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So what's behind all this to-do about subjective and objective values in art?

Well, some of it is just people who think "objective" is "better" than "subjective," so if they love art they want everything associated with it to be "objective."

Some of it is people taking the word "subjective" in some shallow sense, as if it refers only to the least subtle, most superficial human feelings, while the really deep and powerful feelings are, they seem to believe, "objective."

So let's define the terms in simple, straightforward language. (There'll be time for poetry later.)

"Objective" describes facts that are independent of any particular individual's perspective or feelings. Math (as ordinarily understood) and empirical descriptions of the world (or of "objects" in it) are "objective." Objectivity is the realm of true and false: it is either true or not true that 7 x 4 = 28, and it is either true or not true that this Scotch was aged 21 years.

"Subjective" describes anything that depends on a particular individual's (the "subject") feelings. Note that "feelings" here can range from the simplest emotions (disgust, joy, etc.) to very sensitive awareness of minute differences that most people might not even be aware of.

Let us note that "feeling really powerfully" about something does not render that feeling objective. All the feelings -- powerful, sublime, whatever -- are subjective. It really, really, really, really, really feels right is not the same thing as "it is objectively correct."

Immediately it is apparent that a significant difference between the two kinds of things is how we should treat disagreement. If I don't agree that 7 x 4 = 28, you can tell me that I'm wrong. One of us certainly is! We can discuss it and try to figure out who is right and who is wrong. But if you don't agree that this Scotch is delightful, well, that's, just, like, your opinion, man. We can certainly have a discussion in which I try to help you perceive why I like it and you try to help me perceive why you don't, but neither of us is wrong.

There are some mild complications that anyone can figure out if they care to. For example, if we have forty people who love this Scotch and five who don't, the five aren't wrong simply by being in the minority. (Humans are in the minority of sentient beings, and many of the others eat things that most humans find disgusting. But we're not wrong. We simply have different kinds of minds.)

In fact, generally we enjoy finding people whose subjective experiences align rather closely with ours. Here we all are, for example, supposedly enjoying classical music. We can celebrate our agreement that some work of music is gobsmackingly wonderful in a way that we would probably not celebrate our agreement that 7 x 4 = 28 (were we to happen to agree about that).

Additionally, someone who is familiar with the world of Scotch drinkers might be able to predict whether the majority of them will enjoy a particular drink. In a sense, that prediction is an objective thing: we could measure how correct it is. But obviously this does not render the enjoyment of a drink of Scotch objectively right or wrong.

Well, I'm tired now and looking to take a break. Maybe this is a good place to stop for now, just in case I've accidentally created confusion. Later, I'll tell a story about how people with a certain amount of power and privilege have used assertions that their taste in art is actually "objective" to justify their power and privilege. That'll be fun, I hope.
 

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Ah, the first thing for a while I’ve read on this forum that made me smile.
 
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So what's behind all this to-do about subjective and objective values in art? ...
I agree with everything you stated in this post. I have a few questions.

Do you think there are people on TC who disagree with your post? Specifically, do you believe anyone on TC actually believes that greatness in music is objective in the way that math is objective?

You mention how you could explain why you like a particular scotch. I believe those who are pushing back against the "subjectivists" are basically saying they feel there exist arguments based on features of music that those who study music can mostly agree upon. The 40 who love the scotch could point to the same features of the scotch and describe what they find superior about those features. Yes, it's clearly still a subjective opinion, but that opinion could be based on shared perspectives developed over years of study, discussion, evaluation, etc.. Their assessment is just as subjective as one person's favorite color, but that assessment is determined in a distinctly different manner than the favorite color. Do you agree that TC members pushing back against "subjectivists" are essentially making that argument?
 

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I agree with everything you stated in this post. I have a few questions.

Specifically, do you believe anyone on TC actually believes that greatness in music is objective in the way that math is objective?
Come on man, of course there are. Some of them are on my ignore list.

I have mentioned this before. The members who are trying to prove one can objectively determine whether or not a work is great are the same people who are trying to prove contemporary music is inferior to older music.
 

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Come on man, of course there are.
I'm not convinced there are. I believe they are saying works are objectively superior but meaning works can be demonstrated as superior by certain mostly shared musical beliefs.

