Saturday, December 20, 2008

Are There Objective Criteria for Evaluating Art?

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.


  1. Kevin makes a critical objection here, and one that is rightly focused on at the outset. The debate about whether ethical or aesthetical propositions can be understood in the same way, and with the same degree of objectivity, that mathematical propositions can, is an ancient one. It was one of Plato’s projects to show that it can be done, as opposed to Protagoras his sophist school, which held that it cannot. Likewise, it was one of Hume’s projects to show that this cannot be done, and it was one of Kant’s projects to show that it can.

    In any case, I understand Kevin’s objection as follows:

    1. One can only have direct epistemic access to one’s own mental states.

    2. Propositions such as “slavery is wrong” does not point to any objective fact “out there, in the world, as a constituent of reality” because one has no access to such facts (or alleged facts).

    3. Despite (2), since most agree that “slavery is wrong,” it is sound to believe that “slavery is wrong” because most people have mental states of some kind that incline them to believe that “slavery is wrong.”

    4. The “mental states of some kind” are a product of one’s own environment, e.g., a European American born and raised in early 21st Century New York (NY) will be more inclined and susceptible to an environmental upbringing that includes the belief that “slavery is wrong,” whereas a European American born in late 18th Century Charleston (SC) will be less inclined and susceptible to the same upbringing and belief.

    5. Therefore, ethical propositions such as “slavery is wrong” does not state an objective fact, it merely states what a majority has come to agree in our given time and place. Moreover, when one believes that “slavery is wrong,” one is merely reporting a belief derived from another social fact, namely, that a majority has come to agree in our given time and place that slavery is wrong. So whenever we’re talking about ethical propositions, we’re merely engaging in a sociological and/or anthropological endeavor of some kind.

    In sum, then, Kevin’s main objection to anyone who says “slavery is morally wrong” as a matter of objective fact is deluding himself, because there is no scientifically verifiable truth-maker, or criterion, that “justifies” the proposition.

    As Kevin knows, I disagree with this view. For example, I don’t believe many people agree with Kevin as a practical matter. If I were to ask people at random whether they believe slavery is wrong, I believe that most will state that they do. But if I ask them why, many will be hard pressed to provide a reason that is informative in a way distinct from repeating concepts contained in one’s notion of slavery. In other words, those few who endeavor to find a reason will wind up simply repeating themselves, perhaps with an incredulous tone in their voices. And, for those who are still with me at this point, if I explain to them that what they’re telling me isn’t really the fact of the matter, but rather their subjective report of what they perceive to be their community’s collective agreement on the issue, I have a feeling that at least some of these people will disagree, and some others will find my notion offensive.

    The reason I believe this is so is because some of our views about reality are simple, that is, they cannot be further broken down. It is rather like my three-year old nephew, Zachary, who has recently discovered the ability to ask “why?” regarding any (and sometimes every) proposition asserted by his parents (and his Uncle Ben). At some point explanation runs out; we hit “epistemic rock-bottom.” Philosophers such as myself, then, have no issue with basic propositions of the structure “That slavery is wrong is true” in the same way “That 2 + 2 = 4 is true,” and believe that if I substitute the mathematical proposition for the ethical one in my scenario above, people I insist must explain to me why they believe “That 2 + 2 = 4 is true,” or that their belief “That 2 + 2 = 4 is true” is nothing other than what they perceive is their community’s collective agreement on the matter, are going to wonder if I am mad.

    So, I believe, it falls upon philosophers like Kevin to show, that is, provide reasons and argument regarding why the simple propositions described above are different, if they are in fact different at all, rather than merely stating that the belief in the truth of propositions such as “slavery is wrong” is an illusion. For example, are the truth of mathematical propositions also an illusion?

