I first found Adorno and Horkheimer's critique of pop culture in the Culture Industry very compelling. Their idea that pop culture was factory produced and induced mindless consumerism as opposed to legitimate and challenging art seemed very intuitive. Then I realized that Adorno considered Jazz to be such a form of pop culture, which is very ironic, given that nowadays it is considered a very challenging form of music compared to the likes of Justin Bieber and Taylor Swift.

This had me thinking that maybe the value or validity of a genre or an art form can only be relative. Jazz, or Ingmar Bergman movies seemed cheap and commercial back in the day, but are no longer considered so. Moreover, the standard "commercial" vs "authentic" classification of movies, music, etc,...seems fallacious, since the moment someone produces or performs art in a professional capacity and expects to be payed for their services, that art becomes commercial by definition. If legitimate art is that which is not for profit, then how is one to separate art for the sake of art from high school plays and amateur cover bands?

And yet at the same time it seems to me perfectly objective to say that Rachmaninov is a higher art form than Beyonce, or that Steve McQueen (the director not the actor) films are more authentic than Michael Bay films. Or a more extreme example, no one would ever consider the majority of pornography available on the internet as legitimate or high art in any way.

My question is:

  • Is it ever possible to objectively rank art works and genres by their validity or authenticity?
  • In aesthetics, is there a working definition of "high art" or "fine art" as opposed to "low art" or "commercial art"? Or at least a demarcation problem similar to the one in philosophy of science?
  • Why is it that works and genres seem to acquire authenticity over time? Bram Stoker's Dracula was just fun adventure fiction when it first came out but it is now regarded a literary classic, or look at how the perception of Jazz evolved from Adorno's time to now.
  • Does Adorno or Horkheimer ask this question, and what's his response? Dec 17 '15 at 10:05
  • imdb.com user ratings are extremely accurate for me Dec 17 '15 at 18:38
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    Is it possible that these works contain an objective intrinsic property of value that we, as humans can only perceive in hindsight, relative to other works?
    – Sean Boddy
    Dec 17 '15 at 19:00
  • Of course such a claim can be impartially made, but no, statements of ethics and aesthetics are opinion to be either agreed or disagreed with, not a matter of true or false, only a matter of what is true to you.
    – MmmHmm
    Mar 15 '17 at 18:38

This remains an open question in philosophy. It might be possible to objectively evaluate art, but it's difficult to claim that any given attempt to do so has proven definitive. There are hundreds of different aesthetic theories, and most of them are incompatible with each other to the point of disagreeing even on what counts as art. A random selection of just a few of the most influential includes Aristotle's theory of tragedy as emotional catharsis, Kant's theory of the beautiful as embodying purposiveness without a purpose, and Danto's theory that art is whatever the artworld calls art. Part of the problem is that most art theories don't age well --they don't predict or anticipate future innovations in art, and they often do a poor job judging newer or unfamiliar forms of art (as in your example of Adorno's dismissal of jazz).

Without any agreed-upon standard, we might be left with vague intuitions and/or firm convictions that one piece of art outdoes another, but we can't justify those in any universal sense.

It's worth noting that there are also any number of thinkers who claim that art is purely subjective, or that creating a standard of art is impossible or undesirable. This has proven at least as hard to establish, however, perhaps because of the difficulty of proving a negative. Furthermore, even some ardent proponents of artistic subjectivity have balked at the entailed conclusion that every piece of art is equal (that Bieber is as good as Beethoven, to borrow from your examples).

  • As a side note, working towards an objective standard of art is a personal goal of mine --one that I'm sure you can guess I haven't achieved as of yet! Dec 17 '15 at 14:22
  • Does this mean that the answer to the second part of my second bullet point is yes? Dec 17 '15 at 17:52
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    There's a demarcation problem, not only between high and low art, but also around the boundary of art itself. Philosopher William Kennick even claimed that no possible art theory would make you better able to identify a work of art than your naive intuitions. However all your questions presuppose a consensus around aesthetics that just doesn't exist. Dec 17 '15 at 18:04
  • Is it at least possible to distinguish porn or music and acting performed for advertising purposes from art? Dec 17 '15 at 18:16

There are, as @Chris Sunami has noted, many philosophical and critical forays in this direction. In addition to those mentioned, I might add the various "sociobiological" attempts to ground an aesthetic universal, such as E. O. Wilson's "biophilia." These are perhaps closest to a materialist redescription of Kant. In fact, Kant himself preferred to look at aesthetic judgements in relation to nature rather than art, where the empiricist judgement of "taste" and cultural relativity are difficult to overcome.