I have mentioned this before. The members who are trying to prove one can objectively determine whether or not a work is great are the same people who are trying to prove contemporary music is inferior to older music.
I do think there is a correlation between those who argue objective greatness and those who dislike contemporary music, but I don't think the sets are identical.
 

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Do you think there are people on TC who disagree with your post? Specifically, do you believe anyone on TC actually believes that greatness in music is objective in the way that math is objective?
I don't think there are such people. There's always oversimplification of other people's ideas in order to refute them more easily. That way we don't have to look too closely at the merits of our own beliefs.
 

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Come on man, of course there are. Some of them are on my ignore list.

I have mentioned this before. The members who are trying to prove one can objectively determine whether or not a work is great are the same people who are trying to prove contemporary music is inferior to older music.
I prefer older music and hate most contemporary 'classical' music. But I still think that preference is not objective.

Nor is it subjective. Intersubjective, I would say. My preference agrees with the preferences of most classical fans.
 

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Later, I'll tell a story about how people with a certain amount of power and privilege have used assertions that their taste in art is actually "objective" to justify their power and privilege. That'll be fun, I hope.
Well, I'm looking forward to it anyway!

As I remarked on one of the now-closed threads, "Things were so much easier when culture was transmitted top-down from a small group at the top of the pyramid. When you were given art, you took it and liked it."
 

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I agree with everything you stated in this post. I have a few questions.

Do you think there are people on TC who disagree with your post? Specifically, do you believe anyone on TC actually believes that greatness in music is objective in the way that math is objective?

You mention how you could explain why you like a particular scotch. I believe those who are pushing back against the "subjectivists" are basically saying they feel there exist arguments based on features of music that those who study music can mostly agree upon. The 40 who love the scotch could point to the same features of the scotch and describe what they find superior about those features. Yes, it's clearly still a subjective opinion, but that opinion could be based on shared perspectives developed over years of study, discussion, evaluation, etc.. Their assessment is just as subjective as one person's favorite color, but that assessment is determined in a distinctly different manner than the favorite color. Do you agree that TC members pushing back against "subjectivists" are essentially making that argument?
We need to honest. Mathematicians, the most learned of professions, work with mathematical conjectures all the time. A mathematical conjecture is a conclusion or a proposition which is suspected to be true due to preliminary supporting evidence, but for which no proof or disproof has yet been found. Art too, is complex like mathematics. Art too, requires rigorous standards to which there can be great theorems (compositions) of much use to explore and further develop the art (like in mathematics). Mathematics has its own theorems that are purely for its own sake and to date that have little use in applied work (i.e. nothing of significance).

I am not a mathematician but a family member is studying to be one. I spoke with her about objective proof and the reality is, objective proof requires humans to give it meaning at least as much as conjectures.

And least should we try to reduce the complexities of objective proofs in mathematics and objective criteria in art to statements like 4 x 7 = 28. We can do better than that.
 

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I do think there is a correlation between those who argue objective greatness and those who dislike contemporary music, but I don't think the sets are identical.
I do think there is correlation between those who argue subjectivity and those who like avant-garde music, and I do think the sets are identical*.

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*It has been the idiom of postmodernism since the 1950's.
 

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We need to honest. Mathematicians, the most learned of professions, work with mathematical conjectures all the time. A mathematical conjecture is a conclusion or a proposition which is suspected to be true due to preliminary supporting evidence, but for which no proof or disproof has yet been found. Art too, is complex like mathematics. Art too, requires rigorous standards to which there can be great theorems (compositions) of much use to explore and further develop the art (like in mathematics). Mathematics has its own theorems that are purely for its own sake and to date that have little use in applied work (i.e. nothing of significance).
I will be honest. I am not a mathematician, but I am a physicist who has studied much math. There is nothing in art that is remotely like a theorem.

I am not a mathematician but a family member is studying to be one. I spoke with her about objective proof and the reality is, objective proof requires humans to give it meaning at least as much as conjectures.
There is no difference between objective proof and proof. Proofs can be true, false, or undecided. There is no such thing as false or undecided art. I would say there is no such thing as true art, but some here might argue that notion. There is nothing in art that is remotely similar to proofs.

And least should we try to reduce the complexities of objective proofs in mathematics and objective criteria in art to statements like 4 x 7 = 28. We can do better than that.
I honestly have no idea what you mean by these statements.
 

