Against Art Relativism… or, If You Ever Wanted To Call Me An Elitist Snob, Here’s Your Chance

Tod Kelly

Tod is a writer from the Pacific Northwest. He is also serves as Executive Producer and host of both the 7 Deadly Sins Show at Portland's historic Mission Theatre and 7DS: Pants On Fire! at the White Eagle Hotel & Saloon. He is  a regular inactive for Marie Claire International and the Daily Beast, and is currently writing a book on the sudden rise of exorcisms in the United States. Follow him on Twitter.

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160 Responses

  1. Sam says:

    Respectfully, you’re wrong. Entirely. Art is nothing more than the value ascribed to it by individuals expressing their preferences for it. When we speak adoringly of it, we are not describing the thing itself, but our own preferences for it.

    (I was actually writing something for submission endorsing a relativism in our understanding of “art” while still acknowledging frameworks for making the sort of bombastic claims that we all like to when it comes to the subject. For whatever that’s worth.)Report

    • Patrick Cahalan in reply to Sam says:

      I don’t buy this.

      Sorry, I don’t.  There is a difference between looking at something as “a consumer of the thing”, and looking at something as “a maker of things like that thing”.

      There are two different values being measured there.  One is the measure of the thing as something to be enjoyed, and this is pretty relative.

      One is the measure of the thing as what it took to make the thing, and this is decidedly less relative.  It’s still relative, granted… but it is far less relative than the first.Report

      • Sam in reply to Patrick Cahalan says:

        I’m not sure I understand your objection. What are the two different things we’re measuring?Report

        • Patrick Cahalan in reply to Sam says:

          You don’t think there’s a difference between someone saying, “I express preference for this work of art, as someone who has never made a piece of art in my life but I like pictures of kittens” and someone saying, “Man, I’ve studied photography for twenty years and I know just how hard it is to find the right place to sit yourself with the right light exposure and how to make my presence blend into the background so that people make those sorts of expressions that they make when they look at just their lover in private vs. the hamfisted smiles they paste on for a portrait… and that’s a great photo of that woman.  The cats are cute, too.”?Report

          • Dan Miller in reply to Patrick Cahalan says:

            Yeah, but can you say that one of these viewpoints is more valid or has more extrinsic worth? I agree that one can appreciate art for a variety of different reasons, but I don’t think that that makes one automatically better.Report

          • Sam in reply to Patrick Cahalan says:

            No, I do not think there is a difference. Because there isn’t. One participant is bringing his own values to the photograph of the woman. The other participant is bringing their values to the photograph of the cats. I don’t see any tangible way in which there is a substantial difference between what amounts to two people saying, “I prefer this one.”Report

            • Patrick Cahalan in reply to Sam says:

              The problem with this approach is that it generalizes badly.

              You’re letting “tangible” and “substantial” haul a lot of weight.

              I mean, if that’s where you’re at, that’s okay by me.  I just see drawbacks to seeing reality only through that lens.Report

              • Sam in reply to Patrick Cahalan says:

                Can I just clarify: you believe the person who prefers the kitten picture to whatever picture you’re describing is wrong? Or are they ignorant? Or is it both?Report

              • Patrick Cahalan in reply to Sam says:

                In terms of their preference?  Oh, hell no.  You have all the right in the world to set your own internal frame for your own preferences… it doesn’t even have to be consistent (mine certainly isn’t).

                I do think that when we talk about good art… we are talking potentially past each other (as has been illustrated through this thread)… because we’re talking about “good” in lots of different contexts.

                I have studied enough of the craft of writing, for example, to say that I think some members of the League craft things in a way that is different from the way that I craft them, but that doesn’t mean that I couldn’t write that way if I wanted to, it would just require me to alter the craft of my writing from, “trying to write well” to “trying to write well and write like Jason”.

                Some of them I would do this badly at best… I think any imitation I would give of Blaise would be a poor imitation, for example.

                Does that mean that Blaise is a better writer than I am?  On that one single measure, no (although for the record I think Blaise is probably a better writer than I am).

                On the other hand, people might not like *reading* Blaise.  For me to tell them that they ought to enjoy reading Blaise more than they enjoy reading me is… weird.

                One measure is purely subjective: preference in consumption is subjective.  If you like chocolate ice cream over vanilla, good on ya.

                However, as a dessert maker, I can say that it takes more craft to make a souffle than it does to make ice cream, and that makes souffle a better instantiation of the craft of dessert making than ice cream.

                I might not even *like* souffle more than ice cream.  But that’s not where I’m posting the opinion.Report

              • Dan Miller in reply to Patrick Cahalan says:

                Wouldn’t that imply that any work of art could be improved if the creator had done it using their non-dominant hand?Report

              • Patrick Cahalan in reply to Dan Miller says:

                Would it?

                Why?  Flesh that out.


              • Dan Miller in reply to Dan Miller says:

                As I read your above comment, you’re saying that a souffle is a better instantiation of the craft of dessert-making than ice cream because it’s tougher to make–there’s more ways to fail, and you need more knowledge and experience to avoid them.  Surely, it’s true that there are more ways to fail if you have your right hand tied behind your back, and you’d need to plan more carefully and cook more expertly to produce a similar result.  So it seems to me that a left-hand-only souffle is an even better instantiation of the craft of dessert-making than a regular souffle, under your schema (The Princess Bride agrees with me, btw).

                But to the person eating the souffle, this matters not at all.  If I were given two souffles, and enjoyed them both equally, then I can’t say which one is better.  If somebody made one using only their left hand, then that’s an impressive feat.  But it doesn’t make his souffle better, in the absence of me being told about the achievement.Report

              • Patrick Cahalan in reply to Dan Miller says:

                Now you and BSK are crossing the streams.

                Answer here.Report

              • BlaiseP in reply to Patrick Cahalan says:

                Well, let’s suppose you were going to write a Blaise-esque sendup of me.   It’s quite possible to write a good one.   First thing, start by going to Google Translate, write up your paragraph, translate it into French, then cut and paste the French back into the English side and translate back into English.  Then correct some of the grammar but not all of it.  Substitute every clear and obvious noun with a roughly equivalent dead-end neologism of the 19th century and insert a pawky adjective in front of that noun.   Never stand by and let a ten word sentence come to an end without joining it to its next sentence with a colon.

                A good writer can produce clear and incisive prose without all that nonsense.   I suppose some people might find my writing interesting… but good?   Ecch, don’t think so.Report

              • Tod Kelly in reply to BlaiseP says:

                Holy crap, BP.  You even write amazing when you’re writing to say you non-amazing your writing is.  Sheesh.Report

              • Patrick Cahalan in reply to BlaiseP says:

                It would be easier to lampoon you than it would be to imitate you.

                Maybe we should have a lampooning week.  Everyone write a lampoon version of their own work.  Man, that would be hard, but I suspect, given this comment – particularly this bit:

                Substitute every clear and obvious noun with a roughly equivalent dead-end neologism of the 19th century and insert a pawky adjective in front of that noun. 

                You’d be ahead of the game, since you’ve already had enough introspection about your own writing to skewer yourself so thoroughly.Report

              • Roger in reply to BlaiseP says:


                This is my favorite comment of the year.Report

      • BSK in reply to Patrick Cahalan says:


        But some people will work like mad for years and hit a low ceiling.  Others are natural and, while still working hard, will achieve mastery much easier.  By your assessment, the former has created better art than the latter.Report

        • Patrick Cahalan in reply to BSK says:

          Eh, howso?  This is like the off-hand comment Dan brought up.

          The process of craft is itself relative (I did say that, right?)

          I can respect someone as a craftsman more than someone else even while I think the second person produces better craft, for just the reason you allude to here.

          Your production may be a greater sum of your talent than my production.  My production might still be better, because my talent is greater than yours.

