Are aesthetic judgments possible? This is the question, and to many it is never a consideration. However, to an artist it sounds like a trick question, as this is a question so often considered that it ceases to be a question. Of course aesthetic judgments are possible, the creative person will tell you. If aesthetic judgments were not possible, how could we have art classes or piano lessons? If aesthetic judgments were not possible, how could anyone get any degree in art, music, theater or film, or take part in a constructive critique? All one needs to do is to categorize the individual aspects into subjective and objective categories, and those which fall into an objective category are the ones by which aesthetic judgments can be made. Once this is done, judgments might be made on creative work no matter the culture or genre.
But though poetry can never submit to exact truth, it must be confined by rules of art, discovered to the author either by genius or observation. If some negligent or irregular writers have pleased, they have not pleased by their transgressions of rule or order, but in spite of these transgressions. They have possessed other beauties, which were conformable to just criticism; and the force of these beauties has been able to overpower censure, and give the mind a satisfaction superior to the disgust arising from the blemishes...It appears, then, that, amidst all the variety and caprice of taste, there are certain general principles of approbation or blame, whose influence a careful eye may trace in all operations of the mind. (Hume, 3)
David Hume maintains that there are definitely objective rules within creative work, despite whatever subjective elements might be brought to the table by the viewer or the creator him/herself, and it is by these rules that aesthetic judgments are made possible.
In any creative art, there are physical aspects and psychological aspects, and each of these groups can be divided into subjective and objective categories. This gives us four groups into which aspects of creativity can fall: subjective physical, subjective psychological, objective physical and objective psychological. My argument focuses most on the objective groupings, the ones by which aesthetic judgments are possible. I will, however, briefly address the more subjective groupings toward the end of my paper.
Under the objective physical heading falls things like craftsmanship, composition, color, technique, harmony, and accuracy (in musical performance) among others. The list could easily be added to, so I give these as simple examples. These are completely physical and objective aspects that can be commented on without bias, and can be present in any work in any combination and to greater or lesser degrees. It is possible to speak of the composition of a painting, a photograph, or a scene in a film without letting one's own personal feelings get in the way. No matter where or when you live, human beings are sensitive to a poorly thought-out composition in a movie or a picture, and a badly written script, one that leaves out major plot points or has poor or inconsistent character development, is confusing or infuriating to all people. It is a difficult thing to attempt to categorize in words, especially for myself, because I tend towards creative arts that combine all creative disciplines. This creates a wide range of possibilities for successes and failures. However, as long as we know which particular aspect we are focusing on in any given work, whether it is the composition, character development, or use of color, we can speak about it without bias, and therefore judgments are easily possible on these aspects of creativity.
As a simple example, in my Painting I class we paint only still life so as to be able to focus our attention on techniques, materials, craftsmanship, and the use of color theory as opposed to the more subjective content. Neither the artist nor the viewer ca n muster up much personal bias when painting plastic flowers and fruit. As a result, we can focus on the objective physical aspects and, during a critique, it is these aspects that are criticized. Also, the criticism of one specific aspect, such as use of color theory, is separate from another, such as brush technique. If someone has a good understanding of color theory and uses it well, that receives positive criticism. If this same person has a poor technique in his/her use of the brush, that aspect will be negatively regarded and the criticism will focus on how that might be improved.
One might argue that the criticism of these aspects could easily involve personal bias. Some people will prefer the photo-realistic styles and others will prefer Abstract or Impressionist art. However, these are merely styles and can be executed well or poorly. One might also argue using examples of clashing colors or atonal musical compositions by those commonly considered masters in their respective arts. In the refutation of these objections, the intent and ability of the artist tends to come in here a little more. For example, if the artist intends the picture to be photo-realistic and it is not, then he/she has failed somewhere in technique. If the artist intends the picture to look sketchy or blurry and it looks that way, then the artist was successful.
This brings a further objection: How do we know what the artist intended? This is where I admit that artist's intent can be a somewhat ambiguous thing to use in aesthetic judgments, as not every creator leaves a statement of intent, but I have developed a couple of good guidelines which have served me well over the years, and I often find that others have developed the same guidelines.
