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six hypothetical listeners

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Here I discuss six hypothetical individuals and their reactions to a work of art.

First is Sophie Laud. She is a highly educated individual, familiar with the elements and structures of the work, the techniques used in its composition, with the works to which it alludes and responds, with the social and political context of the work, and with the histories of all these things. She has gone over the work several times (if it's a work of music, she listens to it several times, studying the score carefully and comparing different careful interpretations by insightful and talented performers) with careful attention, discovering as much as she can. She has discussed it with other knowledgeable people. Now she enthusiastically praises this work as a great work. She understands this work objectively and, no doubt in part because of her insight, appreciates it subjectively.

Second is her brother, Imo Laud. He doesn't give a darn about any of that intellectual stuff, he just loves the work. It makes him feel good. There are so many beautiful things about it that excite him tremendously. No doubt he pays attention to it carefully, but he has no interest in any intellectual analysis or any other sort of study. He genuinely appreciates it subjectively without having much objective understanding.

Third is their cousin, Concur Laud. She agrees with Sophie and Imo because she respects their knowledge and taste. She always tries to have the opinions she's supposed to have; of course that means she tries to allow herself exactly the amount of individuality that a person of good taste is supposed to have, but no more than that. She has little objective understanding and someday we can debate the status of her subjective response to the work, but we can be sure that she usually can achieve - perhaps after some work on her part to adjust her sensitivities to the work, or perhaps simply after enough desensitizing experience of it - more-or-less the experience she believes she is supposed to achieve.

Now we meet another family, this one led by the redoubtable Gus Tibus, Sophie Laud's lover, best friend, and soulmate. Gus shares all of Sophie's knowledge and they have many interesting conversations about art. In the case of this work, although he understands why she likes it so much, and he knows the same information about it that she does, he just doesn't like it very much. In the same way, Sophie perfectly understands Gus's reasons for not liking it, but naturally she stands by her own opinion. After hours of happily exploring this work, minutely discussing its details and appreciating each other's intelligence and insight, well, they happily discover that once again their clothes have essentially fallen off and they fall to--well, that's beyond the scope of this discussion. We shall mind our own business, only noticing that he shares Sophie's objective knowledge but has a different subjective response.

Gus's sister Emo Tibus gives no more darns than Imo about any of that intellectual stuff. She scorns it as he does. But unlike Imo, she hates this work of art because it doesn't make her feel good. Emo and Imo have very little to say to each other about this work except how wrong the other is in a fundamental way, each attributing their different reactions simply to his or her own personal virtue and to the other's deeply flawed character. As you can imagine, they spend most of their time silently hating or furiously screaming at each other... though they do get along occasionally as they celebrate their superiority to their siblings who so foolishly "over-intellectualize" art, which is to them a realm of pure spirit and emotion in which the dispassionate intellect can only ever be a stranger. They can discuss this hour after hour, turning the question over in many ways and warmly agreeing the whole time, without experiencing any sense of irony. But should the conversation turn to this particular work of art, stand back! As you can imagine, whenever Imo and Emo show up, Sophie and Gus eventually leave. Emo, to be clear, has as little objective knowledge of the work as Imo, and his subjective response to the work is as genuinely, deeply, passionately felt.

Gus and Emo also have a cousin, Concede Tibus, whose tastes work exactly like Concur's except that, alas, Concede follows his own family's example! He and Concur have absolutely nothing to say to each other; as far back as anyone can remember, they have both been in and out of prison for repeatedly assaulting each other; they both have multiple restraining orders against each other which they both violate. To be fair, they do occasionally get along swimmingly -- just as long it is clear who they're supposed to agree with and what they're supposed to think; sadly, that doesn't happen often enough. Even Imo and Emo leave when these guys come around!

To be clear, dear readers, no matter with whom in this parable you may identify, I obviously aspire to be like Sophie and Gus, though I wish to make it clear that I see nothing wrong with Imo, Emo, Concur, or Concede - as long as for God's own ever-loving sake they would get along with each other peacefully. I would also like to live in a world where every girl who wants a pony gets one. Or just a world where a decent video recording of Taneyev's Oresteia existed. Or even merely Enescu's Oedipe. Alas, alack, oh dear, sigh, no one cares which operas I think should be recorded, nor do most pony-wanting girls get their pretty beast of burden, and Imo, Emo, Concur, and Concede of our world will go on making life miserable for Sophie and Gus until the human species accidentally or intentionally destroys itself with fire or ice.
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Updated Jul-04-2018 at 13:41 by science



  1. science's Avatar
    Just saving something:

    Quote Originally Posted by science View Post
    Given that people -- even the most knowledgeable people who share basically the same culture and have deep expertise -- disagree about art, what exactly does this mean? I can imagine two models:

    In the objectivist model, the art has certain qualities which every sentient being ought to respond to in exactly the same way. It's just an objective truth that X is beautiful, Y is not, and that Z is more beautiful than X. Everyone capable of verifying it will reach the same conclusion, the way that everyone capable of any given empirical or mathematical claim will reach the same conclusion. Only one conclusion is possible because we are dealing with objective facts, and to reach the wrong conclusion is to be in error, possibly to be a dunce.

    In the subjectivist model, sure, work X has some objective (you can say "inherent") qualities, as does work Y and work Z, but subjects A and B and C might have legitimately different responses to those qualities.

    The subjectivist model doesn't mean that every response is equally legitimate, since subject D might not even be aware of some of the qualities of work X. But the difference between the two models is that objectivist one claims that all subjects aware of the qualities in the art ought to have the same response, while the subjectivist model says that their responses can legitimately differ.

    After all, the subjectivist must point out, it's probably impossible and certainly rare to find two people who are highly knowledgeable about a field of art and have exactly the same opinions about how good each work in it is and why. When they find that they disagree, how do they establish who is correct? In mathematical questions, they can check each other's proofs; in empirical questions, they can check each other's instruments and data, but what do they check in aesthetic questions? Is there a supreme soul with the perfect answers to which the rest of us ought aspire? Or is human nature legitimately variable from person to person?