One of the reasons I am not even remotely interested in pursuing the stable teaching job in academia is my aversion to grading art. Staley gives us four value systems, but each is independently relevant: Craft, creativity, composition, and content. They are not coordinated. They are not sympathetic. They are not necessarily even related.
For instance, there is plenty of good art that is poor craft, plenty of excellent craft with little content, many great compositions that are not creative, etc, etc…. And all these things in their own ways can be profoundly moving. Its possible to scale well in one area, not so well in others, and still come out fine. Then again, if you get some things wrong it sometimes doesn’t matter how well you did in the rest….
So that’s still confusing. There is simply no one universal system that weighs each variable consistently for the breadth of every creative possibility. It is and ever was only a case by case source of judgment.
So Staley misrepresents the difference between objective and subjective a bit. He takes ‘objectivity’ to mean “Universal truth that basically everyone can agree on.” This is a rather narrow interpretation if you consider that it essentially implies that it is either physically or logically impossible to disagree with statements of these sorts. Universality demands nothing less. You agree, not because it makes sense, but because you have to agree. Its not optional. Its not a preference. No personal wiggle room.
But if you consider the history of even a few concepts you will find that they all evolved over time, that even the most convincing truths of today were not always accepted as fact. If you know about different cultures you can see how few things are truly shared ‘Universally’. There ends up being far more wiggle room than Staley seems to suggest. Objectivity either ends up meaning nothing, or it must mean something entirely different. It seems obvious that Staley’s idea of objectivity fails its own test of universality. “Objective” is far from objective in that sense…..
My take: Its not just that people agree, its that they CAN agree. Things that are subjective only have a personal frame of reference (and ‘personal’ is not the same thing as ‘subjective’). They are not amenable to confirmation of disconfirmation because they essentially write their own rules. Its the difference between playing a game of chess and messing around with toys in a sandbox: There is a certain kind of agreement implicit in a game of chess, but there need be no agreement whatsoever for two kids to push around toy cars and plastic dinosaurs. Agreement is irrelevant. They just do what they do.
So, agreement is often conditional and contingent. Its attempting to be on the same page. Universality is a great idea in theory, but a bit nebulous in practice. Ask any infant how far universality stops short…..
But even if we fall short of absolutely everyone always agreeing its still amazing what things we can agree on. We can still have provisional agreement, say, that something tastes sour, but what it actually tastes like is our own experience. That part is subjective. So where does agreement obtain with what we think of as subjective assessments? Something can taste sour to several people and sweet to others. It is both ‘non-subjectively sour’ and ‘non-subjectively sweet’ in that sense. Confusing!
But then we are no longer talking about what it actually tastes like to each individual. We are not talking about the experience itself: We are talking about how those sensations are described. We are talking about how we learned the world and how we negotiate meaning with other people. We are talking about where agreement overlaps. It oversimplifies things to suggest that either everyone completely agrees or there is no agreement. All or nothing. Disagreement isn’t the sign that its all in our heads. Rather, we agree because we agree to use the same terms for describing things. Its an agreement to agree. Anyone else see the dark humor in that?
The middle ground turns out to be the only place we can pin anything remotely ‘objective’ (especially if all it took were one person’s universality defying disagreement to overturn it….). If people can disagree about the qualities of craftsmanship (true), the nature of the content (true), the creative uniqueness (true), and the strength of composition (true), just what do we have left? The canons are not inscribed in the heavens for us to appeal to. And if each culture- and each person- has to invent or learn their own standards, at least we can do so in ways that sometimes agree with others. The world simply admits to multiple interpretations. Isn’t that just dandy!
Its the very same idea with beauty. Beauty is really out there in the world. Its not just in our heads. Its no less real than ‘blue’ or ‘cold’ or ‘composition’ or ‘fear’. Its not something we are making up as we go. We are acting on information that is out there. We see the world and we respond to it: Beauty. We don’t all have to agree for that to be the case. Its enough that some of us have learned to see it that way. But its not the only way.
The shared world doesn’t always line up perfectly with others’ takes on it. We get by on this imperfect agreement. We are not continually looking over our shoulders for others’ confirmation that we are not simply lost in a flight of delusion and pure subjective fantasy. Some things we fail to see are also legitimately seen by other people. The potential for disagreement is the nature of human existence. Our own interpretations are often just as valid as others’. There are reasons why we interpret things differently. Sometimes there is nothing independent to choose between them. Sometimes there is (Einsteinian Physics explains more than Newtonian Physics explains more than Copernican Physics explains more than Aristotelian Physics)…. Isn’t that grand!
The picture of things like Mathematics and Science seduces us. Even though math is a human invention it describes the world tolerably well. Its the ideal we feel all other explanation must live up to. And unfortunately ‘beauty’ is often also disrespected in the Arts as simply ‘too subjective’, a quaint personal reference that has nothing much to do with the ‘real’ world. There is no mathematical calculus for beauty. Not since Dada, at least….. But we can’t forget that there was an agenda that made it necessary to kill off beauty. Dada reminded us that the traditional canons of beauty were as arbitrary as the next. Beauty had to die for Art to move forward. Those institutionalized standards were unconscionable to a generation that had just lived through The War to End All Wars….. Those forms of beauty were an affront to the newly developing sensibilities. Can we blame them for such a strong reaction to the horrors of the world?
We seem to have digested that notion properly. “God is dead” and with him the ideals of “the physical and rational certainties of the clockwork universe depicted by the 18th-century Enlightenment.” Those standards have mostly been put to bed. But we are somehow still hung up on these other qualities that, not uncoincidentally, were just as antithetical to the absurdist agenda of the Dadas. You can’t kill beauty and expect to retain these other hobgoblins. Its hard to claim that these hard truths of Art (Craft, creativity, composition, and content) are ‘universally objective’ when just about everything else seems up for grabs in some corner of the world.
If ‘beauty’ failed in an absurd world, where precisely does composition fit? Craft? Staley’s Four Cs are as much the bias and preference of his own present day Caste (a quality he himself refers to as implicating the subjective) as almost any tool for grading art….. Hoisted on his own petard, I say! Verily!
Grading art has standards, but those standards are always linked to some set of disputable principles. Sound from where we are looking, but from another point of view they often seem arbitrary…. The Four C’s are as much an historical accident as the 19th Century cannons of beauty were. And art (unlike math and science) that only strives to live up to the standards is a poor excuse for art (in my meta standardization).
Engage whatever standards appeal to you. There is no ultimate ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ to human creativity. But don’t expect them to rewrite the history of art in your name. The great thing about art is that it is unfolding human potential. It evolves as the human context evolves. There is no final version, no end to ‘art’. It changes. Anyone who disagrees with you may have a point….
Evaluating and grading art is not so much about imposing your standards on other people as it is listening to what they have to say. And why would you put a ‘grade’ on that?
This is why I teach in a community arts center!
Make beauty real!