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Nick Alexander

Is Art Criticism Objective?

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I started this, with the hopes that J.A.A. would copy/paste his comments in the Wax thread here, so it can continue. 

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On art/literary/film criticism:
 

But if you want to create your own thread dictating how art criticism can be objective, feel free.  You'll find me reading about it, but I am not yet convinced.  That's not snobbery; instead, it's you who raised the issue – prove it.

So I have no authority to dictate to anyone, nor is “dictating” the job of a critic.  But the very existence of criticism implies the question of what criticism is for.  As a discipline, art criticism will be naturally more or less skilled, more or less open to other points of view, and more or less good or bad, edifying or unedifying.  In other words, to assume the role of a “critic” you are assuming the role of a judge - and this implies some responsibilities.

That many people today assume criticism is merely subjective is ridiculous to anyone who actually reads what the most influential of critics have written.  The fact that there has been a 20th Century debate over the objective and subjective in criticism can be demonstrated over and over again in different discussions of different works of art.  For example, in the book, The Personal Heresy, you can find C.S. Lewis arguing that the job of a critic is not just to view art as the mere “personal” or “self-expression” of the artist against E.M.W. Tillyard, who argues that all art is a reflection of the personality of the artist.  Lewis further argues that good criticism will include thinking that goes beyond the limited personal view of any single individual critic.

I am only a young, not very well educated and rather inexperienced critic.  At this point to demonstrate that there is a case for objective standards in art criticism, I can only share a few excerpts that I’ve underlined in some books I’ve read recently on the subject.

For example, Owen Barfield has written about how the very idea of “criticism” only began relatively recently:

“Criticism - the branch of literature or journalism with which our daily and weekly reviews make us so familiar - does not date very far back into the past.  Its parents were the medieval arts of grammar and philology, which, among the commentators on classical texts, had already sometimes blossomed into the rudiments of aesthetic.  The actual words critic and critical, however, have been traced no farther back than Shakespeare; critic in its aesthetic sense is first found in Bacon; and criticism and criticize are neither of them earlier than the seventeenth century.  Based for the most part on Aristotle’s Poetics, serious criticism began to take shape in England at the Renaissance.  From Elizabethan critical essays, such as Sidney’s Apologie for Poetry, we can get an idea of the light in which poetry and the other arts had begun to be viewed at that time.  To Sidney, for example, the distinguishing mark of poetry was, not metre, but a certain ‘feigning’.  The first philosophers and historians, he affirmed, were also poets, not indeed because of what we should magnificently call their ‘creative imagination’, but simply because they ‘invented’ certain fictitious persons and events.  We should not now regard this as a virtue in an historian.  Sidney, however, points out the derivation of poetry from the Greek ‘poiein’, ‘to make’, and shows how this distinguishes it from all the other arts and sciences, which in the last analysis merely ‘follow Nature’, while only the poet,

‘ disdaining to be tied to any such subjection, lifted with the vigour of his own invention, doth grow in effect another nature, in making things either better than Nature bringeth forth, or, quite anew, forms such as never were in Nature, as the Heroes, Demigods, Cyclops, Chimeras, Furies, and such like: so as he goeth hand in hand with Nature, not enclosed within the narrow warrant of her gifts, but freely ranging only within the Zodiac of his own wit.’

And Sidney adds that this fact is not to be made light of merely because the works of Nature are ‘essential’ while the poet’s are only ‘in imitation or fiction’.  The poet has contemplated the ‘Ideas’ behind Nature, and it is those which he ‘delivers forth, as he hath imagined them’.  With ten or twenty new novels appearing on the bookstalls every week it is not so easy for us to realize the dignity and glory which were once felt to distinguish this great human achievement of fiction - that is, of ‘making’ or ‘making up’ (from the Latin ‘fingere’, to ‘form’ or ‘make’) purely imaginary forms, instead of merely copying Nature.”

- Owen Barfield, History in English Words, 1926, pgs. 204-205

In other words, the idea of criticism, from its very beginning, acknowledged distinctions between mere imitations of things and creative imagination as to those things.  Like C.S. Lewis, Barfield criticized how “personal” much of modern criticism had been reduced to.  Critics, sometimes without any education in the very subject matter they were presuming to critique, were merely telling how works of art made them feel personally, whether a work of art happened to meet the requirements of their own individual, prejudiced and subjective tastes.  Barfield argued that that is not what good criticism is meant for.

“In view, however, of the predominantly personal direction taken by literary criticism during the last few decades, it may be well to point out here that to start from personal experience does not necessarily mean to finish with it.  One may start from direct, personal, aesthetic experience without prejudice to the possibility of arriving in the end at some objective standards of criticism - standards which a young critic might set before himself as an aid to the eliminations of just those personal affections and associations - the accidents rather than the substance of poetry - which are always at hand to distort his judgement.”
- Owen Barfield, Poetic Diction: A Study in Meaning, 1928, pg. 42

Being able to describe how a work of art can be meaningful outside one’s own shifting and transient personal feelings means striving for something other than the self.  And if reality is objectively true, then searching for something other than the self will eventually appeal to something objective.  In fact, it would mean appealing to that can awaken an awareness for the reader or viewer that they may not have originally possessed.  Paul Elmer More wrote how our exposure to art and culture shapes how we live.  And if Art shapes how we live, then it affects us morally.  Furthermore, our moral life affects our capacity for appreciation.

“On another point our humanists are well agreed: they all perceive, and more or less explicitly declare, that the present confusion in letters is connected with a similar confusion in our ideas of life.  They see that as we live, so shall we paint and write, or that, as Plato would put it, as we paint and write, so shall we come to live.  They might give different answers to the question whether, in the large innovations of time, art precedes in moulding life or life in moulding art; they would all admit, I think, that the two are mutually interactive, and that there can be no great and simple and sincere art without ideals of greatness and simplicity and sincerity prevailing in society.

“Perhaps the finest example of this rather obvious truth comes to us ... from one whose subtleties of sympathy have not always in the past led him to speak so uncompromisingly, to the effect that ‘to understand any nobly conceived work of art, one must have lived nobly in deed, in imagination, or in both.’  Mr. Mather for the moment is thinking rather of the appreciator of art than of the creator, but his maxim, as I am sure he would admit, merely repeats and extends the famous, and sometimes disputed, saying of Longinus, that “sublimity is the echo of a great soul.”  In this spirit Mr. Mather continues (and I wish I could quote at greater length):

“‘… appreciation really requires a right and balanced attitude towards life.  It was really more important for Florence that her great citizens, while bowing to the glory that was Greece and the grandeur that was Rome, wanted a full and honourable life in Florence - it was really more important, I say, that they cared discriminatingly for the dignity of their ordinary activities and for the authority of their faith, than they cared specifically for painting, sculpture, and architecture.  In short, some aristocratic vision of the good life has always been the foundation on which great national art has been reared in the past.’”