The first guideline involves careful study of the artist's other works. If the artist is an Abstract or Impressionist, and has in his/her portfolio some well-executed realistic drawings (which is the most difficult), it stands to reason that this person is capable of doing detailed, highly controlled realistic work, and therefore is not an Abstract artist because he/she is incapable of doing anything else. A better example would be heavy metal music. Many heavy metal musicians are incapable of performing outside of "guitar shredding" death metal. However, some bands, such as the legendary Metallica, are capable of playing blues, as in their cover of "Tuesday's Gone", and a more country style, as in the song "Mamma Said". While some of their work, early and late, was certainly "guitar shredding", they have proven themselves capable of playing other styles of music.
The second guideline is less deductive. It simply involves the confidence with which the work was created. If a painting is distorted or the brushstrokes are not clean and smooth, are they strong or weak? Someone who does this deliberately will be cool and confident, the lines or brushstrokes will be strong, sure, natural and fluid, and it will show in the work. An example can be a professional comic book artist. Comic book art is deliberately distorted, and the styles are many, but any comic book reader is sensitive to the difference between a distortion that was made deliberately and a distortion made because the artist was unskilled. This also can be supported by the sue of the first guideline--if the distortion is deliberate, it will be consistent throughout the book.
David Hume speaks of the delicacy of taste, and this would be where this comes into the picture. He argues that some people have exposed themselves to enough creative work, and have analyzed and studied creative work enough to have a better opinion about creative work. Basically, some people know what they are talking about, and if someone is completely uneducated in the finer aspects of creativity, then he/she doesn't know what he/she is talking about, and that person's opinions count for nothing.
Where the organs are so fine, as to allow nothing to escape them; and at the same time so exact as to perceive every ingredient in the composition: This is what we call delicacy of taste, whether we employ these terms in the literal or the metaphorical sense. Here then the general rules of beauty are of use; being drawn from established models, and from the observation of what pleases or displeases, when presented singly and in a high degree: And if the same qualities, in a continued composition and in a small degree, affect not the organs with a sensible delight or uneasiness, we exclude the person from all pretensions to this delicacy. (Hume, 5)
This makes perfect sense. While everyone has an opinion, and with the Internet everyone is capable of publicizing their opinions, when we look for a professional review of a movie, a musical or acting performance, a painting, or any other creative work, we expect that this reviewer has plenty of experience in his/her field. The same goes for judges in talent contests. The judges in American Idol, for example, are professionals involved in the music industry, either as producers or performers, and so their opinions concerning vocal performance are considered superior to the opinions of, say, an average beer-swilling sofa jockey watching boxing or monster truck contests on cable.
[Note--This paper was written during the early days of American Idol, when it wasn't quite as much of the sideshow it has become.]
Objective psychological involves the basic feelings within cultures, across the world. Whether one is in ancient Rome, medieval England, or Ohio in the modern day, or even a hundred years into the future, the loss of a child will still be a tragedy. One could write a story about a parent's loss of a child to cancer or a killer, or write a tragic love story, or even try a love story with a happy ending, and there will be a mutual understanding across nations and cultures. No one would expect to go to Greece and tell someone about the murder of a small boy or girl and not be met with sympathy and sorrow--and perhaps, anger at the killer. In vaudeville shows, you are supposed to react with anger and hatred at the villain and sympathize with the sweet and innocent lead characters. A picture of a staving child is always going to create strong sympathetic emotions, and we tend to think that a person who does not react with sorrow and horror at the child's plight is devoid of all humanity. This is also a basis for all political ploys to the people, whether campaigning for a war or campaigning for another term in office. Whether you're touting 9-11, or showing the dead Iraqi children and the photos from Abu-Ghraib prison, you're presupposing this common sympathy is true. Of course, an argument against this would be that some people think that the one cancels out the other, and many looked upon the Abu-Ghraib atrocities as "justice", but my refutation of this is simply to point out that that part does not fall under the heading of "objective" but "subjective", which I will address toward the end of my essay.