          But now we’re talking about three different things: what it means to be a good craftsman, what it means for a crafted object to be good, and what it means for the consumer of the craft to find it enjoyable.Report

      • Chris in reply to Patrick Cahalan says:

        I’m not sure how knowing what it took to make the thing tells you anything. For one, it moves the subjectivity back one level, rather than actually adding any objectivity. In addition, it seems both arbitrary and unreliable: arbitrary because the choice between my experience and the artists’ (as an evaluative criterion) has no external justification, and unreliable because one can use a great deal of talent and effor to produce shit (purposefully, even).Report

    • Kyle Cupp in reply to Sam says:

      So is your position then that there is no such thing at all that we can call artistic value or artistic excellence or, on the flip side, artistic failure?Report

  2. Jaybird says:

    I believe that when we argue this vs. that in art we are arguing, essentially, matters of taste.

    Aesthetics *IS*, however, a very real philosophical discipline and there *IS* a difference between Shakespeare and Adam Sandler’s recent movie where he played twins. Shudder. It *IS* possible to say that “this is good” and “that is crap”.Report

    • Sam in reply to Jaybird says:


      When you say, “This is good!” and then “This is crap!” you’re not speaking about the object itself. You’re speaking about your preference for the object. Although you might bring particular objective measures to the conversation, it is more likely you are reflecting simply your preference for one instead of the other. The person though who disagrees with you isn’t wrong; they’re simply expressing an individual system of valuation different than your own. That doesn’t make them wrong, any more than it makes you right.Report

      • Jaybird in reply to Sam says:

        And yet no matter how true that is, Lear is still Lear and Sandler is still Sandler.Report

        • Sam in reply to Jaybird says:

          So the people who prefer Sandler to Lear are wrong? Please explain.Report

          • Jaybird in reply to Sam says:

            No, not at all. There *IS* no right or wrong.

            We can, however, say that there is “quality” and there is “crap”.

            “So people who like crap are wrong?”

            “No, they just like crap.”

            “Are they morally inferior to people who like ‘quality’?”

            “No, they just like crap.”

            “How can you tell the difference between quality and crap?”

            “We’re still trying to hammer that out.”Report

            • Patrick Cahalan in reply to Jaybird says:

              Well put.Report

            • Dan Miller in reply to Jaybird says:

              I don’t think you get off that easily, though.  You can’t use loaded words like “quality” and “crap” and then object when people attach values like “right and wrong” or “morally inferior”.  If the terminology you’re using leads inexorably to that kind of confusion, then I think you should either change the terminology or admit that you’re trying to get people to attach those concepts.Report

              • Jaybird in reply to Dan Miller says:

                I tackled that one, I think anyway, a bit down the thread. Under what is now Patrick’s next comment.Report

              • Patrick Cahalan in reply to Dan Miller says:

                Why?  This is not facetious.

                I mean, I like plenty of crap.  I asked for… and received… blue-ray copies of not only The Last Starfighter, but also Battle Beyond The Stars.

                Battle Beyond The Stars!

                Can’t everyone just realize that sometimes they like crap and that’s okay?  Why do some people have to get all offended when you point out that Battle Beyond The Stars is crap?  Is your self-esteem so fragile that it can’t take some Vaisyas or Shudra connotations?Report

              • As the snob who started this discussion, I’d direct you towards my exploitation movie blog or this movie, which I appeared in (I’m in the trailer if you look very closely). It’s totally possible to enjoy a work of art without thinking it’s a masterpiece in any way.Report

              • Patrick Cahalan in reply to Rufus F. says:

                I will state I believe that Slime City Massacre is probably worse than Battle Beyond the Stars.Report

              • I would, yeah, probably agree. On the other hand, my wife and I got to be covered in fake blood for the massacre, which made a great Christmas card.Report

              • Michael Drew in reply to Patrick Cahalan says:

                I think this is exactly right.  My (occasional) preference for crap doesn’t make it not crap.  There are times when I would say, ‘I’d prefer to watch a Sandler joint to a film of Lear tonight,’ (I actually that’s basically never true; I’m not a fan of Sandler, but I do like all kinds of even worse crap) and that’s a real preference for one over the other, but it doesn’t mean I think the Sandler isn’t crap.  And even when I declare a for-all-time preference for a crap movie over an artistic movie whose merit I recognize that I just don’t enjoy, it’s not the same thing as saying that the crap movie has greater merit than the artistic movie.  In other words, preferences aren’t a complete description of the way people actually feel about art.  Preferences are indeed relative, but preferences aren’t the only kinds of reactions that art elicits in humans. So the problem with a discussion of appreciation of art that focuses only on the relativity of preferences is not that preferences aren’t relative, but that the discussion isn’t complete if it only discusses preferences.

                I mean, we all are aware of what we acknowledge to be great works of art that just don’t provide us in particular with the pleasure or awe that we know it provides others. Aren’t we? Is this really a discussion in which one side denies this (I thought) common experience? In other words, not all professions of personal indifference are denials of merit, right?  It follows that not all expressions of personal enjoyment must be assertions of merit, or in any case, equal merit. (There is some merit in any work of art that brings any pleasure to anyone, but we can hardly say that the existence of some expressions of enjoyment about nearly every work of art renders all determinations of relative merit baseless and arbitrary. Can we? Do we?)

                I will say that I think that artistic merit is ultimately dependent on human valuation (except by some standards of objective measurement in creation such as feats of vast scale or complexity, which themselves are not sufficient to establish a sufficient account of artistic merit), so in that sense I do believe that artistic merit is subjective, but I don’t think it follows that it is arbitrary or relative.  I want to try to set forth what I think artistic merit depends upon in an original comment forthcoming.Report

          • Patrick Cahalan in reply to Sam says:

            I would argue that one differentiating characteristic between good craft and less good craft is sustainability.

            I suspect that in 100 years people will still be performing Lear.  I doubt “The price is wrong, bitch!” will still be a catchphrase.

            While some degree of sustainability is explicable via cultural norms, not all of it is (at least, not in my opinion, anyway).  So what is or isn’t popular or faddish or whatever may or may not be the same across all populations.  I also agree that the other end is true; Shakespeare is still regarded as “good literature” whereas some other literature creators who were as good as Shakespeare have become basically totally unread, because there is subjectivity at the upper bound as well as the lower bound, and there is cultural norm stuff going on up top, too.

            However, the story of Lear touches on a bunch of transtemporal and transcultural interesting human stories. Crafting a story that touches those tropes is different from crafting a story that doesn’t.Report

            • Okay, remember my goddamn “vector morality” essay that I won’t shut up about?

              Okay, let’s work art into that.

              There is art that affects people in such a way that they respond by seeing more options than they did before. When given a choice where once they would have seen two options, there is art that, had they explored it, would have resulted in them seeing three options. (Or, I suppose, in them choosing the Good (or Gooder) option rather than the Evil (or Eviler) option… I could see Lear doing that to people, actually.) This art is Good Art. It’s also a lot rarer than I’d like.

              There is also art that does not open decisions at all. It just sits there. Seeing it does not change anything, does not challenge anything, and if you were given a decision later in the day, seeing the art would present identically to not having seen the art. I would posit that this art is crap. (The vast majority of art falls in this category.)

              Of course there is also art that limits choices and inclines people to the Evil (or Eviler) rather than to the Good (or Gooder) and this art is Evil. (I’d say that this art is actually rare, in practice. I could be talked into entertaining a discussion about Duchamp, however…)

              To swallow this gnat would require the swallowing of the vector morality camel, though.Report

              • Patrick Cahalan in reply to Jaybird says:

                To swallow this gnat would require the swallowing of the vector morality camel, though.

                Only if you use that as the sole measure.