- Paul Elmer More, On Being Human, 1936, pgs. 3-4

T.S. Eliot strongly agreed with this.  In fact, Eliot may just be one of most thoughtful art critics in the history of criticism.  He argued that the theology of the critic should shape his point of view.  That this implies some objective standards is obvious, and the need for it is even greater in an age that dismisses all views of art as purely subjective:

“Literary criticism should be completed by criticism from a definite ethical and theological standpoint.  In so far as in any age there is common agreement on ethical and theological matters, so far can literary criticism be substantive.  In ages like our own, in which there is no common agreement, it is the more necessary for Christian readers to scrutinize their reading, especially of works of imagination, with explicit ethical and theological standards.
- T.S. Eliot, “Religion and Literature,” 1935, Selected Prose of T.S. Eliot, pg. 97

It would follow from this being a critic implies responsibility.  Part of that responsibility entails taken account of the bigger picture from a well-read and well-rounded standpoint:

“It is part of the business of the critic to preserve tradition - where a good tradition exists.  It is part of his business to see literature steadily and to see it whole; and this is eminently to see it not as consecrated by time, but to see it beyond time; to see the best work of our time and the best work of twenty-five hundred years ago with the same eyes.”
- T.S. Eliot, “Introduction,” The Sacred Wood: Essays on Poetry and Criticism, 1920, pgs. vi-vii

That there are forms, disciplines and traditions in art is not in question.  That some are more disciplined and skilled than others is also not in question.  But a good critic, will preserving what is good in artistic traditions, will also be willing to discard the bad.  Being able to do this requires an education and knowledge of the very tradition you are critiquing.  This is not a purely subjective task.

“Yet if the only form of tradition, of handing down, consisted in following the ways of the immediate generation before us in a blind or timid adherence to its successes, “tradition” should positively be discouraged.  We have seen many such simple currents soon lost in the sand; and novelty is better than repetition.  Tradition is a matter of much wider significance.  It cannot be inherited, and if you want it you must obtain it by great labour.  It involves, in the first place, the historical sense, which we may call nearly indispensable ...; and the historical sense involves a perception, not only of the pastness of the past, but of its presence; the historical sense compels a man to write not merely with his own generation in his bones, but with a feeling that the whole of the literature of Europe from Homer and within it the whole of the literature of his own country has a simultaneous existence and composes a simultaneous order.  This historical sense, which is a sense of the timeless as well as of the temporal and of the timeless and of the temporal together, is what makes a writer traditional.”
- T.S. Eliot, “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” The Sacred Wood: Essays on Poetry and Criticism, 1920, pg. 29

In fact, a good critic will appeal to standards that are higher than mere commercial standards, resisting the ways in which art can be reduced to consumer appeals.  Arguably, one of the results of the church cutting itself off from the arts is leaving art and culture to be dominated by inhuman motivations:

“But what is more insidious than any censorship, is the steady influence which operates silently in any mass society organised for profit, for the depression of standards of art and culture.  The increasing organisation of advertisement and propaganda - or the influencing of masses of men by any means except through their intelligence - is all against them.  The economic system is against them; the chaos of ideals and confusion of thought in our large scale mass education is against them; and against them also is the disappearance of any class of people who recognise public and private responsibility of patronage of the best that is made and written ... And just as those who should be the intellectuals regard theology as a special study, like numismatics or heraldry, with which they need not concern themselves and theologians observe the same indifference to literature and art, as special studies which do not concern them, so our political classes regard both fields as territories of which they have no reason to be ashamed of remaining in complete ignorance.  Accordingly the more serious authors have a limited, and even provincial audience, and the more popular write for an illiterate and uncritical mob.”
- T.S. Eliot, The Idea of a Christian Society, 1939, pg. 32

Finally, Eliot explains, given these other thoughts, that good art criticism will never be a matter of mere personal taste.  No critic should be a partisan of any single subjective personal taste.  He has a responsibility to education himself and to cultivate a broader and well-informed sensibility.  Without any objective standards, this would be impossible:

“The fact that what we read does not concern merely something called our literary taste, but that it affects directly, though only amongst other influences, the whole of what we are, is best elicited, I think, by a conscientious examination of the history of our individual literary education.  Consider the adolescent reading of any person with some literary sensibility.  Everyone, I believe, who is at all sensible to the seductions of poetry, can remember some moment in youth when he or she was completely carried away by the works of one poet.  Very likely he was carried away by several poets, one after the other.  The reason for this passing infatuation is not merely that our sensibility to poetry is keener in adolescence than in maturity.  What happens is a kind of inundation, of invasion of the undeveloped personality by the stronger personality of the poet.  The same thing may happen at a later age to persons who have not done much reading.  One author takes complete possession of us for a time; then another; and finally they begin to affect each other in our mind.  We weigh one against another; we see that each has qualities absent from others, and qualities incompatible with the qualities of others: we begin to be, in fact, critical; and it is our growing critical power which protects us from the excessive possession by any one literary personality.  The good critic - and we should all try to be critics, and not leave criticism to the fellows who write reviews in the papers - is the man who, to a keen and abiding sensibility, joins wide and increasingly discriminating reading.  Wide reading is not valuable as a kind of hoarding, an accumulation of knowledge ... It is valuable because in the process of being affected by one powerful personality after another, we cease to be dominated by any one, or by any small number.  The very different views of life, cohabitating in our minds, affect each other, and our own personality asserts itself and gives each a place in some arrangement peculiar to ourself.”
- T.S. Eliot, “Religion and Literature,” 1935, Selected Prose of T.S. Eliot, pgs. 101-102

Cultivating a more well-rounded sensibility and reaching for something greater than a limited personal taste means looking beyond the current fads and fashions of the time.  This also means not judging a work by reductionist subjective standards like “novelty.”  It requires being able to distinguish what is worth spending time on.  And there are some things that are really not worth spending our finite time upon:

“One often hears the word originality used as a term of praise in respect of a work of art, without any assessment of whether the originality has produced anything worthwhile in itself.  In fact, it is easy to be original; there is nothing easier than to think of something that someone else has never done; you could probably draw up a list of a hundred such things in half an hour.  But there are often extremely good reasons why no one has ever done them, chief among which are that it would be of no aesthetic or intellectual value to do them.”
- Theodore Dalrymple, Anything Goes, 2011, pgs. 143-144

Another way that objective standards in art criticism helps overcome the merely subjective is when a critic learns how to properly appreciate a work of art.  This means avoiding any utilitarianism or propaganda that tends to diminish art, and being able to recognize it when you see it.  This also means not reading your own subjective views into a work when they are not really there and not explaining what parts of a work supposedly symbolize when the artist never intended them to symbolize any such thing:

“There is a type of student who has a curious subconscious itch in the presence of poetry; an itch for explaining it, in the hope of explaining it away.  But this sort of critic is in any case unreliable, because, in dealing with a poem, he cannot distinguish between its occasion and its origin.  He is the sort of commentator who, listening to the enchanted voice of Oberon, telling of mermaids and meteors and the purple flower, is chiefly anxious to assure us that the imperial votaress was certainly Queen Elizabeth, and that there actually was a pageant at Nobbin Castle, for a wedding in the Fitznobbin family, in which a cupid and a mermaid figured in such a manner as completely to explain William Shakespeare’s remarks - and almost explain William Shakespeare.  It is all quite probable; it is all quite true; by all means, let us be gravely grateful for the information.  There were doubtless a good many pageants and a good many parades of Cupid and Dian; and I daresay a great many mermaids on a great many dolphins’ backs.  But, by an odd chance, only one of them ever, in the whole history of the world, uttered such dulcet and harmonious breath that the rude sea grew civil at her song, and certain stars shot madly from their spheres to hear the sea-maid’s music.  That is the kind of thing that has rather a way of only happening once.   And if we really must find out where it came from, or why it came, we shall be wise to guess that it had a good deal less to do with the Mermaid at Nobbin Castle than with that other Mermaid at which Mr. William Shakespeare of Stratford sometimes took a little more wine than was good for him.”
- G.K. Chesterton, Chaucer, 1932, The Soul of Wit: G.K. Chesterton on William Shakespeare, 2012, pgs. 22-23

