Who’s to say what’s a good work of art?

I kept meaning to write this post, and here it is! I know this was covered before elsewhere on this blog; but that was before my time, so I couldn’t contribute my pearls of wisdom.

This is the theory I find most convincing about who’s to say what a good work of art is. I totally did not come up with any of it myself; I’m just describing what has persuaded me. It’s mostly lifted straight from Hume with one or two add-ons by some later people.

So, for reasons I outlined earlier, I am unwilling to admit that there is absolutely no right or wrong about whether a particular work of art is good or not. On the other hand, I don’t want to say a work of art’s goodness is entirely independent of the pleasure anyone takes in it. It would be mighty strange indeed to point to a work of art and say that even though no one likes it, feels any pleasure when regarding it, and gets nothing out of it, since it meets a bunch of rules it must be good art.

Both Kant and Hume agree with me. (That’s the problem with Kant and Hume. Never an original thought! They always just follow my lead.) That is, that there is is something ultimately subjective about art. If we had different cognitive systems, what we construe as beautiful would be different. It is only good if someone likes it. But…there is also something universalizable about it. People can say that a work of art is good, and be right or wrong. Both also agree that there is no single quality all works of art must have, or a rule all artowrks must follow, to be good. The good artworks are too amorphous a bunch to categorize this way.

So here’s what Hume says in a nutshell. (Here‘s where he says it – it’s not long at all, if you are so inclined.) What makes a work of art good is simply if the true judges of art, on the whole, like it. The opinion of any one judge may be wrong. It’s their joint view that counts. And what it means to like of art is to enjoy regarding it for its own sake. So we’re not counting porn, where a true judge may be enjoying it plenty, but his goal is his sexual gratification. His goal and pleasure should just be the regarding of the work of art.

So who are these true judges? Not necessarily the people who currently decide what’s in the canon, although plenty of them may be. Here’s what it takes to be a true judge:

  1. Your sense organs should be acute and able to pick up slight differences (think the people who can listen to a piece of music and identify every instrument, every amplification and recording method, etc.).
  2. A lot of experience regarding that particular kind of art.
  3. A lot of practice comparing different works of art to one another.
  4. The ability to rid oneself of any personal, unique reasons for liking or disliking a work of art – such as personal dislike of the author, etc. (with an exception for morality – you don’t need to rid yourself of your morals to like a work of art). This includes trying to overcome the prejudices of the culture in which you happened to be born.
  5. Good sense, so you can tell if the work of art meets its intended goal.

To this I would add:

  1. Emotional maturity
  2. Psychological insight

So Hume doesn’t address an important question. Why should anyone who is not a true judge care what the true judges say? (I think he doesn’t address this because he is really just trying to do some conceptual analysis – i.e., trying to define what exactly it means to say a work of art is good, and is not really concerned about settling disputes. But others disagree with me on this.) Why should one try to cultivate one’s taste to be like the true judges’, if it isn’t already like them? Why not just like what you like?

The answer lies in a famous line from John Stuart Mill:

Of two pleasures, if there be one to which all or almost all who have experience of both give a decided preference, irrespective of any moral obligation to prefer it, that is the more desirable pleasure.

All the criteria of the true judges point to those who have more experience of works of art and the pleasure they give. (Except possible sense, but that seems intuitive.) Emotionally mature and psychologically insightful people have more experience of the different varieties of emotion and psychological states. Basically, these are the people who have experienced the most variety of pleasures, and are best equipped to give an opinion on each one. (I, for one, feel far more confident to give an opinion on movies, of which I’ve seen a boatload, than music.)

So people who meet these criteria might have something to say about a work of art that might be worth listening to, even if we don’t disagree. You can improve on a lot of these.

Hume thinks that the preferences of different ages and temperaments shouldn’t matter (so tragedies are not better than comedies) – I agree.

One thing I’m not sure about is the test of time – should we wait and see if a work of art can survive the faddishness of a given moment? Or should we think that a local, contemporary audience makes the best judge? I could see that one going either way.

So, in short, when we say a work of art is good, we mean the true judges like it. The true judges are not necessarily the same people who actually get hired in academic departments and newspapers, or who donate money to create new wings of museums. The opinion of any one judge may be off on a particular work of art. And we may not have enough information to determine if any given work of art is good.

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. So your position is that there are no “true judges” then? Because there is no human on Earth who fits, even remotely, this criteria of yours, particularly (perhaps especially) number four.

    To put that another way, you bring your philosophers to the table and I’ll still go with Duke Ellington’s “If it sounds good, it IS good,” philosophy.

    • And then the perfect is the enemy of the good.

      Sneering at philosophers is kind of an ad hominem, no? We don’t have less expertise because we’re employed by a university. And at least a few of them agree with you, anyway.

      • It isn’t a matter of sneering at philosophers so much as observing that there is nobody on Earth, living or dead, who fits the standard you (and Hume and Kant and Mill, apparently) want to set. As if it is possible to not have biases as a human being. As if it is possible to not have influences that play upon your judgments.

        • You try for it. And the better you are at it, the better you can be a judge. There can be degrees here. Someone who dislikes anything Asian prima facie is not as well suited to judge a work of Eastern art as someone who has taken the time to learn about a Japanese culture and is open to viewing art from it. Whose opinion should I trust on Japanese art more, all esle being equal? The latter.

          • So what you’re saying is that we ought to listen to judges who strive to eliminate their own biases?