    The next point I believe relevant to the discussion concerns the nature of Kevin’s objection (which is also Posner’s objection) to the notion that one piece of art (e.g., music) can meaningfully be compared with one another in terms of value. For Kevin, comparing Smetana to Snoop Dogg is meaningless unless we go further to identify what criteria we deploy for purposes of the evaluation. For Kevin, there must be at least one criterion at hand to make such an aesthetical judgment, and those making the judgment must first agree on the criterion before any judgment may meaningfully occur; we must first agree on a “truth-maker” prior to the aesthetic evaluation. And then, I presume, if agreement cannot be reached regarding at least one truth-maker, then the task itself is futile.

    At this point we need to distinguish, as Dworkin does, between two kinds of skepticism as it pertains to the nature of these judgments. The first is internal skepticism. As I understand it, an internal skeptic believes that two pieces of art (e.g., music) can be valued against one another but insists that there must be agreed upon criteria prior to making judgment. Thus, for the internal skeptic, the valuation may occur in principle and the root of any dispute lay in identifying the agreed upon criteria. The second is external skepticism, which – as I understand it – refers to the belief that the entire project of weighing one piece of art against another is an inherently incoherent notion either because there can be no agreement regarding criteria or there are no such criteria in the first instance. Therefore, external skepticism is a meta-epistemological position in the sense that it asserts that the entire project is futile, it is a philosophy about the philosophy of aesthetics, namely, that there can be no such thing.

    Kevin, it appears, is an internal skeptic in the sense that he (I think) agrees that in principle there are criteria for valuing one piece of art against another. However, Kevin denies that there is any “one criterion to rule them all,” so to speak, and that everyone’s selection of which to deploy in a judgment is fundamentally subjective, and therefore if two judges cannot agree on a criteria, there is no right answer to the question of whether Smetana’s works are more valuable than Snoop Dogg’s. (And this is demonstrated by the use of a “hard case,” namely, of tasking someone with judging between a masterpiece of Western Europe and one with Zimbabwe, at least in part because it’s too much of an “apples to oranges” comparison.) Therefore, the judgment between Smetana and Snoop is pure preference only (although there may be widespread agreement that Smetana is more valuable).

    If we apply Kevin’s skepticism to the proposition “That slavery wrong is true,” then unless he and I can come to an agreement regarding a criterion for making this judgment (or if I deny that I need one, which is what I’d say), then we are at an impasse. And, because I would say that I do not need a truth-maker for the proposition “That slavery is wrong is true,” exactly like I don’t need a truth-maker for the proposition “That 2 + 2 = 4 is true,” my commitment to the truth of both propositions resembles the way in which a religious fundamentalist insists on the truth of his religion.

    As applied to my example, however, I might be tempted to identify a criterion that makes my belief “That the complete works of Smetana are superior to those of Snoop Dogg is true” by ticking off a few. However, assuming that Kevin might refuse to stipulate to accepted criteria, I would have to fall back on my position that, for this particular proposition, I do not need any additional criteria than what is already contained in the proposition itself, that is, the meanings of the terms used in the propositions. The truth of the proposition, as I like to say, “It’s in there” (to use a marketing phrase for a product I cannot recall at the moment).

    Briefly, then, the problems I see with both versions of skepticism are as follows. The internal skeptic merely pushes the level of analysis back a level (e.g., “Identify your criterion for believing x”), such that we’re left wondering if another criterion is required for selecting which criterion we identified for believing x. Now we’re stuck in an infinite regress (e.g., “I believe that x because of criterion a, and criterion a is proper because of criterion b …”). The external skeptic, however, falls victim to the classic refutation of skepticism in general, namely, “The entire project of trying to prove propositions such as ‘that slavery is wrong is true’ is incoherent from the get-go,” then what is it that makes that proposition true? Or is it that that proposition is self-evident? The external skeptic therefore either unwittingly proves the moral realist’s position or his meta-philosophy collapses in on itself.

  2. As usual, Ben provides an outstanding response in such a way where he sums up many of my own views better than I probably did.

    Ben brings up two very strong objections to my argument. First, he asks me to provide some rationale for believing, as I do, that there is a difference between objective adjudication of mathematical axioms and subjective judgment of ethical pronouncements.

