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I know this question possibly have been asked multiple times am really sorry, but this maybe is a little different.

Art as we know is a simple one way humans express themselves. Using imagination and a variety of skills and passions to try to make an impression on others.

The whole point is that it's different for every person. It's even different for the same person if they experience it at different times in their lives.The individuals perspective is a part of the evaluation of the art and is by definition subjective to them.

But if we applied this subjectivity isn't it fallacious for some to say "X is better than Y because I like X more"? I've saw a video saying that this kind of statement can be considered a "circular argument" because the individual comes back to his argument beginning without proving anything.

So my two questions would be: 1-How can one avoid this "come back to the argument beginning without proving anything"

2-in terms of objectivity and subjectivity in art...is it about of turning the subjective preference into an external object, or is it about someone reasoning rationally?.

8 Answers 8

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Generally when people speaking plainly to share their true opinions(1) say that some piece of art is of high quality, the meaning is that...

  • it is the sort of thing that people generally like

  • it evinces a high level of technical proficiency on the part of the artist

  • it evinces inventiveness or novelty on the part of the artist

These are in principle measurable.

  • Poll people. Do most in fact report that they like it?

  • Conduct an experiment. How many of a large random sample of people can produce something similar that is not a direct copy (according to another sample of people)?

  • Was there anything like this made before? Given the available historical evidence, is it likely that the artist referred to it when making the art?

Hence the following sentences are of the sort that one would not be surprised to hear them:

"I don't like this painting, but I can tell that it is of high quality."

"This art is terrible. The artist is technically proficient and inventive, but he only draws spiders eating kittens."

"This art is terrible. It looks like something a messy toddler would make if you left her alone with some craft paint."

"This art is good, but the artist is still too derivative of Raphael. When she finds her own style, then her art will be great."

But the following sentence would be so odd you might think there was something wrong with the speaker:

"Anybody could have done this, the artist had no skill or originality to speak of, and virtually nobody will like this art, but I think it is of high quality because it gives me and me alone a pleasant feeling."


  1. ...as opposed to trying to impress their friends by saying what the right sort of person is supposed to say about the right sort of art.
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    I'm sure I've heard someone say "I know this isn't particularly original, but it really moved me".
    – Stef
    Jan 23 at 10:31
  • I dunno, some of the people I respect most highly are the kind who would say "everybody else is wrong, this is the good stuff". That last sentence doesn't strike me as evidence of something wrong, rather as evidence that the person knows themselves more deeply than most do and is willing to embrace and encourage their own unorthodox taste. Jan 23 at 19:38
  • @DanielWagner: No. It just means the person is so self-centred that he/she believes to be the sole person to appreciate the art. And people worth respecting are able to explain why something is good despite all the naysayers.
    – user21820
    Jan 24 at 7:55
  • Regarding the last two sentences preceding the footnote, I have actually thought that very thing about many pieces of modern art. (minus the "high quality" assessment...) It takes no real talent to splash colors onto a canvas that may be visually appealing to certain people. Feb 16 at 0:18
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To say that painting A is better than painting B because you like painting A more than painting B is indeed tautological. You can avoid the tautology by realising it and taking steps not to utter it. In future, just say I like painting A more than painting B.

As to your final sentence, it is possible to adopt both approaches you mention. As GS does in his excellent answer, you can perform objective tests concerning the subjective or physiological responses samples of people display in relation to a piece of art. You can also attempt to analyse your own response to art, to identify different objective characteristics of different artworks and see if they correlate in any way with your subjective responses to them. I found myself doing exactly that with novels. I developed a set of objective characteristics by means of which individual novels could be given a numeric profile containing a score for each of the characteristics. I was then able to spot commonalities between the profiles of the novels which correlated with whether I liked or disliked them.

What you cannot do is to say that one novel or painting is better than another in an absolute sense, since ultimately it is a matter of personal taste. Statements such as '99% of people preferred painting A to painting B' are indicators of popularity, but popular is not an exact synonym of good.

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  • Is it possible to find your novel evaluation framework somewhere?
    – Stef
    Jan 23 at 10:32
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    @stef it is very much a work in early progress, but feel free to do what you like with it. See www.quils.org Separately, I owe you a book! Jan 23 at 14:49
  • I have entered my email in the subscription box on your website. Maybe an ebook is easier than a paper book?
    – Stef
    Jan 26 at 12:12
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You can objectively measure how an art piece performs on a particular metric, but you must then make a subjective value judgment about how that metric translates to "better" or "worse".

Whether a movie passes the Bechdel test is objectively measurable, but it's up to each individual to judge the worth of that test's outcome. Does a failure make the movie worse?

Will everyone answer that last question the same way? It sure makes everyday conversation flow smoother to assume so, and we all do that regularly when talking about "better" and "worse". If that naive assumption holds true, then sure, you have a reasonably objective definition of "better".

But of course this conversational shortcut doesn't hold up under scrutiny. We don't all agree on value judgments, so the practical reality is that "better" will always involve subjectivity.