As Chesterton explains, art that lasts appeals to something more than the subjective ideals of any single age or people.  Instead, the greatest works appeal to universals and doing that transcends the subjective.  The best critics will at least make an attempt to tell the difference, rather than simply limit themselves to their own personal tastes:

“The system of Kant; the system of Hegel; the system of Schopenhauer and Nietzsche and Marx and all the rest ... In each of these examples a man sprang up and pretended to have a thought that nobody had ever had.  But the great poet only professes to express the thought that everybody has always had.  The greatness of Homer does not consist in proving, by the death of Hector, that the Will to Live is a delusion and a snare.  It does not consist in proving, by the victory of Achilles, that the Will to Power must express itself in a Superman; for Achilles is not a Superman, but, on the contrary, a hero.  The greatness of Homer consists in the fact that he could make men feel, what they were already quite ready to think, that life is a strange mystery in which a hero may err and another hero may fail.  The poet makes men realize how great are the great emotions which they, in a smaller way, have already experienced.”
- G.K. Chesterton, Chaucer, 1932, The Soul of Wit: G.K. Chesterton on William Shakespeare, 2012, pg. 17

Instead of reading his own subjective views and speculations into a work of art, a good critic will learn how to describe a work intelligently and artfully.  This is why some criticism can rise the level of literature itself.  There is of course room for the subjective in doing this.  Each critic can have his or her own style of description.  But subjective style and personal voice does not exclude what objectively makes for the best criticism.

“The greatest honor that can be paid to the art work on its pedestal of ritual display, is to describe it with sensory completeness.  We need a science of description.  Too much criticism is dull as dishwater because the object has receded into the academic distance.  I try not to allude to but to re-create, to reproduce the first, baffling experience of reading a text or seeing a painting or film.  Criticism is ceremonial revivification, like the nekuomanteia of the Odyssey, the magic ‘evocation of the shades.’  My hyped-up style is the route of enthousiasmos, making a big deal out of what was thought to be nothing, showing the divine in the common.”
- Camille Paglia, “Sexual Personae: The Cancelled Preface,” Sex, Art, and American Culture, 1992, pg. 117

There are some further consequences that follow from this that are very interesting.  And there is some further evidence of the necessity and value of objective standards that I still remember having read about.  But I need to look at a couple more books and authors first, so I’ll pause here for the moment.

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Thank you for posting this.

 

I just read it through once, and it deserves to be read and digested multiple times before I can fully respond.

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Alright, here’s the second half of a case for objective standards in art criticism.  Consider this part two of two, but also please keep in mind that these two posts are only lightly skimming the surface of what is a vast wealth of literature in art criticism.  A great number of wise and thoughtful people have thought deeply about this, and have written eloquently on the moral and intellectual responsibilities of a critic.  I am only mentioning a very few of them.

When a critic does all the things Barfield, Lewis, Chesterton, Paglia and Eliot recommend in my earlier post, his or her criticism becomes so much more powerful.  They can distinguish the real from the unreal, the true from the untrue, the honest from the dishonest and the eternal from the transient.  This means that one’s art criticism can be based on something more important than one’s own personal tastes.  And, assuming these responsibilities (and investing the work and study that they require) gives the critic a right to level certain criticisms - criticisms that, in and of themselves, can be judged as just or unjust by other readers, writers and artists.

So, for instance, when David Foster Wallace writes of a celebrity autobiography ...

“... there’s not even a recognizable human being in here.  And this isn’t just because of clunky prose or luxated structure.  The book is inanimate because it communicates no real feeling and so gives us no sense of a conscious person.  There’s nobody at the other end of the line.  Every emotionally significant moment or event or development gets conveyed in either computeresque staccato or else a prepackaged PR-speak whose whole function is (think about it) to deaden feeling.”
- David Foster Wallace, “How Tracy Austin Broke My Heart,” Philadelphia Enquirer, 1994, Consider the Lobster And Other Essays, 2005, pg. 151

... or, when he criticizes the character development in popular bestsellers:

“Of course, the fact that Dostoevsky can tell a juicy story isn’t enough to make him great.  If it were, Judith Krantz and John Grisham would be great fiction writers, and by any but the most commercial standards they’re not even very good.  The main thing that keeps Krantz and Grisham and lot of other gifted storytellers from being artistically good is that they don’t have any talent for (or interest in) characterization - their compelling plots are inhabited by crude and unconvincing stick figures.”
- David Foster Wallace, “Joseph Frank’s Dostoevsky” Village Voice Literary Supplement, 1996, Consider the Lobster And Other Essays, 2005, pg. 264

... Wallace is not just explaining that his own personal taste doesn’t match with the writing styles of Grisham, Krantz or Austin’s ghostwriter.  He is appealing to objective standards that any other reader should be able to see, learn, understand and appreciate.  It’s not that objective standards must necessarily exclude subjective tastes.  Wallace, for instance, will also write what different books meant to him personally.  But, for the purposes of good criticism, when Wallace wrote his book reviews, he would never ultimately judge a book on only how it made him feel.  Because he had learned a great deal about the craft of writing and the art of the English language, he was able to level solid criticisms against poor writing habits.

Another thinker that has devoted a great deal of thought to the traditions of literary criticism is Russell Kirk.  Kirk was interested in the moral effect of art.  He doubted that art can be said to have no moral or spiritual effect on people.  The reason why arts and culture matter so much is because they really do affect us spiritually.  And this effect applies at both the personal/individual level, and at the societal and cultural level.

“Great books do influence societies for the better, and bad books do drag down the general level of personal and social conduct.”
- Russell Kirk, Enemies of the Permanent Things, 1969, pg. 48

 

The same can be said for films and for music, among other things.  This is why, echoing T.S. Eliot, Kirk argues that a good critic will appeal to greater things outside his own self, and outside whatever historical age he happens to live within.  Kirk explained that there are traditions and norms that have been built by trial and error carefully over the centuries, collecting wisdom over time.  This is also why, without being propaganda, works of art can shape how we are aware of the world around us.  It can even make us aware of our own subjective prejudices and limited personal perspectives:

“No mere defender of the establishments of the hour, the poet is loyal to norms, not to factions; thus, with Ben Jonson, he scourges the follies of the time.  Every age is out of joint, in the sense that man and society never are what they ought to be; and the poet senses that he is born to set the time right - not, however, by leading a march to some New Jerusalem, but by rallying in his art to the permanent things.  Even good poets commonly considered radical - William Morris, for one - often are not looking for a brave new world, but instead seek to restore what once was, and so may be again.

