Hi-Dee Hi-Dee Hi-Dee Ho! – or, continued musings on relativism in art

By Sam Wilkinson

In my (unpopular) arguments about the relativism with which I approach art – that all art is equal, that all consumers are equal, and that nobody is substantively wrong – I have repeatedly struggled to find a way to make the argument in a persuasive and compelling fashion. This, I suppose, is my own failing.

If I have remained ineffective at convincing people of the rightness of my position, I have remained equally unconvinced by the positions they have presented to counter my own. My own response to arguments about hierarchies within art are that such structures tend in almost every example to overlap with remarkable consistency to whatever the person doing the advocating happens to personally enjoy. It is just the damndest coincidence.  (I have, predictably, other objections, but they are not for this post.)

Instead, I present the video below. It is a video of a man who seems to spend most of his days detached from the world, a detachment that can seemingly only be broken by what would appear to be the music of his younger, healthier days:

Old Man In Nursing Home Reacts To Hearing Music From His Era

His before (a quiet man with his head down, either unable or unwilling to speak) and after (a dancing man with his eyes open, answering questions), is as simultaneously shocking as it is uplifting. While the playing of music certainly would not do for all people what it does for this man, the idea that it might is pleasant thing to think about. If we can agree on nothing else, we can almost certainly agree upon this.

But there are implications even here for our back and forth about art. Specifically, how do we deal with the fact that this man’s favored music is performed by artists (like Cab Calloway, whose most famous song is below) who do not appear on the lists compiled by the sort of aficionados that various people here (including, most compelling, Rose Wodehouse) generally reference when it comes to the assemblage of canons that ought to be understood as bodies of work superior in nature?

Cab Calloway – Minnie The Moocher

 

Is it that this man is simply ignorant to the greater music available to him? Perhaps. Is it that this many is simply intellectually incapable of understanding how much better other music is? Perhaps. But surely we can agree that both of those are egregiously ugly conclusions. The problem with insisting upon the hierarchies of art though is that one of these two conclusions has to be true. If the hierarchies are true, then there has to be some problem with the man or else he would not preference Cab Calloway in the way that he obviously does. But if these hierarchies aren’t true? Then this becomes simultaneously easier and less judgmental. We can acknowledge that, for this man, Calloway is the peak of the musical achievement, even if this is not the experts’ conclusion. Understanding Calloway’s superiority within this man’s world then might help us to understand how the music can be important enough to him to literally open his eyes.

Why then pivot from that bit of reasonableness back to a conclusion where this man’s experience exists as some sort of outlier, as if arts of all kinds do not create precisely the same emotional response in all of us? For the record, when I argue for relativism, I am not arguing against the ordering of works of art within given critical schemes, but rather, the acknowledgement that those critical schemes are the creations of human beings almost certainly driven by their biases, their preferences, their pleasures, and their pains. They have arrived at their own lists of accomplished jazz (like this one,or this one, or this one). But the man in the video is driven in precisely the same way, by his biases, by his preferences, by his pleasures, and his pains. He has arrived at Cab Calloway.

Neither of them is right generally. They are, instead, right for themselves specifically. Instead of insisting upon the superiority of some of those conclusions, we should revel in the peculiarity of our individuality which, incidentally, seems to exist long after the suffering of life takes over physically.

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249 thoughts on “Hi-Dee Hi-Dee Hi-Dee Ho! – or, continued musings on relativism in art

  1. Cab worked with Dizzy Gillespie and Doc Cheatham.  His band played the Cotton Club.  He won a lifetime Grammy and Minnie the Moocher is in the Grammy Hall of Fame (although, you can certainly take issue with the Grammys as a bar, I guess).  But he was immensely popular in the heyday of big band jazz in the 30s and 40s.  If he didn’t stop touring he probably would have been popular into the 50s.  Guy won the National Medal of Arts.

    I’d be hard pressed to imagine anyone saying that Cab Calloway wasn’t an exemplar of big band jazz.

    I saw him perform at the Hollywood Bowl a few years before he died.  Lost the high register, but it was a gas.

     

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    • If you can find him listed on a top whatever list as compiled by a critic or a scholar, you’re a better man than me. I found plenty of those types of lists (best albums, best performers, most influential, etc.), but none of them included Calloway, likely because he was a Big Band pop performer, akin perhaps to somebody who writes books that are popular but not with the “right” people.

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  2. Is the discussion about art or is it about entertainment?  Before you can resolve whether there’s such a thing as good art, you need to settle on the question of what art is in the first place.

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  3. Sam —

    I wish I had time to reply at length/with some actual thought put into it.  But I do know I’d say something about “lastingness,” whatever the hell I mean by that.  I think I’d also be inclined toward Ken’s sense that we need to define “art” vs “entertainment” first.

    I also wonder to what extent you’re arguing against contemporary (post-Victorian, more or less) distinctions between/among high, low, and middle-brow art/entertainment.  Much of what we think of as great art wouldn’t, in its own time, have fit neatly into any of these categories — meanwhile, today I’m supposed to take certain authors seriously because they wear hipster glasses, or come from a certain publishing house.  I’ll confess that publishing houses are much better signals regarding quality than hipster glasses, but they aren’t the end-all, of course.

    Finally, regarding your concluding point on the personal constructedness of preferences/rankings/hierarchies: what do we make of the common/shared works or artists, across categories of preference or among large groups of people.  In other words, can we draw any conclusions from the fact that traditionalists and radicals both want to claim Antigone?  That Thucydides appeals to Marxists and Victor Davis Hanson?  That my grandparents and my secular professors find the Bible a moving, lasting work?  (This list feels too political.  Didn’t mean it that way: don’t read it as, “Why can these works be used, possibly, by people with competing frameworks to promote said frameworks?” but, “Why do these people of various, and at times contradicting, frameworks frequently tout the artistic qualities of the same stuff?”)

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    • I think I’d also be inclined toward Ken’s sense that we need to define “art” vs “entertainment” first.

      You’re assuming that there is some objectively meaningful distinction, but I think Sam’s argument relies on the assumption that there isn’t.  So to say we have to make that distinction first is to say that Sam must adopt your assumptions, rather than his own, before you can address his theory.  That’s very problematic, and while certainly not intentionally unfair, it is  functionally an unfair way of arguing.

      I would argue that since many people find art entertaining, art must, at a minimum, be a form of entertainment, or at least very closely related to entertainment. So I think the principle of parsimony is in Sam’s favor, and it is the duty of his critics to demonstrate that there is a reliable and meaningful distinction.

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      • You’re assuming that there is some objectively meaningful distinction, but I think Sam’s argument relies on the assumption that there isn’t… 

        This is fair, to a point, but considering that this has been a running dialogue, and Sam is responding to other posts, is it necessarily fair that other people must adopt his assumptions? I mean, this is what much of the discussion has been, right? From my vantage point, that’s what a lot of it has boiled down to.

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        • I am willing to accept these distinctions, provided that somebody can clearly explain what they are. That said, I think what we’re most likely to see during that conversation is a definition of art that amounts to “Whatever I Like Most” and entertainment as “Whatever Those Other People Like Instead.” So the classical music fan will define Mozart as art and The Clash as entertainment.

          Of course, they might do that so simply. They might say that consider art to be the complex orchestral arrangements, the emotional impact of the piece, its ability to remain relevant even to today’s listeners, or whatever else, but what they’re doing is structuring their definition of art to include the things that they like while excluding what other people like instead.

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          • Absolutely. I have no time for that sort of “What I like” definition of art, but I think a number of people in these discussions have attempted to distinguish between art and entertainment (or art and aesthetics, as I think some phrased it) without just validating their musical/artistic preferences (Mark wrote a Springsteen vs. Jovi comparison in this manner, didn’t he?).

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        • This is fair, to a point, but considering that this has been a running dialogue, and Sam is responding to other posts, is it necessarily fair that other people must adopt his assumptions?

          I think James is making a slightly different point here. In the debate about artistic value, the anti-relativist makes a distinction between art and entertainment, or high art and low art. It’s similar to the distinction JS Mill made between higher and lower pleasures. The idea, I guess, is that a high pleasure, and presumably the experience of Art would be one, is more of an apprehension beyond the senses than merely an experience of them. So high art can be distinguished, categorically, from low art.

          There might be something to this view, but what James is pointing out – I think – is that the proposed distinction between the two types of artistic experiences and hence, between art and entertainment (etc) either begs the question or collapses upon further analysis. What is the property in works of high art being apprehended? So the basic assumption which grounds the anti-relativist position can be disgarded.

           

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              • Fetch my fainting couch at once! Somebody enjoying pornography? The horror!

                Please note that I’m not giving any more credibility to the person who insinuates that pornography is the  best art. They’re being just as silly as the person insinuating that cinema is the best art. What they’re trying to do is turn their preference for something into a universal truth. That is the objectionable behavior.

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                • I’m sorry, where did I say that enjoying porn was bad? I just said on your view, the best movies for the vast majority of people are going to be porn movies. You experience far more pleasure, and there’s no distinction to be made for kinds of pleasures.

                  I’m guessing most people don’t think porn movies are the best movies.

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                  • How can you simultaneously write that “the best movies for the vast majority of people are going to be porn movies” and then “most people don’t think porn movies are the best movies”? Both can’t be true.

                     

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                    • She didn’t write what you thought she wrote.  She wrote, “I just said on your view, the best movies for the vast majority of people are going to be porn movies. You experience far more pleasure, and there’s no distinction to be made for kinds of pleasures.

                      I’m guessing most people don’t think porn movies are the best movies.”

                      Rose is giving people credit for being able to separate physical pleasure from intellectual pleasure.

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                    • Argh, you’re getting into the territory of sophism here. Clearly she said “on your view the best movies for the vast majority of people are going to be porn movies,” but that in reality, “most people don’t think porn movies are the best movies.” That’s only a contradiction if one holds your theory, which, you know, was her point.

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                    • Um, because that’s exactly my point? On your view (not mine) the best movies are porn movies. Why? THe most pleasure of any kind is felt while watching them. Because on your view kind of pleasure does not matter.

                      But I’m guessing most people will not agree that the best movies are porn movies. It’s a way of showing that most people will not agree that “It gives me pleasure, therefore it’s good.”

                      On my view, it’s very easy to explain why porn movies are not the best movies even though the provide more actual arousal of pleasure.

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                    • Rose,

                      All due respect, but most p0rn movies are BORING and do not provide much pleasure. I mean, sure, maybe if you want to bring Star Whores into the equation — but tell me you’re actually evaluating the damn thing on its humor, because its sex appeal is not what makes it stand out!

                      (oh, and if you can find a copy, you’ve got better sources than I do. Lucas hates it, therefore it must BURN).

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                    • This is ludicrous. The act of watching the pornographic movie doesn’t give the pleasure. The act of masturbating while watching the pornographic movie gives the pleasure. If you’d like to compare masturbating to Citizen Kane, we can do that – and I’d be willing to bet everybody on this thread has masturbated far more than they’ve seen Citizen Kane – but that’s not currently the topic under discussion.

                      What I’m not going to do is tell the person who enjoys pornographic movies more than they enjoy Citizen Kane that they’re wrong, nor am I going to tell that person that their preference is wrong, just as I’d never tell the person who prefers Citizen Kane to pornography that they’re wrong. They’re both equally right, because they’re both talking about their preference for things. Where they go off the rails is when they try to assert that their preference is a factual truth about the world.

