Five Notes About Preferences

Related Post Roulette

152 Responses

  1. Avatar James Hanley says:

    I’m glad you’re guest-posting, Sam.  You do a damn fine job of it.

    all artistic production has no intrinsic, inherent value beyond an individual’s consideration of it.

    Nor does anything else–all preference is subjective. I think it is only our own fragile emotional needs that leads us to think otherwise; every person who says “I don’t like what you like” is a blow to our self-esteem, causing us to question our own preferences.  It’s emotionally safer to assume they’re wrong, than to start questioning our own correctness and world view.  The third way–your way–is more sensible than either of those ways, but for reasons I don’t understand, quite difficult for many people.Report

  2. Avatar Kim says:

    all artistic production has no intrinsic, inherent value beyond an individual’s consideration of it.

    I’m fairly certain I can disagree with this. Much in the way of art is “dual use” (aka “it’s purty AND functional”). And the functional can be quantified. In fact, the “artiness” of something can be directly useful for it’s functional purpose (this “varigated” window film provides more privacy than one that was simply a pure pane of diffraction gratings). Alright, so maybe I’m picking at the edges. (and everyone can tell what I’ve been doing the past week, ya?)Report

    • Avatar James Hanley in reply to Kim says:

      Kim, try this on for size:

      all artistic production function has no intrinsic, inherent value beyond an individual’s consideration of it.Report

      • Avatar Kim in reply to James Hanley says:

        a house still stands if no one looks at it.

        and a french drain works just as well if no one is aware of it.

        function, unlike the purely perceptual art (is there another kind?), can do its job without being noticed/appreciated/percieved in any way.Report

        • Avatar James Hanley in reply to Kim says:

          A house that stands without any occupants isn’t actually fulfilling any function that is of any value to anyone.  It is, essentially, functionless.

          As to the drain, believe me, people will notice if it stops functioning in the way they want it to–the value of its function comes solely from the subjective benefit somebody receives from it.  If its function causes it to constrain subjective benefit–let’s say I buy the property and want a wetlands instead of a drained meadow–then there’s no value to me from the French drain.

          All value is subjective, ergo, the value of any particular thing at all is subjective.Report

  3. Avatar Michael Drew says:

    Dang. I had my view on this all worked out, but I can’t remember if I wrote it up or not.  But basically, it went like this: even if we take artistic merit to only be defined as how much pleasure a piece of art brings to those who experience it (i.e. is subjective on an individual basis), it doesn’t follow that it’s not a fact that some artworks demonstrate more of that merit than others, on the basis of a per-experiencer average.  (one could also assert that the greater merit is the one that creates the greatest total pleasure, but then one would be including all of the vagaries)  And just because this average quantity isn’t measurable doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist.

    My personal take on this would take it one further degree of abstraction I’d say that th artistic merit of a work si related to the amount of <i>potential</i> ability it has to give pleasure to those who may experience, conditioned upon their coming to appreciate it at the level the artist intended it to be appreciated. Which is not to say that it gives a subject as much pleasure as the artist, hopes, but only that the subject gains enough appreciation of the genre and intent of the work that, whatever its capaility to create pleasure for that individual subject is realized.  (I.e. you and I could both have fully sufficient appreciation for Citizen Kane in order to derive all the potential pleasure out of it that we might, but you might still in the event derive much more pleasure from it.  My view is just that we shouldn’t compare the preference of a person who doesn’t have enough appreciation for the artistic intent of that film, or even some broader category it fits into such as its genre, on an equal basis with yours and mine, different as they are.  We shouldn’t give weight to assessments, in other words, that don’t give the thing a fair chance to give them pleasure.)

    I’m not sure anyone the whole time has been arguing that artistic merit actually resided inherently in the art object, independent of any observer’s experience. I certainly don’t believe that.

    Come to think of it, I think I might have written that up somewhere after all.  But there it is again.


  4. Avatar BlaiseP says:

    The poets always say it best: Robert Frost

    And yet with all this help of head and brain,
    How happily instinctive we remain.
    Our best guide upward farther to the light:
    Passionate preference such as love at sight.Report

    • Avatar James Hanley in reply to BlaiseP says:

      May I say how much I enjoy your poetic contributions, and admire that you so often seem to have such an appropriate poem in mind?Report

      • Avatar BlaiseP in reply to James Hanley says:

        Thanks.   Poetry is rather like whiskey.   Lots of rotgut on the market but the really fine stuff stands out and gets better with age.   At some point, it may have been in the late 1950s and 60s, the feebs and wimps and snotty nosed self-absorbed simpletons made a mad rush for the stages of poetry,  filling the coffee houses with their wretched poetastic utterances.   Allen Ginsberg was the worst of ’em all.

        The Irish preserved poetry, as they’d preserved scholastic learning in the Dark Ages.   The finest of them in modern times is Seamus Heaney.    In an Irish bar, men read poetry aloud.   I once read this aloud at the James Joyce in Durham NC, at the top of my lungs at the urging of Fergus,  to considerable acclaim.

        By Seamus Heaney
        Between my finger and my thumb
        The squat pen rests; snug as a gun.

        Under my window, a clean rasping sound
        When the spade sinks into gravelly ground:
        My father, digging. I look down

        Till his straining rump among the flowerbeds
        Bends low, comes up twenty years away
        Stooping in rhythm through potato drills
        Where he was digging.

        The coarse boot nestled on the lug, the shaft
        Against the inside knee was levered firmly.
        He rooted out tall tops, buried the bright edge deep
        To scatter new potatoes that we picked,
        Loving their cool hardness in our hands.

        By God, the old man could handle a spade.
        Just like his old man.

        My grandfather cut more turf in a day
        Than any other man on Toner’s bog.
        Once I carried him milk in a bottle
        Corked sloppily with paper. He straightened up
        To drink it, then fell to right away
        Nicking and slicing neatly, heaving sods
        Over his shoulder, going down and down
        For the good turf. Digging.

        The cold smell of potato mould, the squelch and slap
        Of soggy peat, the curt cuts of an edge
        Through living roots awaken in my head.
        But I’ve no spade to follow men like them.

        Between my finger and my thumb
        The squat pen rests.
        I’ll dig with it.


    • Avatar Sam in reply to BlaiseP says:

      Exceedingly well-played. Frost said in fewer than 50 words what took me nearly 1000 to (try to) say. Damn him.Report

      • Avatar Rufus F. in reply to Sam says:

        Yeah, I’d say Frost was a great poet, but of course there’s no justification for a purely subjective opinion like that.Report

        • Avatar BlaiseP in reply to Rufus F. says:

          There might be justification in saying something Auden once said of another poet, his friend Yeats, words which never fail to bring tears springing to my eyes:

          Follow, poet, follow right
          To the bottom of the night,
          With your unconstraining voice
          Still persuade us to rejoice;

          With the farming of a verse
          Make a vineyard of the curse,
          Sing of human unsuccess
          In a rapture of distress;

          In the deserts of the heart
          Let the healing fountain start,
          In the prison of his days
          Teach the free man how to praise.Report

        • Avatar Sam in reply to Rufus F. says:


          I plainly referenced grounds on which you could make your claim about the quality of Frost’s work (sales, citations, references, etc). But those grounds don’t invalidate somebody else’s opinion of, “Eh, Frost doesn’t do it for me.” That’s the point. There aren’t right answers on art.

          Taking a relativist position on art doesn’t mean you’re abandoning the notion that individuals can emotionally interact with it. It just means that you don’t take that emotional interaction with as fact about the piece itself.Report

          • Avatar BlaiseP in reply to Sam says:

            Heh.   There’s another objective measure of poetry to which you’ve already alluded.   Poetry, like whiskey, is also distilled.   The best poets say more — with fewer words.Report

          • Avatar Michael Drew in reply to Sam says:

            If an artist’s work creates vastly more pleasure for consumers by their testament than another artist, then I think we can say that she is greater than the other, because that is the ultimate end of art: to give pleasure (even if by means of creating temporary feelings of horror, pity, awe, existential dread, etc), so as to distract from or give meaning to the drudgeries and injuries of the necessary parts of life.  From there, we can inquire into what about her work had that effect.  And from there, if we can find some commonalities among works or artists who have done this more than other, we can say that those things are good in art, given our understanding of the ends of art, which as Roger says, on this given planet among this particular species, perhaps even within this given culture within that species, are not infinitely undefined or variable.  And none of that is independent of subjective experience of art, nor dependent on a claim about inherent value in the art itself.Report

            • Avatar Sam in reply to Michael Drew says:

              The ultimate goal is to create distractive pleasure? I’m not at all sure that’s an accurate description of art. How do we account for brutally painful books or movies or paintings? How do we account for Johnny Cash singing this?Report

              • Avatar Michael Drew in reply to Sam says:

                I think it is, but even if it’s not, I think that explanative framework is adaptive to whatever value, amalgam of values, or meta-value we might think is the ultimate end of art, and even potentially if there is no definable such end.  Ultimately, people do art to some purpose, right?Report

              • Avatar Michael Drew in reply to Michael Drew says:

                …Listening to that doesn’t ultimately give you a kind pleasure from reflecting on the new kind of pain it allowed to to experience in your imagination?  Things that cause us real pain aren’t art – unless we are their creators.  No, I think ultimately pleasure of one kind or another is the end of any art that is meant to be experienced by people other than the artist herself.Report

              • Avatar wardsmith in reply to Sam says:

                Sam, you wrote another excellent OP, please keep em coming! As for hurt and its ilk, people like the blues too. My pet theory has always been that it is good to hear someone else has it bad for a change. It really is true that misery loves company and as Auden said to Yeats, (paraphrased – poorly) point out the bad and in doing so, make it good.

                I saw Jonny Lang when he was still a young pup (maybe 19?). He was fantastic, but there was something missing. The knock against him was always that he could sing the words, play the licks (and I mean PLAY them) and do the show, but the soul wasn’t there. It wasn’t his fault, he was just young, he didn’t have the heartache the songs contained. I can’t wait to see him when he’s 50 (if I live that long lol)Report

          • Avatar Rufus F. in reply to Sam says:

            I plainly referenced grounds on which you could make your claim about the quality of Frost’s work (sales, citations, references, etc). But those grounds don’t invalidate somebody else’s opinion of, “Eh, Frost doesn’t do it for me.” That’s the point. There aren’t right answers on art.

            Right. But those are two very different arguments that you’re blurring together to reject both: One, which almost nobody actually makes, is that there is one and only one correct way to interact with particular works of art; and the other, much more common, argument is just that it is justifiable to offer substantive grounds for one’s own individual preferences- all such grounds you reject as equally meaningless and arbitrary, in a series of sweeping, declarative sentences- which I guess is appropriate. But by your argument, it’s actually very possible for you to reject out of hand my grounds for preferring Frost’s verses to those of, say, Antony Kiedis by claiming that, when I say “I do have grounds and here’s what they are”, I’m also saying there’s only one right way to view those poems, which of course I’m not. In fact, you suggest that any time anyone offers any reasoning for their preferences, what they’re actually doing is denouncing all differing opinions as “wrong” out-of-hand, and of course you reject that argument, out-of-hand, as wrong. So, yes, one could offer reasons for preferring the verse of Frost, according to your argument, but they’d also have to recognize that their preference is ultimately groundless and random and basically illogical. In other words, you make a fairly easy claim- we can’t invalidate others’ opinions on art as de facto incorrect- and use that to make a much harder claim- that any grounds for individual preferences are meaningless- without actually giving grounds for the harder claim. So, yes, I can say Frost’s poems move me, but if I try to say why they do whatever I’m saying will be… um, wrong.Report

            • Avatar Sam in reply to Rufus F. says:


              I must say that I must not have been clear, for which I apologize. I would never suggest that an individual’s reaction to a particular piece of art (no matter what it is) is either meaningless or arbitrary. If anything, I believe those reactions are the most important.