“Homer, ‘the blind man who sees,’ looked with high scorn upon the brutal and unjust ‘Age of Heroes,’ as Eric Voegelin points out in his World of the Polis.  Surviving perhaps from an earlier and better culture, Homer appealed to the assembly of gods for judgment upon a debased age.  Sophocles, constant to normative truth in a century undone by sophistry, exhorted the Athenians to obey divine injunctions, superior to the edicts of man.  Vergil, seeking to restore civilization after a generation of civil war, took for his themes the high old Roman virtue and the life-giving Roman piety.  Dante, seeing the medieval order shattered by ignorance, selfishness, and crime, described in his vision the antagonist realms of order and disorder.

“In English letters, dominated by normative and ethical convictions more strongly that is any other national body of literature, the conservative cast of opinions scarcely requires mention.  The emphasis of Milton upon ordered liberty; the politics of Dryden, anticipating Burke’s; the Tory principles of Swift and Pope; the doctrines of ordination and subordination, so strong in Johnson; the conservative Christian humanism of Coleridge; Yeats’ passionate attachment to tradition and continuity - these are so many instances of the point.  But one cannot undertake here an historical survey of poets’ opposition to what Samuel Johnson, in Irene, called “the lust of innovation.”  It may suffice to observe that most influential English and American poets of the twentieth century have been conservators of the permanent things.”

- Russell Kirk, The Conservative Mind, 1953, pgs. 497-498

Again, if there is such a thing as an objective reality, and if there is such a thing as the moral law, then some things have greater value than other things.  A critic, therefore, can point to permanent things of value, explain how different works of art preserve and explain them, and encourage readers and viewers to pay attention to those things, not letting them be drowned out by what does not have any eternal worth:

“When most writers nowadays employ the word ‘value’ as a term of philosophy, moreover, they mean ‘subjective value’ - that is, the quality of being worthwhile, of giving pleasure or satisfaction to individuals, without judgment upon the intrinsic, absolute, essential merit of the sensation or action in question; without reference to its objective deserts.”
- Russell Kirk, Enemies of the Permanent Things, 1969, pg. 21

The reducing of value to the subjective is ultimately a reductionism to what most concerns the self, which, even within the world of art, can harm your view of the world.  But when a critic can distinguish between what is lasting and what is not, there is a sense in which he is joining a community that crosses over ages of time:

“Great works of literature join us in an intellectual community.  And the ethical cast of enduring humane letters, working upon the imagination, is as normative as is religious doctrine or political principle.  Humane literature teaches us what it is to be a man.  Homer and Hesiod; Herodotus and Thucydides; Sophocles and Plato; Virgil and Horace; Livy and Tacitus; Cicero and Seneca; Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius; Dante, Petrarch, Erasmus, Shakespeare, Cervantes, Goethe, and all the rest - these have formed the mind and character of Americans as wells as of Europeans.  The best of American literature is part and parcel of the normative continuity of literature, extending back beyond the dawn of history.”
- Russell Kirk, Enemies of the Permanent Things, 1969, pg. 33

The director, Andrei Tarkovsky argues the same as Kirk.  To Tarkovsky, what gives art greater value is when it can transcend the subjective individual self:

“Art is born and takes hold wherever there is a timeless and insatiable longing for the spiritual, for the ideal: that longing which draws people to art.  Modern art has taken a wrong turn in abandoning the search for the meaning of existence in order to affirm the value of the individual for its own sake.  What purports to be art begins to look like an eccentric occupation for suspect characters who maintain that any personalised action is of intrinsic value simply as a display of self-will.  But in artistic creation the personality does not assert itself, it serves another, higher and communal idea.”
- Andrei Tarkovsky, Sculpting in Time, 1986, pg. 38

This is why Tarkovsky, right along with C.S. Lewis, denied that his films could be considered "expressions" of his own personality.  He despised the idea that he was doing something as subjective as “expressing himself” with his films:

“I simply cannot believe that an artist can ever work only for the sake of ‘self-expression.’  Self-expression is meaningless unless it meets with a response.  For the sake of creating a spiritual bond with others it can only be an agonising process, one that involves no practical gain: ultimately, it is an act of sacrifice.  But surely it cannot be worth the effort merely for the sake of hearing one’s own echo?”
- Andrei Tarkovsky, Sculpting in Time, 1986, pg. 40

Of course, I find it difficult to discuss art and objective standards without remembering what I’ve read from Roger Scruton.  Scruton has defended objective standards for the art critic more forcefully and more clearly than I ever could.  One thing that Scruton explains with precision is how an art critic has to make judgments - and he has to make more than merely subjective judgments, even if we are considering feelings.  There can even be a right and a wrong way to feel, and a work of art can encourage either of the two:

“This self-conscious act of sharing is essentially critical - it both idealises human emotion and also elicits sympathy; it therefore cannot escape judging and being judged.  Is it right to sympathise, for example with Othello’s final grief over the woman he has murdered (and in any case, is it really grief over her?)?  An artistic tradition is an exercise of imagination; it is also an exercise of taste, which is in turn a meditation on human experience and an attempt to build a shared conception of what is worthy of our concern.  The disgusting, the morbid, the banal and the sentimental are avoided, or not avoided only because unnoticed - which itself bespeaks a decline in taste.  It is in epochs of cultural decline that criticism becomes important.  Criticism is a last ditch attempt to be part of the artistic tradition, to retain the internal perspective on an inherited culture, and to fight off the corruption of sentiment that comes about, when cliche and sentimentality are mistaken for sincere expression.  By eliciting sympathy towards empty forms, the cliche impoverishes the emotional life of those who are drawn to it.”
- Roger Scruton, An Intelligent Person’s Guide to Modern Culture, 1998, pgs. 44-45

If even our feelings, aesthetic or otherwise, exist within the moral sphere, then what happens to us when bad art encourages, stimulates or appeals to the wrong sort of feelings?  Poor works of art that encourage the wrong sort of feelings still shape our lives and the ways in which we think:

“It is well for Nietzsche to say that we have art so that we shall not perish from the truth.  But most people don’t have art: kitsch, pop and porn have driven art to the margins of their lives.  And although kitsch, pop and porn don’t tell the truth, their lies are de-meaning lies: lies which eliminate meaning.”
- Roger Scruton, A Political Philosophy: Arguments for Conservatism, 2006, pg. 144

This is why, to Scruton, the job of an art critic is, at its root, a moral one - not in the moralistic sense of condemning other people or in condemning the immoral behavior of characters in a story, but in the humbling and awakening sense of judging our own selves.  A critic can make his artistic judgments a way of promoting and encouraging those works that encourage all of us to be more, rather than less, human - in both our thoughts and in our feeling.

“I therefore try to show that there is such a thing as the critical study of works of art and literature, and that this study discovers and transmits a legacy of moral knowledge ... [P]eople, by judging works of art, become judges of themselves.  This kind of judging has nothing to do with those fashionable “theories,” from deconstruction to postmodernism, which have served to create such an impenetrable wall of jargon around our artistic heritage.  It does not empty works of their life and meaning, or strive, like deconstruction, to show that meaning is impossible.  It is a way of making works live in the imagination of their audience, so that art and audience belong together.”
- Roger Scruton, Culture Counts: Faith and Feeling in a World Besieged, 2007, pgs. xii-xiii

If this is true, how could art criticism only be a matter of subjective and personal taste?