                I’m chewing on this.  Dunno how it tastes yet.Report

              • Dan Miller in reply to Jaybird says:

                I missed the essay you reference, so apologies if I botch this, but I think the disconnect comes because you seem to be assuming that a given piece of art will have the same impact on different people.  That Lear will expand options for everyone, and Madonna will expand options for nobody.  That, to me, seems totally nuts! Maybe Lear does nothing for you, but Madonna awakens a powerful awareness of eroticism that illuminates a personal struggle you’ve been having.  I can’t say it doesn’t happen, so I shouldn’t make judgements about the relative worth of the two.  This also counts as my answer to Patrick’s question about thin skins, above.  Bonus answer!Report

              • Jaybird in reply to Dan Miller says:

                It’s here.

                I keep trying to not link to it.

                I keep failing.Report

              • Patrick Cahalan in reply to Jaybird says:

                It’s a really good piece, Jaybird.  I keep coming back to it myself.  There’s something wrong with it, but I haven’t figured out where yet… so if it is any worthwhile point of measure you’re baffling me longer than Aristotle or Locke did.Report

              • It’s the prison portion. That part needs to be removed entirely.

                There needs to be more examples of moral/immoral/amorality. There needs to be more direct attempts to falsify it.

                The “panopticon” stuff just detracts from the whole essay.Report

              • Jaybird in reply to Dan Miller says:

                Some people will walk out of King Lear thinking that the language was stilted, it was filled with cliche’s, and that they have no idea why the fool was considered funny. They may, instead, walk away from The Iron Giant thinking that it was the most moving discussion of they-don’t-know-the-word-for-it that they’d ever seen.

                Where do we go from there? We get delighted. We talk about the Iron Giant and we discuss the things that were done well and we admit to ourselves that Lear is a hair advanced and maybe we want to move to something a little less advanced.

                With love and cultivation, we may be able to get this person to see Lear and say “I have no idea what the difference was between this play and the last time I saw this play but this time it was good. It was sad but it was good.”Report

              • Dan Miller in reply to Jaybird says:

                But there’s no corresponding effort for the person who doesn’t care for Madonna at first listen.  That impulse–that everyone should like King Lear, and if they don’t they need to be educated–is absolutely baffling to me.Report

              • Patrick Cahalan in reply to Dan Miller says:

                There isn’t?

                You haven’t met a Madonna fanboy yet, I guess.Report

  3. E.C. Gach says:

    Great piece Tod, and I think you get to the heart of the disconnect in the art as relative discussion. 

    And I think the problems of moral relativism are not dettached from those of aesthetic relativism.  Both have occured in reaction to a lack of grounding that had previously been provided by a relation to the divine or the opinions of elites.  Both have been overthrown, and a sort of Nietzschean connudrum aflicts these realms now, or at least did.  We seem to have entered the consumerist phase, especially with the abundance and cheap availability of all music, movies, books, art thanks to the Internet.

    If you haven’t already, can I suggest Arthur Danto’s “The End of Art” as further reading?  It’s a brilliantly writtent and extremely accessible article on what, specifically visual art, attempts and what it may achieve, and how we are to look at the evolution of these two things in evaluating not only if a given painting is good, but whether it is even art (since that lable itself bestows a sort of priority).

    In short, his argument is that since visual art as representation has been achieved (or made irrelevant via the camera), art has become philosophy to a point, i.e. arguing about what it is and if it’s good to the point where whole exhbitions are aimed at posing/answer that question.  And that really, art is less a thing now, and more a time/place/social construct.  So that art is simply what the critics are talking about, or what get’s into a museum.  I’m not sure how short that was, and there is much more he says, but I can’t recommend the piece enough.

    His other stuff is quite good as well.Report

  4. Dan Miller says:

    My problem with this is that it seems totally unprovable.

    Tod: K.361 is better than ‘Like A Prayer’.

    Dan: Why?

    Tod: Because I think so.

    Dan: I disagree

    …and scene.   If you can’t produce a verifiable, objective list of the best composers in rank order (and I agree, you can’t), then I don’t see why you can produce a verifiable, objective judgement that Mozart is better than Madonna.  If you think you, more power to you–I mostly prefer listening to Madonna of the pair of them, but that’s all I’ll say on the matter.  Going any further than that, in my opinion, is unsupportable.  The burden of proof should be on the person making a claim of innate superiority here.Report

    • Patrick Cahalan in reply to Dan Miller says:

      If you can’t produce a verifiable, objective list of the best composers in rank order (and I agree, you can’t), then I don’t see why you can produce a verifiable, objective judgement that Mozart is better than Madonna.

      This assumes that it is advisable to consider objective rank order terms as the sole measure of excellence.

      This seems very, very limiting.Report

      • Dan Miller in reply to Patrick Cahalan says:

        Well, but if you don’t have objective rankings, then what possible basis is there to say that all of Mozart’s works are superior to all of Madonna’s? What I’m trying to say is that I don’t think that this is a useful distinction–that the answer to the question “Is Mozart better than Madonna” is meaningless, like trying to answer “Is woodworking better than poetry”. If you think Madonna<Mozart, it’s on you to prove that the question is even answerable.Report

        • Patrick Cahalan in reply to Dan Miller says:

          If you think Madonna<Mozart, it’s on you to prove that the question is even answerable.

          I suspect we’re going to have a problem with the burden of proof again.

          I also suspect that your axioms render this question non-provable in the framework of thought you’re using to approach the question.Report

    • Michael Drew in reply to Dan Miller says:

      …But even if it is provably not provable that certain works of art have greater merit than others, is that at all a statement about whether there is some degree of truth to the proposition nevertheless.

      After all, do people claim to be proving their contentions about the merit of artworks? Mostly consciously not, it seems to me. But even where we know the truth cannot finally be proven, where we believe or suspect there to be a fact of the matter of some kind, we routinely engage in discussion and argument about what that truth looks (as a stand-in verb) like.  We do that all the time about all sorts of things that we don’t have much way to prove contentions about, but that we think are some way or other, and we see those discussions as valuable.  So I’m not sure why nonprovability  of propositions would render discussions of artistic merit valueless.

      It seems to me what you really want to say is that, indeed, there is no fact of the matter (accessible, much less provable, or not) when it comes to the merit of a given work of art, and that is a perfectly valid position to have, but it’s got nothing to do with provability. If we think there are or might be real relative merit among artworks (even if those depend on human reactions thereto), then why wouldn’t we talk about what we think they are, however provable the propositions we make might be?Report

    • Liberty60 in reply to Dan Miller says:

      If you can’t produce a verifiable, objective list of the best composers in rank order…

      We are subject to the limitations of our medium of expression. We can only discuss art with words and symbols; if, lets say, it were possible to capture in words and graphic symbols the beauty and essence of a painting, then blind people could understand it.

      Art touches us on a level we can’t express; on that level that is beyond intellect or rationality. So it shouldn’t be surprising that we have these reactions- “I love this painting, but hate that one!” or “I can’t tell you why its great, but it just IS!”

      The idea of relativism is attractive, but doesn’t explain the observed data; There is a classic canon in world culture, that endures even as it is constantly edited and added to.

      All the relativist explanations- cultural constructs, social conditioning fail to account for the endurance and power of that so-ver-difficult-to-define thing called Quality.

      And yes, just like moral relativism and authority, it carries with it unsettling implilcations.Report

      • Will H. in reply to Liberty60 says:

        I was thinking much the same thing.
        Art is the manipulation of symbols.

        For the record, Mozart wrote pretty melodies, but his use of harmony was inanely conventional; irritating at times.
        Beethoven, on the other hand, would be vastly improved by greater exposition of melody. I tend to like his form. I think Beethoven could have made good movies.
        But the two are nowhere even close.

        I’ve written about two hundred songs or thereabouts, and every one that I can think of was an experiment in a way. If it didn’t start as an experiment, then it became experimental later in working out all the details of it. Even something like a straight-forward pop/punk tune is really an experiment in writing straight-forward pop/punk; like drawing with charcoal after you’ve worked extensively with pastels for awhile.
        And to me, there is always something different in the phrasing. I have to be able to maintain interest.
        I used to write songs in pairs a lot, which were similar at first, then take quite different directions. One of my better works came from a bit of improv at a rehearsal, and the drummer started singing “Substitute” over it, mocking me. So I intentionally changed it to trip him up. But you would never think “Substitute” were you to hear it.