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Hume's approach indicates that there is a "middle way" between obectivity and subjectivity" as they are conventionally (and crudely) defined. See SEP - Hume's Aesthetics

Especially:-

Emphasizing Hume’s debt to Hutcheson, Kivy (2003, pp. 307–310), argues that Hume understands beauty very much on the model of colors. Although they are secondary qualities and so do not directly reveal the properties of the occasioning object, some color perception is “true and real” (SOT, 272), and so it is for Hume likewise with beauty.

Of course there are objections to this idea, though mainly against their application to ethics:-

However, some of Hume’s critics see a fundamental contradiction between his subjectivism and his distinction between better and worse critics or the possession of better and worse taste. The criticism is most often formulated against Hume’s parallel discussion of ethical evaluation. A particularly forceful statement of the objection is provided by Philippa Foot (1966). Hume was acutely aware of the general problem and it is the starting point of the essay “Of the Standard of Taste.” (See Section 4 below.)

Perhaps Hume's application of his idea to ethics is not acceptable - and certainly, the idea that ethics is a matter of taste is inadequate. But that doesn't mean it is not helpful in its application to aesthetics.

PS The citation in the last quotation is:- Foot, Philippa, 1966. “Hume on Moral Judgment,” in David F. Pears (ed.), David Hume: A Symposium, London: Macmillan, 67–76.

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Paul Graham's essay Taste for Makers argues taste in design is not entirely subjective:

Saying that taste is just personal preference is a good way to prevent disputes. The trouble is, it's not true. You feel this when you start to design things.

Whatever job people do, they naturally want to do better. Football players like to win games. CEOs like to increase earnings. It's a matter of pride, and a real pleasure, to get better at your job. But if your job is to design things, and there is no such thing as beauty, then there is no way to get better at your job. If taste is just personal preference, then everyone's is already perfect: you like whatever you like, and that's it.

As in any job, as you continue to design things, you'll get better at it. Your tastes will change. And, like anyone who gets better at their job, you'll know you're getting better. If so, your old tastes were not merely different, but worse. Poof goes the axiom that taste can't be wrong.

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It's a question of clarity about what's being measured. Unless we're talking about moral philosophy (and maybe even then), "good" and "bad" must be defined by other measurable qualities; they aren't measurable in themselves. To call a piece of art "better" than another is to say nothing unless you define the criteria.

Some criteria are objective and some are subjective. Typically, technical aspects are considered more objective. For example, in visual art, you can certainly measure (with a ruler!) whether the perspective is accurate. In poetry, you can measure whether the rhyme and rhythm follow a consistent pattern. In musical performance, you can count beats in a measure and find out whether the timing is off. In composition, you can measure whether a piece respects the principles of functional harmony.

However, not everyone rates art on technical aspects, and probably very few people rate art on technical aspects alone. One gets into semi-objective criteria, which can be measured with varying degrees of meaning:

  • Is it original? (e.g. has the subject been treated before, is it a new pairing of a given subject and style)
  • Is it significant? (e.g. is the subject trivial and mundane, has something practicable been said about it)
  • Is it relevant? (e.g. does the subject have any overlap with the likely audience's experience?)
  • Did the author achieve what they intended, or did they miss the mark, regardless of the merit of what they actually produced?
  • How much effort and time went into it? How hard-won was it? (One might argue that Werner Herzog's Fitzcarraldo, for instance, is better respected because of what Burden of Dreams revealed about its making.)

Again, these are only semi-objective: there may be broad agreement about what's significant or not, but not universal, and not unchanging. For a long time only the lives of epic heroes were considered significant, but in our time an ordinary person's experience of unrequited love might mean more to an audience than a king's warmongering. (Aristotle suggested that many people must be affected by the events of a good tragedy.)

Then there are the entirely subjective criteria, such as one's personal relationship with the artist or the emotional effect produced in you when you take in the work. These can be rendered semi-objective only through statistics — "most people feel sad when they hear this". (Whether that's a good or bad thing is itself a subjective decision.) Perhaps these could be rendered more objective if we succeed in creating explanations of how particular factors produce particular effects that aren't ad hoc. This was the project of some medieval and Renaissance writers, such as Erasmus in his work on rhetoric. But I don't think there's too much use in doing this; no matter how compelling the explanation, it never strikes one as the real mechanism by which the effect is produced, nor as capturing the nature of the emotion.

(To give a sense of the problem of explaining effects, suppose you come across the hendiadys "life is ... full of sound and fury" in Macbeth, and identify that this is a figure of speech for the more logical "furious sound". Supposing you accept this identification, what effect do you say this produces? Does coordination seem to double the number of elements and thus cause us to receive double the effect? Do unmodified nouns, being syntactically simpler, strike the mental nerve a little harder? You see why I call this sort of thing ad hoc.)

In reality, of course, we all use a mix of these criteria, all of us using different mixes, and each of us using a different mix for different works at different times and in different moods. Disagreements about the quality of art come from the use of different criteria and weights, as well as from differences in ability to evaluate the technical criteria.

