Objective quality in art--can it really exist?

My heart wants to believe that quality really exists in art. Reading John Ashbery, I just can’t help but say to myself “this is terrible.” But try as I might, I have not been able to think of an argument that it exists.

I’ve argued over this with some arty friends, and they generally say that some works of art show greater complexity than others. That’s quite right, but what we call complexity doesn’t really seem to match up with what we call goodness in art. Most people will say, after all, that the Ramones were good. But just how complex was their music? Power chords and simple singing. (and no, I’m not knocking on the Ramones, I’m just making a point about terms.) So I think this way of arguing for quality realism is just equivocation.

A slightly different, and more substantial remark, is that some pieces of art show better craftsmanship. But I think this runs foul when we think of what craftsmanship is supposed to be for. After all, craftsmanship in any field–like guitarmaking–is a means to an end. But without agreed-upon ends for art, the craftsmanship of any given artist can always be said to serve an unworthy end. I, for example, could say that all of Steve Vai’s technique is irrelevant because his end–the overall sound he’s going for–is bad. Craftsmanship can’t be the same as quality because it is just a means to an end–and the ends are in full dispute.

Another point is simply the pleasure an artist creates. While there’s a lot of overlap in what people take pleasure in (see: The Beatles), there’s also a lot of difference in taste. If two people take pleasure in different things, how can one taste by objectively “incorrect”? Pleasure isn’t even a belief, it’s an experience.

There are other ways of arguing that artistic quality exists, but these are the ones I’ve heard. I haven’t found them very adequate.

Question: do you think people can be factually right or wrong about whether certain artists are good or not?

I don’t think you’re going to get an answer to this debate unless you want to get in to biology and psychology. A 4 year old hacking away on a violin sounds awful. Why? Because it has no harmony and maybe the sounds evoke feelings of terror because they’re similar to a response to a screaming baby in our head. There are objective ways of measuring harmony, and we know that humans like harmony. But beyond basic things like that, it’s rather subjective.

It’s very important not to make the very common mistake of thinking of quality as an attribute of the artwork alone. In isolation, nothing as any “value”. Value, or quality, exist in the relationship between two things. That is why trying to assign a single value to an artwork (or anything really) is futile.

Here’s a now famous anecdote: in the mid-90s, the music mag The Wire sent avant-garde composer Karlheinz Stockhausen samples of electronica music and recorded his comments. They then had the electronica artists comment back on his critique. Stockhausen thought a piece by Richard D. James (Aphex Twin) was way too repetitive and that James should “immediately stop using these pseudo-african rhythms”. In reply, Richard D. James said that “obviously, Stockhausen can’t dance.”

I believe it is possible to objectively assign a value judgement to a work of art, provided that you define what this judgement is relative to, and with the caveat that this value changes over time and that it is practically impossible to fully measure all possible values.

A boring and easy example would be assessing the financial value of a work. You may also be able to measure the emotional impact of a work on a given person. You can easily measure the amount of work that went in the piece. None of those dimensions, by themselves, represent THE value of a work, but they are all possible values.

In this context, I think you can say there are two kinds of great pieces. It is possible to have an artwork that scores highly on many different dimensions. For instance, a movie that made a killing at the box office, was incredibly difficult to make, finds itself in many critics’ top movie lists, has huge amounts of dedicated fans, and endures for decades. On the others hand, there are works that can score extremely high on a limited set of criteria. Someone can write a love song for his wife, and for her, this song can be the greatest song ever written. To anyone else, it’s trite. That’s an extreme example, but a lot of “great” art has tremendous appeal to only a small group of people.

There’s several studies on alcohol and wine, where they performed blind taste tests with people against various drinks of different price. The result of this was that people who drank swill most of the time thought that swill tasted better, and people who drank quality drinks thought that, that tasted better.

For anything which isn’t bad, there’s parts to like and parts to dislike. If you’re accustomed to something, then you’ve effectively become accustomed to living with (and ignoring) the bad.

Michael Jackson, for example, was really pretty much a dancer. He was musical, to be sure, but it was really his moves that brought him to the top of the charts. If you’ve been listening to classical music all of your life, you’re going to listen to a Michael Jackson song and think that it’s repetitive and dull, and that it’s rather cheap to try and hide that fact by flashing lights and prancing about. If you grew up on MTV, you’ll go to the symphony and think that it’s lifeless and sterile because there’s no one bouncing around nor lights flashing. If your focus is really just on the music, you’re probably going to be more interested in the symphony. But if you want to dance, have a fun time when out partying, or be in the know of gossip, then you’ll be more into pop music.

Basically, you can objectively measure art, but you can’t always compare two pieces of art in any reasonable fashion. If something is popular with a decently sizable number of people, there are probably attributes that are off the charts for that item – the question would be whether those attributes are relevant to most people. And of course most people are going to be the most familiar with whatever is popular in their day and age. They’ll rank Michael Jackson as the better musician over Wolfgang Amadeus or Scott Joplin. If we confine ourselves to strictly include only musical prowess, not showmanship, dancing, or lights, then that ranking would be farcical, but we really shouldn’t be comparing them to each other to begin with.

The unfortunate thing is that someone might be extremely talented and create art with many solid attributes that are off the charts, but it doesn’t matter because no one cares about those attributes. Thus, Michael Jackson made tons of money while alive, because he was right in the middle of the attributes that were popular and good at them, whereas Vincent Van Gogh did not and was not.

