I don’t like it, but it’s good

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.


Rose Woodhouse

Elizabeth Picciuto was born and reared on Long Island, and, as was the custom for the time and place, got a PhD in philosophy. She freelances, mainly about disability, but once in a while about yeti. Mother to three children, one of whom is disabled, two of whom have brown eyes, three of whom are reasonable cute, you do not want to get her started talking about gardening.


  1. I wouldn’t think that person was “off” in the slightest, owing to my understanding that different human beings engage with art in different ways, satisfying different needs along the way. The person who wants an escapist romantic fantasy will value Maid in Manhattan over Citizen Kane and they wouldn’t be wrong for doing so.

    As to your point about having favorites, I full-throatedly disagree, as there is a difference between having a favorite something and asserting that the favored something is thus superior in it of itself.

  2. Also, I’ll put this out there: Citizen Kane is boring. It doesn’t do anything for me. What your position necessitates is that there is something wrong with me for not sharing the view that Citizen Kane is transcendent cinematic art. I disagree.

    • The position doesn’t necessitate that Sam. *I* think Citizen Kane is boring. It’s *supposed* to be boring.

      We went around this maypole on the main page recently; “It sucks, but I like it anyway” != “It sucks, and you’re a poophead for liking it.”

      If your opinions of things are colored by your thoughts about what other people think about your opinions of things… doesn’t that seem odd? Shouldn’t you just have opinions of things based upon yourself and the thing? And why wouldn’t you say you like something stupid, if there’s something likeable about it in its stupidity?

      • The position necessitates me believing that Citizen Kane is transcendent, even though I find it boring. Those two positions are entirely incompatible with one another. Either I’m lying about one or lying about the other.

        To put that another way, I’m not ready to concede that the things I like enjoy are no good. I don’t believe that.

        • It does not necessitate at all that you find Citizen Kane transcendant. It necessitates that you might be wrong about Citizen Kane, or all the people who think it’s so fabulous might be wrong. That there may be fallible judges of art.

          For example, I am inclined to think that an expert in 19th century Southeast Asian sculpture might generally be more likely to judge a good 19th century Southeast Asian sculpture from a bad one than I am.

        • I’m a big Citizen Kane fan, but I’m not going to argue that it’s the most entertaining movie ever made. Not even close. For me, it’s all about the cinematography. I’m not even going to argue that it’s the most visually beautiful movie ever made. I only fell in love with CK after I heard the Criterion Collection audio commentary and learned how dazzlingly innovative the film was for its day. CK definitely set out to be pulpy entertainment, so it’s a legitimate criticism to say that it’s not the popcorn movie it set out to be. It still succeeded in a lot of other ways that make it a great work of art.

          There are lots of different ways for a work of art to succeed. If a movie is entertaining, that’s certainly one good thing about it. Nothing that’s entertaining is all bad. It’s hard to entertain an audience. A lot of critics undervalue entertainment. Some even irrationally devalue movies that give pleasure without making a lot of demands on the viewer.

          But entertainment value isn’t the only dimension of artistic worth. Movies can be innovative, intellectually challenging, acutely observed, technically virtuosic, and just plain beautiful to look at without necessarily being gripping entertainment. Sometimes these virtues work at cross-purposes. If a movie makes you think really hard, or calls a lot of attention to its technical details, that can tend to pull you out of the story and make it less fun to watch. Whether that’s good or bad depends on what you hoped to get out of the movie and/or what the filmmaker hoped to accomplish.

          By the same token, some really entertaining movies aren’t otherwise very good. I’m not going to argue that Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom is a particularly good movie but I sure enjoyed watching it.

      • Sorry – didn’t realize the issue had been covered recently. I’ve been more vigilant about reading every post on the main page so I don’t do anything twice.

  3. It’s a pity this discussion has to be in English, for other languages have far more sophisticated words to describe this curious problem. I’ll just submit the <a href="http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/japanese-aesthetics/Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry for Japanese aesthetics into the record.

    My old professor of aesthetics, Dr. Clyde Kilby, had a way of putting it, which I cannot reproduce using his pithy eloquence, but it went along these lines. If Beauty is an inherent quality, often extremely subtle, it cannot be in the eye of the beholder. We can distinguish between a class of movie such Citizen Kane, with its innovative use of camera angles and principles of composition from the stark beauty of Kurosawa's Ran, not by deconstruction of camera angles and composition, but by the intrinsic excellence of the artistic effort.

