A False Dichotomy: Critics and Aesthetic Judgments

Periodically I post something on my course blog, Interaction Culture Class, that might be of broader interest than just the class. In such situations, I repost them on my personal blog. This is one such example, and its original post can be found here.

Every year that I teach this class, the first few weeks feature considerable skepticism about the role or legitimacy of aesthetic judgments or criticism.

Typically, the way many students think is something like this. Either critics really do somehow speak for everyone else, or beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Yet it is hard to believe that critics speak for everyone else, since all of the following seem to apply: critics make judgments that the population as a whole don’t agree with or accept; critics don’t even agree with themselves; it is elitist and undemocratic to have a bunch of taste police telling the rest of us what to like; art is not the sort of thing for which it is even possible to form objective judgments. Therefore, it can’t be the case that critics really do speak for everyone else, and therefore beauty must be in the eye of the beholder.

Several of you have posed some variation of this argument on the blog. One of you even demanded scientific evidence for the proposition that there can be a rational and evidentiary basis for criticism.

I think this line of reasoning is problematic, if you think more carefully about it. And it is destructive to your profession. In what follows, I will argue my position in more detail.

I’ll start by saying that it is difficult to “prove scientifically” that it is epistemologically possible for critics to make rational judgments about art. I would also add that it is equally difficult to prove scientifically that scientists can make rational judgments about scientific data and that judges and juries can make rational judgments about legal data. Why scientists get to be exempt from this sort of skepticism is a major epistemological problem for all academic professions and has profound and unwanted consequences–but I’ll deal with that another time.

Rather than looking for scientific proof in the rational legitimacy of criticism (or science, or design) that I don’t think you’ll ever find, I think you can more productively reason about your own experience.

So let’s start with the position that beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Accepting this position entails committing to relativism, that is, one opinion is just as good as another. It renders beauty judgments in the same category as personal preference statements, that is, “this line of poetry is beautiful” is the same sort of claim as “strawberry ice cream tastes better than vanilla ice cream.”

One can attack this position in two ways. First, one can find counterexamples, that is, examples where beauty judgments do not appear to be mere opinions. Second, one can account for why critical judgments about art are epistemologically credible in ways that mere opinions are not. I will pursue both here.

Regarding the first–the counterexamples strategy: when Wine Enthusiast and Wine Spectator (both leading wine magazines) both rate a given wine (e.g., a 2006 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon) over 95 points, I have high confidence as a consumer that that given wine is an excellent example of its type. Now, it may be that I don’t like wine at all, or I do like wine but not Cabernet Sauvignon–that is a matter of mere personal preference–and in that case, it is probably not a great idea for me to take their advice. But if I do appreciate a Cabernet Sauvignon, is it categorically wrongheaded of me to trust Wine Enthusiast’s and Wine Spectator’s assessments of this wine? The person who believes that “beauty is in the eye of the beholder” must say yes, it is categorically wrongheaded of me to trust the critics’ reviews because after all, those are just their opinions–but that argument doesn’t square with experience. (I’ve appropriated this example from Erik.)

Similarly, literary scholars almost universally agree that Shakespeare’s King Lear is aesthetically superior to his Titus Andronicus. Reasons have to do with the gratuitous violence of the latter and the fully realized characters, who seem to explode out of fiction and into real life, of the former, as well as other linguistic, structural, and thematic strengths featured in the former but lacking in the latter. Assuming that I appreciate Western tragic plays, and that my local theatre is showing both plays, or assuming I am a literature instructor designing a syllabus, would it be irrational of me to choose King Lear over Titus Andronicus? The relativist position says yes: these are all just opinions and no one’s is better than anyone else’s. But I don’t think that fits with anyone’s experience.

So much for my counterexamples. Now I will take my second attack approach and try to account for why it is that an aesthetic critical judgment can be rationally made and defended as something more than a mere preference statement.

We generally agree that judges and juries are presented with considerable evidence in a criminal trial–forensic, psychological, financial, documentary, etc.–and can form rational judgments concerning a defendant’s innocence. We generally agree that scientists are presented with considerable evidence concerning methodology, theoretical assumptions, data results, data analysis, and data interpretation, and that they can form rational judgments about whether the science is “good” (e.g., should it be published, is it novel, should this scientist be hired or tenured). We agree that a plumber, who inspects a leaky faucet, including the location, duration, and quantity of its leak, who then takes apart its mechanisms and investigates their condition, can form a rational judgment about what went wrong and how to fix it. We agree that an interaction designer can collect evidence about user behavior, can apply usability heuristics to prototypes or designs, can collect evidence about user’s subjective experiences and judgments, can analyze related interactions and can subsequently form a rational judgment about how the design can be improved or what design opportunities there are to explore.

So I ask, what argument can you make that a critic of art is categorically different from a judge, a scientist, a plumber, and an interaction designer such that only the critic may not appeal to evidence and experience to form rational judgments?

Why is it that a critic cannot likewise marshall evidence–thematic or linguistic or stylistic features of a work, facts concerning the history of its reception, its “quoting” or referencing of prior sources, patterns/habits of that author across works (e.g., Shakespeare’s “mature works” versus his “youthful works”), historical sociopolitical contexts (including wars, civil unrest, religious events, economic events, aesthetic events, etc.), and judgments of prior critics, among other sources of evidence–to support a rational judgment concerning the aesthetic value of an artistic work? A properly trained critic will have access to all of this evidence and have training and experience in how to use it.

It seems to me that a critical judgment can (in principle) be rationally defended as well as a scientific judgment (e.g., “this study’s methodology is good”) and an ethical judgment (e.g., “this defendant is guilty”). Moreover, of my four examples–judge, scientist, plumber, and interaction designer, I think the art critic is most analogous to … the interaction designer!

It is not the case that society taps some people as critics, and then suddenly takes their opinions and tastes seriously. It is rather that critics (like judges, scientists, designers, and plumbers) go through a period of professional training and through it gain an expertise that others lack. Yet just as a plumber or judge has to justify her or his judgments, choices, and actions, so too must a critic. Now critics may disagree about a work, but so do scientists disagree about methods or findings, so do judges disagree about how to interpret the law (the U.S. Supreme Court does not often hand down unanimous decisions!), and so do plumbers offer different recommendations about how to fix a leak. This doesn’t categorically invalidate any of these professions!

Moreover, if you believe that everyone’s opinion is equal, then you are devaluing yourself and your own profession. As a designer, your critical judgments about experiences should be better than mere opinions. Otherwise, what rational basis is left for your design choices?

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