    “It falls upon philosophers like Kevin to show, that is, provide reasons and argument regarding why the simple propositions described above are different, if they are in fact different at all, rather than merely stating that the belief in the truth of propositions such as “slavery is wrong” is an illusion. For example, are the truth of mathematical propositions also an illusion?”

    Ben suggests that, just as “2+2=4” is correct even though it needs no further justification (it is a “rock bottom” truth, to borrow Ben’s term). “Slavery is wrong,” he argues, is similar. Just because it cannot be justified by more basic or more scientifically falsifiable premises should not trouble us; like “2+2=4,” the matter is true on its face.

    Ben will understand that I disagree with him. “2+2=4” is certainly verifiable to all people who use the number system where ****=4 and **=2 (et.) When we line up ** (2) and **(2), we get **** (4) every time (unless we are adding drops of liquid, in which case there is a strange exception). The only matter of convention in math is the number system we choose to use (it is conceivable that someone could use a number system where **=5, in which case, what is disagreed upon is NOT the visual result of the addition, but the labeling of the digits. Long and short: **+**=**** is completely falsifiable and well corroborated. (Those who hold that **+**=***** can be shown wrong quite easily.)

    Then there is the question of ethical pronouncements. “Slavery is wrong,” is simply not falsifiable in the same way. “Wrong” does not refer to any type of thing existent with the senses, but is simply another way of saying, “should be condemned” or “should not be done.” It is difficult to see how “should not be done” can be seen as anything other than a normative, rather than a descriptive term, and it is difficult to ponder how one can test that something “should not be done.”

    One can, of course, test that “slavery hurts those who would be slaves.” With that, one could test the idea, even if only by oral survey. But, per Hume, the fact that slavery DOES hurt people does not translate into “slavery is WRONG,” except by an extra-logical and –testable premise (that hurting people is wrong).

    Ben goes on to suggest that people at large would probably see this sort of relativism as nothing short of loony. Agreed. But (1) arguments to majority do nothing to prove the truth of the majority’s position; and (2) per ‘error theory’ it is quite understandable that they would. Most of us feel strongly enough in our subjective judgments that, to us, they feel like objective facts. I am sure that there are many hip-hop lovers that see Snoop-Dog’s superiority to Smetana as simply a matter of fact. Does the strength of their opinion in any way argue for the truth of their statement? No. (And Ben may want to show me what type of objective criteria he would use to settle THAT argument!)

    As to Ben’s argument that comparing two pieces of art is an “easy task,” this proves harder to follow. Ben is correct to say that, in Dworkin’s language, I am an “internal skeptic.” If two people agree on the criteria for judgment, judgment at least becomes significantly easier. (Though two can agree that “who has a better melody?” is a good criterion, but disagreement can still occur. In that case, I have to say that the difference is subjective, because “better” is a subjective adjective. In that case, then, I am an “external skeptic.”)

    Ben’s problem with my “internal skepticism” is that….I ask too much. If I say that Hovhaness is better because his melodies are more terse and economical, while he says that Smetana is better because his use of orchestration is superior, then I say that we simply disagree on criteria. His answer? Ben would – according to his argument – say that his criterion is simply better than mine, and there is no way to discuss that further but to say that I am wrong (“I do not need any additional criteria than what is already contained in the proposition itself.”)

    I am not sure, though, where anyone can say that judging art by x, rather than y criterion, is a matter of objectivity, rather than subjective preference, unless they can show that x criteria is INHERENTLY better than y. And to be honest, I am at a loss for how that could be done or even approached. In the same way that “x tree is taller than y tree” can be objectively decided by appealing to something outside of a person’s own say-so, “orchestration makes for better compositions than sparsity” cannot.) “The answer is in there” would be a nice way to “settle” the argument, but I have to assume that all sides of those types of disagreement feel EXACTLY THE SAME WAY about their position. (“Of course sparsity is more important than melodicism. And the reason need not be argued, because “the answer is in the premise.”)