        I don’t think jazz requires preparation or even background to appreciate it. Jazz is forever in the now. Jazz was meant to be experienced, and not merely listened to.

        I keep thinking through these discussion about a drummer that I met one time. I asked him what his favorite band was, trying to see where he was coming from. He said, “Warrant.”
        It’s hard for me to take a guy seriously after that.
        It’s as if I were in a writer’s group and asked someone who their favorite author was, and I get “Dr. Seuss.” I’m not knocking Dr. Seuss. Someone has to write those, “See Spot run” books.
        I’m just saying that, as far as literature goes, I’ve progressed a bit beyond that.
        That said, I have read, “Cat in the Hat” many a time.
        It’s sort of the “Freebird” of the literature world; always requested.
        But I came up with a punk rock version of “Freebird” so that I would never be asked to play it again. People actually like that one as punk rock. Go figure.Report

  5. Patrick Cahalan says:

    There’s a difference between strict engineering and architectural craft.  It’s easy to judge correct engineering: did the fishing building fall down, or not?

    I’m remembered of a discussion regarding abstract mathematical proofs in a particular class.  There was some proof on the board – I regret that I can’t remember which one it was – and the professor was talking about the elegance of it.  And it was elegant.  You could prove the same thing a couple of hundred different ways, but not without sacrificing elegance.

    In order to see elegance in execution of any craft, you need to understand it at a level far beyond that of a beginner.  The beginner sees function: does the building fall down, or not?  And function certainly trumps elegance; if the building falls down, it’s a pile of rubble, it’s not a building, after all.

    But a good craftsman can look at two different instantiations of their craft and note elegance.  A woodworker can look at two different cabinets and judge one to be more elegant than the other; they both hold equal amounts of stuff, and are made largely from the same raw materials, and have the same finish… but one relies on screws and one relies on other techniques.

    It offends the sensibilities of the commons that it requires expertise to judge elegance.  It smacks of elitism.  But the cold fact of the matter is that it takes a long time to be good at anything non-trivial, and if you don’t understand at a pretty deep level the work required to perform the task, and the ability to make something around the constraints of reality, you’re never going to know why this thing is better than that thing.

    Maybe a particular bit of tattoo art actually is… relative to tattoo art… a greater work than, say, The Scream.  It could even conceivably be the case that Edvard Munch would have been a *terrible* tattoo artist.  After all, producing something that looks good on a flat canvas is decidedly different from producing something that looks good on someone’s body.

    Where we get into the weeds is when people who understand elegance in one problem domain thinking that this makes them a judge in a superset; when the portrait art critic thinks she understands tattoo art, or when the woodworker thinks that they understand home architecture.  Then they start talking out their ass, and even the non-expert can tell that something… something is wrong.  And then they lose the ability to respect experts in general, because “experts” seem to always be nattering on about subjects where they aren’t actually experts.Report

  6. Mary says:

    Could go one post without making a basketball reference?Report

  7. This is something I regularly struggle with. I don’t think there is anything particularly deep about evaluative language – that is, “this is good” means “I like this”, at all times, on any subject (including ethics). I find concepts like absolute morality and natural rights utterly preposterous.

    But my goodness is Catwoman a shitty movie.Report

    • Gene Siskel had a way of describing this problem, and I can’t entirely remember his examples, but let’s say it was something like, “We all understand that preferences are largely subjective and individual. Still, if you think Big Bad Mamma was a better film than the Godfather, you’re wrong.”Report

  8. James Hanley says:

    CY (Charles Young, Rolling Stone Interviewer):  Butt-Head, I have a question for you. I noticed that you often say, “I like stuff that’s cool.” But isn’t that circular logic? I mean, what is the definition of “cool,” other than an adjective denoting something the speaker likes?

    Butthead: Huh-huh. Uh, did you, like, go to college?

    CY: You don’t have to go to college to know the definition of “redundant.” What I’m saying is that essentially what you’re saying is “I like stuff that I like.”

    Beavis : Yeah. Huh-huh. Me, too.

    Butthead: Also, I don’t like stuff that sucks, either.

    CY: But nobody likes stuff that sucks!

    Butthead: Then why does so much stuff suck?

    Beavis: Yeah. College boy! Huh-huh, huh-huh.Report

  9. Kyle Cupp says:

    I’d say you have an excellent post here, Tod, but apparently I wouldn’t be talking about your post, but about my preferences.Report

  10. BSK says:

    Doesn’t the purpose matter?  I just had a conversation with someone about the merits of bands like LMFAO and the Black Eyed Peas.  My belief is that there is a difference between music as entertainment and music as art.  LMFAO is not trying to create art in the sense that they are not trying to master the craft of music.  They are trying to create an entertaining product.  To this end, they are remarkably successful.  To this end, they have created immense value.  The problem becomes when we evaluate a product divorced from its goal.  If we are evaluating with different criteria in mind, than we ought not compare our evaluations.Report

    • Patrick Cahalan in reply to BSK says:

      The problem becomes when we evaluate a product divorced from its goal.  If we are evaluating with different criteria in mind, than we ought not compare our evaluations.

      I don’t really have a beef with that; or to clarify, we ought to compare our evaluations given the appropriate context that can be drawn to encompass them both, if that’s possible.

      It might not always be.Report

    • Jaybird in reply to BSK says:

      Does the purpose matter? What did Duchamp attempt? From what I understand, he was actually trying to scream that the emperors weren’t wearing any clothing. Despite that, people discussed his urinal and bottle rack as deliberate attempts to get us to understand the importance (and, at the same time, the ubiquity) of eloquent design in our day to day lives.

      And now people pee in them as a form of art criticism.

      How much does what Duchamp was going for really affect what actually is?


      • Stillwater in reply to Jaybird says:

        It is interesting that people viewed Duchamp as making an artistic statement rather than a statement about art. The institutionalists ran with it, not only by ignoring the joke perpetrated on them but by willfully incorporating that joke into their theory of art.Report

  11. DensityDuck says:

    It seems like it’s the same argument about “good wine versus cheap wine”.

    There are people who will say “it’s all just wine, just drink whatever’s cheapest”.

    There are people who will reply “you think that because you don’t understand what makes ‘good’ wine good.  PS if all you want to do is get hammered, you should be drinking vodka.”Report

    • Sam in reply to DensityDuck says:

      The people who argue about what makes wine good often can’t make the distinction between cheap and expensive wines in blind testing. Which suggests that there is more going on in these conversations than a simply analysis of inherent quality.Report

      • Simon K in reply to Sam says:

        Cheap is very much not the same thing as bad, when it comes to wine. The pricing of wine is mostly about the cost of the fruit, especially in the US where many wineries don’t grow their own or don’t grow enough. If you want to make Californian Pinot Noir, and have to buy the fruit, you’re going to have to charge at least $30 a bottle to cover your costs, but in all probability the wine will still be lousy. But there’s decent wine made from easier to grow varietals at $12 a bottle, from wineries that don’t buy fruit from elsewhere.

        That said, of course, if you tell people wine is expensive they like it better, so there’s something to what you say.Report

    • Jaybird in reply to DensityDuck says:

      “You will note that the second glass tastes better than the first. Wait until you taste the third!”Report

  12. Rufus F. says:

    It’s always seemed to me like another problem with the relativist position is that, if tastes are purely subjective and individual, there shouldn’t be nearly as much overlap between the tastes of people who have been exposed to a great deal of a certain type of artwork as there generally is.

    Let me put it this way: I’ve watched a ridiculous number of movies in my life, but I’ve read almost no books on cinema. I couldn’t tell you what movies are canonical, but I could tell you pretty easily which ones I think were the best I’ve seen.