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            • Kimmi: This seems utterly at odds with what I got from Rose,

              It wasn’t a response to Rose or anything Rose has said. I was giving an explanation of what James said to JL which Jonathon objected to. I’m not actually making an argument here, just mapping out the lay of the land. Relativists want a set of necessary and sufficient conditions for what constitutes ‘better’ or ‘high art’; the anti-relativist can’t do this. On the other hand, the anti-relativist appeals to the fact that we judge things as better or worse, and in some cases we seem to think that the judgments are objectively justified.

              But to get back to the art/entertainment distinction, Rose says below

              On a relativist view that provides for no distinctions between kinds of pleasures, many many people are going to have to say that the best works of art of all are porn.

              which is probably descriptively accurate. But also question begging. Furthermore, I’m not sure how far anyone can go with this as a method of resolving the dispute since one can use description (as Rose does in this case) as a reductio on relativism and in other cases as a demonstration of anti-relativism.

              (For my part, I think there are objective properties of some works of art which make them better than others, but I don’t think there is a set of necessary and sufficient properties for something to be art, so I think that the subjective element (or a relative one, anyway) can’t be eliminated from our determinations of what constitutes art.)

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                • Just saw this. (I wasn’t avoiding it!)

                  The proposed reductio is question begging because what you present as an obvious contradiction – that if relativism is true then many people will think porn is the best art form – depends on denying exactly what the relativist is suggesting. That there is some set of objective properties independent of experience that are sufficient for something’s being a work of art.

                  And that’s why I said that description can only take us so far in resolving the debate: evidence and description can be used to bolster or refute each sides arguments since there is plenty of prima fcie evidence going in either direction.

                  Personally, I think that a sophisticated relativism places the burden on the anti-relativists side to show that there is a set of necessary and sufficient conditions for some object’s being a work of art. Part of the problem, of course, is defining what art is in a non-question begging way. This is tricky enough. And because it’s so difficult, people are inclined to work backwards from examples: This painting by Money is art, this sonata by Beethoven is art, this urinal by Duchamp is art, and try to identify properties of those objects which are widely agreed upon as being art. I don’t think this is a fruitful way to proceed, and I mean that empirically rather then conceptually: it hasn’t yielded anything like a set of properties which they all share (nec & suf).

                  My own view is that the subjective element cannot be eliminated from the determination of what constitutes a work of art. So relativism of some kind or another is inherent in aesthetic judgments.

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                  • This is tricky enough. And because it’s so difficult, people are inclined to work backwards from examples: This painting by Money is art, this sonata by Beethoven is art, this urinal by Duchamp is art

                    Duchamp is an interesting example to discuss, at least partially because there are those who claim that the art is in the act of treating the urinal as art, not in the urinal itself.  So context and intent can matter as much as (or more than) content or presentation.

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                    • I agree. Art, almost by definition, is a binary relation. What the Duchamp stuff does is blow up the earlier conception of what that relation was, or how it was defined. And yet, Duchamp’s urinal is widely regarded as being a work of art, even tho it deliberately (intentionally!) violated all the previously accepted conditions on what constitutes a work of art.

                      That doesn’t mean that there are no necessary/sufficient conditions for something’s being a work of art (in the metaphysical sense). But it is certainly evidence that we have little reason to think there are or that we can identify them.

                      Unless, of course, you roll with the contemporary view of things: something is a work of art if the creator intends it to be viewed that way. Which seems to fall on the side of relativism.

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                  • Sam has held variously that:

                    1) Saying “I don’t like it but it’s good” is a contradiction.

                    2) The source of pleasure when apprehending a work is irrelevant

                    3) He is not in a position to judge what is and is not art.

                    I don’t think it’s question-begging to point out that the embrace of those three will require biting a bullet that some non-Sam people would be unwilling to bite. It’s not an independent argument for anti-relativism.

                    And I say anti-relativism instead of objectivism because I think there is something ineliminably subjective about good art. I’m just saying there is something it means when we say a work of art is good, and that thing is not “I like it.” No nec. and suff. conditions. It’s the joint subjective opinion of people who meet certain criteria laid out here. https://ordinary-times.com/russellsaunders/2012/04/03/whos-to-say-whats-a-good-work-of-art/

                    The ensuing discussion made me want to alter it a bit, but not significantly.

                     

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                    • Rose,

                      Who is the “we” you keep referencing? Because even the assemblage of groups (of friends, experts, critics, whatever) betrays a certain subjectivity, never mind the subjectivity of each of the group’s participating members.

                      As for your three encapsulations: yes. I agree to all of those.

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                    • But I absolutely agree there is some subjectivity.

                      We, I mean most people. I have no scientific data on this, but it is my overwhelming impression that students I teach come in believing that two incompatible positions are true:

                      1) Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, to each his own, etc.

                      2) “I don’t like, but it’s good” is not a contradiction.

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                    • …believing that two incompatible positions are true:

                      1) Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, to each his own, etc.

                      2) “I don’t like, but it’s good” is not a contradiction.

                      I don’t think they are contradictions. When someone says they don’t like it, they’re expressing an aesthetic judgment. When they say that it’s still good, they’re expressing an appreciation for the craft, or technical expertise, or some other purely objective property which is (usually) a necessary part of a work of art.

                      Along those lines, do you think I’m contradicting myself if I were to say about X that it’s very well done, but it’s not art? It seems to me those two judgments aren’t contradictory. And part of this goes back to a more basic distinction between art and craft. Is great craft sufficient for the creation of art? Is it necessary? Technical expertise was long thought to be essential for the creation of art, but nowadays people disagree about that (eg, punk rock).

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                    • Along those lines, do you think I’m contradicting myself if I were to say about X that it’s very well done, but it’s not art? It seems to me those two judgments aren’t contradictory.

                      No, not at all.

                      When someone says they don’t like it, they’re expressing an aesthetic judgment. When they say that it’s still good, they’re expressing an appreciation for the craft, or technical expertise, or some other purely objective property which is (usually) a necessary part of a work of art.

                      Yes, that’s along the same lines of what I think. (Although I don’t know about necessary part of the art.) Although I think when people say “I don’t like it” they are talking about whether they enjoyed it, and “but it’s good” means something else (exactly what it means takes a lot of hashing out). But if you don’t think that sentence is a contradiction in itself (i.e., that liking something is not all it takes for thinking it’s good), then 1 and 2 usually contradict each other (depends exactly how you cash out 2).

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                    • Then maybe we’re in broad agreement here despite our use of ‘isms’ as labels. I tend to think of anti-relativism as either nihilism or strong aesthetic realism (eg., objectivism, that aesthetic properties are intrinsic to the object itself). You seem to reject that strong view of things. On the other hand, I agree with you that there are objective (mind independent? in some sense of that word?) properties of objects which justify our aesthetic judgments. And we both agree that subjective experience is an essential part of the determination of aesthetic worth.

                      Maybe I’m taking too rigid a line against anti-relativists on this score. But it seems to me the divide in the two schools of thought are where the aesthetic property is found – in the object or in the observer? Of course, if any object gives rise to an aesthetic judgment, then it’s the cause (in some sense) of it. But that doesn’t mean that the aesthetic property is an is an intrinsic part of the object. Or SISTM.

                       

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                    • No, I’m a weak anti-relativist. I would not consider myself an objectivist, and certainly not a nihilist! I think we’re in agreement!

                      As for aesthetic properties I think in general they supervene on perceptual properties.* So if our perceptual capacities were different, they’d be different. So, not inherent in the object, but an interaction between the object and human perceptual systems.

                      *One project I’d like to think of for the future, though, is the aesthetic properties of novels, which don’t supervene on perceptual properties.

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          • what James is pointing out – I think – is that the proposed distinction between the two types of artistic experiences and hence, between art and entertainment (etc) either begs the question or collapses upon further analysis.

            Oh, I’m not willing to commit myself. I’m just saying that it appears to me that Sam is operating with this view, and so to respond by saying those distinctions must first be made is to miss his fundamental point (as I have interpreted it anyway).

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        • Jonathan,

          I don’t think others have to accept Sam’s assumptions.  But what they need to do then is to say, “I cannot accept your assumptions, therefore your theory fails to persuade me.”  But they cannot say, “I will not discuss your theory until you adjust your assumptions.”

          Again, I don’t think anyone did that with intentional unfairness–“adjust your assumptions” is not what they were really intending in any purposeful fashion–so I’m not claiming anyone set out to argue in bad faith. But in fact it works out to be that kind of argument, albeit inadvertently.

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    • “In other words, can we draw any conclusions from the fact that traditionalists and radicals both want to claim Antigone?”

      Or, for that matter, that it’s possible to read Harry Potter and The Hunger Games as either shockingly radical or fasistically conservative, depending on what you’re looking for?

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  4. I cannot speak for others, but for me this is false:

    “My own response to arguments about hierarchies within art are that such structures tend in almost every example to overlap with remarkable consistency to whatever the person doing the advocating happens to personally enjoy.”

    I am well aware that there are forms of art, and artists, that I do not personally enjoy very much, but that I would recommend to the curious. Most of the Jazz world, for instance. I have never warmed to Jazz, but I have learned enough music theory to understand why others like it, why it is indeed amazing. I do not have to like the thing to see that it is great. Likewise, I do not enjoy modern experimental literature. However, if someone asks, “Should I read Pynchon?” I will say, “Go for it. A lot of smart people like it a lot.” If that same person asks, “Should I read Dan Brown?” I will scoff and say, “Perhaps if you have time to kill waiting for a flight. But there are better things. Have you tried sudoku? knitting?”

    See the difference? It is not hard.

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    • You’re getting into a situation in which we can reasonably question what you actually believe. I struggle very much to believe somebody who says, “Jazz is great and I don’t listen to it or like it or enjoy it and in fact, I listen to this other thing instead.” I am willing to believe the latter construction though, wherein you say, “I don’t like jazz, but other people do, so check it out.” Because that is more reflective of what you actually believe.

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      • saying “jazz is great” is also like saying “rock is great”. there’s a lot of space to cover. i think it’s reasonable to say “i know why someone else enjoys xyz” but less so to say “xyz is amazing even though i myself don’t enjoy it at all”. the first is an attempt at understanding, but the second is more of a reliance on cultural hearsay. which isn’t a terrible sin or anything, but not entirely useful, especially when someone can at least shallowly self-educate in a matter of weeks via youtube aka the world’s fastest jukebox.

        “That said, I think what we’re most likely to see during that conversation is a definition of art that amounts to “Whatever I Like Most” and entertainment as “Whatever Those Other People Like Instead.”

        very well put. i know i’d probably put a few very special recordings in the “art” box simply as a way of differentiating them from things i merely enjoy, rather than are absorbed into a special kind of consciousness by. it’s a sloppy way of expressing it on my part.

        as an aside, we’ve done some work with local senior centers and donating old portable music players, and the effect is often as remarkable as the video above. i’d urge folks to support local centers this way when they get tired of or upgrade their existing players. it also makes me wonder what will animate me if and when i descend into a mental crevasse in my later years.