    Bertrand Russell famously said music is counting without numbers. We know excellence when we see it, though we may lack the vocabulary to convey why we know these things. Incoherence? I wouldn't reach that conclusion. My girlfriend the country music fan laughs at me as I deconstruct the bridges of well-written songs; ooh, that's a great chord change, so obvious and lovely, F to C# then D to A.

    Aesthetic judgement arises from our understanding, not mere emotional reactions to the piece. There's an old Buddhist proverb: the sage points to the moon and the idiot looks at his finger.

    • The sage points to the moon, because the moon interests him. The idiot (appreciator of the human body) looks at the finger, because it is more interesting than the moon, which is always there, whereas the specifics of that particular hand, and that particular finger, are not, and should be appreciated for their rare perfection and beauty.

      • That may well be. And many are the philosophers who reduce their arguments to eponymic adjectives in lieu of actual thinking.

        • I continue to be baffled by the rank condescension at play here. Why do we dismiss the person who finds the moon to be boring? It is, after all, omnipresent and essentially a giant lifeless rock. This person can look at the Moon and be bored, while at the same time being fascinated by the finger and all that it is. It is perhaps a silly example but you’re the one who brought it to this conversation, not me. My point is simply that in these examples, we extrapolate entire persons from singular preferences and that doing so is crazy.

          • you sound like Jack london. specifically (I think) To Build a Fire.
            I like jack london. his work contributes well to his timeperiod’s art.

          • Philosophy is not mathematics. We can refer to Euclid’s Axioms by number and Polignac’s Conjecture. Aesthetics cannot be reduced to Objective or Subjective with some little poll and we can value the expert’s opinion of Manet or Basho with excellent reasons.

            I’m tired of philosophy substituting name-dropping for scholarship. Much of philosophy these days is so much casuistic pseudo-theology trying to pass itself off as a commentary on neuroscience and machine intelligence. The human condition eludes them entirely as they play with the Lego blocks of Kant and Plato. Petty little Sphinxes who have not gone to the trouble of learning a great riddle or even the vocabulary with which to frame such a riddle to undergraduate Oedipus-es on the road to Thebes: that other cultures and languages have long since come to terms with these Seeming Imponderables is a function of the Western philosopher’s Specialized Ignorance.

            Look at the moon or look at the finger. I don’t care. But I will not be told I’m condescending to anyone when I’m the person who’s furnishing a working vocabulary for this discussion.

          • I linked to the poll not as an argument from authority, but just as sort of a fact about the field which may surprise people. Then I tried to explain with reasons, not by insisting everyone agree because philosophers say so.

            The specialization of anglophone philosophy has its minuses, no doubt. But it also has some pluses.

          • BlaiseP,

            I have nothing but respect for you and your posting here generally, but did you not post, “Aesthetic judgement arises from our understanding, not mere emotional reactions to the piece. There’s an old Buddhist proverb: the sage points to the moon and the idiot looks at his finger.” There is condescension in that comment, as it plainly presumes that one is superior to the other, without knowing anything more about the people participating. What then is the difference between that comment and replacing the moon with “Citizen Kane” and the finger with “Maid In Manhattan.”

          • What’s so condescending about quoting an old Buddhist proverb about the nature of informed perception? To whom was I condescending? I contend aesthetics is informed by hard-won insight. Yes, there are superior judges of these things, as there are judges of livestock and real estate appraisers and any other thing of value. Value is always perceived. The distinction between Objective and Subjective is entirely arbitrary. It’s nonsense. Hope you don’t mind me pointing that out.

            So you don’t like the Sage and the Moon. Allow me to substitute another little kotowaza from my own life.

            A small child collects pretty stones from a stream and is disappointed when they dry out. A wise parent puts those stones into a vase with some water and their beauty reappears.

          • The condescension is in the quote itself, although I suppose we can argue about its meaning. Informed perception is a fine thing, but if the information doesn’t sway the other, why assume the inadequacy of the other?

