Most of my students will say, flat-out, that it is completely obvious to them that there is no fact of the matter whether one movie (say) is better than another. Most arts departments (English, film studies, etc.) take that as a working assumption. This is either because aesthetic preferences are ultimately ideological statements rather than actual value statements, or all that can be measured is a spectator’s response – and, of course, there is no reason to value one person’s response over another. To each her own.
Yet a only a minority of philosophers working today hold this view, i.e., aesthetic anti-realism. So I thought I’d list a few reasons why.
First, there is a matter of extremes. Are you really going to say that Maid in Manhattan is no better than Citizen Kane? That no greater artistry is involved in Citizen Kane? That if only one of the last two extant copies of each needed to be saved from a burning building, it totally doesn’t matter which one?
Second, suppose someone had seen a lot of movies. The canonical ones and the crappy ones. Citizen Kane and Maid in Manhattan. And this person insisted that Maid in Manhattan was the best movie she’d ever seen. Would you not think something was a little off with that person?
Third, you might respond to the last by saying: She knows Citizen Kane is a better movie, but she just likes Maid in Manhattan better. But this, of course, is an indication that there is aesthetic realism. Just as we have the anti-realist expression “beauty is in the eye of the beholder,” we also have the realist expressions, “I don’t like it, but it’s good,” and “It sucks, but I love it.” If all it meant to say a movie is good is to say that you like it, then “I don’t like it, but it’s good” would simply mean “I don’t like it, but I like it.” But that’s clearly not what she’s saying. It’s incoherent. The separation of the concepts of the beautiful and the agreeable make sense to most people.
Fourth, most people who assert anti-realist positions don’t practice what they preach. They have favorite musicians, favorite walks in the woods, etc. [Update: meant to add this here but I forgot]: There is a difference between something good and being likable. Almost nobody would try to persuade someone that they should prefer vanilla to chocolate ice cream. It doesn’t fall into that category.Vanilla is likable to your or it isn’t. But almost everyone has tried to persuade someone why she should like a certain movie/book/band, etc. They give reasons. If it were just a matter of pleasure/displeasure, there are no reasons to give.
Fifth, can you really never make a mistake in your aesthetic judgment? Because if anti-realism is true, you are an infallible judge. I mean, really? Also, if anti-realism is true, our taste can never develop or get more sophisticated. So the fact that my son’s favorite show is Dora the Explorer and will one day presumably be something else is not an improvement in his taste as he gets older, just a change.
So those are simply too many bullets to bite. The question remains, of course: who’s to say what’s good? Both Kant and Hume tried to address how judgments of beauty were essentially subjective things, but also universalizable (that is, you should be able to say that everyone should have that subjective response). I think Hume had it pretty much right, but I’ll save that topic for another post.