    A few years ago, Paul Schrader wrote an article for Film Forum (I believe) about which ones he thinks should be the canonical films. He came up with an elaborate series of aesthetic and narrative criteria, which he used to justify his picks; and then he gave a list of the best 20 or so films he had ever seen. If I was to make a list of my top twenty, at a minimum, 16 of them would have been the same as his. Nobody ever told me I was supposed to find movies like Pickpocket, Vertigo, and Persona to be great and enduring works of art more than, say, Back to the Future. I didn’t even know what Pickpocket was when it came on TV. But my responses were pretty damn close to those of someone else who’s also watched (and, in his case, made) a lot of movies.

    In every genre of art, I find this holds: the people who have totally immersed themselves in that genre in a serious way tend to have nearly the same preferences.Report

    • BSK in reply to Rufus F. says:

      Maybe that says something about the people who tend to immerse themselves in a genre.  Maybe people of a certain stripe are drawn to film as a medium and, consequently, tend to be drawn to the same types of film.Report

      • Rufus F. in reply to BSK says:

        BSK: I’m sure that’s right. But would you like to see my list of ten greatest movies ever from when I was about seven-years-old and had seen about 30 movies? I’m guessing it wouldn’t overlap nearly as much with, say, Roger Ebert’s list.

        Sam: Is that the old rule about consumer capitalist culture: Whatever sells the mostest is the bestest?Report

        • BSK in reply to Rufus F. says:

          Well, I don’t think comparing the 7-year-old-you list and your current list is really apples to apples…Report

        • Sam in reply to Rufus F. says:

          Rufus – I didn’t like either Avatar or Titanic. But it seems to me if we want to make objective claims about best movies, it might behoove us to trend toward conversations where we have demonstrable data points. More importantly though, what I want to know is if the millions of people who saw those two movies were wrong to do so when they could have been watching movies like Vertigo and Pickpocket and Persona. And, god forbid, what of people who have seen all five films and still declare Titanic and Avatar to be the best films? By the standards I’m seeing in this thread, those people are potentially wrong to do so. My position is simply that there is no objective way of knowing that.Report

          • Rufus F. in reply to Sam says:

            Of course they weren’t wrong. Different works of art suit different purposes. Titanic was a fantastic film and visually stunning. Avatar was overwrought and silly, but visually it was even more stunning. It’s fine with me to go watch a movie that’s visually stunning.

            Your argument here seems to ignore the fact that aesthetics has been a philosophical discipline for centuries now. People have been asking these questions forever. The way art criticism has tried to answer them objectively is by setting down specific criteria for excellence in a genre of art and picking out the excellent works based on those criteria. You can easily say you disagree with the criteria or the selections that fit those criteria, but I don’t really understand how you can jump from that disagreement to saying that all aesthetic judgments are inherently illogical, which is where you seem to be going with this.Report

            • Sam in reply to Rufus F. says:

              I’m not saying that they’re inherently illogical. Nowhere have I ever stood against the individual’s ability to create their own list of favored works. What I do oppose is the idea that there are individuals whose list is somehow wrong, either for what it does include or what it doesn’t include.Report

              • Rufus F. in reply to Sam says:

                Okay, I probably misunderstood what you meant by “no objective way of doing that”.Report

              • Sam in reply to Rufus F. says:

                I meant there is no objective way of knowing that Vertigo, Pickpocket, and Persona are superior films to either Avatar or Titanic. What I do believe is that Person A can preference the first three, Person B can preference the second two, and both can be correct but that believing this says nothing about the films themselves, only the preferences of the individuals.Report

              • Rufus F. in reply to Sam says:

                Okay, well, I suppose I just disagree.Report

              • Sam Wilkinson in reply to Rufus F. says:

                Do you think there is an objective way of knowing which of those movies is better/best?


              • Patrick Cahalan in reply to Sam says:


                Do you believe that qualitative data can be used to expose a phenomena to observation?

                Must it be quantitative?Report

              • I believe that an individual could assemble a list of reasons to declare that a particular piece of art is transcendent. However, that list of reasons is based as much on preference (in this case, a desire to make a particular point about a particular piece of art) as is the pleasure taken from the art itself. Perhaps you can give a specific example for us to discuss though?Report

              • Patrick Cahalan in reply to Patrick Cahalan says:

                I’m not sure.

                I don’t know that it will be constructive.  From what I’m reading from your posts on this topic, there is pretty much no case for anything other than “everything is a matter of personal taste”.

                Not just acknowledged bits of preference, but also for any potential scale of value, at all.  There is no collective expertise.  There is no meaningful difference between the personal preferences of someone who looks at something and says, “I like that” and someone else who says, “I like this other thing”.

                If that’s a fair summation, I’m pretty sure I’m stuck with, “I don’t think we’re going to agree in any meaningful way on this topic.”

                I think there is something of value in a collection of people who all participate in a particular activity coming to a consensus about the value of a particular instance of that activity.  I think there is something of value in individuals expressing preference.  I think there is something of value in collections of people who *don’t* participate in a particular activity also coming to a consensus about the value of a particular instance of that activity.

                I don’t think all three of these things are the same thing; I think there’s a context in each one that isn’t the same as the context of the others that renders it a different metric in a meaningful way.Report

              • Stillwater in reply to Patrick Cahalan says:

                Patrick, I think you’ve touched on some of these issues in the Burden of Proof thread, so maybe this is wrong, but my understanding of the word ‘transcendent’ implies that a set of necessary and sufficient conditions for it cannot be specified (much like your take on God and spiritual experiences). If so, then even tho property of being transcendent can only experienced (so it is necessarily a subjectively determined property), it doesn’t follow that there aren’t objective properties of the object which cause that experience of transcendence (even tho we can’t identify them).

                Kant struggled with this (I think) – the idea that great works of art are viewed as objectively better than lesser works even tho the sole criterion for arriving at that judgment is a subjective experience. I don’t know. But he was right that most people have a commitment (bordering on certainty!) to the belief that some creative works are Art (High Art), while others fail to be. I know I do, and I’m pretty comfortable saying that there are no (identifiable) properties distinguishing on from the other.Report

              • Patrick Cahalan in reply to Patrick Cahalan says:

                A side note: my comments on the Burden of Proof thread were much more an attempt to get James to understand where theists are coming from than any attempt to codify my own mess.

                Even tho property of being transcendent can only experienced (so it is necessarily a subjectively determined property), it doesn’t follow that there aren’t objective properties of the object which cause that experience of transcendence (even tho we can’t identify them).

                That’s true.  It doesn’t.  It might all be neuroaesthetics.  There may be no free will.  Sam might very well be right.  All of the previous may be the case, or none of them.

                Kant’s not the only fella that has struggled with this.Report

    • Sam in reply to Rufus F. says:

      How did those films do when compared to the box-office hauls of Avatar and Titanic? I’ll let you have all three against my two.Report

    • Stillwater in reply to Rufus F. says:

      another problem with the relativist position is that, if tastes are purely subjective and individual, there shouldn’t be nearly as much overlap between the tastes of people who have been exposed to a great deal of a certain type of artwork as there generally is.

      I actually think this is the best evidence for a realist or objective view of value in art. But I also think that the relativist position isn’t quite as naive as some people make it out to be. It’s not just the view that the art/not-art divide is subjective or based on feelings. It also based on a challenge to the realist about artistic properties: what property (properties) are necessary and sufficient for some some object’s being determined an object of art. Or in a case like you describe above, the question would be ‘what properties of this object make it Art rather than an alternative piece?’ Identifying those properties has been a very difficult thing to do.

      So the relativist position on ‘what constitutes art’ doesn’t necessarily start with a belief that artistic judgments are subjective. They are driven there by the lack of a case made for objective properties of art.


  13. BlaiseP says:

    A good piece of art is sorta like a conversation.   The artist creates a piece of work and we perceive it.  Once created, the art takes on a life of its own:  the artist has had his say.   Now it’s our turn to interact with the art.