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      • I mean the exact words that I say. I believe with near certainty that Jazz is a great art form. I believe that it is such on its own merits. My failure to enjoy Jazz, I  believe, comes from my lack of investment into it. I could come to love Jazz, if I tried. Should I? That is a question of free time and energy. Magnificence is not free. Time invested in Jazz is time not spend reading great books — or writing. I have chosen so far to invest my energies elsewhere. On the other hand, the musical output (so far) of Rebecca Black is garbage. No effort on my part would change that.

        I am either lying to you, or delusional. Or you are wrong. Choose.

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        • 1. I don’t think you actually believe jazz is great. Your actions certainly don’t show us any investment in this stated belief.

          2. I think you have preferences for other things, musical or otherwise, and that your willingness to invest time into those tells us what you think is great.

          3. You’re not wrong for investing your time into those things.

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          • i think delusional is a bit harsh, no? but i do think you’re wrong for some of the reasons sam listed above. and in part because of the idea that you’ll only get its greatness but that you simply haven’t dumped in enough time to do so is a pernicious cultural hangover and likely untrue.

            lemme give you an example – the greatest grindcore album of all time is the inalienable dreamless by discordance axis. but if you’re not down with that, no amount of me locking you in a room is going to make you love it. you may come to acknowledge it by way of wanting extra bread rations, etc, but you won’t truly love it in your heart of hearts. cultural pressures work a lot like that. “jazz is great” is a sidestep. what kind of jazz? coltrane? kenny g? sun ra? free? hard bop? etc etc and so forth. (i know so little of jazz that this is the best i can do for an example, btw)

            i bet given enough time in my musical room 101 you too would learn to “love” rebecca black. :)

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                • If the statement is about one’s own opinion, yes.  Just because his thinking isn’t shoehorned into your worldview isn’t a reason to think he is deluding himself.

                  You bristle at what you feel is cultural or intellectual arrogance from others (like me, perhaps, although I’m a real pussycat) and yet have the gall to accuse someone else of not believing what he says he believes.  Have I said “wow” yet?

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                  • karl,

                    If somebody says one thing, then does another, you’re saying we should trust the words and not the behavior. That’s your preference for thinking about these things. My preference is trusting the actions and not the words. We all have preferences. Your preferences for what you’re willing to take seriously aren’t better or worse than mine. We can discuss our mutually exclusive preferences though, can’t we?

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                    • Good heavens, man!  He didn’t do anything to belie his statement — he merely didn’t conform to your idea of what he should do.  As a hard-line relativist this distinction should be easy for you.

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                    • I enjoyed this Sam, and read (almost) all of the comments on my bus ride home. You had me persuaded to your point of view until right about here. You suggest that saying jazz is great is not possible if you do not listen to it. That “actions speak louder than words”, more or less. But, what about the converse? I watch/watched Con Air and Dawson’s Creek, but I would never suggest either is great art or even great entertainment. I can discern my emotional response to these things as different than my intellectual characterizations of them. Extending your logic, the fact that I devote time to Con Air and Chinatown makes them equal artistically to me. I disagree, just as I would never suggest that your devoting time to Space Marauders From Outer Space 7 makes it the artistic equal to Matewan. I think there are objective artistic hierarchies that don’t necessarily detract from my/your enjoyment of the thing lower in the hierarchy. Is Dawson’s Creek the artistic equal to The Wire? Or The Walking Dead the artistic equal of Breaking Bad?

                      Obviously I’m at somewhat of an advantage here because I am choosing things I know you are fond of, but the point is the same.

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                    • You’re asking me two separate questions, both of which I want to answer:

                      1. Are Dawson’s Creek and The Wire equals? Yes. They’re both television shows. That frankly is the end of that conversation.

                      2. Are Dawson’s Creek and The Wire equals to me? No. They are not. I love The Wire. I hate Dawson’s Creek. I have a multitude of reasons for feeling this way, reasons that I’m happy to discuss elsewhere. But my love of one and hatred of the other do not reflect upon the shows themselves, but rather, my preferences for and against various forms of expression. We can debate my expertise on this matter, but whether or not I am an expert on television generally matters little: I don’t feel comfortable pivoting from the love of something to an assertion about its inherent quality as an production. I’m comfortable enough with the things I enjoy to not need other people to grant me their approval for enjoying it. I think we all ought to be.

                      Meanwhile, I reject entirely your assertion of objective criteria. Human beings are incapable of objective analysis, because human beings are incapable of divorcing themselves from their formative experiences, their preferences (chosen or otherwise), and their desires.

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                  • Right. Sam says, “No one believes X.” I say, “I believe X.” Sam says, “I don’t believe you.”

                    shrug

                    I mean, that pretty much ends the conversation, right?

                    For those wiling to hear, I believe Jazz is great because I studied music theory under a professional Jazz musician, while I was a fan of Classical. I left that study with a certainty that there was much to Jazz, and that someday I should look into it. Among the stuff I did hear, which he played me, there were things that impressed me very much. But I have not yet pursued it. I have done other things. If I do pursue it, I will do so seriously — not use YouTube as a jukebox, but get good recordings from friends who are Jazz musicians. “Show me the good stuff,” I will say. Then I will listen. Then I will listen again. And again. And again. And so on.

                    But I have not done this. I’m not really into Jazz. Not now.

                    Proving this to Sam is absolutely not a priority to me.

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                    • I thought of another example: Henry James. His stuff bores me to tears, but I believe it to be great literature. Explaining why would take more time time than I am willing to give, but in short he represents the pinnacle of a certain type of writing, that which presents the human mind a certain way — the very absolute of free indirect discourse. These are technical topics, which I happen to understand. He stands atop a certain mountain, just not one that I like.

                      But I believe those who say that Henry James is great are indeed correct.

                      Again, Sam might simply disagree with me, but instead he has taken a position where he must call me a liar, say that I do not believe this thing. But I do. His position seems sad, actually. Someday he will learn that tactics of unfalsifiability do not a strong position make.

                      Another example, this time imaginary, but valid I insist. Let us imagine a woman with a degree in literature, very smart, who has studied narrative theory deeply. She believes, along with many of her colleagues, that Lolita is among the great novels. However, she personally loathes it — for a very personal reason: because for her it brings up painful real-life memories. We can imagine this woman, yes? She hates the book, but believes it to be great. In Sam’s world, she cannot exist. I believe she can.

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                    • Jeffrey,

                      If Henry James bores you to tears, I remain highly suspicious of the idea that you consider his work “great.” You might be reflecting the opinions of others who genuinely do enjoy his work. You might be reflecting the academic position that Henry James is a great author. But the fact that you describe his work as boring you to tears and then insist that we all believe that you think his work is great is mind-boggling. It is an unrealistic expectation.

                      Again, if I come up to you and say, “I hate olives,” before shoving a handful of them in my mouth to eat, what are you going to conclude? That I hate the olives or that I’m not, shall we say politely, fully accounting for my own truth? If you’re going take words over actions, I certainly will happily drop the debate, because there’s nowhere for this disagreement between us to go. We will have fundamentally different outlooks upon the world. But my interest is piqued by the possibility that you’d see me eating olives voluntarily and still assume that I was being truthful when I said I hated olives.

                      (As for the personal critiques – that I am sad, that I am not intelligent, etc – do nothing to make your case stronger.)

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                    • Sam,

                      Look at it this way, if I refused to believe that you enjoy the things you claim to enjoy, and that instead you really enjoy what you ought to enjoy, you would consider that dirty pool. You have done the same to me. You cannot read my mind. You (probably) do not understand the literary theory that I do, or how I apply it, or why I apply it, or how it applies to Henry James. From ignorance of my knowledge, you dismiss my claim. Yet my claim contradicts what you have said, namely that nobody says, “I hate X but think X is good art.”

                      If I say there are no black swans, and then you show me a black swan, and I say, “Ah, but it is not really a swan; swans are white,” one would rightly conclude that my position is unfalsifiable.

                      Sam: “Nobody says X, and if they do I shall dismiss them and call them a liar.”

                      I understand that you do not understand. When I do not understand somebody, I listen to them, am silent, try to get into their shoes. You say, “Oh, he couldn’t really believe that. If he did, I would be wrong about this one thing.”

                      Ask yourself this, how will you learn new things?

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                    • Jeffrey,

                      We can continue to go back and forth this issue. I assure you that I will continue to go back and forth on this issue. But what is to be gained from it? We clearly believe in diametrically opposed views; you that people can recognize greatness without what we might describe as pleasure, me than this isn’t the case. There’s no real middle ground between us, is there, no common area where we might come together.

                      One of the reasons that I want to walk away from this conversation is your decision to underpin your position by questioning my ability to think, something you’ve now done on several occasions throughout this thread, most recently when you note I do not know the literary theory that you do and that the implication that I am incapable of learning. But before I get too offended by that sort of argument, I wonder if I haven’t been clear, so I’ll try one final time:

                      I don’t care about the literary theory that you know, nor do I care about your capacity to learn. My point is simply that your preference for art is no better or worse than anybody else’s. It is your own. You’re speaking to no greater truth about the world when you praise the things you like than I would be when I praise my favorite authors. Regarding preferences, I believe we can know them most accurately by looking at a person’s actions, which is why I bias toward what a person does rather than what they say. So I balk at the idea that somebody who finds an author “boring” can also think he is “great.”

                      But perhaps, in that, I am being unfair. Perhaps your criteria for greatness is boredom. So in that, perhaps your appreciation of Henry James is genuine. I hadn’t considered this possibility earlier, and I apologize for that.

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                    • I understand your position. I also assumed you wanted honest debate, to tear at the thing and see where we land. You asserted as evidence that folks like me do not say, “I do not like this myself, but it is actually great.” But I do say those things. I did in this thread. Rose also says that. I am sure if you look, you will find many who claim exactly that. Clearly you did not look. Moreover, given how you have responded to me, I do not believe you approach this issue with courtesy. It is not that you do not see people who claim this thing, you will not see them.

                      See, you have shifted goalposts and want to climb inside my head and show that belief irrational. Perhaps it is, but that begs the question. If you are correct in your broad theory, that no art is better than any other, then my claims are irrational, ipso facto, yes? If I am correct, then it is possible that my knowledge of music and literature (and, yes, the nature of the canon) are sufficient to make good judgements.

                      Since that is the very issue in question, and since this is a question of evidence, I submit that your evidentiary claim is weak — that based on the behavior of those who advocate objective quality — and furthermore you have show an attitude toward unfalsifiability regarding this claim.

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                    • And again, I have remained clear that my understanding of individual preference precludes the alleged truth of what you and Rose are claiming, which are things which you do not like remain great. I believe it more accurate to say that you’re reflecting the opinions of experts elsewhere who have told you these things are great. Heaven forbid you trust your own reactions to things.

                      This follows the same behavior as those who dismiss what they like as trash. Rather than fight for the thing they enjoy (or endure the judgment that comes along with what they enjoy), they simply dismiss themselves or their tastes. That’s their decision. But the actions still tell us about the preferences.

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                    • Sam, one of your pieces of evidence is the OP was that we anti-relativists trusted our judgment too much, and thought it should apply to other people. Now we don’t trust ourselves enough!

                      Sartre agreed with you, btw, that values could only ever be measured in behavior. I don’t think it’s so clear cut. I might value learning about jazz, but value spending time with my kids more. So my behavior will show one value, but I certainly have mental states that indicate I value something I’m not doing.