          • I cannot fathom why you think that quote is condescending. Yes, informed observation is a fine thing, much finer than uninformed observation. The untutored eye sees nothing, said Herodotus, speaking of the tourists coming to see the Temple of Apollo at Delphi. Even then it was largely a ruin and tour guides would point out the significance of this pile of stones and that ruined statue.

            As you point out, what’s the point of the sage stretching out his arm and talking about the moon if the fool is only going to look at the sage? Any sentence with a But in it might as well start out with No. Write your paper about the Sage’s Finger, ignoring the Moon. That’s the usual path to a career in philosophy. If you want to write up a vehicle for Jennifer Lopez and Ralph Fiennes, hey, who better to write it than John Hughes? He’s written some great movies, appealed to an awful lot of people. Fiennes has made more good movies than JLo, but when you’re trying to put asses in chairs, you can’t go broke underestimating the intelligence of the American movie-going public.

        • Also, Blaise, a couple of comments about your comments on the current state of philosophy of art. First of all, the two dominant theories of a standard of taste in Western philosophy (which are eponymic but in no way reflect a lack of interesting and deep thought more recently by some really intelligent people) are Kantian and Humean. Both assume a sort of blend of objective and subjective.

          Also, the neuroscience-y people (of which I consider myself loosely a member) and the ones who delve into Plato and Kant are generally not at all on the same page. In other words, people with a historical emphasis think that we who have an empirical emphasis don’t spend enough time engaging with the late greats, we with an emphasis on empirical data think everyone else spends too much time mucking around historically.

          The idea that we are into neuroscience and spend too much time quoting Plato and Kant misstates the matter.

          • So stipulated. It was a cheap shot directed at Sam, who was taking needless umbrage about some perfectly harmless statement about fools and sages and which is more interesting, the moon or the finger.

            The fact is: a great many philosophers look at the finger of Kant and Hume and the rest of the Late Greats — to the seeming exclusion of the Moon, upon which Kant and Hume were opining. In point of fact, anyone with even the slightest awareness of the distinction between Kant and Hume realizes both were pointing at the same moon.

            If Kant seemingly puts reason before passion and Hume puts passion before reason, neither denies the need for both passion and reason. I reject the distinction between analytic and synthetic as completely artificial and could make that case from either Kant or Hume, as did Carnap. As you point out, it’s a blend.

            It was also predicated on that little survey, which at least had the decency to put up an Other choice.

            Look, there’s a philosopher I’ve read, Guy Sircello, influenced my thinking on this subject. He does a far better job of laying out the case that Beauty is not in the Eye of the Beholder.

  4. Everything is relative… but that is not to say one cannot find absolutes within the seas of shifting sands. Wells, sinks — the endless death toward which we all swirl.

    And yet, which is more worthwhile? The child’s smile of delight, or the weight of the world’s opinion?

    • A child’s smile could indicate a different kind of value than aesthetic value (and perhaps one that should trump aesthetic value)

  5. Sorry guys – updated the post with something I forgot.

  6. I think the issue is that people conflate “historically significant” with “aesthetically pleasing”. As a movie, “Blade Runner” has serious issues; but it undeniably changed the way that film presented science fiction, and made a lot of formerly-obscure concepts be part of the mass audience’s conciousness, and it’s historically significant due to this. And anyone who wants to watch Important Films will probably watch “Blade Runner” at some point, even though there are later films that present similar issues in a more aesthetically-pleasant manner.

    • This has been my reaction to Citizen Kane (which I fully admit I will need to revisit at some point). It is a historically significant movie, but its achievements are mostly technical. These techniques were then broadly adopted and have been surpassed.

      This is not to say that CK is not a good movie, and is not worthy of respect for what it has accomplished, of course.

  7. What always strikes me about people who say “nothing is better than anything else” is this: to me, it reeks of smug, self-satisfaction, as if that person says, “I have nothing to learn. There is no one to teach me. I am already all-knowing and unassailable.” I am sure that none will admit to that attitude, but it is what I see.

    Whatever your tastes are now, they are less than they could be. Others know more, if you will only listen.

    • It takes an amazing amount of education before most people will arrive at the belief that all art is equal.

      Who says school isn’t good for anything?

  8. Actually, I’m wrong. As long as we are all humans, we share an inborn sense of what is aesthetically pleasing, at least in other humans.