          • but isn’t that just inheriting different glasses? The map is not the territory, after all. Simply because you have multiple maps, doesn’t say that you know the territory any better…

          • “Simply because you have multiple maps, doesn’t say that you know the territory any better…”

            It’s likely that studying many maps leads one to better know the territory.

          • In a debate between two people judging a work of art, if all else is equal, someone who has attempted to eliminate their biases has an opinion (in general! not in all cases!) more worth listening to.

          • How does one eliminate (or even account for) their biases? How does one come to enjoy something that they plainly don’t enjoy?

          • Sam: eliminating biases has nothing (if done well) with enjoyment. A discerning palate can recognize the difference between cilantro and basil without enjoying either.

          • The idea is not to force yourself to like something. Here’s what I take eliminating biases to mean. 1) Try to disregard any personal connection to the work, like you want to like the book because your friend wrote it or something. Or if you are racist, you should try to disregard your racist feelings about an author, or whatever. 2) You should not rule out certain things because they are done differently in your culture or you’re just not used to them. Like avoiding black and white movies, or refusing to read a book with a female narrator, or letting different customs of different eras bug you so much that you can’t get into the spirit of the work. That sort of thing.

          • karl: how are passionless beings supposed to critique anything? Between Rose’s rules for true critics and your statement that enjoyment doesn’t matter, what is left?

          • You are not supposed to be passionless! The whole point is that the ideal critics enjoy the good stuff!

          • karl,

            There is no choice at play in enjoying cilantro. It seems to be predetermined genetically. But the larger issue is still plaguing this conversation: how can a critic simultaneously be emotionally engaged and unerringly subjective in its analysis? How does that work? What is the mechanism that allows a person to abandon all of their biases (which would include their predilections to enjoy certain things) and yet engage substantively?

          • >which would include their predilections to enjoy certain things

            This is not what I mean about eliminating biases. It would not include this.

          • FWIW, Here’s Hume’s take:

            “But to enable a critic the more fully to execute this undertaking, he must preserve his mind free from all prejudice, and allow nothing to enter into his consideration, but the very object which is submitted to his examination. We may observe, that every work of art, in order to produce its due effect on the mind, must be surveyed in a certain point of view, and not be fully relished by persons, whose situation, real or imaginary, is not conformable to that which is required by the performance. An orator addresses himself to a particular audience, and must have a regard to their particular genius, interests, opinions, passions, and prejudices; otherwise he hopes in vain to govern their resolutions, and inflame their affections. Should they even have entertained some prepossessions against him, however unreasonable, he must not overlook this disadvantage; but, before he enters upon the subject, must endeavour to conciliate their affection, and acquire their good graces. A critic of a different age or notion, who should peruse this discourse, must have all these circumstances in his eye, and must place himself in the same situation as the audience, in order to form a true judgment of the oration. In like manner, when any work is addressed to the public, though I should have a friendship or enmity with the author, I must depart from this situation; and considering myself as a man in general, forget, if possible, my individual being and my peculiar circumstances. A person influenced by prejudice, complies not with this condition; but obstinately maintains his natural position, without placing himself in that point of view, which the performance supposes. If the work be addressed to persons of a different age or nation, he makes no allowance for their peculiar views and prejudices; but, full of the manners of his own age and country, rashly condemns what seemed admirable in the eyes of those for whom alone the discourse was calculated. If the work be executed for the public, he never sufficiently enlarges his comprehension, or forgets his interest as a friend or enemy, as a rival or commentator. By this means, his sentiments are perverted; nor have the same beauties and blemishes the same influence upon him, as if he had imposed a proper violence on his imagination, and had forgotten himself for a moment. So far his taste evidently departs from the true standard; and of consequence loses all credit and authority.”

          • Rose,

            I’m not sure I understand your last comment: are you saying while critics are required to leave behind their negative biases against attributes, they’re free to revel in their positive biases for attributes?

          • No, per the Hume quote, they should try to see the work in the spirit in which it was intended, as a member of the intended audience. They should disregard personal feelings about the author. To the degree they can’t do this (someone who simply can’t stand horror movies, for example) they are not an ideal judge for them.

        • And meant to say earlier, Mill wasn’t talking about aesthetics with that quote, just a hierarchy of pleasures generally (to defend utilitarianism against accusations that it promoted animal pleasures)

    • If it sounds good to Duke Ellington, it probably is good. If it sounds good to me, it sounds good to me, but it might be trash. That’s because Duke has me beat on every one of 1-5 and 1-2, above, or would, if he were still with us. If you want an opinion about the merits of a piece of jazz, Duke’s opinion is worth a lot and mine is worth next to nothing.

      • Well said (and, no doubt, more humbly than warranted).

        • Except that this isn’t the point of what Ellington was saying. He was arguing that you can trust your own ears (and, by extension, your own senses) to tell you what you do and don’t enjoy. Recognize that academia and critique at the time that Ellington made his statements wasn’t entirely cheerleading jazz and celebrating its relevance.

          • I don’t want to speak for Lindsay here, but I took her to be doing a cute take on his saying, not misconstruing him.

          • I am troubled by the idea that we are so attached to the opinions of critics that we come to believe our own pleasures to be trash. I assume this falls along the same lines of, “I don’t REALLY enjoy this, i just enjoy it ironically…” but I’m not sure.