              What I dismiss though is the idea that those individual reactions are representative of more than that. In other words, even of 1000 people agree that Frost was a great poet (something that I happen to believe), that doesn’t make the 1001st person, who doesn’t enjoy Frost, wrong to believe otherwise.

              I state this as emphatically as possible: I would never mean to imply that grounds for individual preferences are incorrect. If I have communicated that, I have made a (horrible) mistake. I simply believe that those individual preferences for a thing are specific to the individual and not to the piece itself.Report

  5. Avatar Roger says:


    Nice piece, and a lot of good points. I would offer though that your position seems to imply a blank slate of humanity. In truth we share some common values, biases and propensities. Art can stimulate or violate these aesthetic senses.

    Note I am not saying most of our aesthetic tastes are identical. Just that many — at the core — are similar.

    Next, our cultures shape us in ways to give us particular tastes. Then experience within the art develops a momentum of its own. Practitioners within a field discover or create certain artistic breakthroughs that others recognize and seek to emulate. Others notice patterns of consistent failure. The audience, the artists and the critics evolve together in a somewhat relative, un-predetermined way that is also objective based upon shared human aesthetic tastes, shared experience and shared insights.

    With another species, in another culture, within another film industry Adam Sandler’s twin movie could be better than Citizen Kane. In another universe, my sax work could be more artistic than Coltrane. Not in this universe, with this species, in this culture and in this domain.


    • Avatar Sam in reply to Roger says:

      Here is a beautiful video illustrating your point about what we have, or at least, what we’re capable of having, in common. But that said, even a vast majority agreeing generally upon the importance/quality/value of a particular piece of art doesn’t make their description of it factually true. It is simply a collective overlap of shared preferences.Report

      • Avatar Roger in reply to Sam says:

        Awesome video. And we are quickly approaching agreement. I will avoid the phrase “factually true.”

        Objectively, we have areas of collective overlap of shared preferences. These are the bases of some of the objective aesthetics of art. Coltrane is objectively better within his domain (jazz improvisation) than Kenny G. In the easy listening domain, the rankings are objectively reversed.


        • Avatar BlaiseP in reply to Roger says:

          The Jazz section of the music store has always been a catch-all for music which didn’t fit into other categories.  Coltrane was an original.  Kenny G is derivative.   Originals seldom sell as well as the derivatives.   This from an interview with Brian Eno:

          Punk: You said once that music, or any other cultural form, wasn’t a straight line of development, that the most interesting things were often the ones people didn’t notice at the time. Is there anything that you’ve noticed happening now – that isn’t being…

          Eno: I think there are a lot of things like that. Well, the Velvet Underground was an example. When they actually came out very very few people were interested in them, whatever they claim now. I remember when they came out, and very few people were interested in them at all. And for a certainty I knew that they were going to become one of the most interesting groups, y’know, and that there would be a time when it wouldn’t be the Beatles up there and the all these other groups down there, it would be a question of attempting to assess the relative values of the Beatles and the Velvet Underground as equals. And this is just beginning to happen now.

          But there are many instances in earlier Rock’n’Roll of groups, who, for example, had one hit of major importance and then disappeared. The Tokens with “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” was one. But there are many other examples. I think maybe someone like Van Dyke Parks is that kind of person… I think I might be [laughter]. I think that there are certain artists who speak to other artists more than a public, alright? So they go through two stages. They are received by other artists and then diffused, right? Now unfortunately there isn’t a very efficient royalty system for dealing with this situation.

          Umh. For example, one of my main activities is working with other people, right, and I regard that as something I like doing very much indeed. Now when I work with other people what happens is there’s a – a union is attempted between their ideas and my ideas. Normally this works out. And so by this method, since these people often sell more records than me, my ideas reach some kind of fruition, and kind of feed back into the outside circle of ideas.

          For example, I’ve just been working with Bowie. Which is very good because that way I shall have reached a lot of people.Report

  6. Avatar Jaybird says:

    It seems that you’re begging the question from the very beginning. It’s merely a matter of “preference” in the title and continues through the conclusion.Report

  7. Avatar Patrick Cahalan says:

    Sam, you’re aware that this is self-referential, yes?

    That one can say that your adoption of relativism as a framework in this way is a choice you make because the results suit you?  Not that your adoption of this framework is any less justifiable than any other framework (even without using relativism to judge the value of frameworks).  However, I’m struck by the ordering of this (emphasis added):

    I clench whenever I see mention of “High” or “Low” art, both because the concepts are almost always employed in conversations designed to make somebody feel badly about themselves and because they are wrong.

    This isn’t my experience at all.  In fact, it’s quite the reverse: hardly ever is anyone discussing “high” vs “low” art to make someone else feel badly (and when this occurs, everyone recognizes immediately that the person involved is just a douchebag).  Usually these conversations are centered entirely around elements of artistic endeavor that the participants feel very strongly about, as artistic elements.

    Perhaps I discuss art with different crowds of people, or I self-select out douchebags from these conversations, or I just don’t hang out with wide enough varieties of people.Report

    • Avatar Sam in reply to Patrick Cahalan says:

      -I’d like you to write more about your first point. And please understand that I don’t preference relativism as I feel it is self-evident from the reality that people can take away entirely different experiences from the same piece of art.

      -I’d also like to better understand your contention on high and low art. I’m not sure I have ever heard a passionate discussion on high and low art which wasn’t specifically designed to belittle the pleasure taken by others, usually those who enjoy the low art. Although, for the record, I live in West Virginia, and I’ve heard plenty of people disdain high art too, and always for the same reasons: that enjoying it is evidence of an individual who thinks they’re too good for what the majority enjoys.Report

      • Avatar Stillwater in reply to Sam says:

        I think high art is distinguished by the experience of being elevated (to use Rufus’ word) or transendence (Tod’s word). Personally, I think these are real categories of experiences and worth having terms referring to. But I also agree with you that the concepts seem to only apply, or are excluded from applying, to certain categories of art which aren’t intellectually motivated, or part of a canon established to some degree by convention. Saying that Kenny Rogers (for example) couldn’t cause that experience in people seems to beg the question to some extent.Report

      • Avatar Patrick Cahalan in reply to Sam says:

        To clarify: I totally agree that there are high art douchebags (and low art snobs, as you mention) out there, and I absolutely think it’s likely that they outnumber people who engage in high/low art conversations as conversations of merit – my experience is anecdotal, and when you look at my background and my own personality type and a number of other me-specific factors you can see that I’ve definitely got an experience that is probably different in kind than many peoples’ experiences.

        Tying this into the other thread: I know a lot of Catholics.  Unlike most of those Catholics, I’ve spent a lot of my upbringing surrounded by people who actually studied theology.  This has put me in a position where I have conversations with Catholics and… well, let’s just say that I find it extremely common that Catholics don’t actually understand a large volume of their dogma.  You would not *believe* the sorts of nutty things some Catholics think about Catholicism.

        So I totally get the phenomena that there are people out there (and they may be in a majority, in fact), who are high/low art douchebags and thus there is a powerful incentive for those who interact with these people to just chuck the whole conversation entirely.  Just like there are people who chuck the whole question of religious belief because they’re surrounded by people who misrepresent their own theology.

        But if you seek out those people who discuss high/low art in the spirit of honest inquiry, or the ecumenical people who discuss theology in the spirit of honest inquiry, or (for that matter) places like this where people discuss politics in the (usually) spirit of honest inquiry, it is possible to learn things that are useful and have merit.Report

        • Avatar dhex in reply to Patrick Cahalan says:

          [quote]I’m not sure I have ever heard a passionate discussion on high and low art which wasn’t specifically designed to belittle the pleasure taken by others, usually those who enjoy the low art.[/quote]

          hang out with academics and nerds* and it comes up a lot more often sans social cruelties. not that most would necessarily use those terms outside of historical contexts – “middlebrow” is a great example, as is virginia woolf’s dislike/reliance upon the market it described.

          do people (adults, not teenagers, who are dealing with all sorts of social pressures) really spend that much time wondering if someone they’ve never met is laughing at them for liking something?

          * meant in the knowledgeable obsessives sense.Report

          • Avatar Kim in reply to dhex says:

            A pratfall is “low” humor — as is a pie in the face.

            You can make a complex joke ala Carlin, or an insightful one, and that’s high humor (the doubleplay when the Brit showed up on The Daily Show is another).

            And then there’s The Waffle Shop, drawn out of musings of two drunken comedians (Amy Poehler’s one of them, in case it wasn’t obvious!) and a CMU psychology department. It also includes a talk show.


            Transcendent? Yes… but transcending to what…?

            [these are the comments that tend to lend credence to “a friend” knowing a lot of folks… but naturally, I say enough other stuff… *whistles*]Report

            • Avatar Sam in reply to Kim says:

              Laughs are laughs. I think we’d like to pretend that we’re laughing differently when a comedian makes a piercing critique of dominant social paradigms than when he falls out of a chair, but we’re not. It’s the same reaction.Report

              • Avatar Kim in reply to Sam says:

                I’m pretty sure most republicans love the three stooges. I’m equally sure that dogmatic right wing religious types hate social commentary humor (and when they try it themselves? hooobooy).

                Right wing types think bullying is humor. Don’t mean it is. They be laughing though, and it ain’t the same laugh as when Carlin starts talking about “women-haters”Report

              • Avatar Sam in reply to Kim says:

                I would love to know how you’re distinguishing between these laughs. How do you know which are the good laughs and which are the bad laughs.Report

              • Avatar Kim in reply to Sam says:

                I’m… not exactly putting a value judgement on the laughs.

                Merely noting that there are different laughs, and that they are associated with different psychological types, and that these types use laughter in different ways.

                All laughter can be adaptive — the rightwing laughter is a great way to suppress dissent without overt bloodshed.Report

              • Avatar Johanna in reply to Sam says:


                But we do not merely measure our initial reaction. Laughter as a spontaneous reaction is the same except that if it is followed by or leads to learning or a different feeling. It isn’t the same. That would be to insist that everything be evaluated on first impressions. We don’t do that for other things why should comedy, art, music be evaluated that way?Report

              • Avatar Sam in reply to Johanna says:

                Why would we dismiss those laughs entirely though? If you want to entirely exclude first impressions, that’s certainly your privilege, but it doesn’t make doing so the RIGHT way. It makes it YOUR way.Report

              • Avatar James Hanley in reply to Sam says:

                I never said to exclude them. I’m just saying that they aren’t the whole of how things are judged or evaluated.Report

              • Avatar Johanna in reply to James Hanley says:

                That last comment was from Johanna not James. Evidently he’s used my computer more recently than I.Report

              • Avatar dhex in reply to Sam says:

                “Laughs are laughs.”

                what about when you laugh at something that’s a bitter truth to keep from crying?

                also the three stooges are awesome.Report

              • Avatar Kim in reply to dhex says:

                I like Arrested Development’s physical comedy better… But… that’s just my taste. 3 Stooges leave me thinking “oww… that’s gotta hurt” too often (maybe it’s the lack of overriding tale? I dunno…)Report

              • Avatar BlaiseP in reply to Kim says:

                Laughing at the Three Stooges is the sovereign test of the XY chromosomal pairing.Report

  8. Avatar BSK says:

    I work with young children.  I promote an approach known as “descriptive praise”.  When admiring a student’s art work, telling them how beautiful there work is is meaningless.  It is too subjective.  My colleague likes pink so she tells all the kids who paint pink that there pictures are beautiful.  If she liked blue, a different set of paintings would be determined to be beautiful.  All because of this one teacher’s whim.  This feedback is, ultimately, useless.

