Joel and I have been trading interesting ideas in the comments of the last post. And if I have any real hope for this blog its that folks will engage some of the ideas, especially in their own lives, and that these types of conversation can take on a life of their own. So thanks Joel for keeping things going, for being a seeker after truth, and for being an open minded explorer! These are conversations worth having.
So anyway, the proposition I did some wrestling with was that “Beauty is intrinsically subjective”. And you can see why we often say that. “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder” is this mantra in our culture, and if we don’t look too closely it can be a flaw that condemns any pursuit of the ideals of beauty. But is that right? At least, it seems an idea worth examining. Here’s what I had to say in response:
The idea of ‘subjectivity’ needs a bit of examination, though. It usually gets used as a contrast with ‘objective’ where one is accidental and contingent and the other is firm and universal, the reality that stands behind subjectivity. But the worse association we make is that ‘subjective’ things are therefor only in our heads and that they thereby lack any independent reality. We often take that to mean that ‘subjective’ is therefor ‘untrue’. We take it to mean that something which is personal or open only from a particular point of view has less value than things which are agreed upon in a community’s objective conformity. We seem to prefer ‘objectivity’ to ‘subjectivity’ when asked to choose.
But does that always make sense? We can’t see another person’s pain. Pain is subjective. We have to take other people’s word that they are in pain. But does that make it unreal? Does something that appears only in the ‘eye of the beholder’ discredit it? If that is the case, then imagination is by definition a lost cause, and our dreams but the worst sort of flagrant and deniable opinion. Dreams are not even subjective experience. They’re just made up flights of fancy. Are we willing to go so far as to say that anything ‘tainted’ by subjectivity is not worth our time?
What I would argue is that agreement isn’t always the test of a thing’s worth. Its not THAT we agree that is important as much as why we agree and what we are agreeing about. Just how broadly does consensus ever map ‘objectivity’? The moment we start throwing around accusations of ‘subjectivity’ we need to ask ourselves just how many of our sacred cows are left if we truly measure them against universal objectivity. ‘Subjectivity’ sometimes just looks like an excuse to dismiss things we ourselves don’t agree with. It sometimes looks like another reason to stand with the accepted way of looking at things rather than deciding for ourselves. And as artists that surely can’t be our mission. Shouldn’t we instead be celebrating our subjectivity, our diversity, our unique points of view? Just how often are artists supposed to aim for rigid conformity? Just how often are artists supposed to shun their idiosyncratic and personal point of view? Isn’t it the case that we learn more about the potential for meaning in the world by exploring our own subjectivity?
So subjectivity may not end up being the worst thing in the world. And I’d also ask whether “meaning” and “conceptual content” were in truth any less subjective than beauty. Isn’t the meaning we understand kind of precariously balanced on our own subjective interpretation? Is this any less personal than our grasp of beauty? The fact that any of us ever disagree surely must mean that universal objectivity is as much an unrealized phantasm as anything else. Isn’t that an interesting conclusion? Isn’t it perhaps that we’ve built up an expression which seems to talk about the world but actually never really describes it that well at all? At least the way we mean it to? Isn’t that just the ‘flawed’ nature of our being human and using human language to look out at the world? Isn’t all our experience intrinsically ‘subjective’?
So I’d say that there is nothing wrong with beauty. It is, in fact, simply another manifestation of meaning in the world. Intuitive rather than conceptual, but there in the world. It is in our daily lives, so how could it not be in the world?
If any meaning has value in the world, why not beauty? Because we often disagree? That would be like saying poverty wasn’t important because people disagree about it. And the fact that only some of us see the same things is not a statement of the failure of any concept, much less of the idea of beauty. It is a statement that we have not learned to see all there is to see in the world. Isn’t our disagreement simply a call to us to help others see what we see?
Are others ‘wrong’ to not see what we see? Are we ‘wrong’ not to see what they do? Isn’t the world simply filled with a multiplicity and variability that strains concepts like ‘objective’ and ‘subjective’? Isn’t it true that the world is so filled with contestable points of view that the only sane conclusion must be that our universe admits of contrary and even contradictory interpretations? If we could but name one proposition that every single human throughout the history of mankind would agree with, then there might be an objectivity worth considering. But infants have their own point of view, different cultures believe different things, and madmen also have conclusions of their own. And if these are merely ‘subjective’, just what does that say about our own point of view?
In the end I’d say that to deny the fundamental importance of our subjectivity, to demean it and pretend to cast it aside, is a criminal offense to what in fact makes us human and what is often most valuable as our experience of being human. There would be no culture without subjectivity, bias, preference, and other wholly personal attributes. And we need to own this rather than denying it.
So I’d also ask the question of just how a thing like ‘beauty’ can be valued as important or even necessary. Does it not pass the test of an almost universal human compulsion? Have there been any cultures throughout history that have been as opposed to the idea of beauty as some of today’s artists are? And are these artists themselves representative of the feelings of their fellows in the community? When we cast out beauty are we not denying something that is intrinsic to our experience of being human?
The simple and poorly understood truth is that our lives are brimming with aesthetic choices. And as creative and perceptive beings we are hardly immune to its call, artists perhaps least of all. An anthropologist friend of mine made this case very persuasively. Every time we decide on something we like or something we don’t, we are recognizing what appeals to us. ‘Beauty’ isn’t always the obvious hit you over the head variety. Sometimes it sneaks up on you, or catches you by surprise. Its not always the easy conventional sort that we get taught by advertising and the icons of our culture. It is also the quiet everyday things that touch us and speak to our ‘souls’. Every time you decide “this, not that”, you are making a value judgement. Simply saying “I like this” names that thing ‘beautiful’ in some sense for you. How can that not be an important lesson on what it means to be human?
It just seems a shame that beauty needs defending in the first place. For potters to be embarrassed by the beauty of what they are doing is truly a sad statement about the way of the world. And why anyone would disown the beauty they helped give birth to just seems wrong. The world needs more beauty, not less. And artists need to claim their ancient place as the ones responsible for nurturing and nourishing a society’s connection to beautiful things.
Every human has an innate sense of what things are beautiful. And if we let ourselves be manipulated to believing only the dominant cultural opinions we will lose the sense that beauty can be almost anything, and that its just a matter of knowing how to look for it. Culture shoves certain ideas down our throats, but this doesn’t make it right, or the only way. Isn’t it incumbent on every creative soul to take a stand on what other things also count as beautiful? So that we continue living in a vibrant and diverse world? That subjectivity is not winnowed out such that we are left with only the bland incontestable things? Isn’t variety the spice of life? Doesn’t our difference and disagreement, in fact, make life more worth living at times? And if we disagree with each other shouldn’t we embrace our own subjectivity, not feel awkward about it? And if others are open minded and willing, can we not attempt to teach them how to also share that vision?
Beauty CAN be shared. The fact that there are as many opinions as there are people does not mean that all of them are ‘wrong’. Does it? If it does, then maybe we need to consider how good our ideas of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ are….
What do you think? Do we need to be ashamed of beauty?