BREAKING NEWS: Scientists confirm Objective Quality in Art

That’s a joke, of course.

But imagine if it were serious. What would it look like? What would a detached and impartial scientific determination of artistic quality look like? A group of white lab coat wearing technicians studying a monitor to see the response from their instruments? A long probe pointed at the artwork, gathering the facts, and scientists huddled safely behind the protective screen? Digital calipers and micrometers calibrating the exact dimensions while tiny samples are harvested for a full spectrum chemical analysis and laser strobes measure the surface opacity and light refraction? An iPhone app you can walk into any museum and scan the collection with? Surveillance microphones monitoring incoming ambient sound for its decisive aesthetic character? Satellite optical arrays scanning, measuring, and calculating ranges of quality as artists hold their work up to the heavens for inspection? Well dressed robots with comprehensive data banks in the seats at theatre openings and concerts?

Technology and imagination just seem to be so well suited for one another (From one direction, at least)……. Its not impossible to imagine that even the most important advance in Artificial Intelligence will be to have the Art itself made by the objective calculations of a machine……

art probe P-1000

One wonders if it would take something like the precision and impartiality of a machine to navigate safely to an art objective stance, like scanners at security check points and goal line technology in soccer, radar guns in baseball and the Hawkeye tennis line-calling system…. The problem with subjectivity is that its too human. Whatever it does right, it gets basic things wrong and for so many reasons. Human perception alone is notoriously inadequate, much less for its use as a basis of judgment (I sit here writing this wearing glasses without which I could barely see what I’m doing….). And when we get to judgment, calling ‘strikes and balls’, no wonder the human ‘umpire’ gets vilified so often for ‘missing the call’ or for having the ‘zone’ in the wrong place. Humans looking at art always seem to miss the correct calls, and inevitably to others they have arbitrary or random seeming zones.

Maybe we do need something more definitive, more authoritative, to identify and rate the quality in art? What we really seem to need are the impartial observations of technologically facilitated and disinterested scientists:

Crack scientists from the Institute For Artistic Quality Quantification

Crack scientists from the Institute for Objective Artistic Quality Quantification and Control

Still, though human technicians and designers could calibrate to specific parameters the question remains whether science and technology would judge works as art, or simply as measures of certain agreed upon criteria. In other words, who decides what is being measured, and who decides what things count as more quality and less? Who decides if its relevant as art in the first place? For every sanctified museum there are a thousand Salon des Refusés. Museums themselves can’t always agree what is art and often proudly display the contradicting ideals within their own walls. The truth is that no matter how good the technology, the qualitative criteria itself is universally provided by the infinitely fallible, inconsistent, and biased opinions of the humans behind the scenes. We’ve only succeeded in moving the bias one rung deeper, and it might still be impossible to remove the human factor without in some way negating the humans themselves.

For instance, and in keeping with the science fiction angle, for an uninvested, disinterested, and therefor potentially unbiased judgment we might one day appeal to aliens passing through our solar system. Every human authority would have a chauvinistic pan in the fire, so to speak, and could be disqualified on the basis of simply being human, having human tastes, and culture. Replacing the conditionality of human bias is the necessary and only chance for objectivity, and it might very well take an alien culture to see past the human contingency and myopia to find anything resembling objective quality in art. Petty human chauvinisms and proselytizing always seem to speak louder than any grand universal objectivity……

Fantastical ‘What if?’s aside, the problem is that for a thing to be judged as art it needs to be understood as art. Art isn’t simply a natural category like, say, Geology or Physics. What counts as a Physical or Geological property is far less ambiguous than what counts as ‘art’ (and for some art ambiguity is precisely what is being aimed at). You need to also know the difference between ‘good’ art and ‘bad’ art, which simply means that you have to prefer some things and ignore others. You can’t like everything equally, and if you don’t already like it you won’t be inclined to weigh it favorably. That’s simply the weight of human psychology talking. And as discussed before, sometimes you have to dislike certain things in order to appreciate others, as perversely contrarian as that may seem. For instance, the structure of Baroque Classical Music and the discordant riffs of Improvisational Jazz are a poor marriage at best, and if you value one you may be incapable of seeing the merits of the other. To do so successfully might require an aesthetic schizophrenia.