  9. A parable. A man climbs a mountain. From the top he looks out over the sweeping landscape and feels a profound connection with everything. On his return he tells his friends.

    His first friend says, “Wow! That sounds amazing. I want to climb a mountain so I can see that.”

    His second friend says, “Sounds cool. But I’m not fit enough to climb a mountain. Plus, I don’t want to risk my life. I do other stuff, which is also cool. I wrote a novel. Plus, I developed a cool new computer algorithm that is really smart. Not the same as a mountain, but deeply satisfying nonetheless.”

    A third guy says, “Bah! Mountain-shmoutain. I sit on my couch and watch porn all day. That’s just as good. It makes me happy. Plus, if I get sad, I’ll just get high on crystal meth. Every bit as good. Nothing is different from anything else — when I’m high.”

    The first two friends are smart. The third is an idiot. So it goes for art.

  10. I continue to be as baffled as I was when I first submitted a guest post on this topic. Why people cannot simply enjoy the things that they like – without either being described as an idiot (as has happened in this thread) or creating enormous justifications for why the thing they like is transcendent in some obvious way that every other thing isn’t – literally confuses me. Because what is being accomplished, other than the attempt to classify individual preferences as evidence of superiority (or inferiority) over the things that another person enjoys? Who gets something from that behavior?

    • This is an interesting question, Sam. I’m going to take a shot and answering it with another question – but since it has just occurred to me, I may be about to say something very silly:

      Could it be that you are correct on this whole question… AND… that one of the benefits of the “illusion” that those of us that disagree with you hold is that it forces artists, collectively, to reach higher than they otherwise might? That the illusion has created a kind of beautiful reality that might not have been realized had it not existed?

      • I think the answer is much more plain than that: I think that people like the idea that what they like is best. After all, it is in a way. It is best for that person. But people don’t stop there, because the thing can’t only be best for themselves, but it must also be best for everybody else, and when it isn’t, that is evidence of everybody else’s idiocy (to use this thread’s term).

        Even a casual perusal of the history of art reveals cliques hellbent on promoting their own thing while at the same time denigrating everybody else. So it simply wasn’t enough for classical music to be their favorite; all other music (folk music locally, “ethnic” music internationally) had to be substandard in some way.

        But people don’t want to accept this, so we instead get these aforementioned justifications dedicated to the idea that X is better than Y, when really, X is just preferred more than Y by the person making that particular argument, which is then coupled with the idea that anybody preferring Y must be inferior in some way. In this thread alone, people preferring Y have described as idiots, as lazy, and pornography fanatics, as lazy, and most hilariously, as smug and self-satisfied. To which I say: are you kidding me?

        If nothing else, exposure matters. And who is more likely to have consumed the other’s art, the person who believes their own tastes reflect factual truths or the person who’d rather read a mystery novel on a Sunday afternoon? My guess is the latter person, who has probably run into a famous novel or a classic movie or a canonical piece of art at some point in their lives.

        • And the cliques-running-amok problem is indeed a serious problem. Hume does try to address it.

        • Sam,

          I will suggest the following to you:

          1. Snobs don’t matter. Quit worrying so much about them.

          2. There is more to art than your immediate pleasure. Not that you are not entitled to your pleasure. There are many parts of life.

          3. There are people who have greater wisdom than you, see deeper, and know more. Some of them may wish to communicate to you about art, why some art is better, and why you should care. Even more, some may communicate using art. If you dismiss them as snobs, you lose.

          4. I can’t say much about art that would convince an “objective,” non-human intelligence. That doesn’t matter, since I mostly talk to people.

          • Jeffrey,

            I respectfully disagree, both about your assumptions of me (that all I care about is immediate pleasure, that I don’t understand that there are many parts of life, that I do not understand that there are those smarter than me) and your conclusions (that the behavior of snobs doesn’t matter, that immediate pleasure doesn’t matter).

    • “Idiot” is not a word of which I’m particularly fond.

      My purpose in writing this post (and I’m sorry I missed yours) is threefold, and has nothing to do with thinking my taste is oh-so-fabulous (actually, I didn’t love Citizen Kane either):

      1) positing aesthetic realism better explains why we think and talk the way we’d about art (e.g., giving reasons for why we think an artwork is good, generally thinking some artworks are more worth preserving than others, that we can err, that taste can improve, that mere pleasure is not the only thing to say about artistic judgment, etc.)