    Instead, we describe.  I don’t think your painting is beautiful.  Or maybe I do, but that is meaningless.  Instead, I notice that you used 17 different colors.  The child next to you used 4.  17 is more than 4.  It is not necessarily better.  But by describing it, we offer the information for individuals to make informed judgements.

    Let’s use the hot dog analogy.  You like Gene’s.  Great.  That info is useless to me.  Now, if you told me that you like a dog with great snap and Gene’s has more snap than any dog you’ve tasted, NOW we are getting somewhere.  If I also like snap on my dog (I do!), your review suddenly has some value to me.  If I don’t, it still has value.  If you tell me Gene’s dogs are steamed and you love whatever qualities steaming applies, you’ve given me useful information.  I like a grilled dog, charred if possible.  As such, Gene’s is probably not the place for me.  Not because you are wrong and I am right.  But because your specific preferences (steamed) are different from mine (charred).  So rather than telling me, “This dog is great because I love it and I love it because it’s great,” tell me, “I love a good steamed hot dog and Gene’s steam theres very well.”  I can do something with the latter.  Not with the former.Report

    • Avatar Sam in reply to BSK says:


      Suppose you come to me and lay out your 14-point-explanation for what you consider to be the best hot dog: you account for the snap, for the char, for the bite of the relish, for the tang of the ketchup, for the vociferousness of the onion, for the detectability of the cole-slaw, for the heat of the chili,  the toast of the bun, the profundity of the mustard, etc. Suppose I try your hot dog and say, even without being able to tell you why, that no, I still prefer a Gene’s hot dog. Haven’t I told you, if nothing else, then by the metric of your analysis, my preferences are different?Report

      • Avatar BSK in reply to Sam says:

        Yes, at that point you have, but that is because there are metrics on the table.  But all you have told me is what Gene’s dog is NOT.  Maybe Gene’s dog has just a wee bit of difference to the snap… maybe it has a world of difference.  I still don’t know because you haven’t given any objective data.

        It is fine that you prefer otherwise.  In fact, it’s great!.  Again, no one is right or wrong.  There is no “high” or “low” dog.Report

    • Avatar BlaiseP in reply to BSK says:

      The highest sort of praise you can give a child, or anyone for that matter, is to describe your own reactions to his work.   I always ask children to describe the piece for me, whereupon I can make intelligent commentary.

      Intelligent commentary on Gene’s Hot Dogs (the one I know and love on Grand in Chicago) would start by noting they’re made with Vienna Beef Sausages, known to be eaten by the gods themselves atop Olympus.   Vienna Beef makes a peerless hot dog.  Only heathens and reprobates pollute and besmear them with ketchup.    Gene’s is an institution, a place of pilgrimage for the hot dog aficionado, great value for money and though its menu is limited, Gene’s has become a veritable temple of cheap and tasty eats.   Useless?   I don’t think so.Report

      • Avatar Mark Thompson in reply to BlaiseP says:

        I always ask children to describe the piece for me, whereupon I can make intelligent commentary.

        I know I’ve mentioned this in another comments thread previously, but to me this is where useful criticism of any inherently subject endeavor must begin, regardless of the age of the creator; it is, to me, the difference between a good critic and a bad critic.

        To properly criticize, you have to first know what it was that the creator (whether it be of art, beer, wine, whatever) was trying to accomplish.  Good criticism/commentary/feedback, etc. needs to first evaluate the product on the creator’s own terms.  If the audience to whom the critic is speaking generally cares about the critic’s personal tastes, then it may also be appropriate to start talking about how the work meets or doesn’t meet those tastes, but only if the critic is being open about what those tastes are.Report

        • Avatar Sam in reply to Mark Thompson says:

          Not surprisingly I suppose – I’m not intentionally trying to disagree everywhere – but I don’t think the creator’s intent necessarily matters. Once the work of creating a piece is done, the interpretation of it begins. Some of those closely align with what the creator intended; some don’t. Some of those speak directly to us; some don’t. The ability to interpret a piece is what makes art of all kinds fantastic.Report

          • Avatar Mark Thompson in reply to Sam says:

            Interpretation is surely in the eye of the beholder, and I would not argue otherwise.  But I think there’s a difference between interpretation and evaluation/criticism.

            As Johanna points out below, the latter is based largely on knowledge and understanding of certain facts.  This knowledge can be acquired through a good knowledge of the context surrounding the art or through knowledge of the artist’s direct claims about the piece, or, ideally, both.

            Regardless, it seems obviously true that where an artist is trying to communicate “X” through the use of certain tools, yet even someone who  both knows what the artist is trying to communicate and understands those tools has a hard time avoiding the conclusion that the artist is primarily communicating “not X,” then it seems obvious that the artist has failed to accomplish what she set out to accomplish and thus has created “bad” or at least “less good” art.

            The art may in fact even be incredibly effective at communicating “not X”; it may be enjoyable and popular, even if only amongst a niche.  But it is still  bad art.  And there’s nothing wrong with enjoying bad art –  I have no problems proclaiming that you’ll have to pry my Bon Jovi CDs from my cold, dead hands. But I’ll be damned if we can’t objectively say that almost any given Springsteen song about working class struggles is all around better art than “Livin’ on a Prayer,” even as no shortage of people (myself included) enjoy listening to the latter more than any Springsteen song on the subject  with the possible exception of “Born to Run.”Report

            • Avatar Sam in reply to Mark Thompson says:

              I suppose we’re going to have to agree to disagree here, as I can’t possibly see how you’re going to tell me that one thing is superior in your eyes when you freely acknowledge preferring the other. If you’d rather listen to “Livin on a Prayer” than “any Springsteen song on the subject”, I have a very hard time believing your earlier claim that Springsteen’s work is superior, either generally or in your eyes.

              We see this elsewhere in discussions of people who allegedly enjoy things “ironically.” I have a very hard time differentiating pleasure in my life. Perhaps these people are superior at doing so but it seems to me that if you’re enjoying something, you’re enjoying it.Report

              • Avatar Mark Thompson in reply to Sam says:

                Springsteen’s stuff can be depressing in a way that “Livin’ on a Prayer” is not and can never hope to be, even though it’s aimed at accomplishing roughly the same thing.  They’re both supposed to be depressing and simultaneously enjoyable; bittersweet, if you will.  Springsteen’s songs accomplish that; but “Livin’ on a Prayer” utterly fails in that regard – it winds up as a great party song, but little more.

                But damn it all, party songs are just more fun to listen to.  I’ve mostly got to be in the mood for Springsteen (and when I am, there’s nothing better), precisely because it succeeds where Bon Jovi fails.  But I can listen to “Livin’ on a Prayer” just about anytime (but there’s plenty of stuff that I can listen to anytime but that I enjoy just as much).  In that sense, I find “Prayer” more enjoyable precisely because it fails where Springsteen succeeds.

                The difference between those two outcomes is talent and creative genius.Report

              • Avatar Jaybird in reply to Mark Thompson says:

                If this is a party… WE NEED TO DO 41 SHOTS!!!! WOOOOOO!!!!!!Report

              • It’s not an issue, IOW, of being ironic- I’m not listening to it in order to laugh at it, I actually do enjoy it.  It’s that JBJ is really good at making fun songs and anthems, or even one-note songs more generally, but not terribly good at making songs with a greater degree of difficulty.

                So when he tries to do something with a greater degree of difficulty, he winds up just making a particularly enjoyable anthem, which is only part of what he’s shooting for.Report

      • Avatar BSK in reply to BlaiseP says:


        I always appreciate your perspective on children.

        I generally begin asking them about their work.  But I never ask, “What is it?”  Because, it is not always a thing.  The children I work with (4 and 5) are at the point where they begin to transition from process to product oriented work.  The experience of painting is just as, if not more, vital to them than what is left on the paper at the end.  So I ask them to tell me about what they did, or what they were trying to do, and we can evaluate the steps they took and how successful they were.

        As others have pointed out here, this is true for all creative processes.  Tell me about what you tried to do here and let’s see how successful you were.  I will share with you what your work (not just the product, but the process itself) invokes in me and why.  I might find your work aesthetically unpleasant, but if your goal was to cover your whole paper with colors of your own creation and you did that, I am happy that you found a way to reach new heights.  It is beautiful to me not because it meets my preferences, but because you accomplished something and had a transformative experience.Report

      • Avatar Jaybird in reply to BlaiseP says:

        One of the things that I keep noticing in arguments of morality vs. matters of taste is the confusing of the one thing for the other.

        One of the funny things to do in an argument about Same-Sex Marriage, for example, is to start talking about Black Olives. I very much no not like black olives. It is possible for me, in a very short period of time, to throw together an argument against olives that relies primarily on unstated moral assumptions and using decidedly moral language.

        I’m sure you can imagine it.

        Well, if we agree that it’s possible to make a mistake in that direction, can we agree that it might be possible to make a mistake in the other? Can we mistake matters of morality for matters of taste?

        Or, do we need to establish the existence of a moral fabric first and, ONLY FROM THERE, can we argue whether art accurately reflects or works in accordance with or inspires according to this moral fabric?

        Because if we want to go full moral nihilist, it’d be easy as pie to say that this or that is founded upon nothing more than whimsy and we may like this because it reminds us of orgasms we had once and we dislike that due to nothing more than an undigested bit of beef, a blot of mustard, a crumb of cheese, a fragment of underdone potato.Report

      • Avatar Renee in reply to BlaiseP says:

        I didn’t know where I stood until I read Blaise’s post.  Of course I know that Blaise is “merely” expressing a preference for no-ketchup on his Gene’s dog.  But, having never had a dog from Gene’s, when I get one, I guarantee I will get it sans ketchup because of his passionate description and dismissal of ketchup.  That doesn’t make Sam wrong.  (Depending on the size of the dogs, I may try one with and one without, cause I got to know).  But Blaise’s description makes me want to get on a plane today and try one.  Sam’s description makes me simply wonder what it is he likes about it.

        Yes, it is obnoxious when people (rthe aforementioned douchebags and lowbrow snobs) judge other people by their tastes.  But I would much rather live in a world with that obnoxiousness but where we have people who insist that the best philly cheesesteak is Pat’s and if you disagree you are a moron then a world where all they can say is:  I have a high preference for Pat’s, but maybe you will have a different preference?

        In other words, our world –where people vehemently defend their (objectively un-rankable) rankings– is BETTER than a world where everyone agrees that beauty is merely in the eye of the beholder.  People who think that that world is better are toothless wimps who can’t take a stand on something as trivial as a cheesesteak.