          • Sam: we talk (ok, write) past each other. I get the impression that for you ‘liking’ something is the be all and end all of one’s relationship to/with art; further, you seem to take it almost personally when someone else’s concept of ‘quality’ or ‘elite consensus’ conflicts with your personal taste. If I misinterpret you please set me straight.

            I, and some others, maintain that we can divorce, with varying degrees of success, our tastes from our aesthetic perceptions. Although I don’t like to base anything on my own history, maybe these two brief personal notes might help. On another thread where we jousted a bit, Michelangelo’s name came up; I support the argument that he is a good and great artist, yet I don’t like his work and never did — divorce finalized! For many years (decades, actually) I’ve read film critics I respected; when a critic gave movies I liked bad reviews it sometimes led me to see those movies in a new, more critical, way — but my enjoyment of them was rarely affected. I like what I like, even if my aesthetic appraisal changes for the worse.

            You’re a smart guy and this probably isn’t the first time you’ve been confronted with the curious case of Feeling v. Thinking, and I’m curious why you don’t accept it as, at the very least, an ideal goal for the critic or academic.

          • You don’t have to put it so dramatically. How about saying, “I’m interested in seeing some good stuff. There’s stuff like I’ve already seen and like, but I’m interested in cultivating my taste. What are some good movies/books/paintings?”

          • karl,

            I think you’re oversimplifying my position here. When you say that “liking something” is the be all and end all of one’s relationship to with art, you make it seem simple, as if I’m merely suggesting a casual glance and a shrug of the shoulders. I’m not. People can enjoy things for a myriad of reasons, some of which we are and some of which we are not privy to. Enjoy, in this case, isn’t simply defined as a smile on your face, but rather, the mechanism by which people preference one thing over another thing.

            We all, it should be noted, have mechanisms that lead us to preference one thing over another. You have your criteria for what makes a good movie; I have mine. They might overlap. They might not. I’m willing to accept that they might not overlap, but there are plenty of people (perhaps including yourself) for whom acceptance isn’t…well, acceptable. They want to assert that either their mechanism is superior (that the things they personally like are superior to the things that somebody else enjoys) or that the other person’s mechanism is inferior (that the things another person likes are inferior because they’re not the things that they enjoy). That’s where I start to have a serious problem.

            You asked about my objection to Thinking Versus Feeling. (Yours is the first comment where that cleavage has ever registered with me. It is a succinct explanation. I like it.) For me, my position is simply that I do not trust those doing the Thinking. I believe that they present their own preferences as superior, relegate all other preferences as inferior, and do so not because they’re right in any sort of objective way, but because they want to be right in some sort of objective way. They do not want a world in which the woman reading the romance novel on the Sunday afternoon is the equivalent of the woman reading the James Joyce novel on a Sunday afternoon, and so they create mountains of justification to create this reality out of whole cloth.

            Why some Thinkers (and it definitely isn’t all Thinkers who engage in this sort of thing, because Feelers can be just as pigheaded, judgmental, and condescending) cannot simply enjoy what they enjoy – champion it even – without denigrating the enjoyment of others or asserting objective realities that they plainly can’t prove, is beyond me, save for this explanation of a deep-seated desire to be right.

          • Sam, this last comment reminds me of the previous thread and I don’t want to go all armchair psychologist (because I’m really bad at it), but this seems very much like you’re arguing against the consequences of the belief. And it seems like you’re doing it even when those consequences are not universal, but tied into your own experience as you related on that other thread.

            Of course, this doesn’t mean you’re wrong.

            It just seems odd that someone who is taking a fairly straight-up relativistic stand is doing so because you’re assigning a very non-relativistic *ton* of meaning to “bad art”. Not only is that art poor quality art, but if you like it you’re an idiot, and you’re a bad person, and someone who points out that the art is bad is doing so entirely because they want you too feel like an idiot and a bad person and not at all because they actually care about the art, and actually they’re doing it in spite of the fact that you’re neither a bad person nor an idiot but because they’re entirely invested only in keeping their power structure in place. This is quite a bit a ways away from “the art is just a bad instance of the art.”

            Granted, if this has been your experience I can see why you have such a visceral reaction to the whole topic, but as I attempted to point out on that other thread, not everybody has these experiences… and even if they did, that doesn’t necessarily mean that art can’t be good and bad, just that some/all art critics are jerks.

          • I will speak for myself as a non-relativist. What are my motivations? I outlined them in the other post.

            There is one art form where I would think I might have ideal judge status, and that is film (possibly novels, but less so). I spend exactly zero minutes per year telling anyone who doesn’t ask my opinion or decide to engage in reading something I write in a public forum what I think of stuff they like. In other words, I might say generally X is crap, but I wouldn’t dream of just telling someone out of the blue that the X she likes is crap – unless it’s part of an ongoing discussion. There are people whom I firmly believe are more intelligent than me and who are incredible all-around people who like some bad art. Hell, I enjoy plenty of bad movies! In those cases, I’m just getting some non-aesthetic pleasure from them. Nothing wrong with that.

            And then there are the majority of art forms, where I am a non-relativist even though that amounts to saying that someone else’s taste is better than mine. So I’m afraid my motivation really cant be because I just love telling people that their enjoyments are worthless. Dance, visual arts, music, poetry, graphic novels, video games, are all art forms I would never assert my taste should be part of setting the standard. But isn’t it a wonderful experience when you hear someone knowledgeable and insightful, someone who might be a true judge or at least better judge than you, explain to you why a work of art you thought was sort of meh is actually awesome…and then you see it too?