      2) I try to relate what I think to be true, not what I would like to be true. I do think this is true.

      2) it gives credit to the more thoughtful and insightful artists. There are people who throw things together and there people who craft things that are original and breathtaking.

      • I’m the one who used the word “idiot,” about which, I do not think Sam is an idiot, even if I strongly disagree with him. I think a person who does crystal meth and considers that pleasure the equal of the mountain climber is an idiot.

        Sam’s belief implies that they are indeed equal. Make of that what you will.

        • You’re seriously going to argue that the person taking crystal meth isn’t enjoying himself as much as the guy climbing the mountain? On the basis of what exactly are you making that claim? Because my limited understanding of crystal meth is such that I believe that the people who take it really, REALLY enjoy it, even if the rest of us might gawk in horror. But of course, I also gawk in horror at the people who climb mountains, because I’m terrified of heights.

          • Ah, this quagmire again. The meth-snorting (or whatever it is those meth-heads do) guy is an idiot not because he equates his pleasure as equal to the others’ pleasures, it’s because he doesn’t understand the differences between them. He refuses to acknowledge any worthwhile experience beyond the physical stimulation of the brain’s pleasure centers; his buds’ experiences involve more than sitting on a couch tickling one’s brain — they are active participants in their pleasures, giving meaning to their actions and lives, and so by creating a basis for even more varied and meaningful experiences in the future. The meth-head has only more meth to look forward to.

            Now, if you continue to advocate the equivalence of somatic stupor with widening one’s intellectual and emotional horizons then I’ll know for sure that you’re a high school student.

          • Karl,

            Unless you’ve got scientific evidence showing the difference between the pleasure taken from a mountain climber reaching the top and a meth addict getting high, I think you’re drawing distinctions because you want to and not because they’re actually there.

            And again, this thread is incredible. I have made no attempt to tell people what to like, no attempt to tell people how to like something, no attempt to denigrate the things they love. Yet, I have been described as an idiot, over-educated, and now, a high school student. As if I haven’t put an ounce of thought into these conclusions that I argue for.

          • Sam,

            You’re playing burden of proof tennis. A fun game, but it no one ever wins.

            I’ve known real life drug addicts. I’ve lost people to drugs, people I loved. I don’t know any mountain climbers, but I know a triathlete or three. This stuff matters. If you cannot see it — *shrug*

          • Jeffrey,

            The issue with a drug addict isn’t whether or not I can see it; it’s whether or not they can. That’s why not being an addict can prove so damned difficult.

          • Sam,

            We have scientific evidence showing which parts of the brain are stimulated by different activities. Sometimes seemingly different activities stimulate the same areas, sometimes seemingly similar activities stimulate different areas.

            Since this is a topic well beyond my pay grade (as are all serious topics) I can’t point to specifics without a little research; but I have a hunch that you already know about these discoveries.

    • “Why people cannot simply enjoy the things that they like…”

      Because, these days, people define you by the things you like (or by the things you don’t like.) So it’s important that you like the right sort of things…or, possibly, that the things you like be of the right sort. And one of the ways you show that the things you like are the right things to like is showing how everything else is the wrong thing.

      • “Because, these days, people define you by the things you like (or by the things you don’t like.)”

        Seems to me we’re doing a damn sight better on this metric than, well, ever in history.

      • Why can’t people just like the things they like? They can, and should!

        But if that’s all there is to it, we’d miss out on a lot of what’s interesting about art. If it’s just about my private, solipsistic experience, that’s kind of limiting. Either you like it, or you don’t, and that’s it. It’s very hit or miss.

        There’s a lot of art that I didn’t enjoy until someone explained what I was missing. They gave me reasons, and I went off and thought about those reasons, and reexamined the work in light of those arguments. Sometimes, I learned to derive pleasure from art that didn’t affect me before. Sometimes, I still didn’t like the art, but I understood it better. Sometimes, I didn’t like the art or understand it any better, but at least the process of listening to other people’s reasons for liking or disliking something made me understand them better.

        It’s also hard to think about how one work of art relates to another if your only conceptual tool is “like”/”don’t like.”

