Can art be evaluated objectively?

Posted October 21st, 2008 in Philosophy. Tags: , .

Art is “good” or “bad” only in a subjective sense, or so I’m always told. But is there really no objective measure by which to judge the merits of a work of art? I believe that there is a limited sense in which art can be objectively evaluated, provided certain definitions are agreed upon.

I think all acts of artistic creation are motivated by a universal human desire for personal expression. Therefore, I propose the following definition for art: “A work of art is an object or performance which is created primarily as an outlet for creativity.” For example, a bucket isn’t a work of art because it’s simply a tool designed to carry water. A painting, on the other hand, is created to capture an emotion or reproduce a scene; it isn’t useful in any utilitarian sense and can therefore be classified as art.

Unfortunately, this definition isn’t very pragmatic because it would mean that whenever you wanted to classify an object as art, you’d have to consult the artist and ask him why he created the object. A more useful definition might be: “An object is art if a viewer can recognize it as an expression of personal creativity.”

How, though, do you go about recognizing that an object is the product of creativity? For example, should Rorschach inkblots be classified as art? The first definition would imply that inkblots aren’t art, because they’re randomly created as tools for psychoanalysis. However, hang them up on the walls of the Guggenheim, and it would be fairly easy to mistake them as expressions of personal creativity, when surrounded by “abstract art.”

I think this is actually an important conclusion: if an object can’t be reliably distinguished from a random pattern, then it isn’t art. At least, not according to the more pragmatic definition– some objects may be created to express personal feelings but aren’t recognized as such by anyone else at a rate higher than chance would predict. This effectively means that some abstract art really isn’t art at all.

Faced with this unconventional conclusion, should I simply assume that my definition of art is wrong? I don’t believe it is, for the following reason: there’s evidence to suggest that humans are “programmed” by evolution to find patterns in their environment. We’re better at finding patterns in number sequences than computers, for instance, even though computers can analyze these patterns much more quickly than we can. This probably arises from the fact that our ancestors had to be able to quickly recognize things like the pattern of a tiger’s body in the seemingly random pattern of the jungle’s branches in order to survive. Because of this adaptation, humans are sometimes prone to seeing patterns where there really isn’t a pattern at all, such as in astrology. Or, in this specific instance, humans are prone to seeing patterns in abstract art that they mistakenly attribute to personal creativity.

It already seems that the two different definitions for art don’t correlate perfectly. Some objects can be created as expressions of personal feelings but not be recognized as such by everyone. Conversely, it’s possible to mistakenly think that an object was created as an expression of creativity when it’s actually random, like a Rorschach inkblot. In between these two extremes, the specific type of expression intended by the artist isn’t always the same as the expression that the viewer interprets. For example, a bungled drawing of a house may end up looking like an elephant, or a bad horror movie may be unintentionally funny.

I assert that the degree to which the two definitions for art correlate for a particular object is the degree to which the object is a “good” work of art. If the creative expression that the artist intended is the same as the interpreted meaning by an observer, then the artist has successfully conveyed his intent through his work. This will obviously vary between different people and through different cultures, but it should be possible to obtain an average that would be an effective objective measure of the worth of the artwork. Even though this measure is relative to each individual, it’s objective because it utilizes an unbiased criterion for distinguishing good art from bad art, rather than personal taste.

Even though creating art is a personal act of expression, it’s often experienced without the participation of the artist. Therefore, in addition to defining art by the creative intent of the artist, an alternate definition is based on the viewer-interpreted meaning of the piece. If there’s no way to reliably identify an object as an outlet of personal expression rather than a randomly generated pattern, then the object shouldn’t be classified as art. Furthermore, the degree of correlation between these two definitions approaches an objective measure of the art as the number of viewers increases.

(Ed. note: This article was first written on 2003-01-22.)

Last modified May 10th, 2013

4 Responses to “Can art be evaluated objectively?”

  1. grendelan posted on 2008-11-05 at 00:45

    You have defined a measure of success for art?
    To borrow a line from Inigo Montoya: “I don’t think that word means what you think it means.”

    • That’s what I was aiming for, but I agree that I fell short.

      My approach centered around defining art from two perspectives: the perspective of the artist and the viewer. Those two definitions are not always the same, as I state. By measuring the degree to which the definitions are the same for a particular work of art, I think a tentative “measure of success” can be obtained. For example, a movie producer who intends to make a scary movie has produced a “bad” movie if the audience considers it funny instead.

      But as you say, it’s not a practical measure of success because its application requires the artist to honestly say what his intended effect was. (For instance, the movie producer may later claim to have created a brilliant parody.) Furthermore, if the artist is dead, my measure of success is nearly useless.

      To be honest, I wasn’t interested in establishing a measure of success for art. I was actually trying to show how difficult it is to do so, because I’m perplexed by how so many people seem to think that their movie/music/reading tastes are objectively correct. You know who I’m talking about- the snobs who look down on people who listen to different bands or watch different movies.

      Whenever these people are insulting other peoples’ music tastes, I have to fight the impulse to ask “What’s your favorite color? It better be aquamarine blue, because that’s the best color in the universe. All other colors are inferior, and anyone who likes them is clearly just wasting oxygen that could be used by people with some taste.”

      I actually have said that on some occasions, and I’m usually told that I’m being ridiculous. But how exactly is my statement any different than someone saying that band X is terrible?

      That’s why I wrote the article- because I wanted to show that the difference between those two statements is almost nonexistent. Have I missed something? Is there, in fact, a more objective way of judging art? Anyone, please- let me know!

  2. The more I think about this subject, the more it seems like belief in the existence of “objectively good taste” is a way to boost one’s own self esteem. With the development of the internet, we’re inundated with artistic creations– far more than the average person could have time to properly appreciate.

    Developing a filter– a personal set of subjective tastes– is necessary to avoid artistic overload. But people are fundamentally herd animals who seek peer approval. So artistic tastes tend to clump together, providing the illusion of objective taste to the majority and the minority. The majority feels justified in their numerical superiority over the aberrant freaks, while the minority sees their elite status as proof of their qualitative superiority over the unwashed masses.

  3. I wrote this article after being disillusioned with Ayn Rand’s Objectivist aesthetics.

    However, this recent article reminded me of one of Rand’s most interesting observations:

    Music is experienced as if it had the power to reach man’s emotions directly. – Ayn Rand, “Art and Cognition” The Romantic Manifesto, p. 50.

    I tend to agree with Rand on this issue. Music does seem to shortcut the appraisal process that other forms of art (paintings, novels) require before an emotional reaction is evoked. Perhaps this new research can help shed some light on this quirk, or reveal it to be a misconception.

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