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                    • Anti-relativists emphasize their preferences too much when they’re perceived to be the right preferences, then criticize their own preferences when they’re perceived to be wrong. “Oh, I recognize that Citizen Kane is a great movie but I’d much rather watch The Fugitive which we all know is trash.” I am dubious of that sort of statement.

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                    • Anti-relativists emphasize their preferences too much when they’re perceived to be the right preferences, then criticize their own preferences when they’re perceived to be wrong.

                      Anti-relativists can come in flavors, depending on how the term ‘relativism’ is understood. Earlier in the thread, Rose explained her understanding of the term: that all aesthetic preferences reduce to an emotional response of pleasure (or something like that … I’m sure I botched it a bit but I’m too lazy to look for it). Since that time, she’s said that there a different types of pleasure, and different experiences give rise to those differing types of pleasure, and some of those experiences are caused by objects that have different properties which can be judged to be better/worse. She’s also said that subjective experience is a necessary part of determining aesthetic judgments, and that there are no necessary/sufficient conditions for something’s being art, or maybe even for eliciting a higher pleasure. She called this weak anti-relativism. And insofar as this is an accurate summary of what she’s expressed (+/-), I agree. And I consider myself a relativist about these things (for different and maybe even confused reasons).

                      Here’s how I see the dispute going on right now. Rose is more/less conceding to you that subjective experience (hence, subjectivity!) is necessary for judgments, but on her view that’s not the end of the story. On your view, it apparently is. But if so – and I think something like this is a point she’s been trying to make – then on your own terms you cannot differentiate the quality of two different objects except insofar as one gives rise to more pleasure than another. You cannot, so to speak, look past the pleasure to relevant properties of the object which give rise to it. So you cannot give an account of it.The properties of the artistic object are irrelevant (nuance, or grace, or delightful cleverness…).

                      On the other hand, you might resist this because you think it means you’re committed to objective properties being the determiners of artistic worth. But that’s not so, it seems to me. What’s being proposed is still a relativist (or weak anti-relaivist) measure, Something like: for all people with pleasure sensors P and functioning sensory faculties F and personal experiences E and intellectual understanding U and cultural acclimation C and etc, etc … experiencing object O will be viewed as art.

                      So, on this view, it’s not that object O is better than O’ full stop. It’s that O will be judged better than O’ if a whole bunch of relevant conditions are met. I would submit that this view, if it’s coherent – and if it’s something on the table in this thread! – is in a nasty middle ground between relativism and anti-relativism, and it might be what’s accounting for some of the confusion over the terms and what they mean. It’s a very nuanced view.

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                  • But, I am telling you I love something, and it has no artistic merit, or very little. Con Air certainly has little, and I do love that movie. If that is the case, I must be able to determine what artistic merit is, given that I devote time to both Con Air and Chinatown, which has boatloads of artistic merit.

                    Your counterargument is that what I am describing as artistic merit is simply a product of my upbringing, desires, neuroses, etc. I am telling you it is not. In this scenario, there is no way for you to tell me I’m wrong. I am as positive about the existence of artistic merit as you are about its non-existence.

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                    • AdamTyler,

                      Unless you can explain to me how you have separated your entire personal history with art apart from your judgement of it, I do not believe that you’re capable of doing what you say you do.

                      As for your belief in artistic merit: I do not believe I have attempted to claim it doesn’t exist. It does, but it is individual to the consumer, and my position is that those consumers’ interpretation of artistic merit is equally valid. In other words, my taste is the equal of your taste is the equal of any of our former coworkers.

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        • I believe with near certainty that Jazz is a great art form. I believe that it is such on its own merits. My failure to enjoy Jazz, I believe, comes from my lack of investment into it.

          I don’t think this is decisive against the relativist. And personally, I think lots of this stuff results from ambiguities in natural language. If the relativist says “I don’t like jazz but it’s an art form”, they aren’t necessarily expressing a contradiction. What they mean is that being perceived as an art form by others is sufficient for being an art form, and others perceive jazz as an art form.

          That’s just a description of things: other people think jazz is an art form. The relativist, when he says that jazz isn’t an art form is most definitely not saying people are wrong to think it is. If they did, they’d be anti-relativists.

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  5. Sam, I’ve not had the time or attention to wade into the comment threads on these posts from anyone, but I am following them when I get a moment. I just want to tell you I’m completely on your side here.

    I’ve yet to hear a compelling argument that all the distinctions regarding art quality we see made can be accounted for in any way other than as an aggregation of individual preferences. I’m really not sure why we feel compelled to make it anything more than that outside of a need to feel reassured that our preferences are based on some kind of objective reality and not subjective preferences.

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  6. My own response to arguments about hierarchies within art are that such structures tend in almost every example to overlap with remarkable consistency to whatever the person doing the advocating happens to personally enjoy. It is just the damndest coincidence.

    1) Seriously, I’ve told you like four times that I don’t think my taste could even possibly determinative in the vast majority of the world’s artworks. So have others. If you’re going to keep making this claim, back it up. It is precisely because I think there is something I could learn from someone who knows more about the art, and teach me a new way to enjoy appreciating the skill involved in the objects creation, that I am an anti-relativist. It is also precisely because in the areas of my greatest expertise, I enjoy art that is not particularly well-made (and therefore, my sheer enjoyment is not determinative) that I find this view compelling.

    2) As I’m sure most people here are aware, I have an severely intellectually disabled son. Who loves music, and loves playing piano. As I said multiple times in other posts, I do not deny  he feels pleasure at the music. I do not deny for a second that that pleasure is extremely valuable. This is perfectly consistent with saying that he happens to like both good music and less good music. While of course I enjoy hearing my son’s piano playing more, I still think Vladimir Horowitz’s piano playing displays more skill and artistry. And it is no insult to my son to say that his taste should be less valuable as a guide for someone dipping her toe into classical music than Kurt Mazur’s.

    3) I have also said that the current canons may not be correct. So the fact that Cab Calloway (if he isn’t – I know nothing about jazz) is not on them says nothing.

     

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    • You’re exactly right. Sam’s theory requires that it be impossible to not like a piece of art but still recognize that it is good as art. Since I suspect most of us have some piece of art that we dislike but recognize as good art, Sam’s theory fails without need for further discussion.

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      • It’s actually on the relativist view that one’s taste is completely determinative of what’s good. One can never be mistaken, ever. One can never say, “I wasn’t able to appreciate how good this was the first time I saw it, but now I see it.” One’s taste can never improve, only change.

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        • One can never say, “I wasn’t able to appreciate how good this was the first time I saw it, but now I see it.” One’s taste can never improve, only change.

          I don’t think that takes us anywhere. An improvement is a change, but a change is not necessarily an improvement. So we know that one’s tastes can change, but we cannot be certain that they can improve.  The sense of improvement may be a mere illusion masking change. Or it may be that the viewer has taken a closer look and seen within the item what they had previously overlooked, so that their taste has neither improved nor even changed, they have just noticed what was overlooked before. (That, in fact, was my experience with learning to listen to heavy metal.)

          “Improvement” of taste is the least parsimonious explanation.

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          • Or take Picasso and the Cubists as an example. The moved into a new area of expression not because it was better but because they felt everything had already been done and they wanted to still express things. I think in that case, saying Cubism was an improvement upon previous schools or eras is a category mistake.

            Similarly, moving through the Canon and still wanting more will incline people to look elsewhere for enjoyment. They will then read post-modern novels spend time trying to figure out Duchamp (or whatever), and find them rewarding (or not), but that process doesn’t mean their tastes have improved or gotten better or anything else.

            Granted, once a person is inclined to understand film noir, they might go back and find that they like a previously disliked movie. But I don’t think that means that they’re tastes have improved. Changed, yes. But improved? If anything, it merely means they’re including more data into the determination of what they already find enjoyable or moving. Just as they might find data for determining what they don’t like. I mean, Russell posted the other night that he hates Pynchon except for Crying and loves Infinite Jest. In my case, it’s the exact opposite. What objective properties of the works are we both not getting that we have such disparate judgments about them?

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            • So I was in a used bookstore in Louisville down on the Bardstown Road.   I’d bought a fair number of books there.   The owner simply gave me a copy of Infinite Jest, said he thought I’d like it.   I ploughed through it with two bookmarks, one for the text, the other for the footnotes.   That was DFW’s schtick.

              Me, I don’t like extensive footnotes.   Never did.   When HTML came out, I remember thinking, oh boy, at last, an end to footnotes and bibliographies, yay, readable scientific papers.   But scientific papers just got stupider.   HTML citations in APA format don’t actually provide an HREF tag.

              DFW could see the world so intensely.   I know how a bipolar nadir puts what I see through the ol’ high-bandpass sharpening filter.   DFW wrote like I think, in some ways, like I dream.   Not always a pleasant sensation.   When DFW hanged himself, I cried bitterly, miserably, almost fearfully.   He’d changed medications, couldn’t get back on track.   Came to a bad end.   Hurt a lot of people.  Gave me pause.

              Pynchon?   Christ, he’s like Scheherazade spinning her tales.   His gleeful paranoia and baroque plots are a roller coaster ride I wish would never end.   Got to the end of Inherent Vice and it’s still beside my bed, gobbled it up too fast.   Have to read it again.

              Objectively, reading DFW or for that matter, William Vollmann, requires two bookmarks.   Pynchon only requires one.

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                • Everyone senses it differently, I suppose.  I’ll see every hair on my cat, the connections of things become more obvious, the forest disappears, the trees are all I see.   Usually I perceive the code I write in large-ish chunks, big UML diagrams, transactional maps, the little stuff is just routine implementation, hoop-de-doo, use case becomes code, no problem.

                  But in a nadir all I can see is classes and methods.   I can tell I’m entering a nadir because I resort to the debugger more and more.   The big picture disappears.

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              • Ideals are Platonic nonsense in my line of work, which is actual judging.   I work backward, working from what underwriters and engineers and girls who look at circuits in inspection microscopes tell me is good or bad.   Of course we judge these things on objective properties, DFW writes complex prose, easily demonstrable, you have to follow along in the footnotes to get the points he’s trying to make.   Pynchon doesn’t.   Objectively simpler by proof, linear prose versus endless diversions and forking paths.

                Look, judging anything is measuring it against what someone has judged to be objectively superior.  There cannot be an ideal judge, it’s a contradiction in terms.  I write robots that compare the display of a cell phone to some ideal, looking for bum pixels starts with an image of a screen with no bum pixels.   I put a mic and speaker down with pneumatics, I inject a tone, I see the trace forming on a display coming out of the A/D conversion.    It’s not a perfect reproduction of the tone, it couldn’t be.   It’s coming out of a 10cm speaker.   But I do have a comparison, one the QC people tell me is a good one.   In fact, I have many comparison phones, some better than others.   Once I can train a system to recognise the best one, the next-best one, the objective measures are easily extracted.   In point of fact, my test data is used to make for better phones, simply because I can put those differences on a line and project how things might be made better, or at least more repeatably excellent.

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                • There cannot be an ideal judge, it’s a contradiction in terms.

                  Good point. If there were, the game would be over, so to speak.

                  It reminds me of literary theory. Spend lots of time determining the components of Great Works, and then replicate them as if they were sufficient. Art just doesn’t work that way.