        • Lindsay,

          Nobody has proposed a binary mechanism for enjoyment here. People are welcome to enjoy (or not enjoy) art for whatever individual motivations are their own. We can’t account for those. Some people are going to like classical paintings of Jesus; some people are going to be bored to tears by them, including me, for reasons including the fact that they’re not visually stimulating to the fact that I had an (evil) ex-girlfriend who loved such things.

          Needless to say, acknowledging the fact that human beings are motivated by different things and that their response to art reflects nothing more than their own series of motivations (rather than some sort of inherent truth about the thing itself) doesn’t prevent people from enjoying art for whatever imaginable reason. Nothing I propose in this thread and in other posts proposes to make decisions for other people, but rather, to capture the fact that maybe we’re nothing more than our own preferences, and “informed” or otherwise, they’re just that: preferences. And nobody’s preferences are more right than anybody else’s. There’s a certain egalitarianism about that position I suppose, but its certainly preferable to the alternative.

  11. And I have absolutely ZERO problem with people just liking what they like. I enjoy plenty of less than great art. Pleasure is also very very valuable. It’s just not the same thing as aesthetic value.

    • What is aesthetic value in general?
      I can Quantify what aesthetic value is WRT human faces — symmetry, mainly.
      That’s math, and it’s relatively easy stuff.

      Forgive this empiricist, but what the hell do you mean by aesthetic value?

      • Kimmi – really good question, and really hard question.

        Basically, I’d define aesthetic value as the value that arises specifically from aesthetic properties. And aesthetic properties are properties that depend upon perceptual properties, but are not equivalent to them. They are disinterested (that is to say, one experiences pleasure or displeasure from them in a way that has nothing to do with the satisfaction of one’s desires), they are subjective in that the link between perceptual properties and aesthetic properties is not is not rule-governed, yet they are universal in that something about them demands that we think other people should see it, too. THe paradigm cases are “beauty” and “ugliness,” but there are plenty of others.

        Part of the pleasure we see in a human face might not be disinterested, so might not count on tis standard.

        • So you’re talking about low affect appreciation (sorry, my psych background is showing)?? Of a presumably positive sort? (a picture that creates a vague sort of disquiet – a sense of wrongness, then has poor aesthetics? Even if that was what the author was going for?).

          Roubin (sp?) and other Romantic sculptors would probably disagree with your definition of aesthetic (at least as I view it — broken mirror and all that). They believed in depicting the “real” rather than the “ideal.” To them, depicting the Elephant Man in pain would have been a masterpiece of art.

          • No, positive affect is not at all a requirement. Or rather, there can certainly be a positive affect that arises from a valuable negative one (as in tragedies, real v. ideal etc.)

          • Are you okay with my surmise that “aesthetics” is about a vaguely contemplative low affect situation?
            I don’t know… I am interested in the idea that the emotions that a piece generates is not the only way of evaluating (and that’s a much better way of putting it than “pleasure”) a piece.
            But still, what do we Mean!

          • I think low affect is less the issue than disinterestedness, as in not involving the satisfaction of one’s desires (other than for the artwork). Because I can picture a high affect engagement with a great artwork.

            But yes, I agree TOTALLY that the emotions a piece generates are not determinative (or not completely determinative) of how good a work of art is.

          • What is “the satisfaction of our desires”?
            One strong human desire is to not acknowledge that we’re intelligent beasts — to suppress our animal side at all costs. In that context, how can any detached analysis of artwork be anything but the satisfaction of a desire?

            In which case, why pull THAT one out? Is it because the desire to pretend to be better than we are is the Best Desire?

          • The traditional Kantian notion of disinterestedness involves not desiring the object (so no porn, no food) and not desiring it for moral good.

            But clearly the concept needs more teasing out. You’re absolutely right that it can involve desires of a certain kind (to see ourselves as excellent art appreciators, for example). Can we or should we exclude those?

          • To exclude “Trying to done One’s Job Well” is probably a bad thing, yeah.
            But I was explicitly lumping aesthetic appreciation with other forms of human hypocrisy.

            I’ll go one further — you’ve been giving a value judgement saying that aesthetics are better than pleasure — at least as a metric of defining good art. I disagree vehemently. Writers don’t write (or don’t always write) to make you contemplate their ideas. Sometimes they write to creep you the fuck out.

