On the Subjectivity in Arts Appreciation

- Aparthib Zaman

Artistic appreciation for many seem to be a result of extrinsic factors, like influences, popularity, constant exposure to a widely available and plugged art form,, an urge to go with the going fad or style, cultural bias among many others. For few is it due to a genuine desire to discover and appreciate the intrinsic quality of the art, e.g by listening or reading all genre of music or literature and selecting discriminately. Some do have a strong individual sense of like and dislike which they use as a guide in selecting art of their choice for their own pleasure irrespective of how it is perceived by the vast majority. For most others this intrinsic individual sense of like or dislike is absent or is so weak that it is often overshadowed and is primarily determined by extrinsic factors mentioned above. This is what is known as the " meme" factor, originally introduced by Sociobiologist Dawkins (Elaborately discussed in Susan Blackmore's "The Meme Machine"). This meme effect can get so powerful that one loses the discriminating ability of a true art connoisseur and blindly loves ANY work of an artist and cannot discriminate between individual pieces of work according to any subjective criteria, nor do they care to. The artist to such a fan becomes a cult, a fad, fashion, a symbol of prestige. And for them the liking for arts seem to develop by broad categories like Classical, Jazz, Rock, Tagore Songs for music. Or Science Fiction, Adventure, Romance etc for literature, and they would like anything under those broad categories with no exception (Although there may be variation of lthe intensity liking within a category but it would still be a like, not a dislike). Let us label them type "A" fans (fans subject to the meme effect). For a few discriminating persons this likes or dislikes may not be defined by these broad categories but by certain individual subjective criterion specific to that person. For them it is possible that they may like some items within a given category but may find no appeal in some other items inside it. Let us call these minority fans (not subject to meme effect) as type "B". It is observed quite often that when "X" states his/ her interest in some art form of a certain category, many invariably assume X as being type "A". The possibility of X being a type "B" art enthusiast usually escapes their mind. This is evident from their gifts to X of books, CDs, invitations to concerts or recitals etc by ANY artists in that category, not considering the possibility that X may be a type "B" fan and may not like that particular book, CD or concert etc. Moreover, when X, doesn't show interest in a specific book, song, concert under that category, X is perceived by many as not having any interest in that category at all, not realizing that this may be due to the discriminating taste of a type B art enthusiast. This is a common fallacy.

The question of greatness and liking in art is purely a subjective one. It is hard to come up with a universally acceptable objective criteria to judge artistic greatness. Volume, popularity, consensus of the critics are usually the common criteria. The market usually decides what is great(est). Public tastes are moldable by various extrinsic factor. But the criteria for an individual's liking or disliking of an art(ist) is purely subjective, unique to that individual. But whatever that unique subjective criteria is , it is certain that not ALL work of a given artist or genre will be equally appealing to anyone, certainly not to a type B fan. The fact is that famous musicians, poets, novelists etc who have created volumes of artwork are bound to create quite a few which are inferior in quality under any subjective criteria. Not all their works can be equally evocative to a discerning taste. A type B fan need not like all works within a given genre of arts. Discrimination and selectivity is an essential mark of type B fans. The beauty of art is in the eye of the beholder. By the same token, under any subjective criteria, it is quite possible, that a specific piece of work by artist "X" can appeal more than a specific piece of work by artist "Y", although overall "Y" may appeal more than "X" Of course with some objective criteria, like volume, number of copies sold, critics' verdict etc one can decide the greatest, but such criteria should have no meaning to a type B fan. To him/her liking or dislike should be intrinsic, not influenced by polls, numbers and statistics or any other extrinsic factors.

Now coming back to the issue of greatness in art. How is it decided, in case of an individual artist? If greatness of an artist is assessed retroactively by the award of say Nobel prize, sure he is. If assessed by the number of works, then also he is. But all these are post hoc criteria, volume and popularity is assumed to result from greatness. That leaves the question begging as to what is greatness ? We have a circularity here. Greatness is defined as that which leads to volume and popularity, whereas popularity and volume is viewed as resulting from greatness. There has to be some APRIORI intrinsic criteria of greatness to break this circularity. There ISN'T ANY! Art is inherently intuitive, subjective. Of course to an individual, although the appeal is subjective, there can be deeper objective factors deciding his/her tastes, like certain distinctive imageries and metaphors to describe nature, human emotions, certain choice of expressions, certain notes or chords or riffs (in songs), etc (Style in one word). But these are not possible to quantify and written down as criteria of greatness for ALL to agree on. Such subjective criteria is appropriate for deciding greatness at an individual level to a type B fans.

