A friend of mine, Benjamin Hayek, and I are engaged in a discussion on his blog. One of the side issues brought up there is whether or not there are objective standards for evaluating art (or anything for that matter.) Ben believes there are objective rights and wrongs in terms of evaluating art. I don't. So as not to sidetrack the debate on his blog by exploring this side issue there, I will say something on it here.
On the blog, he writes: "Indeed, I believe that it is almost always an easy task to weight one peice of art against another, such as deciding the value of Jacques-Lious David's The Death of Socrates (1787) (which is one of my very favorites) vs. Andres Serrano's award-winning Piss Christ (1987), or comparing the complete works of Smetana to those of Snoop-Dogg. There is good art and bad art."
Of course, he does not go on to outlay the objectively correct criteria for judging Smetana superior to Snoop Dog or The Death of Socrates superior to Piss Christ. And if he did, my suggestion would be that those are simply the criteria he prefers. Two people disagreeing on art are most likely the result of (a) the two people chossing different critieria to judge the competing works by; or (b) the two people agreeing on the same critieria to look at but disagreeing as a matter of taste about who meets the criteria more.
Let me give an example here. Benjamin's musician of choice is Smetana. My musician of choice (if I have to name just one!) is Esbjorn Svensson, the recently decesased jazz pianist from Sweden.
Now the music of Smetana and Svennson are quite, quite different. Smetana's music is a very Slovakian flavored romantic concert music with a lot of heavy string orchestration, meandering melodies and lush exploration. Svensson is very multi-dimensional jazz drawing on bebop, electronic, and minimalistic influences - terse and frequently-repeating melodies, sparse melody lines, and no real "orchestration" to speak of.
Now, I am not sure how in the world Ben and I, when disagreeing over the superior musician or works, could come up with any type of objective criteria for adjudicating. In fact, the two styles of music are so completely different that it is difficult to figure out what their commonalities are aside from being performed in a Western 12 note scale.
But even if we chose music that is more similar (I will now pick Allen Hovhaness to his Smetana so that both are in the classical orchestrative tradition), Ben and I will doubtless disagree on the criteria for choosing who is superior. Hovhaness is shamelessly tonal, avoids modulation quite studiously, very Eastern in influence, and - many would say - boringly minimalistic. Smetana is very much the opposite of all of these.
Quite simply, I think the best we can do is judge one of the other superior BY CHOOSING A CRITIERIA SET ARBITRARILY and sticking to it. But it must be acknowledged that in music, or any art, there are too many criteria one can judge by to think that one criterion or set of criteria is the default best one to go with.
I think the fact that Ben says it is "an easy task" to weigh one against the other means that, when only he is doing the judging, it is easy to agree with himself that Smetana is better than Snoop Dog. Were he to have to defend his choice to a hip hop connoiseur, and he would quickly realize how non-easy the task is, and in turn, how relative his criteria for decision was.