            And I find more intrinsic value in the heart of the matter, than the mind.

            Perhaps if we were talking nonfiction I’d think differently.

          • I am not meaning at all to place aesthetic good on any sort of hierarchy. What makes something a great work of art is one thing, what makes it valuable may well be something else entirely.

            As a matter of fact, I’d wager a good amount of money that I’d place aesthetic good on a far lower rung of a hierarchy of goods than would most philosophers who specialize in aesthetics.

          • But, see, that’s the thing -=- you’re implicitly saying that some entire categories of art are “less great” because they are tuned to provide more immediate pleasure/affect. (I may indeed have mistaken you here — or perhaps I disagree with Kant that detatchedness is necessary).
            Take 3D video games — their greatest strength is their ability to generate affect, create moods (second greatest is to create verisimilitude via good physics engines/spacial dynamics/lighting).

          • Nope. Art is not less great because it’s more pleasurable. Just that its pleasurable properties are not all that relevant to its evaluation as a great or not-so-great work of art.

          • But see, that orthogonality specifically puts certain types of art at a disadvantage.
            It should be rather obvious that there are things you can write that are better contemplated (science fiction springs to mind), and ones that are better experienced (wagner’s opera)…

            I doubt that Wagner would have agreed with Kant. What do you think?

  12. Rose:
    I’m curious to get your thoughts on my theory of art criticism. In effect, my theory is that art can be judged more or less objectively on how well it communicates what the artist sought to communicate using the available tools, while taking into account the degree of difficulty and/or originality involved.

    The example I gave in one of the threads last month was:

    “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.

    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.”

    • Mark,

      Why assume that songs that get in your head, that are listenable at almost any time, that you find more enjoyable than other songs, are not the product of “talent and creative genius.”

      • Because I know enough about that music to know that merely making a listenable song wasn’t what Bon Jovi was going for there. That’s not to say that Bon Jovi is talentless – just to get to the point where he can make a listenable song without relying solely on auto-tuning and production, etc. demonstrates that he has quite a bit of talent. But it is to say that Bruce Springsteen is a superior talent.

        • Mark,

          So, by your estimation, Bon Jovi failed to accomplish his artistic goals with that song. Fair enough I guess. But why then pivot from your estimation to the idea that you’re speaking to a factual reality about the song itself? That song sold millions, didn’t it? It has, and continues to have, millions of fans, doesn’t it? Surely, for some people, the song hit, both aurally and thematically. How does that constitute a failure of some sort?

          • Because commercial criteria and wide appeal is an important standard, and a valuable standard, but not the only standard.

          • Nowhere did I say otherwise. But Mark is saying that Bon Jovi failed to achieve what was going for. I’m suspicious of that conclusion: he made something enjoyed by millions, and just because the thematic element didn’t hit for Mark doesn’t mean it didn’t hit for other people.

            Even your mention of other standards acknowledges that it succeeded on some level. Still, what standards do we want to include?

          • For example, as I’ve said a couple of times above, I think the standard of giving pleasure is hugely important and part of what makes art valuable. I also think being widely appealing is another standard of value. And it is also what makes art valuable. There are many ways in which art can be valuable without being good works of art. And that by no means implies that I think only stupid people could like a work of art for such reasons, or that those works of art don’t deserve to exist.

          • Maybe another example will help here, just sticking with Springsteen. One of his most popular songs ever is “Born in the USA.” But if you ask the average Springsteen fan, that song will frequently wind up on their list of least-favorite Springsteen songs. And for good reason: it is a complete failure at communicating its message, as evidenced by the fact that Ronald Reagan was far from alone in taking the song as being a raucous anthem with precisely the opposite meaning it was supposed to have.

            I confess that I like it. But by my metric, it’s a comparatively poor song. FWIW, Rolling Stone, et al, seem to disagree mightily with my conclusion. I’m ok with that.

          • Mark,

            Is your standard then that the artist’s message has to be understood for it qualify as something we might describe as good?

          • Sam: Regarding people getting the thematic elements of Livin’ on a Prayer, as someone who has lived in NJ – the center of Bon Jovi-dom – most of my life, I can assure you that the proportion of people for whom the thematic elements of that song resonate is vanishingly small.