“Many people will be unhappy with that idea, believing either that there is no such thing as this ‘judgment’ to which I refer or that, if there is such a thing, it is irremediably “subjective,” with no inherent ability either to stand up to skeptical examination or to guarantee the survival of a culture in times of doubt.  This response is expressed in a variety of ways and for a variety of purposes ... In all its forms, however, it rests on a confusion, long ago pointed out by Kant.  It is true that our judgments of works of art are subjective in the sense that they issue from our personal experience, impressions, and tastes.  But it does not follow that they are subjective in the sense of admitting no argument in their favor, or connecting with no important experiences and emotions which might be tested by life."
- Roger Scruton, Culture Counts: Faith and Feeling in a World Besieged, 2007, pg. 5

Therefore, a good critic will apply objective standards in his criticism in order to guard against even the wrong sort of feelings.  One feeling, going back to both Plato and Coleridge, is the sort of self-centered subjective sentimentality that “fantasy” encourages.  And it could be that our modern age needs critics who are willing to appeal to objective standards in order to explain why too much sentimentality in our art and entertainment can be harmful.

“... sentimentality plays a central role in modern culture - it is the mask with which fantasy conceals its cynical self-regard.  Sentimental feeling is easy to confuse with the real thing, for, on the surface at least, they have the same object.  The sentimental love of Judy and the real love of Judy are both directed toward Judy, and involve tender thoughts of which she is the subject.  But this superficial similarity marks a deep difference.  The real focus of my sentimental love is not Judy but me.  For the sentimentalists it is not the object by the subject of emotion that is important.  Real love focuses on the other: it is gladdened by his pleasure and grieved by his pain.  The unreal love of the sentimentalist focuses on the self, and treats the pleasures and pains of its object only as an excuse for playing the role that most appeals to it.  It may seem to grieve at the other’s sorrow, but it does not really grieve.  For secretly sentimentalists welcome the sorrow that prompts their tears.  It is another excuse for the noble gesture, another occasion to contemplate the image of a great-hearted self.”
- Roger Scruton, An Intelligent Person’s Guide to Modern Culture, 1998, pg. 64

And finally:

“... fantasy, cynicism and sentimentality ... re-focus our emotions.  They cheapen our endeavors, by directing them away from what is serious, long-term and committed, towards what is immediate, effortless and for sale.  A common culture dignifies people, by setting their desires and projects within an endearing context.  It makes the spirit believable and commitment sincere, by providing the words, gestures, rituals and beliefs which moralise our actions.  A high culture attempts to keep these things alive, by giving imaginative reality to the long-term view of things, and by setting us in the context of an imagined redemption."
- Roger Scruton, An Intelligent Person’s Guide to Modern Culture, 1998, pg. 67

 

These are ideals that our modern culture often sneers and scoffs at.  They are values that we often always have to be "meta" or ironical about.  But I wish to do neither.

This is, for me, the root of why objective standards in art criticism (relating to any and every art form) are fundamentally important.  I think we desperately need more critics who are willing to educate themselves in order to really know what they are critiquing.  And we need them to be willing to appeal to higher standards and to make judgements beyond their own personal tastes.

There is nothing more boring and useless than reading a review by someone who thinks that art criticism consists solely in plot summaries or in only explaining what he personally liked and didn’t like.  In other words, a critic or reviewer who disdains to appeal to objective standards in his criticism is hamstrung, no matter how good or descriptive of a writer he is.  Ultimately, he will only be writing about himself, or, at best, merely parroting the fashionable prejudices of his own limited age and time.  A good art critic will be interested in so much more than that.

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J.A.A. (Jeremy is it?), this is excellent. I may add my thoughts to this thread at some point, but I'm still digesting your inputs. Great stuff. Thanks.

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Jeremy,
 
This is my commentary on your first post.  Your second post will come in time.
 
The truth is, while there are very good standards for proper criticism in your piece, I find such to be an impossibility.  

I look at the once-a-decade lists made by Sight and Sound.  What is surprising is that the movie that made the top of the 2012 list was a movie that got overwhelmingly negative reviews when it was first released: Hitchcock's "Vertigo."
 

That many people today assume criticism is merely subjective is ridiculous to anyone who actually reads what the most influential of critics have written.


We are all subjective beings.  We cannot escape our subjective histories, our subjective experiences, our subjective tastes, our subjective educational levels, our subjective geographical upbringings, our subjective faiths/philosophies, and, our souls.  To do so is akin to a fish giving a review to a ski resort.  

So I wouldn't say "merely subjective."  That's overly trite.  I would say, "overwhelmingly, exceedingly, superfluously subjective,"  even though it may be in one's subjective tendency to strive to be as objective and open-minded as possible.

But that's not to say that objective standards cannot be striven for.  A movie critic for a general newspaper who does not like all forms of movies would be a poor choice of critic for those movies that they wouldn't care for.  Horror movie afficienados have had this battle for many years--critics consistently undervaluing their work.
 

Like C.S. Lewis, [Owen] Barfield criticized how “personal” much of modern criticism had been reduced to.  Critics, sometimes without any education in the very subject matter they were presuming to critique, were merely telling how works of art made them feel personally, whether a work of art happened to meet the requirements of their own individual, prejudiced and subjective tastes.


If a critic's review demonstrates his educational ignorance on a specific subject matter, then this in itself is worthy of a rebuttal. However, if a critic has more insight and understanding on a specific historical event or belief system than the filmmakers themselves, then this, too, makes it imperative for the critics to share.  For behind the story--behind the intention of the filmmakers--is a desire to communicate some form of absolute truth, and what makes art so very debatable is not the art itself, but the underlying precepts behind such.

I agree with Paul Elmer More that art shapes how we live; therefore, it is imperative that the art which survives (whether because of its critical mass that dictates such, or its unflagging popularity, or both) must also be fully in sync with that of absolute truth--in whatever form absolute truth takes.

This probably matches what T.S. Eliot held, but would Eliot find comfort in today's multicultural (no absolutes) society? He would be distracted by defining why the belief system he carries stands as absolute, as opposed to those belief systems which contradict his own; and then his statements would stand.

If find Theodore Dalrymple's thesis, that not everything is worthy of analysis--original or not--to indeed be the basis of Wax's argument. There may be a hundred reasons why certain stories are not worthy of one's sitting in the dark for two-to-three hours; what is lacking is Dalrymple's explanations for why, which may run into Eliot's reasons for having a moral and ethical center to critique such.  And this may run back towards those prudish critics who came late to the game as to the importance of "Vertigo" or some reconsidered horror classics; the moral and ethical centers of such (subjective) had shifted, and were able to see absolute truth in things not shared prior.

G.K. Chesterton is one of my favorite writers, but his own works are rooted in his own search for absolute truth, much of it contrarian to his surroundings. "Orthodoxy" is a treatise that goes to the very heart against the then-popular theological/philosophical misgivings of his day. He was not content with just letting H.G. Wells or George Bernard Shaw's work stand on their own merits, since he had very strong misgivings on their worldview.  

As for Camille Paglia, the issue at hand is that her perspective may, at root, be contrary to that of Theodore Dalrymple.  Supposing Paglia has no qualms with re-creating a scene from an artwork that Dalrymple finds that it has "no aesthetic or intellectual value to do them;" then the reader is violated twice over.
 