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Maybe I'm not getting the question completely, but the answer seems straightforward to me:

isn't it fallacious for some to say "X is better than Y because I like X more"

Yes, this is fallacious. Everybody is 100% entitled to say "I like X more than Y". That is a statement that is not attackable. No statement about our internal state of mind can be attacked in any way. Even if someone thinks the statement is a lie, there is no way for them to prove it. The objective, physical representation of "I like ..." (i.e., an emotion about two objects) lies within our brain matter, and so far we have no way whatsoever to read that, except by the individuum making statements.

By the very same token, whether an individual likes or dislikes something has absolutely no impact on reality. If one person likes something, or a billion persons, makes no difference whatsoever to the objective value of a thing, generally speaking, although there might be correlation or mild causation of course.

As an example: for the sake of argument, let's assume that there is some dish which is weird and rare, and is unknown to many people (say snails, raw insects, Surströmming, whatever). Do a tasting where a person gets an absolutely delicious but cheap dish (say, chocolate ice cream with strawberries) on the one hand, and said weird dish in the other. You can readily expect that 99% of all judges would rate the ice cream much higher than said other dish.

At the same time, you have a select minority of people who - say - through knowledge of the cultural history and importance of the "bad" dish, compared with its rarity, indeed do value it higher than the ice cream! In fact, since the ice cream is ubiquitous and cheap, it is worth little to them. And even if the other dish is indeed an acquired taste, the person might pay tenfold for the specialty, or cherish the day when they got a chance to taste it (even if at no cost).

To cut to the chase: for the sentence "X is better than Y" to make sense, you need some kind of metric. You absolutely can come up with all kinds of metrics, but unless you are in fact interested the metric of "how many people say they like X vs Y" (which would make perfect sense - we do it all the time, in marketing, democracy etc.), "liking" in the form of an individual opinion is utterly inconsequential for "worth relationships".

To answer the question from the title:

Can art be rated objectively

Yes, of course, simply by defining what you mean by "rating". A trivial rating would be "how much does it cost" and just define that the cost of a piece of art is its worth. This immediately and trivially makes all art pieces comparable. Whether you like this kind of rating is secondary. You can come up with others - for example you could decide to measure how difficult a piece of art is to make, or any other objective measurement.

(N.B. obviously using the price as a measure for the value of art is just an exaggerated example here. There are plenty of works of art that fetch millions in auctions which I would never hang up in my home even if someone gave it to me as a gift, because I just don't like them!)

1-How can one avoid this "come back to the argument beginning without proving anything"

Simply force people to make clear whether they mean "X is good" or "I like X". Everybody is entitled to the latter statement. The first one requires a definition of what "good" means. In practice, in my experience, in 99% of cases where people say "X is good", they actually mean "I like X".

Me: "X is good" You: "X is bad" -> This is a common cause for strife.

Me: "I like X" You: "I like Y" -> This is just an enjoyable chat about personal preferences.

To avoid issues, whenever you actually mean that you like X ore than Y, say so. Avoid objective statements where there is not a clear metric.

2-in terms of objectivity and subjectivity in art

The same: objective descriptions need a formal, measurable, neutral definition. Subjectivity is free-for-all, in a sense the total opposite to the previous.

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  • "If one person likes something, or a billion persons, makes no difference whatsoever to the objective value of a thing, generally speaking, although there might be correlation or mild causation of course." - perhaps value is an even more nebulous concept than quality, but whatever exactly it means, surely having a positive impact on many people's lives is a quintessential example of it? Jan 24 at 7:24
  • @RobinSaunders, if one wants to use the metric "has impact on many people", yes. But nobody says that this must in general be the case. I think we all know plenty of very "special" art where this aspect is not the most primary one. That's the point of my answer (there is no universal value, but there can absolutely be "local" values).
    – AnoE
    Jan 24 at 9:55
  • I guess what I'm getting at is that there can be a middle ground between "entirely objective" and "entirely subjective (and by implication, arbitrary)". There are reasons for preferring certain measures of value over certain others which go beyond the purely personal, even if those reasons are themselves somewhat nebulous and cannot be made absolutely objective. Jan 25 at 13:59
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1.Is it intentional? An accident, no matter it's beauty, cannot be considered an artistic product, though it has no bearing on whether it is beautiful, valued, etc. 2. Is it original? Not quite as straightforward as 1 - architecture, pottery and many other art forms are not wholly original insofar as they may be duplicates (prints or copies) of an original, but one can argue here that the art object is the collection and not the single - as would be case for ceramics or etchings and similar. The originality of the object will be closely tied to 3 3. Does it bring about or contribute to a cognitive shift - is there something new in the expressed intent (which brings us around to 1). Art does not need to be beautiful or liked (Viennese Actionism) or even show any technical skill or knowledge of theory (Art Brut, naive art, folk art), but the artist must intend to express something and successfully execute that insofar as the thing is expressed and is not simply a copy of another's expression. Of course this is just one view - other views are available!

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