        • Avatar BlaiseP in reply to Renee says:

          Heh.  You will not find a ketchup bottle at Gene’s.   I have often said, if all were right with the world, we would have such happy quarrels as those upon the subject of how to cook a chicken.  The opponents would be obliged to eat a piece of each other’s chicken.   Barbeque would become a religion.   Good beer and wine would flow, as disputatious brewers and vintners would contend for prizes since the Nobel Peace Prize would be an unnecessary relic of the bad old days.Report

          • Avatar Renee in reply to BlaiseP says:

            Oh man, this.  If those are the conditions, I aim to become the most quarrelous person around.  Of course, proper bbq is pork, so you are wrong there.  Dang!  I guess will just have to quarrel about it . . .


            • Avatar Sam in reply to Renee says:

              My description of the hot dog? I have offered you a list of toppings (ketchup, raw onion, hot chili) and elsewhere, have mentioned that both the bun and the hotdog are steamed.

              (Incidentally, ketchup is a quarrelsome issue in these parts too. Hot dog culture is a fascinating thing.)Report

              • Avatar Renee in reply to Sam says:

                You read that in a way I didn’t intend which is my fault — it was poorly worded.  I had seen and comprehended your description of the dog.  When I wrote “Sam’s description makes me simply wonder what it is he likes about it, ” I meant something more like “Hmm I guess I can see how a hot dog thus described could be good.  I wonder if I would like it as well.”

                But it lacks the immediacy and power of Blaise’s claim.  In fact, when I read the first paragraph of the OP and you claimed that it was the best hot dog, I got excited.  Oh Boy, a foodie throwdown!  That made me really want to try the dog.  But then you admitted (rightfully) that you could be wrong and I lost interest (in the food, not in the post, which I thought was good!).


  9. Avatar Tod Kelly says:

    Sam: I’ve been trying to think of how I might approach what I’m trying to say that neither comes off as a “if you don’t agree with me you’re a rube,” but that still tries to describe the ineffable paradox of art appreciation that combines both the objective and subjective.

    Here’s my newest attempt:

    Who is the greatest player in the NBA today, or in NBA history?

    To a certain degree, this is an objective question.  One of my favorite players of all time, for example, was Eddie Jones.  In fact, he’s probably in my top 3 favorite Lakers of all time.  But by any scale of NBA greatness Eddie Jones was not one of the all time NBA greats.  He wasn’t even one of the greatest players in any of the years he played; intact, he was never one of the top 2 best players on any of his teams.

    Does this mean that I am wrong to like him so much, or have him as one of my favorite all time players?  No, but there is a difference between recognizing him as a player I like a lot and an all time great.

    But the question isn’t entirely objective, either.

    Was Kareem better center than Chamberlain, and was either better than Russell?  Everyone can (and will) agree that all three are better than Kwame Brown, but any three people might have good, objective reasons for backing any of the previous three as the all time best big man.  Even in today’s game, is Kobe the best?  Or LeBron?  Or Rose?  Or Durant?  There can be a meaningful discussion among those that follow the NBA that any of these guys might be the choice, based on a metric that is – to a certain extent – subjective.  But that metric will still be objective enough to recognize that Luke Walton is not the best player in the NBA today, even if he is your favorite.  (Which, again, is OK.)

    In this way, artistic accomplishment is similar.Report

    • Avatar BSK in reply to Tod Kelly says:

      But the goal of basketball is, generally, agreed upon.  Putting the ball in the basket is good.  Stopping the other team from doing so is also good.  Dropping the ball every other time you touch it (ahem, paging Mr. Brown) is bad.  The more good things people do and the less bad things they do matter.  Individuals will weigh specific good things and bad things differently and advanced metrics are attempting to come up with an objective way to do so, so in the end, you have a blend of objective and subjective.

      Art is not so clean cut.  The goals of art are as varied as the artists who create it.Report

      • Avatar Patrick Cahalan in reply to BSK says:

        Art is constrained by the tools you’re using.  If you’re trying to create a sculpture, you’re kinda stuck with some sort of three-dimensional subject matter that occupies space and has mass.  Basketball is constrained by the rules of the game.

        Yes, the constraints are different, and what you do inside the framework of the thing is different, and in the second case there are many more objective criteria that you can level that add a different nuance to the conversation that you may not have in the first case.

        But in the case of basketball, there are 15% of the players that are at the top, and there are 25% of the players who are at the bottom, and the other 40% of the players in the middle are… well, you can’t just rely on just those objective measures any more.

        I guess I just see this as a continuum, not a discrete function.Report

    • Avatar Sam in reply to Tod Kelly says:

      This is an excellent question! And also one that cannot be answered for the following reasons:

      1. Whatever mechanism we propose to measure players is our creation. I could argue that championships are the only thing that matters, but then I end up with Robert Horry being one of the greatest players ever (something I don’t believe). I can argue that points are the only thing that matters, but then I end up excluding guys who won championships like Russell. I could argue that a combination of statistical measures plus championships matter, but then I’m forced again to exclude players who simply had the bad luck of playing for woeful teams.

      2. We also cannot account for Eddie Jones. Very few people are going to argue that Eddie Jones was the greatest basketball player ever, but maybe there’s somebody out there who saw Jones’s performances as transcendent achievements.  I can’t account for that, but I also can’t deny that by the rubric they want to use, they’re correct.

      3. We can collectively dismiss the Eddie Jones argument, and often do. But that doesn’t make the person arguing otherwise wrong. It just means they’re arguing against a majority position that says that even if the greatest ever can’t be agreed upon, Eddie Jones isn’t on that short list. In other words, we can have these conversations and debates and arguments, but at the end of the day, the players we propose to elevate to G.O.A.T status are only so because of the rubrics we have introduced. By some other rubric, it simply may not be the case (as I argued above).Report

      • Avatar BSK in reply to Sam says:

        But basketball has defined rubrics in a way that art doesn’t. The fact that you mentioned points or championships is informative, because it indicates agreed upon standards of success.

        You can win at basketball. You can’t win at art.Report

        • Avatar Kim in reply to BSK says:


          If you’re writing something scary, and you cause heart attacks, I think you win. Or something like that. At any rate, artist has desired response — if achieved, is winning!!

          (if that desired response is sending the recipient to therapy… well…. *water droplet*)Report

          • Avatar wardsmith in reply to Kim says:

            Sometimes you can /win/ and /lose/ at the same time.Report

          • Avatar BSK in reply to Kim says:

            Kim- Absolutely! I’ve argued that a pece is best judged against its goals. However, if I write a scary piece and you write a romance piece, how do we compare? More importantly, why do we care to? Do people argue over whether Tom Brady is better than LeBron James or Peyton Manning? The latter… And with good reason.Report

  10. Avatar Jeffrey Straszheim says:

    I don’t post here much, so… I hope this goes well.

    I have a big problem with this kind of subjectivism, the idea that all opinions of art are equally valid, and we cannot say that one is better than another because of the mere fact that some person feels this way or that. On the contrary, I think we can say one thing is better than the other, exactly as we see the humanity behind the art as better or worse.

    I shall be quite blunt. Perhaps you see no reason to prefer health over sickness, but I do. Perhaps you see no reason to prefer athletic achievement over weakness, but to me the difference is clear. Okay, perhaps you see value in the failure. Sure. There can be something sublime in trying but falling short. Art can show that. But a person who doesn’t train, who is sloppy, lazy, and weak, and who still tries to get into the race, is an embarrassment. When he makes films, we call him Adam Sandler.

    There is a difference between intelligence and stupidity, which goes beyond people who proudly claim they suck at math. I can go on. Some people are smarter, deeper, and see more. Some people work harder to do greater things.

    In all these cases, I believe there is real achievement found in some human endeavors that is lacking in others. Art is like these other things.Report

    • For what it’s worth, I enjoyed reading this argument and wouldn’t want to argue against it.Report

      • Avatar Sam in reply to Jaybird says:


        Can you use this method you’re proposing to tell me which of the following is better: Mozart’s Requiem and Nina Simone’s Sinnerman? You said we can say that one thing is better than the other, so I’d like to specifically know how to differentiate between these two pieces and to know, objectively, which one represents a greater level of skill, achievement, accomplishment, or whatever other measure you’d like to use.Report

        • Avatar Kim in reply to Sam says:

          How can you do that? Mozart wrote for broken instruments, illtuned and shrill. To manage to create anything was a miracle!

          Songs are one thing, the music another, the lyrics a third — and the actual execution yet a different component.

          It is easy enough to find trash music — or derivative, or entirely too didactic. Aside from that, I tend to call it all “good” and a bit of it “very good.”Report

          • Avatar wardsmith in reply to Kim says:

            Yeah, Mozart wrote for broken instruments, like that crap Antonio Stradivari built. Thanks Kim! 🙂Report

            • Avatar Kim in reply to wardsmith says:

              ward, you’ll forgive me, as it’s been over fifteen years since I read anything about Beethoven. But, do correct me if i’m wrong — wasn’t it the woods and the brass that were mistuned?

              Once, Beethoven wrote for the true instruments, with the proper tuning. Didn’t sound right until fifty years past his death.

              And beethoven’s well past mozart.Report

            • Avatar BlaiseP in reply to wardsmith says:

              Ecch, the orchestras of Mozart’s day were a motley crew.   Ever played  baroque instruments?  The pianos of Mozart’s day were horrid.   I’ve played early pianos.   One string per note, just like the old harpsichords.   I used to own a harpsichord:  with every change of the barometer it was time to get out the tuning forks and wrench.   I tuned that goddamned thing about four times more than I actually played it. I sold it to buy my first synthesizer.

              Most baroque violins are horrid, Guarneri and Stradivari gave us the modern violin and bow.   Baroque flutes are prone to all sorts of wretched behaviour in cold weather, even worse in humid weather.   Baroque trumpets had no valves.   The musicians were poorly paid and nobody got much training.   In Venice, orphan girls were taught to play musical instruments so they could earn their keep in the courts of Europe.  Antonio Vivaldi used to teach them, which is why so much of his music is as simple as it is.   Bach constantly complained about how wretched his musicians and singers were.Report

              • Avatar wardsmith in reply to BlaiseP says:

                I don’t know of any composer who didn’t complain about the musicians, unless the composer was also the performer. 😉

                Thanks for the segue, I had wanted to recommend this book (From HonkyTonk to High Art) to you when I read the paper but needed to be reminded. I’m planning to buy it for my brother, a Julliard trained concert pianist. He has a harpsichord too, just has to play it /very/ carefully. 🙂Report

              • Avatar Kim in reply to wardsmith says:

                I do. but it takes talent to tune music to the singer. and some composers really suck at actually playing things.Report

              • Avatar BlaiseP in reply to Kim says:

                I routinely write things I can’t play.   This is why God in his infinite mercy allowed RoseGarden to be inventedReport

        • Avatar Renee in reply to Sam says:


          Is Mozart’s requiem “better” than a Gene’s hot dog?  No one would claim that that is answerable.  Now your example is obviously not absurd, like mine.  But the difficulty in answering that question isn’t necessarily because of the impossibility of one being better.  Yes, both examples that you cite are music.  But from radically different eras and contexts.

          I think this is why innovators are so often credited with genius:  there is nothing with which to compare them.


          • Avatar Sam in reply to Renee says:

            But the implication was made that we can rank order artistic creation. I proposed a scenario to rank order. Perhaps we can have others. If we draw some distinction though between what Mozart was trying to do and what Simone was trying to do, why don’t we afford Sandler (who, incidentally, has produced movies that many people have truly loved) the same leeway to create within a particular genre (adolescent male comedy, although he has strayed from this model at times)?Report

            • Avatar Renee in reply to Sam says:

              I don’t disagree at all with affording Sandler leeway for his Genre.  In fact, he may be the Mozart of crotch jokes (I am not a huge aficionado so I can’t back that up although I do enjoy some of his films).