          • Patrick,

            I would agree that I am arguing against the consequences of the belief. But I’m also arguing against the belief itself. However, there is a subtlety that exists in my mind that I’m never able to make clear in my comments, a deficiency that I struggle to explain. What I’m not saying is that individuals cannot preference certain things, individually or collective. What I’m saying is that because all individuals have preferences, I don’t see any reasonable way to rank order those preferences. That doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen: we have canons, we have classics, we have academies dedicated to the study of some but not other. My position is that those do not exist because of a objective reality about the item, but rather, the preference of those with the power to insinuate their own preferences as facts.

            It should also be noted that although we quickly fall into the “high art judging low art” discussion, that isn’t always the case. I’ve run into plenty of fans of what might be collectively known as low art rolling their eyes condescendingly at those people who enjoy classical music, older paintings, black and white movies, or whatever else. These conversations go both ways, constantly.

          • Rose,
            Have you seen “Switching: Goodbye Me”?
            Gotten a chance to watch Lemon Popsicle? (I know, it sounds dirty. it’s also translated…)

          • Rose,

            There are many points I’d like to reply to in your comment, but the one that most catches my focus is your idea that you enjoy plenty of bad movies. I deeply struggle over this notion. How can the thing be bad if you’re enjoying it? Perhaps you’re measuring bad against whatever it is that you perceive to be good, but I’m really not sure I understand how it is possible to to subdivide your pleasure into these neat little boxes, in which this one is for “Bad Art” and this one is for “Good Art.” It seems to me if there’s something that catches your attention enough for you to engage with it, describing it then as “Bad Art” makes no sense whatsoever. It might be different than what you prefer elsewhere, but the mechanism is still the same: something catches your attention enough to engage with it. I think we’re overcomplicating what seems to be a relatively simple thing when we introduce this compartmentalization into the conversation.

            As for your question about wonderful experiences, we must have had these differently, because every time somebody has insisted to me that I’m wrong about what I have and haven’t enjoyed, I don’t remember finding that pleasurable. Somebody saying, “Here are all the reasons that this piece of work is good…” doesn’t really do much for me if my own interaction was, as you described it, “meh.”

          • Sam,
            Some people like watching trainwrecks and find them funny. Watching something for da lulz is not because it’s good.
            Perhaps someone who loves cheesy movies — and watches them to laugh at how bad their visual effects are… has somehow captured something about themselves? But it is surely not I like to watch these because they’re good.

          • Kimmi,

            In a word: no. If you go into an experience seeking something (da lulz), and if you get it, how do you then turnaround and say that it was bad? The thing might have been bad by some other set of criteria, but that wasn’t the criteria you were using when you made the decision to engage the aforementioned trainwreck. You can’t change after the fact and then differentiate.

          • Sam,
            well, I can say that the author failed utterly in what he wanted to convey. And that my appreciation for the film is based solely on that.
            … I don’t think i got anything out of watching Manos, but I watched it anyway…partof that was to provide insight into what makes a good movie.

          • I don’t see all pleasure as exactly the same thing. Sexual pleasure is a totally different animal from the pleasure gotten from accomplishing something of which you’re proud which is different from the pleasure at doing a crossword puzzle which is different from a runner’s high which is different from enjoying a great glass of wine. Etc. All have positive affect, but not in the same way.

            So when I watch a movie I judge to be good, I enjoy seeing how all the parts fit together, I enjoy seeing the accomplishments of an especially good artist, I enjoy feeling enlightened to something I hadn’t noticed before. That’s what I consider aesthetic pleasure. It’s just pleasure in the work of art pure and simple. So take my love for Philippa Gregory novels (these are bodice-ripping historical romances that involve sex and murder and royalty). I am not enjoying seeing the fruits of talent realized, I am not enlightened to anything. The dialogue is stilted. The parts don’t fit together smoothly. It feels like a rush job, not a lovingly crafted product. So why do I like them? Some of it is prurient, some of it is similar to my interest in gossip, some of it is actually because I like learning a bit of history in a more entertaining way. Same with Kimmi’s laughing at bad art or camp – one enjoys the lack of talent, the failed ambition. Not the achievement.

            I think pleasure can have an object and it matters what that object is. When I say I like it, but it’s crap, I mean that it gives me pleasure in some other way than the pure contemplation of the work and the achievement of an artist.

            Reading historical romances (for me, you hoose your poison) is definitely real pleasure, and it’s a pleasure of which I’m fond and don’t at all wish to give up. It’s very valuable, just not aesthetically valuable. And I would never denigrate the pure enjoyment in anyone else. But it’s not pleasure in the object as an object, it’s pleasure due to other purposes.

          • Oh, and no one likes being lectured to. But haven’t you ever read a really enlightening review, or had an interesting prof, or just had a knowledgeable friend from whom you sought the information?

          • I don’t see all pleasure as exactly the same thing. Sexual pleasure is a totally different animal from the pleasure gotten from accomplishing something of which you’re proud which is different from the pleasure at doing a crossword puzzle which is different from a runner’s high which is different from enjoying a great glass of wine. Etc. All have positive affect, but not in the same way.