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              • Rose,

                I meant to ask this in the Hume thread, but did not get around to it. Anyway, how ideal are Hume’s ideal judges taken to be? That is, should we expect that they exist, that I might meet one in my life, that I could recognize him? Or are they more the end of a chain of reasoning, e.g. “There is an objective truth to art because such-and-such a person could exist, and he would say X”?

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                • I couldn’t remember, but just re-checked Hume. He thinks they’re real but rare. I’m not opposed to thinking there’s a sliding scale rather than a bright line between the judges and the rest of us schlubs. So we more or less approach the ideal.

                  In re-checking I saw he made another interesting point that I forgot about. He points out that science and philosophy are felt to be more objective than aesthetic opinion. But scientific and philosophical views vary widely from age to age, whereas people have thought, say, Sophocles great from age to age. Our aesthetic opinion over time is more consistent than scientific opinion.

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              • Oh, and another suggestion, could not the ideal judges genuinely disagree, split down the middle? One point I have tried to make to Sam is that it is unreasonable to expect a total-ordering of quality. That is, perhaps there is no genuine truth ranking Pynchon versus DFW. Maybe the ideal judges would just throw up their hands and say, “No, on this one we really are 50-50.” It could happen, right? My point is that objectivity does not require that quality be modeled by Lattice Theory. Making this into math is not the answer.

                (Let me add, I full expect the ideal judges would be unanimous that both Pynchon and DFW are better writers than Dan Brown. Easy cases are easy. Hard cases are hard.)

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                  • Right. To me the idea of a full ordering has always been a red herring. I see no need to rate Henry James versus Virginia Woolf. (In the cage match of doom!) To me it is sufficient to know that they both belong in the canon, and that Dan Brown belongs nowhere near the canon, and that there can be all sorts of fuzziness around the edges. (Raymond Chandler? Hmm, maybe.)

                    Actually, I am not so interested in establishing some pure idea of aesthetic value. And I am rather skeptical of Hume’s claim: some gifted club of super-judges. I am more interested in rightly finding some human achievements admirable, and others less so. To me this overlaps with ethics in a very fundamental way.

                    I do not believe that all pleasure is equal.

                    Also, I believe that others often know more than me, and that I should listen to them, and in doing so I will deepen my pleasure and enrich my life.

                    Which leads to a question: is it not as important to recognize an ideal judge as to be one, since few of us could be one, and we would benefit from their wisdom. Does Hume address this?

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                  • He thinks they’re easy enough to recognize. There’s a fact of the matter.

                    That said, a gaping hole in his essay is he doesn’t say why me or you or Sam or anyone should try to take their advice on artworks. Why shouldn’t we just like what we like, and let the judges have their opinions?

                    But I think there are two things good judges (again, I think there is a sliding scale, so to say there’s a pantheon of perfect judges and all of the rest of us are schmucks is wrong). But all his criteria point to two qualities: 1) people who have experienced the most kinds of pleasure, so are better positioned to say which is best, and 2) have more psychological insight and cultural , so have a better read on what the artist is trying to do.

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                • First, it’s important to avoid treating the artist the same as a work of art. Hemingway wrote one truly great novel, several great short stories, a couple good novels, some not really that good novels, and a bunch of very good or good short stories (my favorite probably lies somewhere between very good and great). Is Hemingway better than Faulkner? Faulkner wrote more than one great novel, and he also wrote some great short stories. How the hell do we decide? It makes very little sense to try to do so from any real objective standpoint. And when we do, we’re not really making an aesthetic judgment, we’re making a judgment about skill, which relies on aesthetic judgments, to be sure, but on other things as well, some of which are probably quite subjective. For example, how do we decide whether The Sun Also Rises outweighs more than one masterpiece by another author in combination?

                  Second, it seems to me that at some point, trying to order works of art becomes little more than a game for cocktail parties. When we compare the best work(s) of Mozart to the best works of Bach or Beethoven, how do we decide which is better? Does it really matter? Hell, are they really even the same thing? I have this problem all of the time with books. People ask me what my favorite book is fairly regularly, and I’m always at a bit of a loss. I could write out a list, but I couldn’t really order that list, and it’s going to have a varying number of books. And I’m not sure it would say much about the works if I did. Saying that Mozart’s best is better than Berlioz’ best might make sense, and can be done fairly objectively (I think most people would agree that Don Juan is a better piece of music than Symphonie Fantastique, and people with the right music vocabulary could easily tell you why), but this is a fairly loose categorization: this is at x level, and that is at y level, but within x or y, it’s difficult to order things and a waste of time to try. I suspect that people who really, really need to order things within a level are the same sort of people who think that science can tell us everything about the world. They’re people who need things to be operationalizable, and have a hard time dealing with things that aren’t, like, say, aesthetics. These people also see operationalizable as synonymous with objective. Ugh.

                  One more thing (in case Sam is still reading), I recognize that some of the books on my list(s) are not as good as others that I exclude just because I don’t like them. I’d be silly to say that either Zeno’s Conscience or The Leopard is better than Wuthering Heights, but for whatever reason (probably ’cause I was forced to read them too young), I can’t stand either of the Brontë sisters, and if I were forced to choose, I’d choose Charlotte anyway. But Zeno’s Conscience and The Leopard are two of my favorite books, along with Victory, which I fully recognize isn’t Conrad’s best novel.

                   

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                  • I wrote a long-winded comment that touches on this, but it’s stuck in moderation, so I’ll quickly address this particular point.

                    There’s an odd but pervasive notion these days that objective=operationalizable or measurable. This seems to me to be a facile approach to objectivity, and any objective-subjective distinction, based I suspect partly in the sort of vulgar scientism that’s rampant today or at least, even without the scientism, in an unwarranted and unnecessarily limiting identification of “objective” with the scientific.

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                    • We know not everything is provable, Sam.

                      When things are provable, we should prove them… just like when we can put them to experimental tests, we should do that, too.

                      But we know that not everything is provable, so saying that something isn’t may just be acknowledging what it is.

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                    • If we know that everything isn’t provable, it is absurd to turn around and say, “But still, this book is better than that book in an objective fashion, and oh by the way, I happen to like this book more than that book, but I’m not letting that influence me or my judgement here in the slightest and oh by the way, if you don’t agree with, it reflects poorly on your ability to understand what is and isn’t good.”

                      That argument above is what is always presented to us, and has been throughout this thread. And yet, when anybody reasonably asks for the mechanism to be explained, we get an exasperated, “It just is!” Please note the repeated references to Dan Brown in this thread, as if there’s something wrong with somebody who prefers to read a book about church conspiracies rather than something else.

                       

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                    • It’s true that not everything is provable.  So the fact that we can’t prove there is an objective hierarchy of quality doesn’t in fact prove there isn’t one.

                      But pointing out that such an objective hierarchy would be unprovable only demonstrates that we can’t disprove it; it no more functions as evidence in support of such a hierarchy than the unprovability of God is evidence in favor of the existence of a supreme being. It’s really easy at that point to fall into special pleading.

                      For myself I have a hard time understanding the concept of a truly objective quality.  All quality is in reference to something, and for humans, what could quality be in reference to except to us? We could possibly then say that the more humans that are pleased by some thing, the more objectively good it is because it’s hitting something that’s closer to universal among humans, but that would work in the opposite direction of the idea of refined tastes being in some way objectively superior, because what pleases those tastes is satisfying to fewer humans.

                      For example it’s clear that Mozart is more technically complex, more sophisticated music than Journey. Is it “better”?  Well, “better” does not stand by itself. Better in what way? Better if our standard is complexity and sophistication.  But what if other people don’t share that valuation–what if complexity and sophistication aren’t what they desire from music?  Then Mozart may not satisfy them as much as Journey, and assertions that Mozart is better become tendentious, relying on using “better” as an absolute standard rather than as a proxy in reference to some actual value held by humans.

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                    • James, I wrote out in my post Hume’s view. It lays out an anti-relativist position that is based on subjective pleasure (so not based on anything supernatural or otherwise metaphysically undesirable), and doesn’t require that the work have any one property or another, or be more complex or less complex.

                      It also attempts to answer why, if our taste differs from some people, it would be worthwhile to try to be convinced by them and who those people are. https://ordinary-times.com/russellsaunders/2012/04/03/whos-to-say-whats-a-good-work-of-art/

                      Sorry to keep re-posting the link, but I feel I wrote much of it already there, and I’m lazy!

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      • Sam’s theory requires that it be impossible to not like a piece of art but still recognize that it is good as art.

        Incorrect. In Sam’s theory, I can despise Rachmaninoff, and still recognize that in the terms of many other people it is highly valued. Therefore as a relativist (assuming that position for the moment), I can say, “that is great precisely because it has a large following, which proves its broad appeal, but only because it has a large following; and its large following is irrelevant to my own subjective standards, by which I personally find it valueless.”

        That is, a good subjectivist can distinguish between the value s/he finds in something and the value that others find in it, and recognize that neither valuation is anything more than subjective, so that the something is not objectively valuable and has no intrinsic superior quality.

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        • James, some relativists could say that. Sam couldn’t, because for him, it’s entirely dependent on your own enjoyment: what you think is good is what you like. I don’t think this is a very sophisticated relativism, but there are more sophisticated versions out there. Like I said, I am to some degree a relativist, though my relativism comes with a hefty dose of J. J. Gibson.

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          • Chris,

            I can’t speak for what Sam actually does, but I don’t see anything in his argument that logically prevents him from recognizing that others find value in things he doesn’t find value in, and recognizing that for those people that thing is great.

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            • Oh, I didn’t mean to imply that. I think that’s pretty much his position: what is good for me may not be good for you, and this is how we each determine the value of art. I mostly disagree with what he equates artistic value to: personal preference based on enjoyment or pleasure.

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              • I think the thing you may be getting at is that, for a subjectivist, he seems to think that “personal preference based on enjoyment or pleasure” is the most (or only?) valid way to evaluate art. Maybe I’m misreading him, but that he seems awfully dismissive of other ways of evaluating art. And it seems to be … not a very pure kind of subjectivity.

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              • I keep seeing this use of “enjoyment or pleasure” and wonder if we’re talking about the same things. Note that people can enjoy being challenged, can enjoy being offended, can enjoy (in Jeffrey’s case apparently) being bored. It isn’t simply a matter of what it is that makes you physically smile. So if I enjoy gripping, page turning thrillers, maybe Dan Brown is right for me. If you enjoy stilted period pieces, maybe Henry James is right for you. (For the record, I’ve never read anything by either of them, so if I’m not accurately describing their work, I apologize.)

                Perhaps there is an opening in this: perhaps people enjoy lauding that which has been lauded by others, or maybe more accurately, perhaps people enjoy celebrating the canon. From that, we end up with the praise of things that remain personally unliked.

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            • Sam has averred that he doesn’t recognize the ability of others to find value in works they don’t themselves enjoy (regardless of his own opinions of the works in question).  When Mr. Straszheim cited his classification of jazz as a great art form in spite of his lack of engagement with it Sam objected, claimimg he didn’t accept that Mr. S really believed that.

              Make of that exchange what you will.

               

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    • 1. We have been over the issue of ironic versus genuine enjoyment before, but I’ll again say that I find it baffling to say, “Here is this thing that I really enjoy and it is really bad.” I don’t like olives, so I don’t eat olives. I don’t like heights, so I don’t climb mountains. I’m very binary in that way. My instinct (perhaps wrong) is that other people are too. So when you say you like something that is bad, I hear you saying that you feel like you need to qualify your enjoyment of that thing. That overcomplicates a simple pleasure.

