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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.