            I’m not sure that I agree with you about this issue of compartmentalized pleasures. That would explain our inability to reach a middle ground on these issues. I suppose science might hint to us at the different types of pleasure we enjoy – via brain scans of various kinds – but even if we do accept the possibility of this, there’s still the matter of your implication that various levels of art within a genre (say, books, or photographs, or whatever) activate different parts of the brain. Am I understanding that correctly?

          • I looked at this issue a while ago, and do seem to recall that the neuroscientific data on pleasure showed it was a varied phenomenon (I.e., different parts light up for different pleasurable experiences), but I’m not sure. I could be wrong.

            Regardless, I’m more interested in the cognitive level of explanation (getting to cognitive neuroscientific as that field advances). And there are differences there. You can talk about the mental representation that resulted in pleasure. And a representation of “artistic excellence” resulting in pleasure is different than pleasure resulting from a representation of “funny because it sucks.” The kind of pleasure described above also have a different phenomenal feel, but even if it doesn’t have a different phenomenal feel, you can talk about the mental representation that results in pleasure.

          • Rose,

            Suppose you read a book and say, “This book is the best book I’ve ever read.”
            Suppose I read a different book and say, “This book is the best book I’ve ever read.”

            Which of the two books is better?

          • Can’t tell. It’s the joint opinion of the ideal judges. The opinion of one ideal judge in itself doesn’t establish anything.

            Although I would say whichever of us meets more of the criteria is probably more likely to be right.

          • It is awfully convenient for those judges that they’re also going to get the opportunity to establish the relevant criteria.

          • But they didn’t. Hume assumed the criteria were just sort of prima facie obvious, and others since have pointed out that they all tend to point to people who have experienced the most varieties of pleasure from artworks.

            Plenty of ideal judges are no philosophers. And if I’m an ideal judge in anything, I’m certainly not for the vast, vast majority of artworks.

  2. The true judges are not necessarily the same people who actually get hired in academic departments and newspapers, or who donate money to create new wings of museums.


    If I read your post correctly, a “true” judge would be impervious to the “emperor’s new clothes” phenomenon that (IMHO) so seems to plague contemporary criticism. It seems to me that once a critical mass (no pun intended) of well-established critics deem a work to be good, but only to the truly discerning, it suddenly gets heaped with praise despite its manifest mediocrity (or worse). I’ve seen it happen with movies (“Sideways”) and books (“2666”), and I wonder to what degree the critical reception at the time informs a work of art’s entry into the cannon, and to what degree the above effect contributed. (The author for whom I harbor the greatest suspicion in this regard is Joyce.)

    • It’s a wonder Joyce is allowed anywhere near the hallowed halls of good art.
      Such a filthy filthy mouth on that character!

      (from people who have read him more than I have: some of his work is outstanding, the rest rubbish.)

  3. http://creepypasta.wikia.com/wiki/Smile_Dog
    Quality art. ymmv, of course, but if you don’t want to talk composting from the moment you see it, you aren’t qualified. (you may be qualified if you don’t know what the word means, of course).

    a friend of mine hates to listen to live music, because he can always tell when a note is wrong. I’m not certain he’d be a good person to judge “good live music” because of this… I think there is definitely a time when one person’s rarefied experience just doesn’t match everyone else’s.

    Are supertasters better than the rest of us? Ought their views to be given preference, simply because they are more sensitive? Or is it more like “do you like cilantro”?

    • Hume addresses this. Basically, there are some cases where being super-refined can impede you, others where the more refined is better.

      Food is kind of an odd case, because it’s hard to tease out the for-its-own-sake part from the satisfying-other-desires part.

    • That’s an interesting point. It seems like an ideal judge would have perfectly average senses, not hyper-sensitive ones. A person who could hear the same frequencies as a dog, or see as well as an eagle would probably be at a disadvantage as an art critic. She would hear and see things that the artists never meant the audience to perceive.

      Imagine a painting looks perfectly smooth and glossy to the average viewer in a gallery. A critic with eagle eyes comes in and sees every pore and brushstroke at the same distance. Assume the artist intended to create a painting with a glossy finish and invisible brushstrokes and did a very technically adept job of achieving this goal for viewers with 20/20 vision at standard viewing distance. But to Ms. Eagle Eyes, it looks like a cratered moonscape from the same vantage point. Who’s at a disadvantage in evaluating the painting, Ms. Eagle Eyes or Ms. 20/20? I’d say Ms. Eagle Eyes.

      • I just re-read what Hume wrote about it, which is not enough. It is: “In like manner, a quick and acute perception of beauty and deformity must be the perfection of our mental taste; nor can a man be satisfied with himself while he suspects, that any excellence or blemish in a discourse has passed him unobserved. In this case, the perfection of the man, and the perfection of the sense or feeling, are found to be united. A very delicate palate, on many occasions, may be a great inconvenience both to a man himself and to his friends: But a delicate taste of wit or beauty must always be a desirable quality; because it is the source of all the finest and most innocent enjoyments, of which human nature is susceptible.”

        I think more work would need to be done about when super-refinement is desirable and when average is the way to go.

      • Not quite. You’re assuming that the artist doesn’t have eagle eyes themselves, which is a hilarious assumption. Price out some commercial art monitors — they’re all “eagle eyes” — and when an artist draws, they draw so it looks well on their screen (with perhaps a modification for “that won’t be visible” around high and low values.) Most monitors suck.