              Would you also agree that some genres are simply more intellectually rigorous than others?  I’m not saying superior, just more rigorous.  And that it is more difficult to create works in the more rigorous genres?  And if that’s the case, shouldn’t we afford the artists who can succeed in those genres some sort of respect?  Tod, I think, referenced the Dead Milkmen.  I love that band.  But as he pointed out, there are garage bands like them in any town who can do what they do.  Because what they do, while enjoyable, isn’t that hard.  Very few people can take a melody and sit down and on the spot compose a 6 part fugue.  That takes a JS Bach.

              Now I still find it hard to rank Bach and the Dead Milkmen (as per above).  But I have no problem identifying that the difference between the two is more than just preference.Report

              • Avatar BlaiseP in reply to Renee says:

                Ecch, here’s the deal with Dead Milkmen, and for that matter, Ramones or going back to the Velvets.   Here’s an old musicians’ joke:  anyone can carry a tune but only a few can unload it properly.   The punk movement was considerably more sophisticated than anyone realized at the time: it was the product of guys like the Hein brothers at Enigma Records who believed in this stuff.

                The Dead Milkmen brought some badly needed humor to rock ‘n roll.   The Ramones had been archly funny if you were in on the joke, Blondie, too.   Rock had been taking itself entirely too seriously for far too long.   Television (the band) were far more proficient, musically.   It was time for punk to stand up and get out of the garage and on the road, to joints like CBGB where they could get their proverbial ya-yas out.

                Music isn’t really all that hard to play, any of it.   The hard part, the part the wannabes never quite grasp, is how hard it is to keep on going, night after night.   It’s like everything else in life.  You can’t just wait around for the muse to strike.   It’s a grubby, corrupt business and if you don’t have a business manager who knows his game, you’re f*cked.   Bach had to write a cantata a week there for a good long while, but a good deal of what he wrote was simply putting a load of baroque tinsel on stolid old chorales, well known to the entire congregation.Report

              • Avatar Michael Drew in reply to BlaiseP says:

                This is why an argument that better art must have required greater toil, or that an art that required more toil is better is incomplete as an explication of quality if not a complete dead end.  We can deny, as Sam does, that art has any identifiable, abstract-able end (such as increasing human pleasure in the world), but I hardly think that we can say that the end of art is to simply be a repository for as much labor as can possibly go into a given work.  Sublime things can be throw-offs, and complete aesthetic failures can be the product of a life’s dedication (unfortunately).

                Perhaps this was simply your point.Report

              • Avatar Walter McQuie in reply to BlaiseP says:

                Yea, there are so many ways in which making money doing art is so much more difficulty than making art. And unfortunately, ways in which making money makes it more difficult to make good art.Report

              • Avatar Sam in reply to Renee says:

                No, respectfully, there are not garage bands in every town who can do what the Dead Milkmen did, and that attitude is precisely the problem. If we’re going to send praise Picasso’s way for the body of his work, it wouldn’t be fair to say, “But every town has a Picasso.” There’s a reason we know of the Dead Milkmen, and that’s because they achieved at a level superior to other bands doing similar work within the genre.

                Now, if you want to say, “I don’t much like the Dead Milkmen,” I surely won’t object. But that doesn’t reflect what the Dead Milkmen have done. It reflects only your preference for something/anything else.Report

        • Avatar Jeffrey Straszheim in reply to Sam says:

          Hi Sam,

          Sorry I was slow in responding — I try to keep my weekends pretty light on the blog consumption, a habit I recommend.

          So, I’m not going to take up the challenge you present, comparing those two artists. Nothing I said suggests I should be able to. I’ve compared art to other human achievements, but that does not imply that comparing individual pieces, or persons, should be obvious, or that we should expect there to be singular criteria that will settle matters in every case, or that taste plays no role whatsoever. Life isn’t like that.

          It is too bad these arguments end up drifting off into analogies, such as sports and the like, since analogies can illustrate but never demonstrate a point. However, I haven’t found a better way to discuss this thing other than analogies. I like to use two.

          The first, as I mentioned above, and as others have mentioned here, is athletics. This is a clear area of human achievement, and which goes beyond wins and losses, as the loser of a match can prove as deeply admirable as the winner. Furthermore, I hope we all agree a “special” athlete is also admirable, although in a different way from those able-bodied. That said, even if we cannot say if Muhammed Ali was a greater athlete than Lance Armstrong (at least, I wouldn’t take up the challenge), never mind comparing either with a disabled person who still achieves meaningful things, we can say that all of those are better than the fat guy who cannot put down the cheetos.

          Which leads to my second analogy: junk food.

          This is obvious, right? If you want to fill up on doritos and cupcakes, that is fine. If you find they taste good, who can say that you are wrong. But still, you cannot pretend they are good for you, not in the long term, not as a steady diet. You can and should distinguish junk food from quality food. So it goes with art.

          For example, take Dan Brown, certainly a man who produces “junk food” level books. Can someone like him? Sure, I suppose. He can tell a story. But if that is the only thing a person likes, things at that level, then indeed I will think less of that person. It matters what you put into your mind. It reveals your humanity.

          This does not mean everyone has to like Virginia Woolf (or whatever). You get to have your own tastes. There is more than one sort of admirable thing. If a person finds classical music boring, but loves complex and interesting jazz — or the Dead Milkmen, for that matter — I’m okay with that. But I bet if you look at the spectrum of what a person consumes, on the whole, you will find patterns, that smarter people like smarter things — with a few odd exceptions that make people fun and interesting — that thoughtful people like thoughtful things, and so on.

          If you like fart jokes, tell fart jokes. But is that all you like?


          • Avatar Sam in reply to Jeffrey Straszheim says:

            You’re judging preferences. You can enjoy your own whatever without asserting that your own whatever is superior to somebody else’s own whatever. Saying, “Well, the fart jokes are fine, but I am into the true humor of…fill in the blank,” doesn’t say anything. We’re both laughing. Neither’s laughter is purer or truer or better. Its just laughter. If Shakespeare’s fart jokes move you in a way that some stand-up comedian’s do not, fantastic. I’m frankly not in the mood for fart jokes at all. But that speaks only about my own preferences, not about universal truths.

            I understand your aversion to analogies, but can you give us two of some sort of artistic expression in which one is superior to the other?Report

            • Avatar Jeffrey Straszheim in reply to Sam says:

              I can give examples of art that is better than other art, but I won’t in this thread — for the simple reason that I don’t want to play that game. I will stick to the analogy.

              The fat man can say he is fine being fat, that he likes his cheeseburgers and television, that he enjoys sitting on the couch, and cannot be bothered to work hard and change. I cannot tell him he’s wrong. It’s his life. He gets to make his choice. That said, it is foolish to go from that to the conclusion that sickness is the same as health.

              If a person’s mentality leads them to Adam Sandler and Dan Brown, and no further, nothing smarter than that, I don’t get to tell them to change. It’s their life, their mind. But those remain very stupid, shallow things. The mind that remains at that level isn’t much of a mind.

              I don’t mean the following as an insult, not exactly. But take it as you will. For a person to say that all art is equal is to stubbornly cling to mediocrity; it is to deny there are ways to improve.

              “Oh,” the man cries, “but it entertains me!”


              • Avatar Sam in reply to Jeffrey Straszheim says:

                Those are stupid, shallow things TO YOU. They are not objectively stupid, shallow things.

                And the notion that your opponent in this clings to mediocrity is precisely the sort of condescension that I am arguing against. You might as well say, “I’m better and smarter than you, for these are the superior things that I enjoy.” The things you enjoy though? They’re just things. You may have endowed them with particular meaning. Collections of individuals may have done the same. But those aren’t true facts about that thing. They’re preferential interpretations of that thing.Report

              • Avatar Jeffrey Straszheim in reply to Sam says:

                No, I indeed believe those things are stupid and shallow, full stop. Not just “to me.” I think smarter people can see what less smart people cannot, and that they can produce what less smart people cannot imagine or appreciate. Which is okay. I don’t want to deny Dan Brown to the less smart person — or the smart person in the mood for a “junk food” book. Let them enjoy.

                “But,” you say, “there pleasure is the same as yours.”

                I’m not sure. But I’m not trying to compare our pleasure.

                If a person want unchallenging entertainment, it’s none of my business, just as I don’t want to know about every person sitting on their couch eating chips. Let them eat chips. They’re free.

                I am impressed by the girl who trains for the marathon — and then goes on to run the marathon, and keep running marathons to keep getting better times. I admire the self-educated fellow who teaches himself advanced mathematics, because he wants to know. And I admire the great artist, who dig deep in herself to find truths of humanity that are not obvious, until the artist reveals them, when they become stunningly obvious, cathartic even.

                We are all humans. Finding deep truths about ourself is obviously valuable. Indeed, some art can better a person. And more, I think the very hunger to be better will drive people toward better art.

                And yes, I’m saying some people are better than others. I know that is not a popular message.

                Some people are better than me, but I’m working very, very hard.


              • Avatar Sam in reply to Jeffrey Straszheim says:

                From these positions of yours, I don’t see why you’re unwilling to declare whose work is superior: Mozart’s or Nina Simone’s. You’re establishing that you believe in better and worse, smarter and stupid, more and less, inequality within the arts. Surely from these grounds you can tell us whose work is objectively superior. And if you think the example is a loaded one, perhaps you can give us another instead: Mozart or Beethoven? Mozart or Dvorak? Mozart or Copeland?


              • Avatar Roger in reply to Sam says:


                Differences can be both real and subjective, both demonstrable and unquantifiable.

                We can disagree over whether Kelly Slater or Taj Burrows is the better surfer, but nobody believes I am in the running. We can disagree whether Coltrane or Adderley is the best on the sax, but nobody argues for my friend Pete (who is a pro btw). The fact that we are unable to consistently and quantifiably select the best does not prove there are no objective differences.Report

            • Avatar Jeffrey Straszheim in reply to Sam says:

              Oh, can I add something — and I acknowledge this is drifting the topic to a strange place — but I disagree with this:

              Neither’s laughter is purer or truer or better. Its just laughter.

              Sure, if two normal folks are watching a comedy. But not all laughter is the same. Some is indeed “purer.”  The sinister cackle of the sociopath who watches another suffer (even the dramatized suffering of art) is the not the same as a happy child laughing along with her friends. Humanity matters.

              I’ve met sociopaths (or I believe them to be) who fiendishly enjoy very disturbing art.


              • Avatar Sam in reply to Jeffrey Straszheim says:


                The sociopath is deriving humor from what s/he is seeing. The non-sociopath is doing the same thing. We may be less comfortable with the sociopath’s cackle (or the thing that makes her/him cackle), but that doesn’t mean that her/his pleasure is different than our pleasure.Report

              • Avatar Jaybird in reply to Sam says:

                The crack addict who trades her baby for crack is doing it for a high.

                Mother Theresa helped the poor and she daydreamed about Jesus high-fiving her in heaven.

                They’re both just getting their rocks off, man.Report

              • Avatar Jaybird in reply to Sam says:

                We may be less comfortable with the sociopath’s cackle (or the thing that makes her/him cackle), but that doesn’t mean that her/his pleasure is different than our pleasure.