    Ever hear a young child play some of the simpler Bach preludes, say from the Anna Magdalena book?   The genius of the composition shines through even novice fingers.   Why does Picasso speak to us, even in his simplest drawings?   Could it be Picasso’s drawings are like children’s drawings and the drawings of the cave artists? They have that same raw magic.

    When I need a visual art fix, I head off to .   Not everything’s appealing to me, but a good deal of it is.   It gets me out of my rut.  I like Rhapsody’s facility for recommending artists like other artists.   I pay attention to the Billboard chart though I don’t listen to the radio much anymore.  Though most of it doesn’t speak to me, I’m often surprised by what does.

    Edgard Varèse said the artist is never ahead of his time but many people are behind theirs.   Poor old Willem De Kooning, a tragic figure, always a few years behind Picasso.   Some of the ugliest paintings ever done and he’s still thought of as an important artist in some parts, but not to me.   All I ever saw in De Kooning was a Picasso wannabe.   I’m sure others would disagree with my assessment of De Kooning but that’s what happens when art has to speak to the viewer.   We’ll all come to different conclusions.

    There’s still a place for elitism in art of any sort.  I once had an art teacher who said great art was like a marksman aiming at his target.    If his target is the broad side of the barn, he will more than likely hit it.   But a great artist shoots at distant targets, hitting what he’s shooting at.   If he misses, well, that piece never makes it out of his studio.   If people buy portraits of Elvis on black velvet, the technique of painting on velvet is ancient.   Many Russian Orthodox icons were painted on black velvet and for my money, he who purchases an Elvis portrait is purchasing an icon of the same sort.   The artist who wants to sell will create works for those who want to buy it, as surely as Caravaggio painted for the Colonnas.Report

  14. Tod Kelly says:

    I am noticing in the threads an issue that I talked about in the OP, which is that those that study a particular art form have an understanding of “art,” “artistic merit” or “artistic accomplishment” that is different from “a commodity to sell in the market place.”  Those that don’t study these disciplines rarely see art in any way other than a sellable commodity, and that makes this an incredibly hard discussion to have.

    This understanding of art among artists tends to be both elusive and evolving to those studying, and what’s more differs from person to person.  Despite this however, there is agreement that this understanding exists, and that the pursuit of that understanding is the purpose of art.  It is not a concrete thing, like a hammer; nor is it based on whim or fancy.  The edges of it are blurry, but there is general agreement about it’s basic shape.

    Those that don’t study a discipline have a hard time seeing that a shape even exists, however.  They see what they see and no more, and assume that everyone else has that same extent of vision.  As I said in the OP, when it comes to visual arts I know what I like, and I have a tendency to assume that’s all there is to the discipline.  But I’ve studies music long enough that I do see it there.

    All of which is to say when you tell someone that is trying to create art and not sell a commodity that there is no difference between the two, they may not be able to explain to you in terms that you’d want to hear it  why they think you’re wrong – but they do.  This is an incredibly imperfect metaphor, of course, but maybe this helps illustrate that: If you aren’t well versed in physics, and are talking to a theoretical physicist about why Quantum Theory and New Age crystal theory are just two separate and equal opinions, he won’t agree and will never be able to explain why you’re wrong if you’re not willing to study physics.  But just because he can’t doesn’t mean that he’s wrong.Report

    • Dan Miller in reply to Tod Kelly says:

      That’s a false equivalence, though.  I can use the principles of quantum mechanics to develop a better electron microscope, for instance; if I did the same thing with New Age crystal theory it simply wouldn’t work.  There’s no equivalent in the art world.  The closest you can come is to say that there are more-effective and less-effective ways for a piece of art to evoke a given emotion (for instance, the soundtrack to Requiem for a Dream is better at evoking tension than Yakkety Sax).  But that only gets you so far.Report

      • Patrick Cahalan in reply to Dan Miller says:

        I can use the principles of quantum mechanics to develop a better electron microscope, for instance; if I did the same thing with New Age crystal theory it simply wouldn’t work.  There’s no equivalent in the art world.

        Dan, there are a lot of assumptions packed into those two sentences.Report

      • Tod Kelly in reply to Dan Miller says:

        That’s a false equivalence, though.

        Which is I why I noted that it was an incredibly imperfect metaphor.Report

    • wardsmith in reply to Tod Kelly says:

      Tod, Thanks for writing this. First it saved Jaybird from having to come up with those great opening and closing glyphs he was striving for. It also gives me a chance to apologize to Rufus for multiple misunderstandings. I was a bit ham-handed on the rhetorical flourishes given the meme that I thought I understood in the (excellent BTW) OP by Sam. Considering that the discussion at hand was Murray’s quartiling of American tastes, no easy task. The artwork I posted was actually canvas not velvet and the artist in question David Uhl is licensed by Harley to reproduce their bikes. To me the art wasn’t the woman but the bike in the foreground. Uhl was actually drawing “outside the lines” by including her (and her rack is apparently in your imagination since we don’t get to see anything the artist may have accomplished one goal *audience participation* already). My understanding is he was doing an homage to another artist of the “ink” variety. I grabbed the pictures here, and messed up the img src, I’d meant for the bike to be there the first time.

      The dustup with Rufus was more that I don’t believe the “Brahmins” are legitimately in any position to dictate art tastes to their peers or the proles. In point of fact if you follow the history of the great composers, you’ll generally find that THEY were not accepted by the “establishment” in their own time. Their greatness (like a great wine) only revealed itself over time. People stormed out of Beethoven and Mozart concerts. Greatness is no fait accompli. We can all argue till we’re blue in the face about this or that artist, only time will truly tell. Takes some of the fun out of the she said, I said arguments but them’s the breaks.Report

      • Rufus F. in reply to wardsmith says:

        The dustup with Rufus was more that I don’t believe the “Brahmins” are legitimately in any position to dictate art tastes to their peers or the proles.

        Yeah, and you know, I can appreciate that. Really, my whole gripe from the start is that I see Charles Murray as a Brahmin, and one whose argument about the Vaishas boils down to, “Their culture is limited to NASCAR, Shania Twain, and Applebys- and that’s all they’re really suited for, the dear things”. I think his reading of the white working class is patronizing bullshit, is all. It’s not got so much to do with who I think should be in charge of art education.Report

    • BlaiseP in reply to Tod Kelly says:

      Where can we put down the pointer between Art and Craft?   Of course artists want to get paid but most of them make a buck if they’re any good.   Art is a commodity.   A noble commodity, I’ll grant you, but the artist doesn’t have to live a life of penitential and genteel poverty.   That’s a myth from the Romantics.Report

      • Tod Kelly in reply to BlaiseP says:

        I think that you are making a cliched connection between wanting to make something great and living in a self-flagallating poverty that I am not in fact making.

        Phillip Glass wants to make a healthy living if not a lot of money, as does YoYo Ma, Kazou Ishiguro, Thomas Pynchon, and Julie Taymor.  And they do.  None of these people sets out to create something that no one wishes to hear/view/read.  However, you’re kidding yourself if you think that all they’re trying to do is “fill a market niche.”

        On the other hand, David Lee Roth, Janet Evanovich, Miley Cyrus, and the writers & directors of The Suite Life of Zach and Cody may well make and package a quality product.  But their number one goal is to create a a bestselling product for an identified market niche; it is not to create something transcendent.

        Both of these two groups of craftsmen are successful, but each group approaches what they do differently, and with hopes of entirely different kinds of results.  More importantly, if you asked any of the above about this, they would agree with me about this.  All would respect everyone on both sides of the aisle – (in my experience people that have to rely on the fine arts to put a roof over their head have a respect for all successful craftsmen, regardless of genre or intent ) – but all would agree that the first group and the second are chasing entirely different things; and all would agree that one group’s artistic accomplishments are stronger than the other’s.Report

        • Tod,

          Obviously, we’re not likely to agree on much here, but I think you’re making mistake mentioning those kids show. The Suite Life of Zach and Cody was never meant for your consumption (nor was Miley Cyrus). We simply aren’t the target audience.

