be classified as art. Why? Because as argued by TheRaptorFence, art -like genocide- must be recognized in the intent of the artist when creating it? Isn’t this a very narrow understanding, affirming all sort of colonial attitudes that divide art into better or worse, according to geopolitics?
    Stripping art of its context and presenting it as having universal and quantifiable formal characteristics is, I think, a huge mistake. Yet it is made often, by school teachers and officials and even museum curators, who often perpetuate international political hierarchies through their traditional selection and presentation of sanctioned art work (European, North American, preferably in durable mediums).
    And what of the curatorial and institutional interventions that mediate the audience’s experience of art? The artwork does not exist in a vacuum, and very rarely the general public is able to access art that hasn’t been curated and contextualized for them. This mediation is crucial for instance, in priming the audience for how they are going to feel about an artwork.
    I don’t want to keep going; I am not an art student. But I am interested now in what do other people think art is, and it was thanks to this article, as much as I disagree with it.

    • In regards to curatorial and institutional practices, there is an element of selection involved in creating art exhibitions which could be misconstrued as intervention. However, curation is a process of organization yielding a clearer and more cohesive image or story. The ideal exhibition has a clear intention and theme and all the artworks included build on or speak to the central topic. Some galleries may censor, which is definitely and issue, but for those institutions that don’t, the artwork selection process is about providing the audience with a clear story – a logical, cohesive and collective statement through imagery.

  34. As an art student on the cusp of graduation I can honestly say I appreciate your argument for objectivity. How would professors be able to effectively and efficiently grade artwork if objectivity did not enter into the act? Would it be fair to say that objectivity and subjectivity do not have an antagonistic relationship in regards to the art realm, but an interwoven connection?

    Aspects of intentionality are also important however I often wonder if it matters who defines the intention. Does an artist have to define a creation as art or could an audience? Does it take a collective or a community to define an art object or only an individual? All these questions are open-ended.

  35. I am surprised that the basic method for the evaluation and assessment of artworks has not been mentioned in this discussion. Originally formulated by Edmund Feldman, this system, called the “Elements & Principles of Design,” is a package that provides the viewer with the vocabulary and terminology of art criticism and a 5-step process for arriving at an interpretation and judgement of an artwork (based as as much objectivity as possible). The method is very helpful in providing terminology for all aspects of viewing, assessing, interpreting, and judging work. The method outlines questioning processes which lead the viewer deeper into the work, and ends with systematized ways to interpret and judge the work. All the processes are based on objective ways to see, analyze, and interpret visual phenomena. It provides a way for art critics to fully document and explain every statement they make about the artwork. I have worked with this system in my own art classes for over 30 years, and when it is used correctly, the whole concept of subjectivity in assessment is nicely subjugated to a deeper and more profound visual objectivity.

  36. Great article! I loved how you incorporated philosophical theories and perspectives into the understanding and defining of art pieces/works/the sublime. I also thought that your definition of art as “intentional and relational” was simple and perfect. Thanks!

  37. Tigey

    Reminds me of the studies showing that babies respond more positively to photos of more attractive people. If human beauty is objective, why not artistic beauty?

  38. Tigey

    Reminds me of the studies showing that babies respond more positively to photos of more attractive people. If human beauty is objective, why can’t the same be true of artistic beauty?

  39. This article got me thinking about something I often come across with some of those (not all) who study a specific art form and thus making them expects on ‘good’ vs ‘bad’.

  40. Art is subjective. Both the artist and the viewer are influenced by emotion and opinion. When viewing painting, sculpture, and performing arts, you’re drawing from who you are. Life experience gives us a built-in opinion of what is visually appealing. The applies to our listening experience too. The quoted, “Beauty is in the Eye of the Beholder,” is subjective. When Kenny Rogers sings, “You are so Beautiful to me.” he suggests subjectivity. A little girl is subjective as she enjoys watching The Nutcracker.

  41. I believe art is subjective. An artist can create a piece of work that means one thing to them and something completely different to their audience. It all depends on the emotions that people have when looking at something.

  42. You took on some challenging, hot button words for definition, which is admirable. I think art defies definition, but it is always fascinating to hear the various, subjective opinions. To me the formal aspects of art are objective, its interpretation is subjective.
    Your title and introduction is witty, and made me want to read your article!

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