                What if the sociopath thinks that he enjoys something on a deeper level than someone else? Is that okay too or is that something that we need to rectify ASAP?Report

              • Avatar Jeffrey Straszheim in reply to Sam says:

                I don’t know if it is different in the sense of a brain-wave scan. That is very much outside my point.

                Look, it was an over the top example, the sociopath versus the child, but it was a real example. And your response seems deeply weird. You truly see no difference in my scenario, other than the sociopath makes you “less comfortable?”

                There are things beyond our comfort. What if he acts out on his desires? If the child in my scenario acts out on what pleases her, she might hug her friend, or give her a flower. She might dance! The sociopath might carve out sombody’s liver in a ritualized-sex-murder. That will indeed make me less comfortable.

                I know this has gone well outside of art, but I see no reason to separate art from the general human experience. It is all one thing. Love differs from hate, health differs from sickness, empathy differs from callousness — I can go on — insight from ignorance, intelligence from stupidity, on and on. These are real things. They exist in different measure. Art partakes of them.Report

              • Avatar Sam in reply to Jeffrey Straszheim says:

                I am not entirely certain how you’re defending my position on preferences – they’re all equal – into a defense of violence. A more light-hearted example might be this:

                -I don’t like black olives so I say, “Black olives are gross.”

                -You do like black olives so you say, “Black olives are delicious.”

                My point is that neither of us are reflecting the reality the black olive. They’re neither gross nor delicious. They’re just olives. Our descriptions of them don’t reflect the olive’s reality, but rather, our own.


              • Avatar Jeffrey Straszheim in reply to Sam says:

                First off, let me (partly) apologize for the extreme examples. The thing is, your positions is only obviously wrong at the extremes. It is very easy to say, “Oh, Jazz versus Classical is a matter of opinion,” and perhaps it is, but that does not apply that all distinctions are entirely opinion in every case. Do you include even rape-snuff-porn, and moreover, crude, crass, and unskilled rape-snuff-porn created by a callous mind for broken human beings? really? If you believe what you are saying, then you must.

                Perhaps what you claim is true for some things (olives) but not others (literature). Perhaps it is true over some spread (one guy prefers Pynchon, another Virginia Woolf, which is fine) but not across the full measure (Dan Brown).

                Anyway, yeah, I don’t care what people think about olives. Outside the obvious health issues, I don’t see what difference it makes which food you like. It seems outside the boundaries of what I’m talking about — although, I’d love to see an argument that suggested otherwise.

                Let me lay these points out:

                • People can differ. Taste plays a role. But intelligence and emotional depth play a role as well. As does education. As does moral sensitivity. And many other things to the full measure of human experience. These differences matter.
                • Quality does not need to be a totally ordered set ( But that does not imply that everything is equal. (And note, quality need not even form a coherent lattice. Art gets to be different from math.)
                • Even if there was a singular and simple criteria, I would not want to be the guy to make the decision for everybody else. I won’t tell you to prefer Beethoven or Mozart, or any of the Jazz greats for that matter, or even punk rock, of which there is much to like. But if you’re listening to Justin Bieber and Rebecca Black (remember her?), and nothing else better, then you’re starving your own soul.
                • You’re allowed a few guilty pleasures. Consider the spectrum of art and experiences you have, not this or that single thing.
                • Art is but one part of life. But then, amazing people tend to be amazing in many ways.


              • Avatar Roger in reply to Sam says:

                It would be more accurate to say we are both objectively describing our relationship to the olive. Just as the olive can be objectively above me and objectively below you.Report

              • Avatar Sam in reply to Sam says:

                If we must discuss snuff films, I want to clarify: are we talking about staged or genuine depictions of violence? Because it seems to me that there is a difference between the two. Perhaps you’ll argue that the actual snuff film capturing genuine violence represents some sort of found art (and I’m certainly willing to consider this), but I’d like to know better what it is you’re having me compare.

                My problem with your position is that it amounts to an intellectual framework carefully designed to make your own preferences superior and the Dan Brown reader’s preferences inferior, as if that person is less than you simply because they want to spend their short time upon this earth engaged in escapist literature rather than whatever you’d prefer that they consume instead.

                Finally: how many guilty pleasures am I allowed? You keep alluding to frameworks that you then refuse to flesh-out. (Incidentally, the only reason we have a term like “guilty pleasure” is so that people who have the audacity to enjoy something that the collective around them doesn’t approve of can explain away their pleasure to that group’s satisfaction. “Oh, I don’t really ENJOY soap operas. They’re just a guilty pleasure.”)Report

              • Avatar Jeffrey Straszheim in reply to Sam says:

                Staged scenarios, of course. Sorry that I left that unclear.

                (Although, I knew a guy who watched with obvious pleasure those sick beheading videos that al-Qaeda released. He enjoyed them gleefully. Feel free to speak on that, if you wish.)

                You seem to be seeking an algorithm from me. I won’t give one. It doesn’t work that way. As far as my “framework,” I insist that it is the framework of humanism — broadly defined — and art’s place within that. Let me suggest another principle: It is wise to know how little we know. That is one step. The next step is to realize that we know some things, that partial ignorance is not total ignorance, and that ignoring what we do know because it is not everything is also foolish.

                I won’t help you pick what art you should like. I won’t try to arrange everything in sequence for anybody. But it is better to be smart than to be dumb. It is better to love than to hate. And so on. Art is part of this. Some aims higher, goes deeper, is more skillful, more thoughtful, etc. This is because these are human things, and some lives are better lived.

                (That said, I cannot necessarily tell you which lives, not always. Sometimes I can.)


              • Avatar Sam in reply to Sam says:

                -In my mind, there is a difference between an actual depiction of suffering and an artistic depiction of suffering. I might be wrong about that, but when making my argument, it never dawned on my to consider the relative qualities of actual, genuine human suffering.

                -As for the rest of it: yes, I ask for an algorithm, but only because your arguments keep hinting that there is one. If art though is like pornography – if we’ll know it when we see it – then I have to believe that it remains entirely in the eye of the beholder, and that what might represent transcendent artistic achievement to you might represent the equivalent of NyQuil to me. I don’t know how to account for those reactions unless the issue is one of equality; the implication that it is a matter of me not being sufficiently educated (or whatever other interpretation floats around for this) is both offensive and inaccurate.Report

              • Avatar Jeffrey Straszheim in reply to Sam says:

                Hey Sam,

                I think I’ll make this my last post, since we’ve reached the point where I think we’ll begin repeating ourselves. Let me make a few final points:

                First, I think art is one part of a whole life, but a part that matters. The issue is, I think, one of becoming rather than being — that is, it is not the one piece of art you consume today; instead, it is where you go with your life and the role art plays. Some art has the capacity to take you further and deeper, very much further and deeper.

                However, I don’t pretend to know everything — I know some things. I cannot tell you exactly what path to follow, I wouldn’t dare. But I can tell a person they can do better than Adam Sandler and Dan Brown. Those works are shallow and simplistic, by their own barely-competent nature. A person should aim higher.

                Yes, this is me judging people’s lives. Again, I don’t know everything. I can’t tell someone exactly how much they should exercise, for instance, just as I won’t tell you to like Classical or Jazz, or Pynchon versus Virginia Woolf. But don’t sit on the couch everyday eating until you are morbidly obese. If you do, you will miss so much life. The same goes for Dan Brown.

                Second, you have stated, more or less, that the mental pleasure you feel is the same as the next person’s. Perhaps. Maybe, according to a brainwave scan. I don’t know. But is that all? Indeed, the sociopath versus the child shows something, where each flash of pleasure fits within a whole life. The sociopath is different, worse, than the happy child, because of the life he lives. Even if he manages to not break the law, he brings a darkness to the world.

                The same goes for drug addicts and the lives they lead. The details of the example should be obvious.

                Third, your theory seems to depend on the “rational actor” theory. Insofar as it does, this is a big flaw. The “rational actor” stuff might be fine for economists, who try to model very complex behavior through simple equations. That can be useful, I suppose. But it misses a lot. To state it as a grand theory, as the truth, is to put ideology before the plain facts of life. It is to confuse the territory for the map.

                How do I know? Through many experiences. For instance, I lost a friend to suicide. She was seventeen, beautiful, talented, intensely smart. This was twenty years ago. She didn’t have cancer or anything like that. She had a brief family crisis that would by now long be in the past. She missed so much life. To try to spin her death as “rational choice” seems deeply misguided.

                That is all. If what I say is not clear, it is unlikely to get more clear. Thank you for the debate. I will read and consider your response.


              • Avatar Sam in reply to Jeffrey Straszheim says:

                I’m very sorry for your friend who committed suicide. That’s a terrible thing. I’d argue though is that the insidiousness of life (be it depression, or catastrophic events, or other instigators) is that it re-arranges the rationality to the point where committing suicide becomes a rational thought. That’s why it can be so difficult to defeat.

                I don’t argue for the rational position though from quite the same position that (some) economists do. We’ll sometimes hear an economist argue that voting doesn’t make sense because the outcome of the act is so minimal, and yet there go the voters, again, to pull the levers, again. It is easy to say, “Those people, they’re so irrational!” It is much more difficult to instead consider what it might be that compels them into that voting booth. Perhaps they value the community element of going to the local firehall to cast a ballot; perhaps they prefer that to another rerun; perhaps they vote because they care. We can’t know (all of) the things that compel individuals to make decision, but we can’t simply discount them (or assume their irrationality) because they don’t make sense to us. Just as we can’t assume that another person’s art is worse, simply because we don’t enjoy it.

                An example: I don’t enjoy what I dismissively call Old Jesus Art. It doesn’t do anything for me. It doesn’t stir anything in my soul. It doesn’t stir anything in my brain. It just hangs there on the wall being incredibly boring to me. It seems to me that I have two available options:

                1. I can be a jerk about the thing that I don’t like. I can construct a massive intellectual framework to denigrate that art, to make it less than whatever it is that I like, no matter what that is. I can create a story about why the things I like are factually better than the things somebody else likes.

                2. I can be relative about it, acknowledging that it means nothing to me, acknowledging that it means something to somebody else, and going about my business of getting to the art in the museum that I do want to see. I can understand that I am as biased about my own preferences as the person who prefers the Old Jesus Art is about theirs and I can move on.

                The second way strikes me as being the more reasonable way, because I can live and let live while avoiding too much judgment of the people who disagree with me. That is where I come to this from.Report

              • Avatar Walter McQuie in reply to Sam says:

                I spent a day at the Art Institute of Chicago several weeks ago. I avoided what you term Old Jesus Art. I guess you could say I was exercising a preference. Not a preference against OJA but a preference to see other stuff. More precisely, I wanted to explore all the photography, American landscape painting and folk art, and Asian and Native American art that I could. Not just that I have a preference for that stuff, but more that I expected to be affected by it in ways that are important to how I am trying to live my life right now. (I was!)

                I’m pretty sure you could have formulated an intellectual framework that served your purposes regarding OJA. Do you think it would have been as valuable to me as the various such frameworks that have been formulated over the years by folks who have spent time (studied even) not just with the art that they like, but say all the extant painting from the middle ages through the emergence of impressionism? I realize an art relativist won’t find any such framework valuable, but do you acknowledge that others might? That their relationship with art is important to them as something beyond an expression of personal preference. That they wish to explore art. That they like exploring not just genres that they like, but what aspects of individual works speak to them and why, in order to gain a fuller appreciation of what the artist has done. And that having a framework helps them evaluate how the artist has done so.