Hope this helps explain where I'm coming from.  Being that a documentary on celebrated critic Roger Ebert has just been put in limited release, I can only wonder how much he would have subscribed to this thesis, since his own reviews provide much of the impetus of my knowledge, in that he walked a line where he was both extremely subjective and personal in his reviews, but he also tried to judge film on the basis as to how well it succeeded in pursuing its purpose--thus, his notorious positive reviews of "Cop and a Half" and "Benji the Hunted."

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In terms of Wallace, I fully agree with your endorsement of his criticisms.  He's interested in getting to the bottom of a real character, whether biographical or fictitious.  

But here's the rub: by "subjectivism" I am not endorsing merely "judg(ing) a book on only how it made him feel."  I think this is a false argument.  There is substance behind one's upbringing, one's beliefs, one's soul.  To be able to dig behind the scenes of a character, one whom you express either admiration, aggravation, or apathy (or a mixture of such), you need to express whether such a character is worth studying, emulating, or learning from his/her mistakes.  

I do not disagree with Russell Kirk.  In fact, he may have agreed with Wax.  The question, however, is the term "without being propaganda."  Who's to judge that an author's very deliberate subjective voice is propaganda, and what is not?  _Casablanca_ has a most incredible message about sacrificing personal inclinations for the cause of the greater good--this, however--bear with me--, would be lost in an alternate universe had the Nazis won World War II.

I'm all for going outside one's comfort zone to encounter different perspectives, different worldviews than mine own.  The reason why I didn't sense the need to view _Wolf of Wall Street_ above its objectionable material, is because I felt like I already knew enough about the central protagonist. Perhaps I'm wrong--and that's a wrong I don't care to right--but I sense a "been-there/done-that" on this subject matter.  And I respect that, for others, it was most worthwhile.  

I wish I can be a fan of Tarkovsky.  I tried to embrace Andrei Rublev.  So far, its experience is so foreign, so alienating, that I am negative towards it.  I'm scared to see any other of his films.  If that makes me a lesser man, so be it. I have allies who share my misgivings.

Therefore, I'm extremely grateful that his works are most emphatically not expressions of his own personality.  But I look at Spike Lee's _Do The Right Thing_, or Michel Gondry's _Being John Malkovich_, or Hawks' _Red River_, Spielberg's _E.T._, or Tarantino's _Pulp Fiction_, or Twyker's _Run Lola Run_, or Anderson's _Magnolia_, and see very different personalities inhabiting each of these films.  Indeed, it is very hard to escape the signature voice of these artists.

I also abhor cliche, but who's to decide what's a cliche or not? A cliche only exists in a vacuum in the context of the broader culture.  The first time a character has a forbidden secret within the context of art, it is new; it hadn't been done before.  The more that one looks at how successful stories happen, and sense what triggers a response in others, the more they may rely upon the tried and true.  Does it make it a cliche?  Is it a cliche if it's part of a true story, and the director finds the only way to get from point A to point B is by means of this well-worn trope?  All I can say is, sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't.

In some sense, one of the things you cannot throb against "God's Not Dead" (unseen by me) is that it is cliche.  It is not.  The story had simply not been done before.  Then again, according to those who had seen it, there may be a reason.

In terms of:

the job of an art critic is, at its root, a moral one - not in the moralistic sense of condemning other people or in condemning the immoral behavior of characters in a story, but in the humbling and awakening sense of judging our own selves.

... how is this not subjective?  Two can experience a work of art and have two vastly different soul-searching experiences, based on the actions of a single three-dimensional character.  The differences may not be contradictory; but they are rooted in their own subjective experiences, beliefs, upbringings, etc., with the shadow of the character arc laying down before it.

And note, this has nothing to do with mere "taste."  That is trite.

This is the key graph:

It is true that our judgments of works of art are subjective in the sense that they issue from our personal experience, impressions, and tastes.  But it does not follow that they are subjective in the sense of admitting no argument in their favor, or connecting with no important experiences and emotions which might be tested by life."


Nobody here is insinuating that on this board.
 

There is nothing more boring and useless than reading a review by someone who thinks that art criticism consists solely in plot summaries or in only explaining what he personally liked and didn’t like.  In other words, a critic or reviewer who disdains to appeal to objective standards in his criticism is hamstrung, no matter how good or descriptive of a writer he is.  Ultimately, he will only be writing about himself, or, at best, merely parroting the fashionable prejudices of his own limited age and time.  A good art critic will be interested in so much more than that.


I think you would agree with me, that nobody here--not even Wax--believes in this.

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Nick, I'm taking some time to consider what you have written. But, in the meantime, here's one question to help me while I'm thinking it through. What do you mean by the following?:
 

The question, however, is the term "without being propaganda." Who's to judge that an author's very deliberate subjective voice is propaganda, and what is not? _Casablanca_ has a most incredible message about sacrificing personal inclinations for the cause of the greater good--this, however--bear with me--, would be lost in an alternate universe had the Nazis won World War II.


I don't understand this. An alternative universe? Casablanca having a point of view that is too subjective for the Nazis to understand? The Nazis winning would have changed what exactly?  I'm trying, but this is one point where I can't figure out what you were trying to say.

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Nick, I'm taking some time to consider what you have written. But, in the meantime, here's one question to help me while I'm thinking it through. What do you mean by the following?:

 

The question, however, is the term "without being propaganda." Who's to judge that an author's very deliberate subjective voice is propaganda, and what is not? _Casablanca_ has a most incredible message about sacrificing personal inclinations for the cause of the greater good--this, however--bear with me--, would be lost in an alternate universe had the Nazis won World War II.

I don't understand this. An alternative universe? Casablanca having a point of view that is too subjective for the Nazis to understand? The Nazis winning would have changed what exactly?  I'm trying, but this is one point where I can't figure out what you were trying to say.

 

Casablanca was released in 1942, and was a fast shoot.  Inherent to the plot is a clear distinction that the Nazi party (but not all Nazis, certainly not Claude Rains, who has no real allegiance to the party itself) represents the bad guys.  They shot it without knowing the end of the war at hand.  One of the central themes of the story is the importance of self-sacrifice for the greater good.  My example (and it may be a bad example), is that, had the Nazis actually won, this theme might have been lost, over the disapproval of how the Nazi party was conveyed.

 

Could it be possible that, generations later, people can look at movies of wartime enemies and see a deeper themes.  Das Boot and Letters to Imo Jima (the latter unseen by me) come to mind.  But look at how we examine Triumph of the Will.  The themes of the movie resonate far, far differently for Americans than they do for 30-40's era Germans who had an entire different purpose altogether.

 

Look at Jesus Camp.  Those documentarians had a propagandic reason to make the film. The film's subjects, also had a propagandic reason to be filmed.  Only the two were not the same.  In this case, the propaganda was subjective.

Edited by Nick Alexander

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Nick, I'm taking some time to consider what you have written. But, in the meantime, here's one question to help me while I'm thinking it through. What do you mean by the following?:

 

The question, however, is the term "without being propaganda." Who's to judge that an author's very deliberate subjective voice is propaganda, and what is not? _Casablanca_ has a most incredible message about sacrificing personal inclinations for the cause of the greater good--this, however--bear with me--, would be lost in an alternate universe had the Nazis won World War II.