      2. Without having heard your son play piano, I will grant you that Vladimir Horowitz’s piano playing is probably technically superior in every imaginable way. So what? Why are those two in competition with one another? In what world do we need to create a hierarchy wherein Vladimir Horowitz is at the top and Rose’s son is at the bottom? Why can’t we say, “When I’m looking for technical mastery, I prefer Vladimir Horowitz, and when I’m going for the innocent exploration of sound, I go for my son.” What is so problematic about allowing both to exist peacefully with one another without having to rank order them?

      3. Saying that current canons are not correct implies that there are canons that are. My point is that there aren’t. Your canons are specific to you; my canons are specific to me.

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            • But you said it in your answer #2! Because in the past my taste has been improved by people pointing things out about the work of art that I hadn’t noticed. I’ve come to see that something is good. I can also see that something is skillfully done without feeling much pleasure.

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              • Your taste hasn’t improved. It evolved. It changed. It accounted for new information. But that doesn’t mean you were wrong twenty minutes earlier when you didn’t possess that particular bit of information. This isn’t mathematics.

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                • Why do you absolutely trust your own cognitive abilities, tell us to do likewise, and then dismiss us when we report an experience contrary to your beliefs? If Rose reports that her tastes improved, why not trust that she indeed experienced that? You expect us to accept your reports of pleasure without criticism.

                  If you want to have this debate, you have to give the respect that you demand.

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              • Rose,

                So you rate skill higher than enjoyment, in terms of determining what is “good art”? Or at least at the same level?

                Sam,

                You willing to grant that there are at least some objective measures of “skill”? [I has a piece of music. I play half the notes wrong. I’m worse than the person who plays all the notes right. Now the piece may suck, but that’s a different thing]

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                • We can introduce numbers into these conversations, sure, but generally it is the people arguing for a stratification of art who like to stay away from that sort of objective measurement, because usually what they prefer falls woefully short when it comes to those numerical measurements. (For instance, Avatar has grossed more than every other movie; does that make it the best movie?)

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            • I’m not sure if this is exactly what Rose is saying, but if you’ve ever known someone who teaches poetry, you’ll know that it’s possible to not like something until someone teaches you enough about it for you to appreciate it. It’s very common for students to come into even a college-level poetry class with no appreciation of poetry, and leave loving Keats or Angelou or whoever.

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                    • What your theory requires, then, is that art can not be good and, without changing, become good. That’s fine, I suppose, but it seems rather post hoc. And it implies that “enjoyment” isn’t doing all of the work.

                      Anyway, like I said, as soon as we can recognize that it’s possible to appreciate a work of art without enjoying it, your view that enjoyment is what determines good art is dead in the water. So I’m not sure there’s any point in discussing that aspect of your view any further.

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                    • Chris, I think – maybe mistakenly – that part of the dispute here is the degree to which Sam or any other relativist is ascribing all perception of art to the subjective, and the degree to which the anti-relativist thinks that identifying a single objective property refutes relativism. So, one thing that a relativist might be willing to concede is that the lighting of a film can be better or worse, and all other things equal, the film with the better lighting is valued as a work of art (by the relativist!) more highly. If so, then the relativist is committed to an objective standard here: better lighting is like this, followed by a set of observable, measurable, identifiable conditions.

                      I mean, all art works are comprised of objective properties. Even down to the intentions of the creator insofar as they can be expressed clearly. So knowing that the lighting of a John Huston movie was intentionally awkward may incline the relativist to like Treasure of Sierra Madre. But it that doesn’t mean relativism is false, or SISTM.

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                    • Stillwater, actually I do think there is a mixture of the subjective and objective at work here. The subjective opinions of people with certain criteria. ANd I dont think there are nec. and suff. conditions of good art.

                      And I take relativism to mean that “I like it if and only if it is good” and moreover that that will only be true for one person – anyone’s liking something says nothing about whether anyone else should like it. So I’m not sure how you can talk about better lighting on a relativist view.

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                    • So I’m not sure how you can talk about better lighting on a relativist view.

                      Because what constitutes ‘better lighting’ is a subjectively determined judgment about objective properties. Isn’t that exactly what the relativist would say? And isn’t that a pretty good description of what actually occurs?

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                    • Still, to be clear, I am a relativist of sorts. I think that what makes art good is about an interaction between the subject and the object, but I don’t think there are aesthetic categories that exist in the world independent of any observer. I’m not a Platonist about these things, and furthermore I don’t think the quality of art is entirely determined by our neural makeup, so I’m not a strict naturalist about these things either. I don’t, however, think artistic merit is merely a matter of personal taste. Instead, I think there is something objective about art, in that what makes it good is something that goes beyond any one mind (or even the minds of any one period). Thus I believe that art can be objectively good even if I don’t recognize it as such.

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                    • Stillwater, what you attribute to a relativist is actually what I’m saying. I don’t see how the relativist can say the lighting is better for anyone else if someone else prefers other lighting.

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                  • If they’re missing something that would, should they discover it, make it good art to them, even, then there is something beyond my enjoyment that makes art good.

                    No, there’s a leap of logic there. Your taste may not change at all, but you can better develop your ability to notice/discern whether the item has those qualities you like. The item is not intrinsically or objectively superior because you didn’t initially discern the qualities you like–it’s attractiveness to you is still subjective.

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              • “you’ve ever known someone who teaches poetry, you’ll know that it’s possible to not like something until someone teaches you enough about it for you to appreciate it. ”

                Heck with poetry–what about drinking?  Nobody likes gin the first time they try it.  Nobody even likes wine all that much.  (And there’s an entire group of people who cloak anti-intellectualist class warfare behind telling you how expensive wine doesn’t taste any better than cheap wine.)

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                    • Sam, sam sam

                      I love it how you assume that nobody else is iconoclastic as you are.

                      Not blind tests, but ones that would not automagically create a preference for $100 bottles of wine.

                      Gray goose vodka is simply middle of the road vodka repackaged. That’s a fact — it was a bet.

                       

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                    • You assume that my comment was intended to provide a justification as to why to pay an extra $90 dollars for the one wine over the other.

                      I accuse you of thinking yourself iconoclastic for liking the proletariat taste over teh elite and refined. Hell, you may be right in that.  It’s backed up by your own posts.

                      But, anyhow. Dark Beer makes my best friend sleepy. Cheap wine makes him sing (to the point of “i don’t want to keep singing, but I have to”). Port makes him into a somewhat more creative coder.

                      These are distinct and different physiological responses.

                      I’m not stating that one is better than another by doing so.

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                    • Kimmi,

                      Respectfully, you don’t know about my preferences for things. I could be an enormous snob. I could be achingly dull. And again, those who proclaim the proletariat have it right and that bourgeois have it wrong are doing precisely the thing that I object to. I’m no more championing one group that I am another. I’m single arguing that their preferences for things are equal in nature, even if I don’t personally share some or all of those preferences.

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                    • Let’s be clear, you started this one by ascribing preferences as moral weights.

                      Me? I say if things cause different physiological responses, duh, you take them at different times. Nothing about which is better, just that they’re different.

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                  • “That’s because expensive wine doesn’t taste any better…”

                    Yes, just like in the hands of an amateur driver, a Porsche Carrera won’t drive any better than a Honda Civic.  And someone who spends their life commuting quietly in a Civic (drinks cheap wine) won’t understand what’s so great the first time they get behind the wheel of a Carrera (tries expensive wine).

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                    • DD,

                      Then why do the experts routinely fail to identify these wines in blind tests?  And why do they fail to score the exact same wines the same way on multiple tastings? http://www.marketplace.org/topics/life/freakonomics-radio/freakonomics-do-wine-experts-or-prices-matter

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                    • Sam,

                      Because wines are NOT a terribly well-ranked thing by price. Also, because TwoBuckChuck is awesome.

                      http://abcnews.go.com/WN/story?id=3372578&page=1

                      http://www.wellesleywinepress.com/2009/05/charles-shaw-blind-tasting-or-are-we.html

                      Also,

                      http://moneyland.time.com/2009/11/16/expert-wine-sippers-take-us-all-for-suckers/

                      not nearly as open-shut as you’d think. a +-4 is actually kinda small for human variation in scales in general.

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                    • That depends on the Civic.   I had one for years with an aftermarket blower, intercooler, fuel pump, iron manifold and diffuser which could routinely do about 150 mph on I-65 south of Indy headed to Louisville at 2 in the morning.  I’ve modded every motor I’ve ever owned.   Racing suspension, hidden roll bars, nothing which would tell anyone it was a burner.   Tremendously satisfying little car.

                      See, Carrera is a lovely car, no doubt.   But it all comes down to bang for the buck.   And though it’s more reliable than Ferrari, Carrera engines blow up, or did for a few years there.

                      Never worked out the appeal of luxury sports cars or expensive wine, either one.   That sounds pretentious and I suppose it is.   Faced with the choices, why don’t people just establish a roll-off function as some STDEV:  below some threshold you’re buying humdrum crap you probably don’t want and above some threshold, utility doesn’t increase all that much and you’re just gilding the lily.   Gold-plated sound cables, f’rinstance — why?   Tube amps, ecch, there’s some physical arguments for such a purchase.   Expensive wine, nice to have for an anniversary, but how much better is a $1000 dollar bottle of wine than a $100 bottle?    Maybe to a collector it’s that much more valuable — but as someone who’s derived a lot of enjoyment from amateur racing, nothing on the Porsche showroom floor will win races.   The secret ingredient to winning races is what’s inside the driver’s shoes and that can’t be bought.

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      • ” I’m very binary in that way. My instinct (perhaps wrong) is that other people are too. So when you say you like something that is bad, I hear you saying that you feel like you need to qualify your enjoyment of that thing. That overcomplicates a simple pleasure.”

        Your instinct is wrong.

        “What is so problematic about allowing both to exist peacefully with one another without having to rank order them?”

        You’re acting as if rank ordering is an inherent part of an objective approach to art. I’d argue that it is not at all. Certainly the objective approach necessarily means that we make judgments that one work of art has more intrinsic artistic merit than another. but nothing about this implies a rank ordering approach. Certainly not between different arts forms, and not even within the same art form. Sure you see plenty of “lists,” but I don’t think any decent critic takes them seriously as criticism.  It’s one thing to say that Miles Davis and John Coltrane are towering geniuses of Jazz music, Calloway is a significant artist but not on that level, and Kenny G is … not a serious artist. It’s quite another to say that “Miles Davis is a better jazz artist than John Coltrane.” Many people would make that judgment, while realizing that a lot of subjectivity is involved. But once we get into, say, Miles versus Kenny G, we can, indeed, say with complete objectivity and confidence that Miles is the better artist.

        Which, of course, as many other have said doesn’t deny that some people get genuine pleasure from listening to Kenny G. More power to them. It isn’t great art.

         

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        • To expand upon the rank ordering issue:

          Sam is at the extreme, 100% subjective pole. No one is at the extreme 100% objective pole. If someone were at that pole, they might embrace a rank ordering approach. But in the real world where event he people who disagree with Sam will admit a significant role for subjectivity in questions of artistic merit, no one will serious embrace a rank ordering approach as somehow objectively correct.