        Now there’s a counter to the counter, which is about pointillism…

        • I’m assuming that artists are humans with senses in the broadly normal range for our species. As opposed to, say, superpowers.

          I bet if you went out and tested the hearing of musicians, or the vision of artists, you’d find that the vast majority are about average. Above a certain minimal threshold, I doubt you’d find much of a correlation between raw sensory acuity and artistic achievement.

          • Maybe it’s a matter of being able to attend to a certain sensory input. Visual artists can see all the different colors that make up an object, better than I can. Musicians can hear resonances and overtones. Maybe poets are more attuned to the sound of words.

  4. I had a remarkable art teacher who had a theory on what made for good art. It came in two judgement calls.

    The first she compared to an archer and his target.

    The artist contemplates the work he or she is creating, assembles tools and media, begins working. There’s a certain aspect of excellence to these choices: he who paints in mud must not expect his work to last long. Da Vinci had problems in this department: some of his media experiments failed. The archer knows his bow and his arrows, periodically replaces his bowstring, throws out poor arrows, understands the effects of wind and such… over time the archer has mastered the artifacts of his craft, as the artist has mastered his media. Now an archer might shoot well with someone else’s bow and an artist might be able to do something passable in another artist’s studio, but it stands to reason excellent results start with excellent choices, right down to which direction sunlight enters the studio.

    Thus, a mediocre artist could improve his art simply by using better materials.

    The archer draws his bow and contemplates his target. Is the target near or far away? An excellent artist attempts to work to the limits of his abilities. Not all his work will meet his own standard of excellence. Often, the artist reconsiders a “failed” piece of art and finds in it some interesting and unintended effect. He attempts to replicate it, adding this “mistake” to his repertoire.

    But generally speaking, the artist is the first judge of a piece of art. If it meets his standard, like the archer, he is proud of his shot. The artist knows if he’s shooting at the broad side of a barn or at a worthy target. Not all art makes it off the easel and onto the wall. Some of it is just pitched out. Artists often fear their substandard work might get out the door, thus casting aspersions on his skill. They don’t want people to look at their half-finished work. The archer will go downrange and retrieve his arrows from the backstop where they flew past the target. Even an excellent archer doesn’t always hit the target.

    The second judgement call she compared to a conversation.

    So the artwork is finished. The paint dries, it’s boxed up and sent off to an exhibition. It’s hung, lit appropriately, titled, grouped with other pieces. A little brochure goes out, opening night arrives, there stand the bottles of white wine and the ubiquitous plate of snacks. Well-dressed people arrive, greet each other, wander about, standing before the paintings. Some paintings get only a few seconds, others get a few more seconds, some attract lustful feelings of acquisitiveness in the viewer.

    Then there’s the reporter. “Well, Monsieur Magritte, this painting of yours shows a pipe with the statement ‘This is not a pipe’. Please explain yourself.”

    To which Magritte might respond “Does the painting not explain itself? What more can I add to that statement beyond the fact that it is only a painting of a pipe? Obviously, a painting is not a pipe. In fact, much of my work is blatant forgery: I’ve painted fake Picassos, fake de Chiricos, even fake bank notes. Even artists must eat, you know. Take your question up with the painting itself, I do hope someone will buy it.”

    The only valid conversation in such a context is the one between the painting and the viewer. The artist has done his best to create an image worthy of viewing, one he hopes someone will love and purchase and take home to hang over his couch and become a part of someone’s life. The artist’s role is in the past tense. He has given birth to the art and shepherded it as far as the gallery.

    Hume might think the true judges of art are better judges than any one person. I’d beg to differ somewhat: there are three judges of art: the maker, the buyer and the viewer. What makes for a true judge? Da Vinci was harshly judged, and harshly judged himself, for his poor choices in media: the monks of Santa Maria delle Grazie were much-annoyed when his painting of the Last Supper started to flake off the wall. Vasari said the monastery had given up on the painting and cut a doorway through it. Da Vinci worked in a desultory and thoroughly unprofessional manner: though his talent was great, his professionalism was lacking. His patrons despaired of him ever finishing anything and Da Vinci took it to heart, at the end of his life ruefully contemplating his legacy of unfinished work.

    Art resists judgement. Like love itself, art resists explanation. One archer can judge another, I suppose, knowing the difficulty of the shot might add meaningful data to a judgement call. The gallery owner knows what the buyers might want: his judgement influences the buyer. The reporter might write an article titled “Fascinating Forger Pokes Fun at Art Critics.” But it was Edouard Mesens who bought dozens and dozens of Magritte’s painting to sell at the London Gallery who matters. Nobody else. Dozens of artists have been influenced by Magritte but it was Mesens who believed in him.

    • The question is simply whether there is anyone’s response we might want to take with more weight than anyone else’s.

      • The buyer. Based on his judgement, the art retains and gains value. Van Gogh’s paintings gain value because Matisse loved them. Matisse’s stock went up in France, so did Van Gogh’s. Sorta like musical influences: Muddy Waters was a 50s and 60s has-been until Johnny Winter put him in the studio again.

        We are the sum total of who believes in us.

      • Isn’t it a logical fallacy to assume that a particular argument is more likely to be valid simply because of the identity of the speaker?

        • If you’re making a logical argument, yes. But not for stuff requiring some sort of expertise. I will take a physicist’s view on string theory over my moms. Arguing whether a work of art is good is a question of a certain sort of expertise.