          Which ought to matter, right? My own daughter would sooner cite iCarly as mankind’s greatest television show than The Wire, despite my pressuring of her to do otherwise. Are you going to dismiss her opinion as a ten-year-old when the show is plainly intended for her and the things you and I might agree on plainly aren’t? It seems unfair to expect her to agree with your assessments of great art given that the great art you prioritize was never meant for her. There are all sorts of extraneous realities that influence our perception and consumption of art, including our age and gender and race and culture and hometown and etc and etc. Those things can’t simply be dismissed when composing a list of transcendent artistic achievements.Report

          • I’m not sure I agree.  Are they in the arts?  Are they choosing to produce something for a market niche, as opposed to trying to create something transcendent?

            But if you think I’m loading unfairly, feel free to replace Miley with Britney, TIna Tequila or Keisha; also, replace the writes and directs of Suite Life with the writers and directors of Joey, Manimal, The Playboy Club or Joanie Loves Chachi.Report

            • Tod,

              Do you think my daughter is wrong for thinking that iCarly is the peak of television achievement, given that she’s 10, and that her needs are different than mine (or yours)? That’s my point here. I don’t see how we can logically fault her for not liking something that was never intended for her in the first place, nor can we assume that if only she adequate preparation and education for the enjoyment of King Lear that she still wouldn’t choose iCarly (what with it be funny, enjoyable, targeted to her, and not insanely boring).Report

              • Jaybird in reply to Sam Wilkinson says:

                iCarly probably speaks to her in a way that Lear does not (probably *CANNOT*) because, hey, she’s 10.

                There’s a lot of stuff that she won’t appreciate (and a lot of stuff that she *SHOULDN’T* appreciate) until she’s older. The fact that she thinks that iCarly is better than Lear is to be expected.

                One hopes that she will not become a 38-year old who thinks that iCarly is better than Lear.Report

              • Sam Wilkinson in reply to Jaybird says:

                Yes, but are we arguing that the a 38-year-old’s appreciation of television is superior to the 10-year-old’s, when the things that they’re looking for are different? In other words, are we saying that the 38-year-old’s preference (in this case for King Lear) is superior to the 10-year-old’s preference (in this case for iCarly…and not, thankfully, the Suite Life of Zach and Cody).Report

              • Jaybird in reply to Sam Wilkinson says:


                There are a great many things that fully-grown adults are capable of that children are not. Myelination is a wonderful thing. Experience is… well, let’s call it “many splendored”.Report

              • Sam Wilkinson in reply to Jaybird says:

                I don’t see how you can hold the experiences a 10-year-old hasn’t had against them. That seems a wildly unfair standard. My daughter is responding to what she considers to be the best available television; as she gets older, she’ll branch out into other television instead. But saying, “Well, she doesn’t have the experience to properly enjoy King Lear…” is problematic at best and it certainly doesn’t account for a second problem: I’m what I might describe as a full-grown adult, with a wife and kids and a mortgage and a car payment and I’m not entirely sure I can think of a more boring way to spend three hours than watching King Lear. Maybe looking at old paintings of Jesus or aristocrats.

                One other thing: I agree that there are plenty of things that adults are capable of that children are not, but one of the things my daughter is capable of is unbridled joy, unencumbered by the concerns and complexities that we express here. She just enjoys iCarly. I’m not sure that’s so bad.Report

              • Jaybird in reply to Jaybird says:

                How am I holding it against her?

                She’s ignorant. Indeed, there are things that she should *NOT* know yet and it’s good that she doesn’t.

                However, it remains the fact that she doesn’t… and we should not weigh her ignorance equally to the knowledge of experienced people.

                iCarly may be a great show for tweens. This does not make it a great show. The fact that a tween thinks it is a great show should not be surprising to us… but neither does it make it a great show. It’s crap that is accessible to her when some (perhaps many) things that are Great Things would be completely and totally inaccessible.

                They will, I presume, be accessible to her some day.

                At this point, you can ask her if she’d want to watch an episode of iCarly and, when you are told “Daaaaaaad” and she rolls her eyes, you can ask her if she’s saying that he 10 year old self was wrong.

                And she can tell you something to the effect of “I just didn’t know any better.”

                And you can argue with her about this.Report

              • Sam Wilkinson in reply to Jaybird says:

                Experienced people cannot agree on these questions. I’m relatively certain that if you and I took quizzes about what we consider to be the best (or most important) artistically, we would agree. Our answers might not only be different, but wildly different. How do you talk a person out of liking what they like?

                And a great show for tweens is a great show. Because it’s for them. It’s not for us. It’s not meant for us, not designed for us, not intended to do anything for us. To sit in judgement of something never intended to satisfy your needs strikes me as bizarre.

                Yours is a level of frank condescension that I simply do not understand.Report

              • BlaiseP in reply to Jaybird says:

                iCarly might not be high art but it’s an interesting show.   No parents, just an older brother and a dad off in a submarine.   That’s half the plot, right there.  No parents.  Just a bunch of cute kids and a webcam and their runaway success of a web show.

                Lots of children’s fiction dispenses with parents: that’s part of its naive charm.

                Weren’t we discussing Troll Hunter around here lately?  The camera guy has become an actor.Report

              • Jaybird in reply to Jaybird says:

                Experienced people cannot agree on these questions.

                There’s more overlap than you’d think.

                How do you talk a person out of liking what they like?

                It’s not my intention to get them to not like what they like.

                And a great show for tweens is a great show.

                I was sloppy with my wording. I should have more accurately said “a perfectly appropriate show for tweens”. I imagine that SciGirls would qualify as a great show for tweens. iCarly, from what I’ve been able to stomach from youtube clips, strikes me as “crap”. Bathroom humor and escapist wish fulfillment.

                Now, there’s nothing necessarily *WRONG* with crap (we’ve established that) but that doesn’t give it parity with stuff that actually is good.

                To sit in judgement of something never intended to satisfy your needs strikes me as bizarre.

                Judgment *IS* possible. It’s possible for me to defend excretions jokes by pointing out that, oh, you just weren’t the target audience for the excretion joke… but, you know what? It’s an excretion joke. I’m pretty sure that I can still sit in judgment.

                “Oh, ‘Milk, Milk, Lemonade’ is actually quite a transgressive work of art that combines rhymes with a dance. It’s a fusion of sorts.”

                “No. It’s Milk, Milk, Lemonade.”

                Yours is a level of frank condescension that I simply do not understand.

                There are things you could do to understand it. It would require work on your part, however. You up for it?Report

              • Sam Wilkinson in reply to Jaybird says:

                I’m up for anything.

                (Worth noting, perhaps: Shakespeare did fart jokes and routinely wrote of ghosts. The things you’re holding against a show which you’ve only seen clips of and which you surely acknowledge isn’t for you are things that the canon’s great masters are guilty of too.)Report

              • Sam Wilkinson in reply to Jaybird says:

                I’m up for your argument, sure.Report

              • Jaybird in reply to Jaybird says:

                (For the record, I talked to Maribou about this and she said “you’re a goddamn Platonist” so she agrees with you.)

                Anyway, it’s not an argument as much as a regimen.

                I’d suggest you spend the next few months devouring art and literature. Everything from Stephenie Meyer to Shakespeare, Everything from Big Momma’s House to Casablanca.

                Pay attention to structure, pay attention to framing, pay attention to timing, pay attention to characterization, pay attention to plot, pay attention to theme.