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I do think there is correlation between those who argue subjectivity and those who like avant-garde music, and I do think the sets are identical*.

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*It has been the idiom of postmodernism since the 1950's.
I don't know if the set of those who believe greatness in art is subjective is identical to the set of people who like avant-garde music. Since the two have little to do with each other, I would not be at all surprised if the sets are significantly different.
 

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I will be honest. I am not a mathematician, but I am a physicist who has studied much math. There is nothing in art that is remotely like a theorem.
Of course not. I was drawing an analogy.

There is no difference between objective proof and proof. Proofs can be true, false, or undecided. There is no such thing as false or undecided art. I would say there is no such thing as true art, but some here might argue that notion. There is nothing in art that is remotely similar to proofs.
Of course not. I was stating that mathematical proofs are objective, as a manner of speaking.

As a physicist you might agree, even with many laws of physics are true under certain conditions and assumptions.
 

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"Objective" describes facts that are independent of any particular individual's perspective or feelings.
not necessarily, for 'objective' means also 'goal' or 'aim' so the feelings might be that we choose to move on and use the best achievements like classical music to reach perfection, rather than go backwards to ethnic noise of mass culture to degenerate completely.
 

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Discussion Starter · #17 ·
not necessarily, for 'objective' means also 'goal' or 'aim' so the feelings might be that we choose to move on and use the best achievements like classical music to reach perfection, rather than go backwards to ethnic noise of mass culture to degenerate completely.
That meaning of the word is basically unrelated to the topic here.

But what is relevant is this dichotomy you've created between "classical music" and "ethnic noise of mass culture."

That is a perfect example of how these old ideas are tied to Social Darwinism. I'm using this term in a really broad sense to include any ideology that basically says "the people on top are on top because they are inherently superior to the people on bottom." Strictly speaking, Social Darwinism is something more specific than that, but the last time these ideas really had any power they took the form of Social Darwinism, and that is them form in which they've been passed down to us.

So if that's what people think, fine, but is there any evidence?

The classic form of evidence has been wealth. If you're rich, the thinking goes, you must be superior, you must deserve your power and privileges.

That would seem okay but in the nineteenth century much of the old aristocracy saw their wealth largely bypassed by a new class of people: the bourgeois. The capitalists who owned the banks and factories and so on. So, fine, they said (among other things), these new rich sure are rich, but we aristocrats still deserve our privilege because unlike them, we have good taste, while those bourgeois people are philistines who don't understand the value of anything but money.

Finding themselves the scorned, the bourgeois set out to demonstrate that they too had good taste.

Notice that everyone in the story so far was implicitly assuming that taste was objective. They kind of had to, because -- let's notice Zhdanov's carefully chosen word "ethnic" -- they used the same value system to justify their exploitation of "savages" in other societies. In late 18th-century India, no one but the British colonists had the "good taste" to appreciate Handel! Clearly (they concluded) the "ethnic" people of India needed to be ruled by them. This line of thought (and many others like it) went more or less unquestioned basically because the East India Company -- those bourgeois philistines and their aristocratic allies -- stood to make a lot of money (as well as other forms of status and the accompanying rewards).

In the late-19th century, when the colonial project was really going strong, democratic ideologies began to undermine the whole thing. That was the time of "mass culture" when very slowly more and more ordinary working-class people decided that they didn't care what "their betters" thought of their taste. But the undermining was a very slow project, and really didn't achieve critical mass until about the 1950s.

One of the finest examples of what took place then is Chuck Berry's song "Roll over Beethoven." Its defiant message is that he and his listeners don't care what the old elite classes think about music. They're independent now, they'll like what they like without feeling any shame about it.

Not coincidentally, the 1950s is also when the colonial projects were rapidly collapsing all over the globe. It turns out that once people have machine guns, they can like any kind of music that they want to like, and they don't care what rich Europeans think is "objectively correct."

Back home, what happened? Why, almost everyone was watching television and listening to pop music and reading genre fiction and putting plastic pink flamingos in their yards. The people who'd invested so much effort in learning what they were supposed to think about art, classical music, and literature, why, they were horrified! Of course they went on thinking of themselves as inherently superior to all those "masses" with horrible taste, but the masses basically shrugged them off because, well, that was just, like, their opinion, man.