Similarly, G.E. Moore attempted a "common sense" argument again with reference to nature. He believed that one can envision two landscapes, one of natural beauty, the other of ruin and trash, and do so in a manner that effectively subtracts the subject through this exercise of pure "disinterested" imagination. A preference for the former remains. I haven't read the argument itself and don't think it is considered very compelling.

In a modern Platonist vein, Christopher Alexander has attempted a project of searching out universal forms of beauty in architecture and landscape, analyzing and classifying the various elements of time, flow, symmetry, and so forth. As with Heidegger, the cumulative effects of time and a certain spatialization of temporality are at work here. One is reminded of Goethe's description of architecture as "frozen music." And perhaps Adorno envisioned jazz as "melted architecture" amid the wartime ruins.

Kant is pivotal, of course, for introducing aesthetics rather than "taste" as a serious topic of transcendental critique. Unlike those mentioned above, Kant would distinguish between a cultural "common sense," which must remain substantiated in experience and a true "universal," which cannot be a generalization of experience. When we make aesthetic judgements it is "as if" we are claiming a "truth" with which others "ought" to concur, though we can discern no universal "rules" as we can in his earlier critiques of science and law.

Since Adorno was a music theorist and composer, it might be interesting to try to grasp his infamous dismissal of jazz. Many people reject Adorno for this notorious gaff, but perhaps we are indeed ideologically deluded. Strangely, many philosophers, such as Hegel and Kant, seemed to have a tin ear for music and rarely granted it the status of visual and "representation" arts. This despite the origins of Platonic forms in the Pythagorean chords. Husserl is one of the few who offers an astute analysis of musical form.

My own somewhat Hegelian sense is that art must continually reintroduce symmetry or "ratios" into an ever advancing complexity. We might best think of art as a kind of quality or "information" that can exist to a greater or lesser degree in any object, even the pop song. The problem, as Adorno would note, is that the commodity form must materialize, divide, and circulate such "objects" according to an entirely alien set of determining values. Commodity systems will always express a version of Gresham's law in which "bad values" drive out "good values." The pastoral landscape will end up a parking lot and the Fifth Symphony will be reissued with a disco beat.

My own view is that beauty is "almost" universal, in that it prevents rapid disintegration. Yet it must rest in communication and thus social consensus. If it rests in social consensus, why isn't Beyonce as good as Bach? Because the consensus is not stationary in time, it is also an evolving consensus over time, one that must re-member itself. Over time a certain miraculous simplicity of form is revealed, and here I think Adorno's horror of the commodity may be an overreaction. My own favorite example of a nearly universal object of beauty is the old folk tune "Greensleeves," which was little more than a pop song in its day, yet remains so deeply memorable as to be a fragment of something Pythagorean.

  • I think this is a decent theory, but it's original philosophizing --it doesn't represent any already existing philosophical consensus on the topic. Dec 17 '15 at 16:22
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    Yes, I suppose in last paragraph, though I am still referencing Adorno, sort of. And addressing third bulleted question. In this pragmatic or "evolving" Kantian vein I might mention Dewey or Koji Karatani, but not confident I'd be correct to do so. And I doubt "existing consensus" can be much of a guide here. Dec 17 '15 at 16:40
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    "Greensleeves": It is an absolute coincidence, but it was played on TV just a few days ago, and my wife absolutely hates it. I have no particular opinion.
    – gnasher729
    Dec 18 '15 at 20:33
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    What? Are you certain she is your wife? I suppose one could hate it by association as the universal sign of "sentimentality," the musical equivalent of potpourri. So we get back to the ruinous effects of commodification... Dec 18 '15 at 21:06

At the very least, the quality of a piece of music is not a scalar, but multi-dimensional. Even if you could objectively measure all the different components of the quality, it then depends on the listener and the situation and how they value each of the components.

Go to a party, and then ask the person who looks after the music to play either Rachmaninov or Beyonce. What do you think will go down better with the audience? As I said, it depends on the listener and the situation. (You may argue that Rachmaninov will be better to get rid of the guests, but then Oskar Sala will be a lot better than Rachmaninov).

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