Is Art Objective?

I feel there’s an unsuitable feeling of grandeur when people lambaste art someone might have poured their soul into. It’s also evolved largely into institution: everyone with an internet connection has the power to assert their opinion of a video on YouTube, film critics can tarnish or bolster a film at the box office, and art teachers can damn a student with a low grade. It feels good to assert order to things.

In an effort to encourage innovation, while offering a disclaimer to my own at-times assertive language, I’ve decided to share my opinion of ‘objectivity’ in art – in other words, if art criticism can derive from objective findings.

So, when someone says, “this song is good” or “bad”, what do they mean? Could the opinion of the person saying it matter more than another? For the purpose of specificity, I will mostly use music as my example, although all points can extend to other mediums.

I have a two-part definition of art: something that must be communicated (through the senses) and appeal to an emotion. Speaking, writing, the choice of the color brown for a chair, are all art. Google’s definition (“define:art”) is similar: “the expression or application of human creative skill and imagination, typically in a visual form such as painting or sculpture, producing works to be appreciated primarily for their beauty or emotional power.” Personally, I consider the bit about “visual form” a moot point, given rhythm traces back as far as the canvas.

Objectivity is based on fact, which is something not just observed, but quantified and measured. It is the basis of science. Vocabulary.com considers it “judgment based on observable phenomena and uninfluenced by emotions or personal prejudices”. Objectivity “uninfluenced” by emotion, which by definition art targets.

The debate could end here, but for the sake of argument, perhaps there is something within the definition that could be measured. Imagination, as I know it, can’t be measured, let alone knowing where it comes from within the brain.  As for originality, something considered original is just as susceptible to being panned as something considered formulaic. But perhaps we can measure skill.

Skill, or “the ability to do something well” (Google), perceives through concentration of a particular dimension within that ability. Sounds confusing, but a quick example would be a skillful guitar player’s dexterity; their ability to jump precisely between frets and synchronizing with every pluck of the string. (A skillful guitar player could also be deemed as such for having a fantastic sense of rhythm, harmony, tempo, dynamics, improvisation… and so on. It could contain any combination of those factors.)

As we have to find a way to now ‘measure’ this dexterity, we’re forced to look infinitely more specific, such as the ability to bang out 32nd notes at 120bpm with precision, regarding dexterity, which only regards one of too many attributes. Notice, now, we’re not observing the art itself, rather the traits of the artist. Furthermore, in order to gauge skill in art, we have to look at how we emotionally respond most favorably to each of its infinite dimensions. One of my friends, for example, believes lyrics are the most important factor determining the quality of music. Someone else may disagree, but again, there can be no conclusion to that discussion because there’s nothing that can be quantified. Finally, not every work is representative of an artist’s every skill. Bach’s “Minuet in G Major” is incredibly simple in its notation, whereas complex notation is a characteristic of Bach in many other of his works, such as “Contrapunctus VII”. Does that make the latter better?

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Something else that could be measured is the chemical response to various art, or asking the question, “is objectively good art determined by how much it makes us feel good?” Music, among other types of art, is known to release dopamine, the principle chemical within the brain responsible for reward-motivated behavior. There are specific patterns, however, in what causes this release, as well as specific kinds of music which embrace these patterns.

A study1 was conducted in 2011 by the magazine Nature Neuroscience that detailed this relation. In order to garner the most dopamine release, there must be an anticipation phase or “build-up” to the experience or “resolution” within the song. This can happen often, once, or as little as never within a composition.

Essay graph

The line that spikes under the “experience” phase is activity recorded in the Nucleus accumbens, responsible for cognitive processing of pleasure and reward, among others. Time units are in seconds. 

Many composers have exploited this knowledge as far back as the classical era with consonance and dissonance within music. For example, there is a sequence of minor chords leading up to a resolving major chord, which ties the song together and creates this reward within the brain. However, this kind of reaction is not universal for a particular type of music. The study asked individuals to bring in types of songs that that most reliably trigger a release. Furthermore, the intention of the music may not be to create as much pleasure, or any pleasure at all. Pleasure cannot exist without pain – contrast is important, too. Black metal is a notable genre that plays heavy, droning minor chords that can result in significant resolutions by the end of the track, however, the genre is not popularly embraced nearly as much as some pop music, which more commonly features less anticipation and more immediacy, and is simply getting louder2.

This leads to the biggest counterpoint to objectivity in art: who, when and where. Different cultures have evolved to like different things; throat singers in Nunavut may consider their music far better than punk rockers in the United Kingdom, however, if these two cultures were to clash over their musical tastes, I highly doubt they could reach a fact-based conclusion. We could probably see, however, that they would be historically and likely emotionally bonded to their music. One of my friends attests that “Stairway to Heaven” by Led Zeppelin is the greatest song of all time, my retort is that I would love to see him standing on a soapbox in Feudal Japan claiming that.

Even within cultures, the same argument could be made. One friend asked me “if you truly believe that art has zero objectivity, do you think Barney the Dinosaur is as good as The Godfather?” The Godfather just happens to be my favorite film, and while I like it more for many reasons, I would never discredit a 3-year-old who likes Barney the Dinosaur more for their own reasons. Suddenly, the “who” even becomes part of the art: sometimes it is communicated for a particular demographic. This also raises the question of accessibility: what if someone was color blind and not physically able to appreciate certain paintings? Or a deaf person who likes bass-heavy music for the vibrations? Are they disqualified from critical analysis for having a handicap?

The Godfather and Barney the Dinosaur question raises one more point: the gaping examples versus the smaller examples. It’s very easy to ask someone what’s better between something that’s widely panned and widely embraced within the culture one of the two caters to. It’s simply a display of close-mindedness. The measurement of value that ‘our’ culture puts The Godfather over Barney the Dinosaur suddenly becomes very ambiguous when it swaps Barney out for Goodfellas.

In conclusion, how have we created order with art? I liken the argument that objectivity exists in art to the argument for religion. It’s believing there is an ultimate order of things. It can’t be proven, but it’s seen as truth. We hold our emotions – which art targets – sacred, because it’s a part of who we are, that art gives us a chance to define and share. Despite admitting my own guilt of doing this, it’s important to recognize a distinction between opinion and objective assertion, because it recognizes that everyone is different, and everyone is entitled to their own artistic opinions, despite if no one is able to relate to them.

I like to use the term collective subjectivity, which I define as ‘the opinion of many’. While this is a fallacious argumentation theory (the appeal to the majority), it recognizes the cultural impact of mass opinion. For example, the saying “fifty million Elvis fans can’t be wrong” isn’t wrong in how Elvis has created a cultural shift in rock music, but absolutely not right in how his music is ‘better than’ anyone else’s. Collective subjectivity also is the reason for the arts schooling system, which is an offshoot of how trends and mass appeals have constructed a series of rules, guidelines and ideas that serve to offer a sense of direction. I argue that this could be damaging for creative innovation. Art critics exist because they’re precise with how they deconstruct art, and sometimes able to offer historical insight to draw connections. Their ability to dissect art in a way people often can’t put into words presents the collective subjectivity of the long-term subscriber.

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