Now good and bad in arts being subjective, use of such label is improper and meaningless. Despite that people are seen to rave about authors, stories, movies, music etc saying they are "great" "outstanding" etc (Without qualifying it by "TO ME"). If these attributes of "great", "outstanding" etc are defined by the "volume" and publicity of these works then it IS OBJECTIVE. If it is due to their "quality" then it IS a SUBJECTIVE judgement and hence requires " TO ME". Even in the case where "greatness' etc is decided by fame and publicity one has to look carefully into how this fame or publicity came about. If it came about by independent AND simultaneous reading and judgement of their work by large number of people then there will be some authenticity to it. But in many cases it happens by an iterative reinforcement or snowball effect whereby more and more people hear or read ABOUT the "fabulous" work of an artist and are purely led to believe in the greatness of an artwork or artists by this sheer publicity rather than by judging by themselves it's intrinsic appeal (TO THEM) and they themselves then act as a further propagator of this fame and adds to this publicity by reinforcing it further (The ubiquitous meme effect). That is not to say that the artists would not have appealed to them had they not heard about its "greatness". But it is also possible the work of someone not so famous may have appealed equally or more in the absence of the meme effect which acts as an extrinsic agent of influence and either completely forfeits or significantly impair one's intrinsic faculty of judging likes and dislikes. If "X" mentions to "Y" a poetry, a quote or precept of a "famous" person claiming to be his/her own and if "Y" is not familiar with it then there is a good chance "Y" may not be quite impressed by it, whereas if "X" had quoted it as being of a famous person, then "Y" would show an appreciative response! The same is true about motivational speakers, celebrities . When they address an admiring audience. The most trivially true statements seem to create much more sense of awe on the audience than it would have been, if told by some one ordinary without mentioning that they were quoting those celebrities.

Interestingly, if someone KNOWS a certain symphony or classical musical piece to be famous and "deep", he/she may listen to it and rave about it while nodding head in awe, but if the same music is played regularly as a background music for say a TV show and didn't know or realize it to be a famous musical piece, he/she may only identify the music with just the show and not feel any interest in listening to the music itself but only will try to reminisce about the show that it conjures up!

Tied in with above discussion is the fact that artistic and aesthetic sense or perceptivity is an intrinsic quality or attribute of a person which is not created or increased by mere READING or exposure to an art work. A person may be endowed with this inherent ability to appreciate art and a sense of aesthetics yet have not read a lot of artistic work by others but would nevertheless be able to appreciate it more when they read it than who has read a lot and can talk about them in a descriptive manner yet doesn't have the same deep artistic appreciation or sensitivity of it as the former. An art school education does not increase the inherent artistic sense of a person but only helps to bring out whatever is inside to its max. A given engineer or scientist or whatever does not necessarily posses less inherent artistic sense than a given artist, its just that one has it latent, undeveloped, while the other has developed it into its max. It is true that those who have "higher" intrinsic artistic sense tend also to chose to become professional artist and develop it but there are significant exceptions to that rule.

Let me summarize the meme effects responsible for the fame of an artist can be due to certain combination of factors , as follows: (In the following "outstanding" and "mediocre" are judged mainly by critics and to some extent by popularity, as reflected in media and sales etc which may or may not be in sync with the critics always).

1. Some extraordinary work and a large volume of mediocre work and the snowball effect of publicity, plug, hype generated by the extraordinary ones. Then naive minds may "like" even just the mediocre ones while never having read the extra-ordinary ones, being controlled by the meme effects of the publicity/hype.

2. Large volume of work, none of extraordinary level, but due to sheer large volume and a fortuitous condition of being at the right place at the right time, gained publicity and fed into the hyp to create an aura of fame around his/her name.

It is possible that some not so famous artists may have created a similar number of extra-ordinary work as a famous one but not having created large volume of average work didn't get the benefit of snowball effect of mass or media hyp.

Now some thoughts on the connection of arts to real life. Here it is observed that movies, novels which contain in its 3 hours/300 pages or so some cameos of deep philosophical, psychological realizations of life, human emotions etc (expressible in few words or sentences), attract rave reviews from viewers, readers for those contents whereas the same people would dismiss reading or hearing the same profound truths, realizations as boring and academic when heard or read as isolated statements from an individual or in a non-fiction book.