Death also creates a mutual reaction among cultures, in this case of fear and/or awe. no matter where you are or what time period you live in, you will die someday and you could die before your time. This does not change with the times nor does it change across time zones. Whether you are watching Romeo and Juliet, or Miss Saigon, the love, friendship, and other emotional relationships between the characters is reacted to, as well as the despairing suicides at the end. The betrayal of a friend is always considered to be a terrible and reprehensible thing. Whether we speak of Judas betraying Jesus, Brutus betraying Caesar, or Lando betraying Han Solo (despite his later repentance and reform), we look upon such betrayal as one of the foulest of actions.
The subjective physical heading is quite simple, as it only consists of cultural differences in symbolism and content. For example, in the West black means mourning and white, meaning purity, is never to be worn at a funeral, but in many parts of the East white means mourning and is worn at funerals. So a sorrowful scene might have a lot of black for a Western piece, and the same type of scene in the East might have a lot of white in it. It's not as touchy as the subjective psychological, and many parts of the content of a piece might fall under the objective physical as well. For example, in most if not all cultures, darkness is considered evil and light is good, due to the fact that daytime makes us feel safe and the dark is where we feel frightened and vulnerable. When critiquing a piece in an art class, the content and meaning will come up. If the artist has failed in expressing what he/she wished to express, objective cross-cultural symbols will often be discussed to find a more successful way to communicate the artist's meaning.
To return to the issue of different responses to Abu-Ghraib as an argument against universal objective psychological common ground, I refute that on the grounds that that aspect fits not under the objective but the subjective psychological heading. The subjective psychological heading is where we get the great diversity of taste, even within people who might have Hume's great "delicacy of taste". Every creative person knows that, however well they do in the objective aspects of their art, the viewer or listener is always going to bring his or her own baggage to the piece. We bring our own personal psychological baggage everywhere we go. Even in writing this paper, I bring my own experiences to the table. Some people have had many experiences, have traveled or are well-read, and others might be semi-literate and have never gone twenty miles from their own homes. We also interpret these experiences, and we develop social and political opinions that we apply to everything.
My grandmother abandoned my mother, and she had to live with her aunt. She is affected more deeply at the "Sunrise, Sunset" song in Fiddler on the Roof and will leave the room rather than hear it. Due to this experience in her life, this song creates more than just a wistful looking-back at children growing up and the years passing. For her, it creates a deep sorrow as a reminder that her mother was not there and did not care about her.
For myself, I have a deep relationship with my father, and one of my greatest fears is losing him due to the fact that it is inevitable. Therefore, I am deeply affected at movies, books, and songs involving fathers and daughters and especially one involving the father's death. No matter how my own well-developed delicacy of taste might tell me that the whole thing is trash, I must still have a personal reaction while watching it. Quest for Camelot was not the most brilliant animated movie and certainly nothing to compare with The Lion King, or Tarzan, or The Nightmare Before Christmas--so my delicacy of taste tells me. But the song "On my Father's Wings" always makes me cry, and I can never watch the beginning of that movie unless I want to start sobbing. The same went for the movie Armageddon. As far as my own delicacy of taste is concerned, Deep Impact was far superior. And yet, despite the flaws in Armageddon and my ruthless savaging of the film as I watched it, the father's death at the end still got to me. Of course, I don't allow emotional prejudice to blind me to the fact that a movie is not particularly good. But most people make their aesthetci decisions based on their personal prejudices.
Alex Ross's cover for the Village Voice, depicting a vampiric George Bush sucking Lady Liberty dry, evoked an angry reaction when it was published in Wizard magazine. Aesthetically speaking, it was beautifully and realistically done, and judging it on its objective aspects would bring praise. However, it was the content that upset some people, who apparently held differing views of George Bush. A fundamentalist Christian will prefer to read Christian books and listen to Christian music. An atheist or agnostic might want to read Robert Ingersoll and listen to Bad Religion instead. While the objective qualities of all these materials might be excellent and completely equal, it is the personal reaction to the content that makes one person choose the former and the other person choose the latter.