                I’m not interested in laying out any such framework here. It seems to me you have rejected any validity for such efforts, so the issue is whether a framework is possible, not it’s terms. I’ll just state a little of what it might include: how individual works fit into broader trends in cultural and scientific movements over the ages, how the artist uses symbolism, perspective, color…, how an artist uses or abuses or transcends the conventions of her day, what influenced certain works and what influence they had. What I’m interested in discussing here is how art functions as a social activity.

                I’m interested that you desire to not have others feel they are being negatively judged because they don’t consume or prefer the art that others do. I acknowledge the existence of snobbery and I desire to avoid it, both being subjected to it and subjecting others to it. But I wonder how you square your stated desire not to offend with your assertion that I am engaging with art in a way–acknowledging high and low art as valid categories, making judgments of quality–that is almost always designed to make people who disagree with such judgments feel inferior. I wonder how, despite protestations otherwise on my part, you can be so close to certain that my intentions as I go about judging art are to put those who don’t share my views down?

                For me, your exegesis of “guilty pleasures” misses the mark. The way I see it, those who indulge in them are in fact enjoying them, may or may not feel guilty about it, but they do feel the need to acknowledge that others feel they should. They are acknowledging that they are consuming low art despite the power some give to high art snobs to heap shame upon such behavior. They are asserting their right to simple enjoyment without doing any of the work of art appreciation. More power to them. Stick it to the snobs by pursuing your happiness on your own terms. I desire not to view them as either inferior or superior to their fellow humans who would rather engage seriously with high art. And I hope that I can go about my merry way, judging art as I see fit in a manner that gives no one reason to feel put upon. I hope you don’t feel offended that I vehemently disagree with your assertion that relativism regarding art is a universal truth and can perhaps carve out a space for my merry way.Report

              • Avatar Kim in reply to Walter McQuie says:

                OJA? Weren’t we excluding propaganda from this?

                In poetry, a fair critique of any art piece is “too didactic for me.” Personally, I don’t want to look at a dozen rulers, clad in Jesus-clothes. Poor message for the times, if you ask me.Report

  11. Avatar BSK says:

    I think people are conflating some things here.

    To a degree, we can probably determine objectively whether a given piece of work (say a book or movie) is more intellectual than another.  We can probably determine somewhat objectively whether a given piece of work (say a painting or sculpture) is more asthetically pleasing than another.  No one is saying that these things can’t or shouldn’t be done, assuming they are being done in a reasonable and thoughtful way, free of specious reasoning.

    The problem is when we immediately jump to assuming those that fall on one side of a given spectrum to be “better”.  “Better” is inherently subjective, no matter what way you cut it.  You may prefer more intellectual television and, thus, conclude that more intellectual shows are better than less intellectual shows.  But that does not mean that they are, objectively, better.

    Rufus argued that some art was uplifting.  I won’t deny that.  But if I am not looking to be uplifted by art, don’t tell me I am wrong for preferring something else.Report

    • Avatar Patrick Cahalan in reply to BSK says:

      BSK, I think there’s a difference between “better” as in “this has more qualities, and it is objectively a better example of those qualities than that” and there’s “better” as in “I am a better person than you because I like this and you don’t”.

      I think everybody agrees that the second is a bunch of baloney.  Well, everybody here at any rate.

      But – but!  I say again what I said on the other thread: just because I like something doesn’t make it good… and there’s nothing wrong with liking things that aren’t good.  But if we can’t be honest that we like things that aren’t good (or dislike things that are good), then really I think we’re tying too much of our self-esteem into a really odd external validation.

      Hm.  I wonder how much – if any – of this is generational.Report

      • Avatar BSK in reply to Patrick Cahalan says:


        I agree that things, measured against the same criteria, can sometimes be objectively ranked.  But I don’t think that is what happens most times someone say X is better than Y.

        As for liking something “not good”, while I agree with this sentiment in general, who is and how are they defining what is good and not good?

        I’m young (late 20’s) and know that a lot of the things I like are “bad” by most traditional measures.  But by the measures that lure me into enjoying them, they are good!  I know “Jersey Shore” isn’t intellectually uplifting or stimulating.  But it is entertaining.  On the first two measures, it is very, very bad.  On the third, it is great!Report

        • Avatar Sam in reply to BSK says:

          I question whether we’re capable of making these distinctions. Saying, for example, that we like something that isn’t good. I’m not making an argument. I’m seriously asking a question. Do we do things that aren’t in our self-interest? Do we do things that we don’t enjoy? Even when we do things we don’t like, don’t we do them because the alternative is even worse?Report

          • Avatar Patrick Cahalan in reply to Sam says:

            Do we do things that aren’t in our self-interest?


            Do we do things that we don’t enjoy?

            Quite often.

            Even when we do things we don’t like, don’t we do them because the alternative is even worse?

            Not always.

            Not everyone lives a life that is self-examined, for one thing.  People don’t generally operate always as rational self-interested actors.Report

            • Avatar Sam in reply to Patrick Cahalan says:

              That may be part of our problem; I don’t believe there is a human alive who doesn’t act as a rational, self-interested actor. We may be able to tease out their rationality from the decisions they make though. Perhaps. It is tough to know what goes on in another person’s head (soul, heart, whatever).Report

              • Avatar Jaybird in reply to Sam says:

                Kinsley wrote an essay a few years back about Martha Stewart and how she was able to give something 50% more effort and get something 25% better. He was considering the 50% less effort for 25% worse philosophy. Instead of the chop and sort and add in this order thing, he took the attitude that throwing it all in the blender and hitting puree had unexamined upsides.

                Different people value different things differently, certainly.

                And yet health remains better than sickness. (But, after a month of being different kinds of sick, lemme tell ya that some kinds of sickness are better than others.)Report

              • Avatar Patrick Cahalan in reply to Sam says:

                I don’t believe there is a human alive who doesn’t act as a rational, self-interested actor.

                I find the converse to be very, very common.

                I’ve seen people tell me quite calmly and rationally what their self-interest is, and turn around shortly thereafter and do the opposite thing.  I see them engage in tortured rationalizations and turn themselves into pretzels all the time.

                Now, you may say that the thing that they did is actually the thing that is in their rational self-interest, but I’m hard pressed to accept that (particularly given the things in question).

                Either they are irrational, or they act often not in their self-interest, or they change their valuation of self-interest on pretty fundamental things with an alacrity that… well, if your self-interest varies that quickly, I just personally can’t call you both rational and self-interested.  Not without the words “rational” and “self-interest” becoming essentially useless as maintaining any sort of coherent category.

                If you don’t know what you fishing want, you can’t act in your self-interest.

                Let’s talk about confirmation bias.  People are loaded with it.  They will discard evidence in order to maintain a belief system that is contraindicated by that evidence… even if that belief system was originally accepted based upon evidence of the same kind and class.

                That’s not fishing rational.  You can call it self-interest, I suppose, if you’re going to call retention of cognitive frameworks a common good that people will defend because they get neurological rewards for doing so, but it can clearly in some cases *not* be in your best interests, like… from a survival standpoint.  If the boundaries of what we call “self-interest” can extend that far, then the term itself can’t really be paired with “rational” to assemble anything that can even be descriptively generalized.Report

              • Avatar Sam in reply to Patrick Cahalan says:

                While I don’t think a person who disregards evidence is acting irrationally, it dawns on me that this is a complicated conversation perhaps better had on another thread and on another day. I didn’t mean to argue the point and probably shouldn’t have mentioned it.Report

  12. Avatar Johanna says:

    Singling out art as mere preference based is my concern here. I believe the real issue is a lack of recognition that there is an evaluation process for the arts beyond preference. There is a language for evaluation in the arts that is based on education in the subject just as in any subject as Tod  uses sports above.

    If you read a comic that references something which makes you laugh. You have context to this reference so you understand the joke. I read the same comic, I see the same thing thing but do not have your context and don’t get the same enjoyment. It isn’t based on preference, it is based on knowledge. Without the education or means to evaluate that same comic, I get nothing and you get the laugh. When I look at art, I suspect I get far more enjoyment than many folks because I have more information and means to evaluate what I am seeing and understanding.

    Although I agree that evaluation of art appears merely preference based, can the same be said for how people evaluate their purchases, mates or anything else for that matter? Just because there isn’t a clear method of evaluation, doesn’t make it any more relative than any other decisions that are made.Report

  13. Avatar Kim says:

    Art is like Good/Evil. Always subjective, but there are things that people agree on — and from a collection of subjective experiences, we can assemble something remarkably objective.


  14. Avatar Steven Donegal says:

    Doesn’t it also really depend on the question you ask? I am going to show you two paintings and ask three questions:

    Which painting do you enjoy the most?

    Which painting  is the most thought provoking?

    Which painting is the most technically proficient?

    It is entirely likely that you will not choose the same painting as the answer to each question.  So if you ask someone, which painting do you like better, you will get an answer to a different question, depending on which definition of better they choose to employ.Report

  15. Avatar DensityDuck says:

    I think part of the issue is that people have come to view preferences not as themselves, but as curation of an identity.  You like Bon Jovi, that means you’re A Certain Type Of Person who drives a Camaro and has big hair and secretly worries about liking other dudes and thinks that Arabs should all die.  So if you say that you like Bon Jovi, you immediately enter a conversation about all of those things, and you have to proceed from there–either explaining why you aren’t all those things, or explaining why all those things are not moral failures.Report

    • Avatar Patrick Cahalan in reply to DensityDuck says:

      Oh, yeah, this.

      People are ridiculous.Report

    • That’s probably part of it, no doubt (and there really are, to this day, plenty of Camaros and big hair at Bon Jovi concerts, though I’ve never heard of liking Bon Jovi being associated with one’s political/social views).

      But still, it’s worth noting that amongst the first things one usually thinks of when one thinks of either Bon Jovi or Springsteen is “white, working class New Jersey rock stars.”

      They’re also both liberals with strong political views and active ties to the Democratic Party.  To no small extent, their songs largely try to cover the same subjects, especially their earlier stuff.  They both have an outstanding ability to write or sing catchy lyrics when it suits their mood.  The ladies love them both for their looks.  They’ve both sold boatloads of records.

      Their fan base overlaps significantly, and I’ve little doubt that there is no shortage of Camaro owners with big hair that love Springsteen just as much as they love JBJ.

      But Springsteen still succeeds at that higher degree of difficulty where Bon Jovi basically seems to fail.

      And that’s ok – there’s not even that many people in the world who can do well at the comparatively low difficulty stuff, and there’s even fewer who enjoy doing that type of stuff enough to be comfortable with just being really good at that.   JBJ’s made a lot of money over the years as a result, and rightly so; but he’s just not as good an artist as Springsteen.Report

  16. Avatar Roger says:

    This whole discussion reminds me of one of my favorite books. Robert Pirsig’s Lila.

    Like his more famous Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, it is about Quality

    Pirsig’s take is that quality is neither subjective nor objective, but rather than the concepts of subject and object are derived from quality. To oversimplify, the universe is created out of patterns of interaction or in his term’s “experiences.” From this we derive stable patterns that we call subjects and objects.

    The experience of eating is one of a long stream of interactions/experiences that builds up to us defining Sam and the hot dog.