          • I don’t think you need expertise to find art good. Perhaps you can make a more informed decision, but I don’t think your perspective has any more merit for it.

            Perhaps you would find the David to be a rather poor depiction of a human male — both because it is ill proportioned, and because it deliberately portrays someone unrealistically. Does it really matter if you come to this as a naive person, or as a person schooled in the Japanese aesthetic?

            You, madam, would say that this person is wrong, despite their manifest expertise. I’d be bound that by knowing multiple frameworks, one would continually say that the David is an imperfect and fairly poor sculpture. It’s only by understanding the Greek aesthetic, and only the Greek aesthetic, that one can actually say “this is good!”

            Quantitatively, it’s a poor artwork. But, it is true, a realistic artwork would be considered tasteless by the standards of the time.

            I could say the same about the Japanese woodblocks, lacking an understanding of their aesthetic.

          • Michelangelo’s David was carved from a huge block of flawed marble. It’s slightly out of proportion because he had to work around those flaws.

  5. There are many kinds of value. Prudential value, moral value, monetary value, aesthetic value. I think the last two are not the same.

  6. Blaise and Rose,
    Here’s why you’re both wrong: It is possible to make a forgery — a bare and base and rather venal copy of a masterpiece. But a decent forger’s work (there’s quite a few on display in art museums) by the criteria you’ve named, is just as “great” a work as the inventive, scintillating original.

    And I deny that. A copy is just a copy. I cannot be a great artist, without the imagination to draw a dragon, and have it look real. Copying someone else’s dragon is NOT the same, no matter how technically good it is.

    • Magritte was a forger. No doubt of that fact. AI has been put to use detecting forgeries using spectral analysis for a long time now. Even before AI, we could look at the criteria I’ve laid out: media and technique especially, to detect forgeries. Often, a forgery can be detected by too-slavish emulation of existing technique, for a given artist’s media and technique change over time. Van Meegheren’s forgeries were flushed out like that. True, the Nazis who bought his art were fooled, and Van Meegheren has become something of a perverse hero to the Dutch, but when Magritte was forging Picasso, he was doing so for the only reason anyone puts art up for sale, he was trying to sell it.

      To paint a Real Dragon would require rather more than imagination. For dragons are not real: they conform to stereotypes. As Magritte would put it, “This is not a dragon.” It is the viewer who decides it’s a dragon.

      • I should expand a bit on Van Meegheren. When WW2 ended and Van Meegheren was put on trial as a Nazi collaborator, nobody could believe he hadn’t sold real Vermeers. The work was simply too good. He confessed to forgery to escape the charge of collaboration. Eventually, he had to forge another such painting in the presence of expert witnesses.

        The experts are mostly idiots. The art market is a great nest of vipers, all slithering over each other. Aesthetics is usually the province of the self-deluded: the dealers are the only ones with enough sense to know what people will buy. We can thank Theo van Gogh, the art dealer, for giving us his brother Vincent’s work.

          • Do not meddle in the affairs of dragons, young hero… for you are crunchy, and taste good with milk.

          • The one key exception to this rule being when it’s up on the stage on open mic night.

    • I think you can take originality and the identity of the creator and the context in which it was created into account on a Humean view.

  7. I’ll go with movies as an example. Even a strict positivist should find this an interesting experiment.

    Go out and choose a random sample of 100 people from around the earth. Hindus, Buddhists, Christians, Muslim, Sufi, Atheist, I don’t care. Women, men, children, academics, working stiffs, dilettantes, engineers.

    Put them all in 100 rooms.

    Now take your prospective judges. Say 50 different “bona fide experts”, movie critics, academics who study movies, pop culture bloggers. Have this person go into each room (with a translator, if necessary, of course), and interview each person for around 15-30 minutes. Ask them whatever they want to ask.

    Then the judge gives each interviewee a list of 10 movies that the judge believes each subject would like, and writes down a short paragraph that goes into a ledger that explains ahead of time why the judge thinks that interviewee would like those particular movies.

    Each subject watches the ten movies, and rates them with a simple five point scale. Sum the points for each judge, across all 10 movies, across all 100 subjects. Ask them to write a couple of sentences (or narrate them, if they’re not literate) as to why they liked the picture.

    I would imagine that you would find, in that group, there were experts who may have the label but are very, very bad at judging what every one of those test subjects likes. They might hit a sweet spot (and that’s why they’re a successful blogger or academic or critic) where they correctly judge a sub-population of the 100, but overall they don’t do well. We’re putting up a pretty hard test here, there’s lots of culture that won’t be expressed in a short interview.

    However, out of your collection of 50 judges, you’d probably find a few who not only excelled at picking, but when you examine their rationales behind why they picked the movies compared to what the interviewees wrote about why they liked the movies, you’d find that they were generally pretty good at predicting why the interviewee would *like* the movie, too… and when they got them wrong, they got them wrong for reasons that are pretty well explained.

    Plot all that on a number of curves and you have a bunch of data to keep a whole bevy of social scientists interested for a while.

    NOW, plot the judges efficacy on a curve. Assuming we’ve gotten this far and we have an interesting looking graph, eliminate the bottom 80% of the judges. Take the remaining 20%.

    Ask them what *they* think the top 100 movies are.

    Here’s the interesting part, do you think that there would be a lot of correlation between those judges?
    Do you think that those 100 movies would necessarily be on the list of the 1000 movies that they recommended to those 100 subjects, earlier? Do you think that there would be a movie on that 100 list that *wasn’t* on that list of 1000 movies?