  3. Kevin makes a number of points that are interesting and, I think, warrant a bit more analysis.

    First, we need to examine the notion “That 2+2=4 is true is verifiable,” and the way we verify the truth of the proposition is, if one understands addition, by breaking each symbol down, counting, and deciding “Yep, adding two and two together equals four, that’s true.” So far so good. But where Kevin loses me is in his claim that the sum itself is, in some sense, “falsifiable and well corroborated.” How does one falsify this basic mathematic proposition? Moreover, how does one corroborate the proposition by doing anything other than analyzing the constituents of the proposition? In other words, I do not believe a person who understands math goes “outside” the mathematical proposition to verify its truth or to do any sort of corroborating, as if the proposition were an empirical one. One need not “look” anywhere other than the proposition itself to understand its truth.

    On my view the proposition “That slavery is wrong is true” is no different insofar as one understands what “slavery” and “wrong” means. The definition of “slave” is “the state of a person who is a chattel of another,” and “wrong” means “an injurious, unfair, or unjust act; a violation or invasion of the rights of another; conduct contrary to justice, goodness, equity or law.” So if we simply replace “slavery” and “wrong” with the definitions of each term (like we replace “2” with “**”), then we can examine each and decide “Yep, the concept of one human being as the property of another is unjust.” Again, one need not go “outside” this moral proposition to verify its truth or do any sort of corroborating, insofar as one understands the terms. In other words, no scientific experiment of any kind is required to “test” this proposition. If one understands the terms, one understands that the proposition is true.

    Kevin’s response is that “wrong” does not refer to anything that we can examine scientifically, that is, is not something “existent with the senses,” and that, therefore, every time someone deploys the concept (x = wrong) all one is doing is uttering one’s own preference that x should be condemned (and this is why philosophers call this view “prescriptivism,” which is a non-cognitivist form of moral relativism). As I see it, there are at least three problems with Kevin’s characterization in my opinion.

    The first is that I deny Kevin’s initial move, which is to deny my ethical proposition its “proposition status.” This is what prescriptivism does, namely, it strips all ethical statements of propositional worth and banishes them to the realm of merely expressing one’s preference. Therefore, under this view, statements like “slavery is wrong” are more like statements like “I don’t care for tequila,” and neither have any “truth value.” I deny this. For me, “slavery is wrong” is descriptive and states a necessarily true moral fact, while my distaste for tequila, while itself also a fact, is not a necessary one (it is contingent).

    The second problem is Kevin’s claim that there is no difference between “slavery is wrong” and “slavery should be condemned.” On Kevin’s view, I think, these two statements are identical. I deny this, for the meaning of “x is wrong” is not identical to “x should be condemned” (although many things wrong should be condemned). Rather, Kevin is here committing Moore’s “naturalistic fallacy” by trying to define a simple, indefinable non-natural property (e.g., good, bad, right, wrong) in terms of a natural one (to be condemned, to be commended, etc.).

    The third problem, as I see it, is one of the ways in which I believe Kevin’s scientism clouds his overall philosophy. And that is his reluctance to grant any super-sensible thing any degree of being. For example, “wrong” doesn’t refer to anything like “chair” does. But the problem with denying the existence of transcendental concepts like right, wrong, justice, love, and so on is that these terms obviously refer to something, otherwise we would be talking nonsense. (And since it is Christmas Day, I suppose I should also note that “Santa Claus” refers to something that doesn’t exist in the scientific sense either – but we all know who “Santa Claus” is!) Another problem with denying transcendental concepts any respectable status in reality is that numbers are transcendental concepts, but these Kevin appears to have no issue with at all. “Two” is just as much a symbol as “love,” and I bet Kevin knows what both of these symbols refer to, even if he won’t be able to find either under a microscope or above a telescope. Query: Does one’s “belief” in numbers make one religious?


  4. This is such an interesting and sticky problem that philosophers immemorial have written many pages on it. When engaging in the issue, I can see why. Talking about morality can be like talking about god; some feel that it is right there outside us, and others feel that it is not, but the proving of either side is the hard part.