Just as kids only like to learn math if it is taught through fun and entertainment some grown ups too retain this vestiges of childish propensity and can only accept insights and truths if adorned with extra layers of humour or romance, fiction and verbiage etc. In most cases a much raved poem, song, story or movie when stripped off its garnishing boils down to a trivial statement of a fact of life that one may already know. So when touting such poems, songs, stories or movies as a must read, must hear to others one has to be clear about the message and the mode of the message in them and draw a distinction. They have to be aware that the mode part is subjective and may not appeal to someone else who may still know or appreciate the message already, and thus not jump to the conclusion that he/she doesn't' t have the "depth" to understand the inherent message just because he/she didn't appreciate the mode of the message. Often by making mode quite appealing some naive minds can be made to elevate a trivial precept or paradigm to a sublime level. On the other hand an enlightened but not so naive mind can be moved by the sheer beauty or artistry of the mode of the message and yet realize the trivial nature of the message ( if any, an art need not have a message always). One has to separate out philosophy, psychology etc aspect from the entertainment aspect in an art and if one is interested in the former then instead of wasting time one can directly read core works on philosophy, psychology and if interested in entertainment, then of course performing arts is the appropriate avenue. In a combination, one must realize the secondary aspect of the philosophy part in any art form. Certainly one feels entertained to see certain human emotions and aspirations powefully illustrated by some actors and performers through the skills of writers and directors and of course their own artistic skill. But whatever philosophical, social or psychological insights or messages there are in a movie,poem, story etc, as I said, can be reduced to few lines or minutes. And there is nothing in them that has not been discussed, expressed or analyzed by Philosophers, Psychologists etc over the centuries and even now in public and in academia. One only has to take note of the fact that there exists :

1. An encyclopdia of aesthetics in 4 volumes each of 500 pages

2. An encyclopedia of Human Emotions in 2 volumes of 750 pages total (McMillan'99)

3. An encyclopedia of Human Behaviour in 4 volumes each of about 700 pages. (Academic Press'94)

4. An encyclopedia of Ethics in 2 volumes of 1400 pages total (Garland Publishers'92)

5. An encyclopedia of Applied Ethics in 4 volumes of 3000 pages total (Academic Press'98)

6. An encyclopedia of Bioethics in 4 volumes of 2840 pages total (Mcmillan'95).

And to think that all of the above are torn of any extra layers of fictional or entertainment materials. One can imagine what their size would have been if extra layers of fiction, entertainment were added to the facts contained therein! Besides them there are innumerable scholarly books and journals on all aspects of life. Some people mention certain poems, songs, fictions etc as having influenced or changed their lives or seek inspiration to drive their life from them. Poems, songs, movies etc are poor sources to seek for inspiring truths and insights about life. Real life and nature, when observed and studied with a reflective and analytical mind is a much more reliable source or guide to truth. Reading works on philosophy, psychology, biology, logic, ethics etc are better and more cost-effective means and sources of learning about insights of life than fictional works. Fictional works are more suited to entertainment aspect of life. We all yearn for words, rhythms, riffs, expressions, music, pictures etc that evoke our very individual inner artistic sensitivity and appeals to our soul. It helps to uplift our spirit when we do come across a piece of artwork in which we see reflections of those very emotions and feelings of our inner self. But we should get beyond that whe it comes to real life which should be guided by real life factors and considerations and not handicapped by dreams, fantasies, poems, fictions and dictated by them. Depending on a movie or poem to understand facts and truths of life and to seek inspiration from it is the height of naivette. Our external life has to be based on reality independent of art. One should not depend on a poem to decide their course of action but should be guided by his/her own head (using knowledge and experience) and instinct. Dependency leads to self deceit. Art is mainly to cater to our subjective need of our inner life, to find an expression and reflection of our inner soul .

Thanks to all for bearing with me in this long article.



  Subject Author Date
6116 Re: Literature is a subjective issue ! But Obscen Dr. A. H. Jaffor Ullah Sun  5/26/2002
6105 Re: Literature is a subjective issue ! But Obscen Nabin Sat  5/25/2002
6093 Literature is a subjective issue ! But Obscenity A Avijit Roy Fri  5/24/2002