    • You are selecting Reviewers with the talent for Empathy. I find it quite likely that most of the 100 movies would have made it onto the 1000 list. Also likely that some wouldn’t — there’s quite a few fantastic movies that are rather indecipherable (Monet? ;-P ).

      I wonder — does empathy make one a better art critic? I know a couple of people with great empathy (or a reasonable facsimile of such, for the psychopath)…

      • Not just empathy.

        It’s not enough to understand the 100 people. You also have to understand the cinema which you’re recommending to the 100 people. I can understand you just fine but still be a crappy person to go to for recommendations for movies.

        You have to understand how the qualities of the art match the qualities of the person.

        • This would be interesting. But this isn’t about making recommendations tailored to anyone. It’s about whether it is worth the time of the other regular folks to try to seek out the movies that the experts like simply because they like them. As in, that means it’s a better movie, and it’s worthwhile to try to see the best movies.

          • I would argue that a good expert would possess three abilities: the ability to recognize good art, and the empathy that Kim points out, and the ability to align the two.

            Of course, that good expert would also then be able to generalize the art in question as “these bits of this type of art are good representatives of the art”. I don’t think you can take the audience completely out of it. On the other hand, I don’t think you can rely entirely on the audience (everything is relative) either.

  8. “I would imagine that you would find”… “They might hit a sweet spot”… “you’d probably find”…

    I find making up experiments and then making up results to be a very poor way to predict anything.

    • I have yet to meet an experimenter who didn’t design an experiment with an idea, in their head, of what the result would show. That’s what you’re trying to do, after all, expose some phenomena to observation.

      Now, the good experimental design takes this into account, and forces you to accept the results of your experiment instead of twisting and backwards-rationalizing your results to match your theory.

      All of my predictions could totally be wrong, absolutely. But then that would provide some ammunition to Sam’s conjecture that there is no reasonably objective anything. And hey, that would be interesting to know, right? It certainly would poke holes in my theory 🙂

      Do you have a problem with the design?

      • I have a vague understanding of how experiments work and why they are pursued — what puzzles me is what your experiment is out to prove or disprove (or do you seek data for its own sake?).

        The design seems to be what Netflix & Co. does all the time, your guys just have the opportunity to ask farther-reaching questions; that they have their own tastes and opinions should matter little to the experiment if they are honest (and competent) brokers.

        • > what puzzles me is what your experiment is out to prove or
          > disprove (or do you seek data for its own sake?).

          Well, prove or disprove would be very strong, too strong for this sort of an experiment.

          The idea is, if there is indeed some measure of quality that transcends pure relativism, how do you measure it? It seems like the thing to do is to find experts. How do you find experts when the field you’re attempting to study is fairly relative to begin with? Well, you find people who understand the art from the artists’ standpoint, and simultaneously demonstrate that they can understand the art from a consumers’ standpoint.

          Now, if you can’t find any correlation anywhere… if movie art critics are as bad at judging what people like as wine experts appear to be, well then maybe Sam’s right and the idea of an objective value to art (even one that we can only approximate) is just complete hooey.

          On the other hand, if you can find correlations that transcend purely social conventions, then it would appear that it may be possible to identify people who can come closer to approximating the objective value of art using admittedly subjective proxy measurements. Then maybe relativism isn’t quite so relative.

          • Thanks, that helped. I was about to get into what it takes to pick a proper crew of experts but realized I’d end up with nothing but true Scotsmen. In the end, your strongest correlation will probably be near universal enjoyment of Charlie Chaplin.

            Away from the lab, Rose’s invocation of the ‘test of time’ as an indicator of worth shouldn’t be discounted.

          • Absolutely.

            The really interesting thing would be in 2647, when the Zuntarians arrive, if they find the same things artistically interesting that we do. Particularly if they have a number of fairly fundamentally different sociological constructs.

            Is Richard III as interesting to the aliens? If so, this says something very different even from “most humans agree Shakespeare is good art.”

            But first let’s try and find a proximate measure of goodness, if one exists at all.

          • First, Zuntarians’ brains just aren’t wired the same as ours. There are proportions and shapes that appeal to us humans across cultural lines — these building blocks of beauty will mean nothing to the Zs. Hell, they won’t even like Charlie Chaplin!

            We already have a proximate measure of goodness (only it doesn’t actually measure goodness but what the hey): a mix of critical (expert) opinion and mass popularity leavened by the time test. It works best at the top, of course — Mozart, Shakespeare, and Rembrandt never went out of fashion. The downside is the amount of time it takes to make a fair judgment (my rule of thumb is everyone with a memory of the original must die; let’s call it ‘the 100-year test’).

          • > (my rule of thumb is everyone with a memory of the original
            > must die;

            It’s a sign that I’m too tired that my mind immediately jumped to, “KILL THEM ALL!”

  9. The subjectivity of art is one difficulty for coming up with a standard to distinguish good art from bad; another is that each work of art is something uniquely its own–each is in a way a world or universe onto itself, with its own rules, its own truth. Art is the creative play of genius and alterity. Therefore, even if we can come up with a list of qualities we’d expect to see in all, say, good movies, in being faced with an individual work, we’re faced with something otherwise than what our expectations should be. Art should always be an exception to our rules because, in each work of art, truth is a unique creation.

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