  17. Avatar Walter McQuie says:

    I hope a lengthy reply fits in. I don’t think at blog speed. I’ve followed and benefitted from the series of discussions about art and judgments of quality. I had written down in my journal, a paraphrase of something a wonderful photographer, Walker Evans, said: good photography has detachment, lack of sentimentality, originality, a lot of things that sound rather empty. I know what they mean. Let’s say “visual impact” may not seem much to anybody. I could point it out though. It’s a quality that something has or does not have. Coherence. Well, some things are weak, some things are strong. Similarly with a lecture via podcast, given by an art critic, Alexander Nehemas: A judgment of taste, saying something is beautiful, is never the end product, but is at the beginning or middle of our interaction with a work of art. A judgment of beauty is more like an expression of hope–hearing something call out to you–if it was part of your life it would somehow make it more worthwhile. All the while expecting that others will join you.

    There’s this photograph by Ansel Adams: Monolith, The Face of Half Dome, Yosemite National Park, California, 1927. It is possible to return to the spot where Adams planted his tripod and take a photograph, say with an iphone. Let’s say I make a  print from my iphone generated file on my $50 inkjet printer and put it beside a silver gelatin print Mr. Adams made from his 6.5 by 8.5 inch negative. Does anyone seriously doubt that some articulate student of photography would be able to convince all of us that Mr. Adam’s print reveals a greater degree of skill, both in visualization and printing technique, and of artistic merit on several fronts, than mine? Monolith and a dozen or so other of his images from that era are widely credited with influencing the course of photography for decades. I assert my hypothetical effort is derivative and unlikely to influence. Many viewers of Monolith or other renowned landscape photographs (actual prints, not digital copies) walk away feeling a sort of connection with the grandeur of the natural world that speaks to a gap in their experience of the modern world. Of course I may still prefer to look at snapshots from my vacation and recall the feelings I had actually experiencing the wonders of our national parks. But the fact that no one can tell me I’m wrong to prefer having the latter experience doesn’t mean that the former can’t be widely and correctly seen as an encounter with the superior work of art.

    There is a lack of correspondence between visual images and words. The most evocative photographs communicate in ways that can’t be duplicated in even a thousand words. Effective images communicate through form as well as content and on multiple levels. Making and communicating judgments about the relative worth of photographs is necessarily difficult and inefficient. Yet a language of criticism is evolving. Photographers, collectors, gallerists, curators, critics and other interested people write about their reactions to photographs, photographers, bodies of work, schools, movements, genres and react to each other. They discuss the criteria to be applied in making these judgments and apply them with varying degrees of consistency. Differences of opinion persist, but consensus forms as well.

    Photography can be enjoyed without regard to any of the above. Millions do, everyday. Online communities coalesce around a clearly personal preference oriented model of value. Likes are totalled. There’s nothing wrong with that. You can choose to consume photography, or movies or music based solely on what you like and you can’t be right or wrong for going no further. But others can and do choose to engage with art in a more involved way, say by viewing a lot of it, developing an awareness of their reactions to it, consuming criticism as well, forming some judgments about quality and talking about it with like minded folks. There are certainly difficulties in proclaiming such considered judgments right or wrong. But they can be challenged by someone who has had similar exposure and there are things about the art that can be discussed to sort out whose judgment is more defensible. I won’t say there can be an objective winner, that each individual work of art can be placed in an unassailable ordered ranking, but neither the difficulty of a comprehensive rank ordering nor the snobbishness of some who proclaim one means that only personal preference separates the work of Adam Sandler and Clint Eastwood.


    • You have no need to apologize for anything. This was just an awesome addition to the conversation. I am on my way out for the morning, but will try to get back and respond more substantially later.

      But seriously, please continue to comment here.Report

    • Avatar BlaiseP in reply to Walter McQuie says:

      Superb comment.    My first photography book was on Ansel Adams.

      Ansel Adams spent more time in the darkroom than he ever did slogging around with that huge camera in Yosemite, though.   Nobody’s ever going to duplicate his stuff (though many have tried) because Adams would dodge and alter his pictures in ways we wouldn’t contemplate until the era of Photoshop.   He knew his medium.   He worked with his printers.  He made important friends.  He had mentors.   He came to understand the business.

      Adams knew his limits, too.   Color photography started coming of age toward the end of his career.   He dismissed color for the most part, not because he was averse to progress but because he didn’t have the tools we have today, elegant color balancing and edge smoothing algorithms running on my six core processor can chew through a ten megabyte RAW file in a few seconds.   I started shooting in Kodachrome 64, the thickest film I could get on the open market.   I always shot off a tripod so I could favor a long exposure time.   I never mastered black and white.   Always felt that lack of mastery was a deficiency on my part.

      But don’t let’s run down inkjet printers just yet.  I’m having some high quality giclees made of some pictures right now.   It’s a matter of using the right inks and the right papers.   It’s more than just the image, though that’s important.   It’s a matter of delivery, considering the finished product in its entirety,  more than simple aesthetics, an image, or for that matter, any work of art, is a process which must be mastered to be utilized effectively.Report

      • Avatar Walter McQuie in reply to BlaiseP says:

        Thank you Tod and Blaise. I’m only recognizing the limitations of my 12+ year old but very good for it’s generation printer and only in comparison to Ansel’s hard won expertise in a wet darkroom. I also have a current generation medium format Epson that with some of exquisite papers coming on the market quite easily surpasses the quality of most analog color printing technologies. And I read that it’s capable of pretty good results with B & W. But we came of age in the era of color TV (or became accustomed to it in early adulthood) and color photos in Life and National Geographic and just naturally visualize the final product in color in a way that no one of Adam’s generation did.

        Adams was among those who championed visualization of the work in its final state as one of the important skills a photographer takes into the field. As you say, he doggedly developed the skills to coax that vision out of the negative and onto the print. Early on he was going to be a concert pianist and he came to see the negative as the score and the printing of the negative as the performance. Inkjets have real limitations, just as do the chemicals of the wet darkroom. Most notably even the best printer/paper/ink combo cannot print nearly the range of colors or the degree of contrast that any decent flat screen monitor can display. The process of getting the shadow details that are right there on screen to emerge in the print without over saturating the rest of the images is a digital version of Ansel’s dodging and burning. Part of doing art is understanding the constrains under which you perform and mastering what is possible and desirable with those constraints.

        At the same time, digital sensors are not nearly as demanding as film. Choices that film require to be made up front and that place limits on what sorts of light will be accurately recorded can now be made on the fly or even in the digital darkroom. And there are more similarities between how our eyes and film perceive/record tonality and color than how digital sensors and our eyes do so. The digital output must be manipulated and our cameras are programmed to do an adequate job under the right circumstances. With practice, photoshop and other programs can be used to massage the data in more subtle ways that can reveal new insights into our perceptions of the world. At least I prefer to think so.

        Well, I’m off for the day.Report

  18. Avatar Jaybird says:

    Sam, a quick question:

    Do you assume, for lack of a better term, an underlying moral fabric to the universe or are you, for lack of a better term, more of a moral nihilist?Report

    • Avatar Roger in reply to Jaybird says:


      Do you believe in an underlying moral fabric?Report

    • Avatar Sam in reply to Jaybird says:

      The politest way that I can think to answer this is to say simply, I don’t know.

      To clarify though, are you asking me if I think there are general rights and wrongs that hold true across scenarios? Are you asking me if there are rights and wrongs within specific scenarios? My instinct is to say yes to both, but temper that acknowledgement by noting that it hardly matters what I think.


      • Avatar Jaybird in reply to Sam says:

         it hardly matters what I think

        Well, that may be the case if there is an underlying moral fabric to the universe. What you think may or may not matter depending on the relevance of your thoughts to this fabric.

        If, however, there is no underlying moral fabric to the universe, what you think matters very, very much. I mean, what you think actually *EXISTS* (as opposed to the moral fabric).Report

        • Avatar Jaybird in reply to Jaybird says:

          Let me put this another way.

          Let’s assume, for a second, a moral fabric to the universe. Art can reflect this moral fabric, it can be unrelated to this moral fabric one way or the other, or it can operate in opposition to this moral fabric.

          Art that reflects this moral fabric can then be measured against how well it reflects (and, granted, since we pretty much have to intuit the moral fabric, we have to intuit how art does this… and if art can reflect the moral fabric, and a particular piece of art does reflect it, and a particular critic cannot see this… then the critic’s inability to see this is a fault with the critic and not with the art. It’d be like a color-blind critic complaining that a piece made primarily of reds and greens is dull and doesn’t do much).

          Of course, if there is no moral fabric to the universe, then, OF COURSE, one person saying “Citizen Kane is a great movie” means no more and no less than someone saying “Faces of Death II is a great movie”.Report

          • Avatar Sam in reply to Jaybird says:

            Cautiously, my instinct is to say that I don’t believe that a moral fabric, even if one did exist, would function in the way that you’re describing it in regard to art. But I really don’t know. This is a vexing question you’ve presented, one which I don’t often think about, either because of a lack of personal religion or a inability to fully consider the implications. Does that make sense? For whatever this is worth, I feel that I’m doing a poor job of answering your question here.Report

            • Avatar Jaybird in reply to Sam says:

              If there is a moral fabric to the universe and some people see it manifest here and definitely *NOT* manifest there and some people don’t see it, the way that color-blind people can’t distinguish between reds and greens, how could it be communicated to the analogous to color-blind people that something is there? Would different people from different backgrounds who all have a great deal of experience looking at stuff and saying “this is red” and “this is green” and most (as in more than a supermajority) of them agreeing (I mean, most of them agreeing without anyone colluding or anything) indicate anything?

              Or, assuming that there’s just one color there, how would you suggest the best way to communicate to the people who see two different colors that they’re fooling themselves in the same way that other people fool themselves?Report

              • Avatar Sam in reply to Jaybird says:

                I have no idea if there are answers to this. I wonder if it is possible to communicate the concept of red to a person that is color blind. (Or, hell, to a person that is entirely blind.) I want to do these questions a justice that I fear I am incapable of.

                However, I will say it unfair to say that the color-blind person is “fooling themselves.” They’re not. In their world, what we’re seeing simply doesn’t exist. They’re not making a decision; their world is different.

                Am I misunderstanding these questions though? Perhaps I am.Report

              • Avatar Jaybird in reply to Sam says:

                Important distinction: I didn’t say that the color-blind person was fooling him or herself.

                I asked whether we wanted to say that the person who *DOES* see two different colors is, somehow, fooling him or herself.Report

              • Avatar Sam in reply to Jaybird says:

                So are we inching toward the idea that if there are facts in the world (like the existence of a color that a supermajority of us call “red”) then there might be better and worse arts, based upon some sort of measure of supermajority agreement?Report

              • Avatar Jaybird in reply to Sam says:


                That the supermajority agreement is representative of that color actually being red.Report

  19. Avatar Sam says:

    Red is red. Olives are olives. Does a moral framework, present or otherwise, change that?Report

    • Avatar Sam in reply to Sam says:

      This was supposed to be a follow-up to Jaybird above.

      And I forgot to add the answer to my own question, which is that no, I don’t believe that a moral framework’s existence affects the reality that red is red and olives are olives.Report

      • Avatar Jaybird in reply to Sam says:

        I look at something and say “it’s red”. A color-blind person looks at it and says “it’s indistinguishable from green”.

        Who is right?Report

        • Avatar Kim in reply to Jaybird says:

          you’re both right, but you are more right than he is, because the general electrochemical community of brains thinks the same. You won’t find a person willing to label it green (though the colorblind might say “undetermined”)

          Logic puzzle of the day: You are (true) colorblind, and I give you three filters, one red, one blue, one green. How do you tell the difference? [I know MY answer. it’s far from the onliest one]Report