          • Sam: Not quite. An artist can, and frequently does, have many messages they are trying to communicate, some of which may be well communicated, others which may not be. Livin’ on a Prayer and Born on the USA seem to communicate some of those messages pretty effectively, but not all and perhaps not even most.

            By “messages,” I jump to add, I’m not referring exclusively or even necessarily primarily about political or verbal messages, but also (maybe even primarily) emotional messages.

          • Mark,

            What is the message of the Mona Lisa? How many people have gotten that message? What percentage would it take of people who have seen it not getting said message for us to rethink its “success” as it were?

          • Sam: The answer is that I’m not qualified to answer that – I know far too little about art history, and next to nothing about Da Vinci as an artist to discern what he sought to accomplish in that painting. Don’t get me wrong – I enjoy art museums, and I enjoy learning about art history (or at least what little of it I’ve learned), but I’ve got not metric to say whether the painting was a success; all I can say is whether I, personally, like it and am intrigued by it (answer: meh).

    • What I tend to think, and maybe I’ll write another post about this when I talk about the Humean view, is that there are no necessary and sufficient conditions for a great work of art. Creativity, achievement of intentions, and degree of difficulty are all potentially relevant, even frequently relevant, but it does seem possible that a work of art could be none of those and still be great.

  13. It seems to me that these kinds of discussions always have a very large helping of omitted variable bias. That is, there is always some kind of appeal to some kind of consensus without realistically trying to deal with the fact that everyone you ask has been continuously exposed to that consensus. Is it strange to think that someone who has been exposed to over 50 years of being told that Citizen Kane is a great movie would think that Citizen Kane is a great movie, even if it isn’t? When you ask, “Would you not think something was a little off with that person?”, are you asking a question that reveals something about art or something about me?

    There’s also some kind of correlation/causation problem. Do we know Citizen Kane is a great movie because art critics love it, or do we consider Citizen Kane to be a great movie because the art criticism community has selected only members who love it? Would Roger Ebert have a job if he thought Citizen Kane were intensely boring and not worth watching? And, as above, does that say something about the quality of his perception, or does it say something about its conformity to expectations?

    • Ryan,

      As a buttress to this, think about the amount of work that isn’t included in the canon from women and from minorities. It isn’t like there weren’t people out there producing works of art, but for a long time, it was the work of European white men that predominated all academic conversations of art. How influential is that on the discussion of what is and what isn’t good? All of these biases matter and yet they’re largely ignored because to consider them is to make the conversation too complicated.

  14. I suppose that I am an aesthetic realist in the same way that I am a moral realist.

    I don’t know whether there’s anything there, I don’t think that there’s anything there… but I sure as heck *HOPE* that there’s something there anyway. And, if there is something there, I suspect that it would be like this, that, and this other thing here based on things that might be hints, if I were wrong about there being things that would leave hints.

    That said, it seems to me that while each person reacts in a particular way to art based on where they are at that moment in time (you never look at the same painting twice and all that), there is a, for lack of a better word, “vector” that people who are flourishing would find themselves on.

    Maybe, at age 10, they think that The Osmonds (CRAZY HORSES!!!!) make the best music on the planet. By age 18, one would hope, one finds that one’s taste has evolved to see why The Osmonds were so accessible to a 10 year old but also how, as one has grown, songs that would not have been accessible to this same 10 year old are, in fact, more complex, deeper, and (yes) better than what one found accessible then (Emerson, Lake, and Palmer, say). When one hits 30, one might again reach a similar conclusion about how ELP was all fine and good then… but now one listens to Brian Eno.

    While it’s certainly not the case that we can meaningfully say that a 30-year old is “better” than a 10-year old, I think we can say that the point of a 10-year old is not to *STAY* a 10-year old… and thus we can say that a 30-year old’s taste is better than a 10-year old’s (all other things being equal) given the 20 years of experiencing things and exploring things and this music’s accessibility opening doors to that music (which then opens doors to that other, and then that other, and so on).

    There’s nothing wrong with a 10-year old enjoying The Osmonds. Nothing at all. One should not stay 10 forever, though.

    I mean, assuming aesthetic realism.

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