We choose our favorite author as we do our friend, from a conformity of humour and disposition. Mirth or passion, sentiment or reflection; whichever of these most predominates in our temper, it gives us a peculiar sympathy with the writer who resembles us...It is plainly an error in a critic, to confine his approbation to one species or style of writing, and condemn all the rest. but it is almost impossible not to feel a predilection for that which suites our particular turn and disposition. Such preferences are innocent and unavoidable, and can never reasonably be the object of dispute, because there is no standard, by which they can be decided. (Hume, 9)
Hume and I would, again, agree. For example, an atheist with great delicacy of taste and an ability to apply objective judgment without prejudice should be able to behold a beautifully rendered picture of Jesus or statue of the Madonna and acknowledge its objective beauties without letting his/her own opposition to the content get in the way. also, the genres are very subjective and difficult to compare, at least to the point where one could say that one type of music is superior to the other. A person who likes cheesy pop music and love songs has a different disposition than someone who likes punk and heavy metal music. One genre of music is calm and sweet, the other is louder and angrier, but it cannot be said that one is superior to the other by genre alone. One person would seem to be a hopeless romantic and the other is into rebellion and questioning authority, and they choose the genres that reflect their own personalities. A heavy metal fan is perfectly sensitive to good and bad heavy metal music, based on the same objective references by which one might judge an opera.
I speak as one who likes music ranging from Mozart to Marilyn Manson. I can be taken to an opera or symphony or to a heavy metal concert, and enjoy the music in each based on the objective attributes I perceive in each. If I am angry, I might choose heavy metal. If I am in a sarcastic mood, I might choose punk. If I am feeling contemplative or creative, I might choose an orchestrated movie score or a musical of some sort. Depending on my current disposition, I choose to listen to or watch different things, and it cannot be said that Metallica is superior to Mozart or vice versa. Taken within their own genres, both are legendary due to their objective excellence.
I rarely, if ever, will listen to country music. I hate country music. However, my hatred of country music is due to the far right politics that are usually communicated within that genre. My choice has nothing to do with the music itself, but is due to my own prejudice. I can objectively acknowledge that the music in particularly Republican-minded country song is well-done and the lyrics were well-written with a catchy tune. I will not choose to listen to it, however, because the views expressed are in opposition to my own.
Many people do not apply this to their aesthetic judgments though, as Hume points out, and I maintain along with him that basing judgements entirely on one's personal prejudice is not an admirable trait.
It is well known, that in all questions, submitted to the understanding, prejudice is destructive of sound judgment and perverts all operations of the intellectual faculties; It is no less contrary to good taste; nor has it less influence to corrupt our sentiment of beauty...In all the nobler productions of genius, there is a mutual relation and correspondence of parts; nor can either the beauties or blemishes be perceived by him, whose thought is not capacious enough to comprehend all those parts, and compare them with each other, in order to perceive the consistence and uniformity of the whole. (Hume, 7)
To choose one's entertainment based on one's disposition is perfectly understandable. However, to base all judgments of all creative arts based entirely on personal prejudice is pure ignorance, and applying one's prejudices to creativity should be avoided.
In conclusion, both Hume and I say that aesthetic judgments are indeed possible, if they are based on very specific objective aspects, which must be separated from the more personal and subjective aspects. I have demonstrated in my own argument how these aspects might be objectively and subjectively grouped so that former group might be used in universal aesthetic judgments, across all cultures and genres, and latter shown to be the source of the seemingly wide variety of tastes. I have also addressed how prejudice often overshadows objective and unbiased aesthetic judgments. Finally, though I did not set out to necessarily defend Hume, I have found in writing and categorizing my own reflections on the matter, that I am indeed with Hume in my thinking about aesthetic judgments.
Hume, David. "On the Standard of Taste". CSU Library, 31 Aug. 2005 http://www.csulb.edu/~jvancamp/361rl5.html