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          • I’m at the extreme subjective end generally speaking. I have my own personal preferences, just as you have yours, neither of which I’d ever deny. I’d deny our rightness generally, even if our appreciations did overlap. As for rank ordering, I think you’re being far too generous when you say there aren’t people who consider their rank ordered hierarchies objectively correct.

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            • Regarding art in particular? I’d like to see examples supporting your belief. And I don’t mean examples of hierarchical lists; plenty of those out there. But examples of people who argue that such lists are objectively correct. I doubt you will find many examples.

              It does occur to me – and I’ve missed more of these thread than I’ve read, so probably others have made this point before – that the very real disagreement between you and the people who disagree with you is probably exaggerated by some sloppy definitions on both sides. Even you have stated that it’s possible to create criteria to apply to a work of art and objectively evaluate them in terms of how they meet those criteria. Your beef with that process is that there are an infinite number of systems of evaluation once can create which may be internally consistent and rigorous, but there is (in your view) no objective way to judge which system is “correct.” People pick systems that match their priors. The second of those points is, I think, one of your weakest, as seems at least often empirically false. But the first point presents an interesting question, one where we disagree, but one where your critics are, to a great extent, not doing a very good job of countering you. Kind of like two ships passing in the night.

              On that point, the real issue it seems to me is to what extent systems of aesthetic evaluation are generalizable, within and between cultures.  This interesting question is mostly absent within this thread, and one where I concede I am no expert. If it can be shown that other cultures have independently developed similar systems of aesthetic evaluation (not identical – there we get back to the point where no reasonable person takes the “100% objective” position), then that, it seems to me, undercuts your argument. There is a lot of literature on this point, but I am not familiar with it and most of it seems to be behind pay walls. It does seem to me that this is where the rubber meets the road on this issue, though.

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              • -Examples in particular of objective claims? Here’s the AFI’s list, which purports to capture the 100 Best Films ever made: http://www.afi.com/100years/movies10.aspx Please note the language used to describe Citizen Kane, “a jury of 1,500 film artists, critics and historians determined that CITIZEN KANE remains the greatest movie of all time.” No qualifiers are offered. Experts were consulted and Citizen Kane remains the greatest movie of all time.

                -While I agree that it is possible to establish criteria – and I encourage those criteria to be made known – even choosing which criteria to account for involves the bias inherent to all human beings. As a result, I do firmly believe that there is no objective way to choose the best criteria, which undermines then the ability to objective use that criteria to evaluate works of art in anything broader than a personal rank-ordering of preferences.

                 

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                • On point one, you are on extraordinarily weak ground. The qualifiers are not offered because they are assumed. Important here is that the term used is “greatest,” not “most artistically meritorious.”  Also recall how these lists are made – they poll these people and aggregate their very different rankings. It’s a compilation of opinions – in every case, a blend of the objective and subjective – from 1500 different people with different backgrounds. Probably none of whose lists are identical – for subjective reasons. But most of whom would agree more generally that each of these movies is artistically meritorious, whereas (say) Die Hard With a Vengeance – not so much. Find me one person – even one – who says that (say) the fact that Casablanca is ranked one place higher than Raging Bull represents any sort of objective statement of artistic superiority.

                  But your point 2 is more interesting, and, while disagreeing with you, I think your critics in these threads have mostly done a poor job of countering you. But your logic is flawed in a sense – not in a sense which necessarily invalidates your argument, but one which (at least) leaves it open to disagreement. The fact that bias is inherent to all human beings (true) is a necessary condition for your argument to be correct, but not a sufficient one. If people from different cultures arrive at similar methods of evaluating artistic merit, that would be one type of evidence that there is something more than mere subjectivity involved. What is the evidence on this point? Again, I am no expert. It’s odd that this very interesting question is not more a part of these threads. My understanding though, is that, while this is contested ground, there are indeed cross-cultural similarities (and, yes, differences; again subjectivity is part of the piece as well) in artistic evaluation.

                  Now of course at some level we are all “biased” by hard wired, shared human nature. Probably none of this is universal in the sense that (say) an alien race would share our aethetic sensibilites. But it’s a long way from saying that an alien race might not be able to appreciate the sublime beauty of Kind of Blue and saying that there is no objective way in which Kind of Blue is a superior artistic achievement – at least in a human context – to an advertising jingle.

                  What to me is interesting – and I’m afraid that your extreme position obscures this if anything – is that a pretty fair amount of artistic evaluation does fall into the trap that you identify. Genre fiction is ghettoized, for example, in a way that is sometimes unfair. But really nothing you have said in any of these threads really makes the strong case that ALL such judgments are subjective. Ironically, there is a subjectivity in your own argument. You think that cultural bias makes it impossible to objectively rank systems of artistic evaluation. Where is your (objective) evidence for that?

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              • I think you can say one of two things about other cultures. Either only someone in that culture is ideally situated to judge it, so only they can really get it. Or you can say it’s only those works that transcend cultures and appreciated by people of all cultures that are the good ones. I go back and forth on this.

                But I will say it’s because I know nothing about Japanese sculpture of the 17th century that I would like to hear from someone who knows a lot about it and has seen tons of it would have to say.

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                • Fairly obviously I lean toward the latter. The former viewpoint I think quickly collapses into Sam’s subjectivity. Or something very close to it.

                  Speaking of Japan, their embrace of western classical music is IMO at least a data point against Sam’s position.

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                  • My would the appreciation of a particular form of music be a data point against my position? I’m not the one proposing rigidly structured hierarchies. I’m not the one proposing rules. I’m not the one proposing strict, exclusive canons. I’m proposing an understanding of music that allows for a wide and diverse enjoyment of that which sounds good, regardless of its genre. The Japanese appreciation of Western classical music is evidence in my direction, not yours, as it shows human beings going to where the good sounds are. (And of course, Japan creates huge markets in all kinds of music from all over the world, not simply western Art/Classical music.)

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                • Old art and especially “classical” music survived because someone kept it alive.   Usually it’s been rescued from the flames and the sandstorms of oblivion many times.   The longer the piece has been around, the more the world has changed since the piece was created and the more universal its appeal has become.   If that art still moves people, the patina it’s acquired was applied by loving hands, very different from the ones which now treasure the piece.

                  But ancient art isn’t really a treasure confined to any one culture.   The culture which gave rise to it has long since disappeared.   The crap produced for the tourist trade apes the ancient pieces, precisely because some other culture found something appealing in it.   Modern African art doesn’t fetch good prices, that’s not what the market wants.   The sunburnt tourists from Belgium want replicas of the old Dogon stuff that moved Picasso.

                  The magic of art is as permanent as the piece itself.   Bach was confined to the cellar for donkey’s years until Liszt resurrected it.   It had been patiently waiting for the folks who thought old JSBach old-fashioned to become old-fashioned themselves.

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                    • This tiny bit of history suggests another theme: why (or perhaps how) do some works and artists go in and out of fashion.  As you pointed out, Bach was unknown to the general public for a hundred years after his death but hasn’t left the scene since 1850.  Vermeer was forgotten for two hundred years, but is now firmly ensconced in the pantheon.

                      This isn’t the place for such musings (although I see them as evidence of the “test of time” component of artistic merit) but if you have any ‘further reading’ suggestions, I’d be glad to check them out.

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                    • There’s a big debate going on about the restoration of the Mona Lisa and several other pieces of that sort, the restoration of the Sistine Chapel is another.   Lots of this Test of Time theory has led to some rum assertions about the pieces themselves:  some people are complaining about how the Mona Lisa has been over-cleaned.

                      Another interesting angle:  we know the Egyptians and Greeks painted their sculptures in vivid hues.    Some virtual reconstructions of the Parthenon give us a picture of this.   But when the Renaissance came along, the sculptors and architects who sought to bring principles from the Classical world into their times didn’t use colour.   By their time, the colours had eroded away.   We know about those colours because we have the technology to find tiny flakes down in the pores of the stone.

                      So what should we do in modern times?   Paint all those Corinthian and Doric columns?

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                    • I generally take a minimalist approach to art restoration, especially so as the age of the works increases.  There are so many variables involved in a decision to clean (let alone restore) artworks that no ‘one size fits all’ rule will work — aside from the seemingly obvious “do no harm.”

                      So — no painting the Parthenon.

                      I read an interesting article years ago about a team of Italian monument preservationists invited to help with ancient Chinese temples.  The differences between the two cultures’ ideas of what constitutes both an historic site and its preservation made cooperation impossible.  The temples had been constantly reworked over the centuries in whatever style was prevalent at the time, including our modern pre-fab age.  What the Chinese saw as clean, well-decorated and respectful to the site’s importance, the Italians saw as tacky and modern (fit for any large Chinatown) with no historical value whatsoever.

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  7. Sam,

    I continue to be confused by your argument. Of course the ordering of critical schemes are the creation of humans and are based upon our biases and preferences. If humans were different, or if our cultural history was different we would have different hierarchies and critical schemes. The more we differed in history or innate preferences, the greater the difference.

    For those looking for exuberance and dance ability and raised in a particular background, Cab or The Village People or the Hansons are at the pinnacle of accomplishment, at least for their time. For those looking more at structure, complexity and so forth, Stravinsky or Coltrane rises to the top of their particular cultural stream. Of course it is relative and path dependent. But this does not make it fickle or illusory.

    In other words, The Village People, for the majority of western people of the 70’s, were objectively better for dancing than Coltrane. If we want to rank music based upon dance ability hierarchy, TVP kicks Coltrane’s butt. Art is both subjective and objective.

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  8. Don’t want to derail your post, but why stop with human relativism in art?

    Are other animals capable of “art”? If so, does that change our understanding of “art” and what it can mean? If not, how can we say absolutely that humans understand “art” differently than other animals, since we are driven by many of the same processes as other animals?

    Off the top of my head, I think I’d consider the following to be possible sources of art in the non-human animal kingdom:

    – building of nests or homes
    – songs (birds, cetaceans, et al)
    – dance (bees, birds, mammals)
    – speech/prose/poetry (primates, birds)
    – painting/drawing (mammals)

    I think when one expands the view of art outside the human world, the argument of relativism could be both easier and more difficult. Likewise, I think the larger view of art, outside the human-only experience, could also change one’s view of human-only art.

    Of course, I’m arguing that other animals are capable of art. My proof is that there are at least some humans who are moved by animal art in ways that are similar to how some humans are moved by human art. As an example, I consider whale song to be beautiful, haunting, and expressive. Things I also appreciate in human art.

    It is even possible that there are some forms of “art” that exist entirely within the non-human animal kingdom. As an example, Murmuration:

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  9. My opinion on aesthetic realism is similar to my opinion on moral realism.

    If it is possible for art to reflect a truer, deeper reflection of the universe and if it’s possible to know the universe then art can be judged by how accurate it is at doing this (or how deftly it does it or what have you). If morality exists, and if it’s possible for art to reflect a moral truth, and if it’s possible for us to know these moral truths, then art can be judged by whether and how well it does this. (Hell, it’ll be possible for art to be “moral” or “immoral” at that point.)

    It seems to me that your argument, when carried out to its logical conclusion, would mean that a color-blind person’s experience of a painting that used a great deal of reds/greens or orange/blues or what have you would not be any different than mine… and if I said that I had a “better” or “fuller” experience of the art and that hers was lesser, that I would have no ground to say that. (We could really start having fun arguing about “deaf culture” and whether deliberately having deaf children is something that is a matter of taste the way that iCarly is on par with Shakespeare at the end of the day.)