    Most importatntly, Ben takes me to task for me 'scientism' and my belief that terms with no existential reference cannot really be said to exist. Of course, that is almost besides the point because "wrong" is an adjective, which wouldn't even refer to any existant to the most ardent of Platonists!

    But let's think about Ben's statement: "
    the problem with denying the existence of transcendental concepts like right, wrong, justice, love, and so on is that these terms obviously refer to something, otherwise we would be talking nonsense."

    I see Ben's point - we all know what we mean when we talk of what is 'true' or to say that something is 'just.' But here is an idea: maybe the above terms - truth, justice, love, - refer to subjective appraisals or assessments.

    How can we see this? While I might know what you mean by saying that you believe in 'justice,' the term is so abstract that I still have no idea what you mean by the concept of what counts as just!

    What the term 'justice' is is a verbal representation of the subjective notion of what is fair and just. Aside from that, it simply does not exist because it has no OBJECTIVE or non-subjective component. What is just to you (affirmative action) is unjust to me and that is just a difference in how we define a subjectively-defined word.

    As to the word 'wrong' it is somewhat the same. First, it is an adjective, like 'beautiful' or 'hideous.' And further, it is not a descriptive adjective (like 'fast' or 'skinny') that has an empirical referent. Rather, we might call it an appraisal adjective (like 'beautiful' and 'hideous.')

    My point - I borrow form error theorists like the late Russell and JL Mackie - is that like most 'appraisal adjectives,' 'right' and 'wrong' are so strongly felt that they feel 'objective.' (This activity is so appaling that its wrongness is objective, a 'thing' attached to the activity, rather than to me.)

    IF two people were to disagree on whether slavery was wrong, I am simply at a loss for how they will even begin to prove to eachother in any objective way that the other side is in error (the way I could prove that 2 things plus 2 things is 4 things to a doubter.)

    I can, however, imagine that the two's difference of opinion does not lie on any disagreement in defining the definitions of 'slavery' and 'wrong.' Contra Ben, there is a whole other question - a question that hinges on subjective sentiment: whether it really is a bad thing to make one person a chatell of another."

    While Ben, myself, and scores of people around the world strongly feel that it is wrong to do such a thing, others around the world do not. Our difference, I can't help but feel, is one of sentiment. (Maybe some do not see a certain group as worthy of feeling bad about, or have a different concept of the 'natural order' than we.)

    Either way, I can't help but think that if morals were as objective as Ben is suggesting, there would be some way to resolve ethical disputes that looks a bit more like how science deals with interlocutions.

  5. Wow, the discussion seems to have wandered away from the subject of art. I have a few comments on the most recent discussion, and a few thoughts for later on the evaluation of art.

    Firstly, I have to say I cringe whenever I hear someone making a philosophical "argument from arithmetic". It's almost always completely missing the point, and I think that's what's going on in this case. Kevin, I actually disagree that we can confirm "2+2=4" by looking at real things. "2+2=4" is a proposition in the language of mathematics, and it doesn't depend on anything outside of mathematics for its truth. What we mean when we say that it's true is that it's derivable from the basic definitions of mathematics, and it's consistent with everything else that's derivable from the same definitions. That it happens to make predictions about the real world is irrelevant to whether it's true, and is just a side-effect of the way the basic definitions of our system of mathematics were chosen. You getting 4 separate real-world objects when you bring together two sets of 2 real-world objects is not self-evident and has everything to do with technicalities of the real world. As you said, if you're counting drops of liquid it works much differently.

    When we say a moral statement is true, on the other hand, we're talking about something completely different. I think when people make claims of moral truth, they're saying much more than that a claim is derivable from a set of "moral definitions" and that it's consistent with everything else so derivable.

  6. Comparing Smetana and Snoop-Dog is amusing.

    Is it not possible for a sophisticated person to enjoy both?

    Even at the same time.

    I am not that person but I can imagine that there is someone in the world like that.

    Perhaps someone enjoys both Aida and Seinfeld.

    Must they compare both as works of art?

    For whose benefit?