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Objectivity and the artifice

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I am well aware this is a topic touched upon quite frequently, and for that I apologize, but I feel as though I must expand the pool of opinion. 

have had this stewing for a while, as a disclaimer.  

Essentially it boils down to my sneaking suspicions that criticism of most forms of media is being occupied (for lack of a better word) by this invasive attitude of faux objectivity. 

I think it was most evident to me roughly a week ago while discussing a film with a friend, when partway through an individual bluntly inserted himself into the conversation, plighting about how much he hated the item in question, how badly certain decisions affected the quality of the film, and many other diatribes about the composition and characters etc., etc. 

I was not angry that he was trashing the film (that my friend and I both enjoyed), I try not to engage in clearly fruitless arguments as a general practice, so I instead asked him why he thought (x) character was badly written. He thought for a moment and reverted to a lengthy response that essentially said: "Because it is bad."

Not "Because I didn't like it" or "Because it was actively detrimental to the story being told", but "Because it is bad". 


The more I mull it over, the more I become discouraged. I realize I've been hearing that phrase for years, disguised by flowery language and aggregate reviews, and it now frustrates me to no end when someone touts their views like a flag on the moon. 

Has this attitude of mob criticism and treating opinion as fact been around longer than I realize? Isn't art supposed to be subjective, or am I just an idiot? This issue probably has a lot of grey area and I absolutely cannot say that I'm an expert, but I am very willing to be swayed. 

Just tired of negative, scolding criticism in general, I suppose. 

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Hello. First, welcome to the Arts & Faith forum. Not a requirement, but you are welcome to post in the Introductions thread of the About You forum. Some members prefer to lurk for awhile or retain anonymity, but most people who stick around for awhile will usually give an idea of where they are coming form.

Anyway, though...


Has this attitude of mob criticism and treating opinion as fact been around longer than I realize? Isn't art supposed to be subjective, or am I just an idiot? This issue probably has a lot of grey area and I absolutely cannot say that I'm an expert, but I am very willing to be swayed. 

Is art supposed to be subjective? I would say that art is subjective but art criticism or art interpretation should be grounded in some sort of formal or objective observation of the artifact...in something other than the viewer's (or reader's for literature) response. I am a reader-response critic at heart, but I don't believe that means the reader creates meaning ex nihilo, he (or she) is limited by the limits of the text. (See e.g. Wayne Booth's "Pluralism and It's Rivals" in which he argues that there are multiple possible interpretations of most art works but that plausible interpretations aren't infinite.)

When I was in school (HS 81-84, undergrad 84-88), New Criticism was still the standard and it was common for me to be given Wimsatt & Beardsley's "The Intentional Fallacy" as a guiding principle. A work is autonomous and its meaning is not the same as what the author intended. Got it. It was less common for me to be given their companion piece, "The Affective Fallacy." The meaning of a work is something other than how it makes you feel or how it affects you. 

I think at its core, reader-response wants (or wanted) to be democratic, feeling too often that opinions *of those in authority* were treated as facts that did not have to be justified and arguing that the "mob" gets a say too. But as with politics, the mob can become its own justification and feel itself above having to justify its response with formal analysis. More recently in film someone like Matt Seitz (Rogerebert.com) lamented the paucity of *any* formal analysis in film criticism. I agree. Not because personal responses are uninteresting or wrong, but because what makes them interesting is the writer's ability to be reflective about that response and to attempt to understand and communicate how the artifact elicited it.

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  • 2 weeks later...

Objectivity is always subjective, or at least relative. We consider Bach one of the greats now. He wasn't when he was alive. It took Mendelssohn to rediscover Bach. Vermeer was lost to time until centuries later. Was he considered one of the greats in his time? We don't know that much about him, though we keep scouring history to learn. We think he was someone respected enough to be an adjudicator of other art and artists. Will they still be considered some of the greats in the future? Probably, but ultimately it doesn't really matter. I won't be around to care (in 100 years, all new people). It's very interesting to think about the art and artists of the past and present. It is important (I think) to consider what art and artists are important now, in our cultural contexts. And there is always a cultural context.

Personally, I think getting caught up in the demarcation of art being "bad" or "good", objectively or subjectively, is missing the point. Even if there is some objective standard that everyone could possibly agree upon, it seems to me focusing energy on the bad is a wasted effort. There is enough art that I consider good to occupy the rest of my life without ever having to consider the "bad". Declaring something objectively good or bad usually has less to do with whether the art really is good or bad and more about power.

I think Stevie Ray Vaughn is objectively one of the great blues musicians. A friend I respect insists he plays the same lick over and over again. I listen to SRV. He doesn't (unless he is visiting with me, Ha!). Whatever. It isn't an argument worth getting caught up in.



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