This increasingly small elite found themselves attacked on another front too. The competitive appreciation battles set off in the nineteenth century as the bourgeois tried to prove that their taste was as refined as the old aristocracy, well, that got out of everyone's control, as the artists produced works which fewer and fewer people could "appreciate." Imagine working so hard to establish yourself as an authentic lover of common practice period art music only to find that now you had to learn to appreciate all this new music that sounds almost nothing like grandma's music!

The taste-elite found themselves assaulted on both sides, which is basically where they find themselves today, though it's impressive that they find themselves at all because they've become so rare in the real world that you can hardly find them at all. Nearly everyone accepts the idea that people like different things, and people think different things are aesthetically good, because people just have different feelings and values.

Still, they hang on in a few places, insisting on their superiority by virtue of their fine taste, insisting that their taste is not merely subjective but actually objective and objectively superior to people who do not perceive art as well as they do. They really can no longer aspire to much political or social power from that, though, since most people don't care and political power now depends basically on money alone.

In a sense, it's a classic religion. They profess allegiance to an impossible-to-verify entity (in this case, the objective aesthetic values), and everyone's status is supposed to be set in terms of their relationship to that entity. The truest believers are supposed to have the most power and highest status, and you gain status by demonstrating the intensity of your belief. When you're in power, you can force everyone to (pretend to) play the game, but when you're not in power, other people look on and say, well, I guess that's like their thing or something.
 

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The classic form of evidence has been wealth. If you're rich, the thinking goes, you must be superior, you must deserve your power and privileges.
think about the future, privileges or not, even though access to classical is a priviledge the rich had to share with lower classes in the end... and the rich back then did know the best from the worst, unlike these days.

Chuck Berry's song "Roll over Beethoven." Its defiant message is that he and his listeners don't care what the old elite classes think about music.
been there done that... an old elite subverted by a new one... this time, the Christian elite is deposed by the Satanist one, hence 'roll over everyone worthy' etc.
 

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Back home, what happened? Why, almost everyone was watching television and listening to pop music and reading genre fiction and putting plastic pink flamingos in their yards. The people who'd invested so much effort in learning what they were supposed to think about art, classical music, and literature, why, they were horrified! Of course they went on thinking of themselves as inherently superior to all those "masses" with horrible taste, but the masses basically shrugged them off because, well, that was just, like, their opinion, man.
It's naive to think that modern pop-culture is just the unbridled expression of the free and democratic will of the people as oppose to the old culture which was imposed top-down. No, modern pop-music just has a different set of curators and I think it has less to do with "what the people REALLY want" than you would think. The fact that the justification is not "objective art standards" is more of an implementation detail.

I don't think Pink Flamingos are the truest expression of the working man (hyperbole). I think someone put a lot into marketing it and it happened to catch on as would many other things. To pose it as some kind of rebellion when it's really just buying a decoration from some company is a bit comical.
 

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Discussion Starter · #20 · (Edited)
It's naive to think that modern pop-culture is just the unbridled expression of the free and democratic will of the people as oppose to the old culture which was imposed top-down. No, modern pop-music just has a different set of curators and I think it has less to do with "what the people REALLY want" than you would think. The fact that the justification is not "objective art standards" is more of an implementation detail.

I don't think Pink Flamingos are the truest expression of the working man (hyperbole). I think someone put a lot into marketing it and it happened to catch on as would many other things. To pose it as some kind of rebellion when it's really just buying a decoration from some company is a bit comical.
These are actually very good points.

A lot of mass culture is not so much a rebellion as a complete disregarding of the traditional authorities, who simply no longer have any power. On the other hand, rebellion has in fact been commodified, so it's always present. The point about pink flamingoes is that people put them in their yards not even caring that "their betters" might - and in fact did - look down on them for it.

"What the people really want" is not really a thing until they are given the opportunity to choose. For the most part, cultural producers are desperate to figure out "what the people really want" in order to make profit from it. In some cases there are a small number of "curators" who can limit that, but in other cases (and increasingly over the past few decades, as producing content has become easier) it's basically a free-for-all.

But the basic story about how the idea of "objective tastes" has been (and in some places still is) used to buttress a Social Darwinistic view of society isn't really affected by these issues.
 
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