I am an artist, and the only art I criticize is my own. My work is very “planned,” and craftsmanship counts for a lot. It usually comes out the way I envisioned it, and I’m very pleased with the result. But, for example, I just spent two months on a piece that’s in a new medium that I’m basically learning as I go along. The finished result has some flaws in the craftsmanship, aspects of the medium that I had misunderstood. For this reason, when I look at the piece from a distance, I love it, and it’s “good.” But up close, I can see the flaws, and that’s “bad.” Now, a casual observer may not notice the flaws, and if he likes this sort of art, he might think it’s good enough to buy. But I wouldn’t sell it. Rather, I’d offer to redo the piece, and get it right this time.

So, all I can say is that my own work is “good” if it meets my own criteria that I established when I first conceptualized it. If it fails in any way, if it falls short of my initial concept, then it’s “bad.” But this is limited to my own art; there’s no way I can apply it to anyone else’s work.

But of course there are exceptions. I have no doubt that Thomas Kinkade’s work is bad.

Not really, because symphonies tend to play either old music or music deliberately written to sound like old music. The result is that it’s the same harmonies that have been used for so long that it seems stale.

Only not paying attention to the music itself can you truly appreciate it. And, honestly, that’s true of a lot of art.

Look, I like “Titanic” as much as the next guy, but I don’t know if I would call it a work of art.

[Not-A-Rhetorical-Question]Why not?[/narq]

There is an objective standard: History.

The Beatles are still held in high regard, the Dave Clark Five not so much. Culture does retain the good stuff*, and the crap is forgotten. Eventually.

The trick is knowing right now, while it’s actually happening, that a thing is of lasting value. Van Gogh is the prime example: you could have bought hundreds of Van Gogh masterpieces for small change while he was alive.

The Velvet Underground played to small audiences in the mid sixties, and sold very few records. 40 years later, they’re obviously geniuses. At the time, many people thought they were awful rubbish. A few still do; some folks’ll never get it.

The abstract impressionists are still controversial - as a nearby thread ably demonstrates. I’m a little surprised by the amount of people in that thread who are still arguing that those of us who do get it are pretending to like those paintings so as to appear to be intellectuals or something. I’ve loved Pollock since I first saw reproductions of his paintings in a magazine when I was a child. I’m sure I didn’t give a hoot about appearing intellectual when I was nine years old: I just thought those pictures were great. And I still do. But some people apparently still feel that it’s all a con. :rolleyes:

Anyway - the verdict of history is the real way to tell whether something’s any good or not. If you can’t wait that long, just do what most people do: like what you like and don’t worry about what anyone else says about it.

*Actually I know for a fact that some good stuff is lost to history, but that’s another story.

Yeah, but dress the four year old in a turkey suit and place him on a revolving turntable, and that’s art baby!

I think of art as communication - of ideas, but more importantly of emotion. An artist creates a work, but it’s interpretation exists in the mind of the viewer. This makes true objectivity impossible. A work doesn’t exist in isolation, it has a context which includes language and culture. At the most basic level, the books you can enjoy will be constrained by your language abilities for example.

I don’t think history is all that objective. It’s main effect is to cull anything that doesn’t achieve a critical mass of popularity. For example, the popularity of The Beatles helps create a context in which Beatle-like works can thrive, which itself re-enforces the The Beatles own popularity. It’s a cultural feedback loop.

There are some meaningful metrics that can be applied to art. You can poll to see how widely liked a work is. You can ask people how deeply they engage with it. You might find some works resonate with a relatively small number of people, while others are widely but not greatly liked (what I like to call the Dido effect).

It’s an interesting question and one I’ve pondered from time to time, especially when I hear the government or city council has spent some obscene amount of money on “art” that looks like random stuff from someone’s garage welded together by a committee who’d lost the instructions and decided to assemble it in the dark.

Objectively good or bad art?

Nope. That stuff absolutely, categorically doesn’t exist. (Hmm, I just realized I don’t know what “categorically” means.)

For example, I’ve been playing Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring on the stereo for years, and my dog still doesn’t display any enjoyment of it. All you can say about its quality is that a whole lot of humans have it enjoyed it for several centuries.

It’s wonderful and amazing how 95% of a certain cultural group can agree on what is the best song on an album. But if you move outside that cultural group, you’ll find a lot of people that go, “please, turn that shit off.”

The only way a work of art can be “objectively great” is if you define “objective” as the subjective opinion of a certain group of people.

This is the correct answer.

Yeah, and I bet your toaster doesn’t, either. What’s your point?

Doesn’t that suggest that there’s something inherent in it that’s there for them to enjoy?

This suggests to me that there is objective quality in art, but that it often takes training or experience or a certain background to be able to learn to recognize and appreciate it.

That’s true, but what I meant was that if a cultural artefact manages to make enough of an impact to survive, then history will sort out whether it’s great or not. Plenty of great art is lost to history. Some artists that didn’t get appreciated in their lifetimes did manage to leave us a lasting legacy that was eventually appreciated. Van Gogh, who I mentioned earlier, is the poster boy for that. The singer-songwriter Nick Drake is another good example. Genius, but hardly anyone noticed at the time.

I have no doubt that more great but unappreciated art is lost forever than is eventually recognised.

It’s certainly possible to appreciate an art form that is alien to your own culture. Cross-cultural influence is how some of the best art is made. What happened when west African folk music met European folk music? Combine the two and create something new: the blues, jazz, rock and roll. Wouldn’t have happened if people never listened to or enjoyed things from outside their own native cultures.

No, it suggests there is something inherent in humans: a sense of aesthetics.

How is humans having a sense of aesthetics an argument against objective quality in art?

It’s a question of attribution. You’re saying there’s something innate in the art, and I’m saying it’s in your head.

If a tree falls in a forest and there’s no one around to hear it, does it make a noise? Or is a sense of sound inherent in humans?