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  10. I believe I said this the last go-round on this subject, but here it is again.
    Art is often disturbing, offensive, or disruptive.  The idea that pleasure or enjoyment and art are linked is odd to say the least.
    I enjoy many things which make me sad or angry or evoke other “negative” reactions.  The last time I was accused of not knowing that what I really enjoyed was some other aspect and that I didn’t really feel sad I was instead intellectually enjoying the abstract notion that sadness should be invoked.  Or some such.  In any case the whole premise behind the discussion seems off to me.

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    • I have a friend who enjoys gut-wrenchingly sad movies. If she has two hours and nothing to do, that’s what she’s going to watch. I don’t understand it personally, but given that she chooses to watch these things, can we really assume that she isn’t deriving pleasure from the experience? Just as it seems reasonable to me to conclude from what you’ve told us here that you enjoy art that is disturbing, offensive, or disruptive, as opposed to something blander.

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  11. The idea that pleasure or enjoyment and art are linked is odd to say the least.

    Matisse (a once subversive artist) might not not agree:

    “What I dream of is an art of balance, of purity and serenity devoid of troubling or depressing subject matter -a soothing, calming influence on the mind, rather like a good armchair which provides relaxation from physical fatigue.”

    It takes all kinds of art to make a world.

     

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  12. Sam sez:

    That’s your preference for thinking about these things. My preference is trusting the actions and not the words.

    And Jaybird sez:

    We’re not talking about “liking”, are we? Unless we agree that “liking” is identical to “aesthetic appreciation”… which, again, we haven’t hammered out that it is.

    I think this is one of those times when bivalent logic is causing a good part of our disconnect.

    Some people are trying to categorize “art”, “enjoyment”, and “aesthetic appreciation” as things that is only one thing and not any other thing. I don’t think they are quite so discontinuous.

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  13. It’s honestly comments like these that undermine your credibility. You won’t find Calloway on the lists of the bests, but those lists are short compared to the sheer volume of Jazz artists. If you want to get an idea of the critical appreciation of Calloway by analogy, think more of a lesser literary fiction novelist who is well regarded critically but not regarded as one of the best of the best.  Maybe – maybe … a tinge of contempt at his popularity versus his artistic merit, but in the same sense, say, Jonathan Frazen has his detractors (not a perfect analogy I realize). Certainly not in the “Dan Brown can’t write” sense

    Some brief descriptive quotes from the Penguin Guide to Jazz on CD – “astonishingly virtuoso vocal,” “major jazz singer,” “boundless energy and and ingeneous invention, “vast range,” “singing is still exceptional,”

    If we’re talking specifically about “Minnie the Moucher,” while it’s true that some Jazz aficionados may regard the songs omnipresence as a bit … excessive … it is certainly regarded as an artistic achievement of merit. Again not in the “best jazz songs ever, ” sense but certainly as  “art,” and good art.

    I would say it’s fair to say that there is some sneering at some of his material, but none at all at his artistry.

    And really, despite dozens of comments trying to describe exactly why you are wrong, for me only one argument is needed: Dan Brown.

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  14. The definition of art is not necessarily relevant here. We could be talking about whether a garden is anti-relativistically beautiful, or a sunset, or a bird.

    The definition of art is a different matter. And I agree – it is really hard to define plausibly and non-circularly (it’s art if someone intended to be looked at in an arty way, etc.). There’s one attempt I’ve seen made that is only semi-convincing.

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    • I vigorously disagree with this — depending on how one defines art, it could be very relevant.

      For example, I assume that even Sam would agree that it’s justifiable to say that Kobe Bryant is a better basketball player than George Bush.  We can say this even though many people in the world have no knowledge of the rules of basketball and couldn’t identify any difference in the play of these two, or even if some basketball fans out there have a strange preference (fetish?) for the way that old white guys play basketball and thus would rather see George play than Kobe.  The domain ignorance of the first group and the preference for domain-irrelevant characteristics among the second group don’t disqualify our statement, because we’re not saying that Kobe is more enjoyable to watch, just that when it comes to performing the function of playing basketball, he measures higher on every scale.

      So, if one has a careful definition of “art” qua art and separates out the pure aesthetic function from all the accompanying characteristics, one can speak of the extent to which one work of art better performs that function than does another.  The fact that some don’t have an adequate grasp of the artistic language of the given work and others derive enjoyment from features beyond the pure aesthetic function is as irrelevant in this case as it is with the question of basketball players.

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  15. Fascinating bit of video, that.   There’s a story told about Pythagoras:  a young man had been jilted and was going crazy, threatening to burn down his ex-girlfriend’s house.   Pythagoras said the man needed a musical readjustment, played him a piece of music in what he deemed to be a therapeutic musical mode and calmed the man down.

    Perhaps there’s another way of looking at this Relativism in Art.   Art, especially music, seems to be a catalyst.  I have a few pieces of art I’ve often used as an aid in contemplation.    Sesshu Toyo’s Hatsuboku Landscape is one I use a lot.   Jean Giraud/aka Moebius is my daydreaming art.   Plenty of music fits that bill as well:  music is like medicine.   I don’t hold with Pythagoras’ mystical hoo-hah but Bertrand Russell said music was counting without numbers and there seems to be something more than superiority at work.

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    • Ah Blaise, but doesn’t music soothe the savage beast?

      I liked the psychologist’s reference to Kant. Made me look it up and I post it here for your perusal:

      But beautiful art does this not only in the case of painting or sculpture (in which the term “attribute” is commonly employed): poetry and rhetoric also get the spirit that animates their works simply from the aesthetical attributes of the object, which accompany the logical and stimulate the Imagination, so that it thinks more by their aid, although in an undeveloped way, than could be comprehended in a concept and therefore in a definite form of words.— For the sake of brevity I must limit myself to a few examples only.

      When the great King1 in one of his poems expresses himself as follows:

      “Oui, finissons sans trouble et mourons sans regrets,

      En laissant l’univers comblé de nos bienfaits.

      Ainsi l’astre du jour au bout de sa carrière,

      Répand sur l’horizon une douce lumière;

      Et les derniers rayons qu’il darde dans les airs,

      Sont les derniers soupirs qu’il donne à l’univers;”

      he quickens his rational Idea of a cosmopolitan disposition at the end of life by an attribute which the Imagination (in remembering all the pleasures of a beautiful summer day that are recalled at its close by a serene evening) associates with that representation, and which excites a number of sensations and secondary representations for which no expression is found. On the other hand, an intellectual concept may serve conversely as an attribute for a representation of sense and so can quicken this latter by means of the Idea of the supersensible; but only by the aesthetical [element], that subjectively attaches to the concept of the latter, being here employed. Thus, for example, a certain poet1 says, in his description of a beautiful morning:

      “The sun arose

      As calm from virtue springs.”

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      • Music can do more than soothe the savage beast.   Often, music makes them more savage.   Famous song by Fela, Zombie, more people have been killed to this piece of music than probably anything else except bugle calls.   Fela played this in Accra, Ghana and the stadium went absolutely bloodthirsty apeshit. It’s about the Nigerian Army but for some reason it makes Africans pick up knives.

        Zombie-o, zombie (Zombie-o, zombie)
        Zombie-o, zombie (Zombie-o, zombie)
        Zombie no go go, unless you tell am to go (Zombie)
        Zombie no go stop, unless you tell am to stop (Zombie)
        Zombie no go turn, unless you tell am to turn (Zombie)
        Zombie no go think, unless you tell am to think (Zombie)
        Tell am to go straight
        A joro, jara, joro
        No break, no job, no sense
        A joro, jara, joro
        Tell am to go kill
        A joro, jara, joro
        No break, no job, no sense
        A joro, jara, joro
        Tell am to go quench
        A joro, jara, joro
        No break, no job, no sense
        A joro, jara, joro
        Go and kill! (Joro, jaro, joro)
        Go and die! (Joro, jaro, joro)
        Go and quench! (Joro, jaro, joro)

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  16. Allow me to stress again that there are many ways one can enjoy art. And there is absolutely nothing wrong with appreciating art for non-aesthetic reasons. Those pleasures are often perhaps more valuable than aesthetic pleasures. My pleasure in hearing my disabled son plinking on the piano is worth far more to me than the aesthetic pleasure I get from the best piece of music. Aesthetic pleasures are not necessarily the highest pleasures.

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    • This is not a snarky question, and I recognize that you are superior to me in philosophical understanding, but as some variant of utilitarian, I have to ask, is there such a thing as non-aesthetic pleasure?

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      • Please don’t think I mean to argue from authority of being ABD in philosophy (60% done! I swear!).

        But yes, I think there are plenty of non-aesthetic pleasures. I take aesthetic pleasure to mean a pleasure in the object for itself, not for any further end. So sexual pleasure is not aesthetic pleasure. Neither is a backrub, or the pleasure of finding a hundred dollar bill on the street, or seeing my kids do something they’ve never done before, or solving a logic problem.

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        • Rose,

          First, having done a dissertation with a small child, I wonder how you can manage it while teaching, blogging, and having a special needs child.  My hat’s off to you, sincerely.k

          Second, I know just enough philosophy to try not to be too presumptuous, and I take seriously what someone more knowledgeable than I says.  I asked because, if you’re not necessarily authoritative, you have a better claim to approaching something faintly resembling authority than have I.

          I guess it’s a question about what aesthetics mean.  I think I tend to interpret the word broadly. Nearly everything that gives me pleasure seems to me to be in some way beautiful, from the melodic structure of a Lucinda Williams song to the ease with which a favorite pen writes to the logical structure of Arrow’s impossibility theorem. Not to say you are wrong, but sexual pleasure seems a beautiful thing to me, and if I found a hundred dollar bill on the street I would be delighted by the sheer improbability of the event, and true beauty is always something of an improbable nature in itself.

          And now I wonder if I just see the world in an unusual way.

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          • Blogging is a fun break from the other stuff, which is why I’m not always as careful as I should be :)

            No, there’s a way in which those things are beautiful. But I think there’s a use for the specific disinterested (as in, detached from your other desires) kind of pleasure which one often gets from art, but not exclusively from art. A famous example in the literature (Bullough’s Psychical Distance) is when you’re in a boat in the fog and you’re really nervous, but all of a sudden you just step out of a second and notice and appreciate the fog without reference to your fear or anything else you’re trying to do.

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            • I’m sincerely not trying to be argumentative here, but in fact I’ve been in precisely that situation, and I would classify my reaction to the fog as an aesthetic one.  I have a gut feeling that there must be some distinction here, that not all pleasure is aesthetic, but damned if I don’t seem–personally, just speaking of me–to experience all pleasure in an aesthetic fashion.  Or perhaps I’ve fundamentally misinterpreted aesthetics.

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              • No problem being argumentative! But I was simply unclear. The fog thing is supposed to be the paradigm case of aesthetic experience. It’s when you appreciate things in themselves, not for any other purpose.

                Maybe an inutitive example of an un-beautiful pleasure – when you’re pleased that someone with whom you’re competitive has made a mistake.

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      • There is in Japanese.   It’s called shibui.   It’s a subtle utilitarian pleasure which arises from well-made things.   Something has shibui, like a Leatherman tool or an old wood plane.   Shibui is the form that follows function most beautifully.

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