I don't understand this. An alternative universe? Casablanca having a point of view that is too subjective for the Nazis to understand? The Nazis winning would have changed what exactly?  I'm trying, but this is one point where I can't figure out what you were trying to say.

 

Casablanca was released in 1942, and was a fast shoot.  Inherent to the plot is a clear distinction that the Nazi party (but not all Nazis, certainly not Claude Rains, who has no real allegiance to the party itself) represents the bad guys.  They shot it without knowing the end of the war at hand.  One of the central themes of the story is the importance of self-sacrifice for the greater good.  My example (and it may be a bad example), is that, had the Nazis actually won, this theme might have been lost, over the disapproval of how the Nazi party was conveyed.

 

Could it be possible that, generations later, people can look at movies of wartime enemies and see a deeper themes.  Das Boot and Letters to Imo Jima (the latter unseen by me) come to mind.  But look at how we examine Triumph of the Will.  The themes of the movie resonate far, far differently for Americans than they do for 30-40's era Germans who had an entire different purpose altogether.

 

Look at Jesus Camp.  Those documentarians had a propagandic reason to make the film. The film's subjects, also had a propagandic reason to be filmed.  Only the two were not the same.  In this case, the propaganda was subjective.

 

 

I'm staying way, way out of the objectivity debate this go-round, but let me intrude to plug a book by a professor of mine here at UA: The Good War's Greatest Hits: World War II and American Remembering. I'm reading it right now and Beidler does a good job of laying out the material-historical circumstances under which movies like Casablanca, The Best Years of Our Lives, etc etc etc, were created. Those sorts of details--such as the relentlessly corporate nature of movie-making during the period, its cooperation with the OWI, etc etc etc--would probably have something to do with this whole question.

 

[Casablanca is totally propaganda. Good propaganda, and possibly propaganda for the Right Side of History, but propaganda all the same. It goes beyond even "self-sacrifice for the greater good"--Rick has been determined to stay out of the War, just as much of America had up to the Pearl Harbor attack. The previous election, of course, was fought under the supposition that Roosevelt was determined to get the US into the War, and much of the resistance to FDR was from people like Lindbergh, who thought the Nazis weren't all that bad and that anyway we should stay out of the whole mess {though, of course, Wikipedia tells me that once Pearl Harbor happened Lindbergh was chomping at the bit to get into the war}. Wendell Willkie's platform in running against FDR was based on the perception that the president wanted war. And it was close-ish. On one level, Casablanca is a transparent parable of America--a melting-pot where "everybody goes" (just as Everybody Goes to Rick's)--shaking off its determination to refuse involvement in world affairs and finally coming to the rescue of the plucky freedom fighters in Europe. It's definitely designed for such an end. I simplify a bit, but not too much. {Oh, and I don't think Raines is a Nazi. He's associated with the Vichy government, which were--I think--collaborationist, but not outright Nazi.}]

 

{I should also mention Beneath the American Renaissance again, if only because the whole "is criticism objective?" question ties closely into "is the pop-culture vs. ART divide real?"--and, though Reynolds comes down on the "yes" side, his book does an excellent job of showing how very confused the line between ART and pop culture really is. Also, it's an excellent book and everyone should read it}

Edited by NBooth

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NBooth wrote:

: Oh, and I don't think Raines is a Nazi. He's associated with the Vichy government, which were--I think--collaborationist, but not outright Nazi.

 

Yes, exactly. Doesn't he begin his first scene by welcoming the Nazis to "unoccupied France" or some such thing? And practically the *last* thing he does in the film -- after Rick shoots the Nazi -- is throw a bottle of Vichy water in the trash, which is a highly symbolic gesture within the film.

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Thanks, NBooth for the clarification.  Love the references!

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I'm staying way, way out of the objectivity debate this go-round,  

Not sure why this made my day. But thanks!

 

Joe

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Nick,

So I think there are two possibilities here. The first is that we do not really disagree at all, but in that case we use two entirely different vocabularies. The second possibility is that you disagree either because (a) you have dismissed the broader context of this discussion like Wax has, or because (a) you have considered the broader context and intentionally chosen the position that is contrary to the traditional view of literary criticism.

What is the broader context? The discussion of objective vs. subjective standards in art criticism today involves a fundamental philosophical disagreement between a modern/postmodern viewpoint and a more traditional and classical viewpoint (derived as early as Aristotle’s Poetics in the fourth century B.C.). The former argues that objective standards in criticism are nonexistent, meaningless and/or of no utility - and it encourages “criticism” that is unrestrained by any tradition, discipline or limitation. The latter argues that objective standards are necessary for good criticism, or, indeed, even in order for the phrase “art criticism” to have any meaning at all - and that tradition and restraint are precisely what a critic must appeal to in order to not write nonsense. From the latter traditional view, loss of objective standards in criticism has directly resulted in the uncritical and uninformed mass of commercial and trivial reviews that we see of films and books today.  What we call self-expression or stream of consciousness are not art criticism.

Within this context, we also have the evangelical “Christian” critic, who makes judgments on works of art based on offensive content. To this kind of critic, the question of first importance is indeed how much sin is one willing to tolerate in a film. This is why Wax dismissed Wilkinson’s attempt to speak from a broader view of art criticism. Wax said he wasn’t interested in that because he thought his own question was more important. While I strongly agree with someone like T.S. Eliot’s view of objective standards, I cannot take it in the direction that Wax does (who does not refer to any of Eliot’s famous rules on criticism). The reason is because Wax is not interested in making the kind of informed judgments that the objective art critic strives to make. Paradoxically, he is advocating for a moralistic view of art that is evangelical in nature, despite the fact that American evangelicalism has a really bad track record of refusing to participate in art criticism.
 

The truth is, while there are very good standards for proper criticism in your piece, I find such to be an impossibility. I look at the once-a-decade lists made by Sight and Sound. What is surprising is that the movie that made the top of the 2012 list was a movie that got overwhelmingly negative reviews when it was first released: Hitchcock's "Vertigo." ... We are all subjective beings. We cannot escape our subjective histories, our subjective experiences, our subjective tastes, our subjective educational levels, our subjective geographical upbringings, our subjective faiths/philosophies, and, our souls. To do so is akin to a fish giving a review to a ski resort.

Now, if your main point is that human beings are subjective, that we all have our own personal tastes and experiences, then you are not saying anything that either side disagrees with. It is the defender of objective standards who allows for both. It is the denier of objective standards who insists that there is only the subjective. To argue that our subjectivity makes objectivity “an impossibility” is to sit in a very unique epistemological camp within the history of philosophy (and I would argue that it is the camp of Jean-Jacques Rousseau and later positivists and postmodernists.) The defender of objective standards does not need to prove that we are not subjective beings. Nor does he need to show that bad criticism does not exist. The fact that a contemporary audience (like that for Hitchcock’s Vertigo) is often bad at making judgments of works of its own age is, in fact, an argument for the necessity of something a little more objective than fashionable taste as the basis for making a judgment.
 

If a critic's review demonstrates his educational ignorance on a specific subject matter, then this in itself is worthy of a rebuttal.

If “art criticism” is only subjective, why would educational ignorance even matter?
 