                At the end of this time where you read dozens of books and dozens of movies, you’d be better poised to understand how someone could condescend to say that “this is good” and “that is crap”.Report

              • Sam Wilkinson in reply to Jaybird says:


                For my sake, can you describe who you think I am? Because based upon the advice you’re giving me, I think you have me pegged as a person whose position is a kneejerk stance against high culture; I’d like to believe that I’ve consumed enough of whatever it is we’re discussing to have staked out a solid position, even if it is one that diverges from your own. Furthermore, it seems to me that no matter how much I read or see or consume, I’ll always be x-1 in your book, with x equally the amount of culture I need to consume before I agree to condescension.

                For the record, I have my own preferences, my own condescensions, my own lists of greatness. But I don’t believe that those lists are factual. Rather, they simply reflect what I like. They’re not superior (or righter, or whatever) to anybody else’s.Report

              • Jaybird in reply to Jaybird says:

                Checking out your website, I see that you’re someone who is capable of writing this:

                “That, for the record, is good journalism, entirely unlike the utter crap that is produced so mindlessly by so many, and if that makes me nothing more than the author’s fanboy, so be it.”

                So I guess I see you as a kindred spirit.Report

              • Sam Wilkinson in reply to Jaybird says:

                I am certainly a man of my own preferences, just as anybody is. This is not something I deny. I simply emphasize that these preferences of mine are nothing more than that.Report

              • James Hanley in reply to Sam Wilkinson says:

                (in this case for iCarly…and not, thankfully, the Suite Life of Zach and Cody).

                Oh, lord, in my house it’s both. And Wizards of Waverly Place, god forbid.  But for my money iCarly is the worst–those girls are just barely less obnoxious than the cast of Jersey Shore.Report

              • Fault?  Who’s finding fault?  I do not think your daughter’s wrong, any more than I think I am wrong for preferring the Fountains of Wayne to Wagner, or my son is wrong for disliking classical and jazz altogether.

                I think you are looking for a negative judgment from me that is not actually there.  As I said in the OP there is a difference between recognizing what an artist is attempting (and sometimes succeeding to do) in an attempt to create something new and great, and enjoying a song, painting, book or play for the pure pleasure of its entertainment value.  Both are great, but they are not the same thing.


              • I’m not sure I understand the distinction you’re making. As I’m reading this (and I could easily be badly mistaken, for which I apologize in advance), you’re saying you like the attempt to create something new and great. That’s fine as far as it goes, but what if I don’t like that? What if I like somebody who triumphs within the genre? (I’m not saying that I do; I’m using my own preferences as a what-if?)Report

              • As I said above, part of the difficulty with these conversations revolves around semantics.  I’m going to stick with music here, because it’s what I know, but I am pretty sure visual artists and others would say the same thing.

                For more people, when they talk about “art”, they talk about a consumable product.  In the case of music, take Britney Spears as an example of high quality, well crafted pop music.  She creates a consumable product.  And that is all well and good, and there is nothing wrong with liking her music.

                But those that study music recognize that there is a separate thing, which can be related to being consumable but doesn’t have to be, called artistic accomplishment.  It can be certainly be enjoyed by someone who knows nothing about music except they like what they like, but to those that study music it is something entirely different.  Generally, it builds on what has come before, and strives to be transcendental.  Different works succeed at this, and different people might quibble about to what degree a particular thing does or doesn’t succeed.  But there is usually agreement about what is an attempt at art, and what is an attempt at entertainment, and gushing praise mixed with jealousy over those things that succeed as both.  It is subjective, but not entirely so.  I gave the example of the physics guy above not because art is science, but because people who study art over time are aware of things going on that those that don’t aren’t.  I will again use myself as an example that has no idea what any of my visual artist friends are talking about when they discuss a painting.

                Does this mean that I am wrong for liking a pairing that speaks to me? No.  But I also recognize that when they are looking at a work, they are looking with a spectrum and aesthetic vocabulary that I can’t even begin to understand.  So even if I don’t see what they are seeing, I recognize that they are seeing something.


        • BlaiseP in reply to Tod Kelly says:

          I’ll grant you, a life of Genteel Poverty isn’t what anyone envisions entering into a career in art.   It is a career, like any other.  Feel free to putter in any art form you like.   Yo Yo Ma isn’t a putterer.   I’m sure he enjoys his work but I can imagine him opening the door to a dark hotel room, lugging in his cello case, beat down and tired.

          Fame is a curse.  David Lee Roth opens that hotel door too.   Putting up with Eddie Van Halen is a chore.   All art is performance art these days:  Pynchon has to hide to avoid his fame but I’ll bet he travels quite extensively.   Famous people attract weirdos.   Worse, they attract people who tell ’em they’re great.   Then they start believing it.   Then it’s all over but the crying.   And the bankruptcy.

          Look, here’s where we agree:  there’s what’s done for love and what’s done for mercenary intent.   Often they’re the same thing, if not always.   Miley Cyrus and all those folk are the creatures of their handlers, if they have any sense they bring in advisors who will tell them the truth.   For when it’s all sorted out, fame forces the famous to accept the two people he has become:  Famous Person and himself.Report

  15. Jesus, I missed this entire conversation. Check this out, Tod et al.Report

  16. dhex says:

    in general, the root of a lot of arguments about preference (at least in america) seem rooted in the fear that someone you’ve never met is laughing at you or enjoying something that’s just terrible. i think it’s a gut reaction that supersedes the thinking that leads to a lot of the good points made here by mr. kelly.Report

  17. kenB says:

    Obligatory XKCD reference.Report

  18. Sam M says:

    Question: What’s the deal with “artisitic achievement” as a measure of anything? It sounds to me, suspiciously, like some preference for virtuosity. Don’t get me wrong. Virtuosity is great. Whenever someone tells me they are trying to learn to play guitar, I always ask if they can play “Eruption” yet. Most can’t. In fact, I bet a lot of prefessional musicians can’t. I bet Johnny Cash couldn’t. But… so?

    Techinical difficulty matters. Yes. But it is not the only thing that matters. I think it’s fair to say that the Ramones were better artists than, say, Yngwe Malmsteem. Even though what the Ramone’s did was not “harder” by a lot of measures.

    Wouldn’t a proper measure be something more like “appropriateness”? A simple pizza can be more artistically rendered than an extravagent six-course meal. Says I.Report

  19. Shelley says:

    Crap is crap.

    The question should be what the criteria of crappiness are, not whether crap exists.Report

  20. Michael Sierchio says:

    “I don’t need to “like” Ulysses to appreciate the level of genius it took to craft its seemingly endless pages.”  Are you saying you ascribe greater artistic merit to things you find ponderous?  Ulysses isn’t that long or difficult, actually, though it frustrates 19th C readerly expextations.

    There is a kind of naivete or disingenuousness in this approach, the idea of the canon, etc.  What about Marcel Duchamp?  Do you understand what he was getting at when entered the urinal in the Armory Exposition?  This isn’t an argument about relativism, it’s an argument about who gets to decide which works have merit.  I am unimpressed with your approach.


  21. These ideological discussions rarely go anywhere because they ignore the virtue of moderation. On the one hand, you have people declaring that all art is equal, and beauty is only ever in the eye of the beholder (bogus); on the other hand, you have people declaring that artworks can be absolutely valued as better than others (bogus).

    First of all, I fail to understand how anyone believes they can reasonably support the notion that X is better than Y without first coming to some agreed criteria on why X is better than Y. Once you start considering what makes one thing better than another, then you can start to consider the question properly. Such things might include:

    • Virtuosity in form or technique
    • Originality in comparison to contemporary competition
    • Emotional impact
    • Influence on other artists

    Of course, none of these can be objectively claimed as things we absolutely should value in an artwork, but they start to give you something to talk about. When we then ask the question: “Is Beethoven better than the Beatles?”, we have a duty to say, “on what terms?” Innovation: Beethoven triumphs. Cultural impact: the Beatles win the day. You can chalk these up, but you cannot then state unequivocally that X is therefore better than Y full-stop. It’s all contextual, neither relative nor absolute.Report