I agree with Paul Elmer More that art shapes how we live; therefore, it is imperative that the art which survives ... must also be fully in sync with that of absolute truth – in whatever form absolute truth takes.

See, this confuses me, because I don’t see it as the sort of sentence that one writes when one is arguing that objective standards in “art criticism” are impossible, which seems to be your argument, correct?
 

But here's the rub: by "subjectivism" I am not endorsing merely "judg(ing) a book on only how it made him feel." I think this is a false argument. There is substance behind one's upbringing, one's beliefs, one's soul. To be able to dig behind the scenes of a character, one whom you express either admiration, aggravation, or apathy (or a mixture of such), you need to express whether such a character is worth studying, emulating, or learning from his/her mistakes.

I can agree with everything in this paragraph because I don’t think it is an argument against the existence of objective standards in criticism. Again, my argument is not that subjective views and tastes do not exist. My argument is that the existence of subjectivity does not make objectivity impossible.
 

One of the central themes of the story is the importance of self-sacrifice for the greater good. My example (and it may be a bad example), is that, had the Nazis actually won, this theme might have been lost, over the disapproval of how the Nazi party was conveyed.

Hmm ... I still don’t get this. You’ve already referenced the fact that you affirm absolutes, at least when it comes to morality. I assume that means that you would affirm that the Nazis would still have been wrong even if they won the war.

But here you seem to be arguing that if the Nazis had won, then Casablanca would not possess the same moral. If the winner always determines morality (if might makes right), then sure. But if the winner can still be morally wrong, and if Casablanca was made by those who were morally right in their being against the Nazis, then how could the Nazis winning have anything to do with the worth, value or message of the film?  ... I suppose it might prove that brain-washed consumers might be hypothetically bad at art criticism.
 

But look at how we examine Triumph of the Will. The themes of the movie resonate far, far differently for Americans than they do for 30-40's era Germans who had an entire different purpose altogether.

It’s not just “us” or Americans today. It’s every human being, including all those in 1935 who were morally sane. Frank Capra condemned it at the time as morally dangerous. Others in Europe viewed it with utter contempt and even mockery. To say that it resonated with those in Germany who were brain-washed is to say nothing interesting. Nor does this fact prove anything about the nonexistence of objective standards.  Assuming the Nazis won, Ingrid Bergman was murdered in a concentration camp, and Humphrey Bogart was killed in the Coast Guard Reserves, all of us were now brain-washed and Leni Riefenstahl was now considered one of the greatest directors of all time, what on earth would that prove regarding the objective worth of either Casablanca or Triumph of the Will as alleged works of art?  Have you ever read C.S. Lewis on "Bulverism"?  A proposition about value is true or false in and of itself, regardless of who the person is who happens to utter it.  The fact that humans have subjective opinions about what is does not, at least not always, determine what is.

There are some other critics and thinkers I am tempted to cite, and there were some debates about this during the Renaissance and Enlightenment that are quite interesting (for instance in Lessing's Laocoon: An Essay on the Limits of Painting and Poetry), but I'll hold off on that for now.  Here's my main thought: I absolutely admit that it is possible to engage in a purely personal sort of "criticism" that ignores history, ignores an art's traditional disciplines and ignores form and restraint on the grounds that there have been some historical instances of unfair and artificial forms and restraints.  This type of "criticism" would end up highly subjective and it would be based on emotional appeal, sensation and the gratification of impulse.  The critic who believes in the value of objective standards does not deny that subjectivity, emotion, sensation and impulse are all parts of humane criticism, but they are not everything.  A work of art is much more complicated than that because of both the objective nature of reality and universals relating to human nature, both of which art mirrors and appeals to.

 

But here comes the irony.  A great deal of thought has already been put into aesthetic standards, discussing whether a work is designed merely to gratify impulse, appetite or the desire for sensation or whether it appeals to higher and more universal parts of the nature that we all share.  But when a Christian dismisses a work of art on the grounds that it has immorality in it, but then also utterly ignores the whole historical discussion of aesthetics and standards in art, then he is going to appear silly and uninformed.  There is actually a legitimate argument, based on a in depth philosophical and theological tradition, that Wax could have made against The Wolf of Wall Street.  But he refuses to make it.  Instead, when Wilkinson brings it up, he casually dismisses it as not being relevant.  Then, he frames the question into "how much sin are we willing to watch?"  But the idea that watching art is watching sin is ... well it's ... it is just so far outside of anything any serious thinker who has invested time, study and thought into art criticism would ever consider that it appears ridiculous.

 

Wax frames his questions wrong.  And it appears that he does so because when "Alissa seeks to frame the discussion within the broader context of movies, art and criticism," Wax does not want to do the same.  I'd argue that ignoring the broader context is unwise, because the broader context is precisely where the standards exist that are most relevant to the entire discussion.

 

(Please keep in mind that I don't mean any of this personally, even against Mr. Wax.  When I word something strongly, it is aimed at the ideas not the person.  There is a modern Christian mindset about art and culture that I very strongly believe to be wrong.  I still appreciate your challenging thoughts and ideas on this subject.  You are forcing me to clarify and reconsider some of my own thoughts.)

 

- Jeremy

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... with Eddie Marsan’s performance, an extraordinary actor who has worked with Martin Scorsese, Steven Spielberg, Mike Leigh, Bryan Singer.

... And Terrence Malick? And Michael Mann? And Edgar Wright? And Richard Linklater? And Alejandro González Iñárritu?

Somehow, Bryan Singer's name doesn't belong in such company.

I mean, if you're going to mention Singer, mention J. J. Abrams too.

Overstreet wrote:

: Somehow, Bryan Singer's name doesn't belong in such company.

Especially when the only film of his Marsan has acted in is Jack the Giant Slayer, easily the most forgettable of Singer's films both critically and commercially (at least since The Usual Suspects put him on the map 19 years ago).

Over the years as I have grown to know Jeffrey’s views and the tone of his comments, I take this comment of his as only half-serious.

Two things:

First, as an illustration, even jokes are judged by objective as well as subjective standards. This is why we will judge jokes as funny or not funny, as in good taste or in poor taste. It is not that there is some absolute and systematic rule by which all jokes are declared either good or bad. But the lacking of a systematic all-encompassing explicit standard does not mean the standard isn’t real. Incongruity, as Jeffrey is pointing to here (and as Peter understands), at times can be, and in this case is, rather funny. The way in which taste in jokes can appeal to something more than the subjective is an illustration of how taste in art can do the same.

Second, these comments of Jeffrey and Peter are also appealing to something that the writer of the review ought to have known. In other words, they are assuming some sort of standard that is not merely personal. The works of directors can be judged and classed by qualitative standards that do not exist in individual personal taste only. In fact, sometimes these standards can be a matter of common sense that almost anyone can see and understand. This does not require one to criticize Bryan Singer. Nor does it forbid one to enjoy his films (I enjoy some of his films). But it appeals to the fact that there are directors who are interested in cinematic craft and substantive ideas in ways in which Singer and others are not. Thus, their films possess an artistic craft and substance that other films do not. The existence of the objective standard here does not forbid the diverse variations of personal taste or preference. Its existence can be held and appealed to, in tandem, with other personal preferences.

The fact that subjectivity exists does not, therefore, make the objective standard impossible.

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