Which is an interesting point as far as objectivity goes. Objectivity claims that there is a level playing field from which all details can be judged in an unbiased and systematic way. Objectivity gathers incontrovertible ‘facts’. But what happens when promoting one quality interferes with our ability to properly asses others? What happens when my appreciation for one form of art, the standards peculiar to it, is not only a contrast to some other form of art but actively contradicts it? What’s good in one counts as bad in another? What happens if there is simply no higher vantage point that sees both sets of qualities as equal and can without prejudice compare between them? Isn’t that necessarily the claim that objectivity brings to the table? And isn’t it simply unreasonable where art is concerned?

For instance, to measure the aesthetic worth of representational painting you have one set of standards, you are playing by these specific rules. But to measure the worth of expressionist or impressionist painting those representational standards not only need to be revised but perhaps thrown out entirely. If you are a potter making tight pots quality looks like one thing, and if you are throwing loose it looks like something very different. If you are working at putting value into the surface quality it will be judged one way, and if you are laboring to execute the best possible form it will be judged another. You may need to sacrifice one to get the other. One might distract from the other. And so on and so forth…..

The idea being that quality in art is connected to human intentions and embedded in culture. You can’t simply get the human out of the equation because its only the actions of humans that puts it there. There is no universally objective standpoint for assessing quality in art because art is only done under the extreme pressures of a human perspective and bias. It only counts as art because humans have put it on pedestals and hung it in galleries and watched it on stages. And if Duchamp can put readymade bicycle wheels and urinals there, if John Cage can sit quietly and let the ambient sound penetrate an audience, then art can quite obviously be seen more as a feature of human permission and proclivities than a necessary natural category.

‘Tis but thy name that is my enemy;
Thou art thyself, though not a Montague.
What’s Montague? it is nor hand, nor foot,
Nor arm, nor face, nor any other part
Belonging to a man. O, be some other name!
What’s in a name? that which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet;
So Romeo would, were he not Romeo call’d,
Retain that dear perfection which he owes
Without that title. Romeo, doff thy name,
And for that name which is no part of thee
Take all myself.

Art starts with humans caring about some peculiarity of the state of things. Art fractures the world according to the things that we care about. Art generally makes the world more specific, not less. The quality of art typically depends on its peculiarity and particularity, not its universality. Art demonstrates the creative capacity of ALL imaginative beings, not a single creator or authoritative genesis of quality. Objectivity simply seems like a poor fit for the diversity and heterogeneity of artistic practice and objectives. Different artists simply care about different things, and that makes art itself a fragile human capacity rather than an enduring universal first cause or underlying objective measuring stick…..

The folks looking for some outside authority to establish objective qualities in art often seem to have an investment in promoting one version of standards over others (their own well earned and culturally harvested, of course). And since it seems quite obvious that their own opinions are valid (and they are), the question is “How can they not at the same time also be universal? Just like the truths of science?” The fear being that if what I believe in is no more ‘right’ than what other folks believe it all ends up as subjectively relative, and in that case it seems necessary that simply anything goes (shudder)….

Some folks are just uncomfortable with the smallness of a human perspective, and the idea of objectivity at least seems to provide an escape. Entire Cathedrals and sanctified institutions have been erected on the basis of our very human need for higher authority. Is it any wonder that people who care a lot about art are tempted to look for objectivity there as well? Don’t we want our cherished opinions to at least sometimes be true? There is sometimes more comfort in knowing that we are ignorant/wrong as long as someone is still objectively right…… (That’s why we have gatekeepers and priests, after all)

The problem is that art is not susceptible to scientific disinterest in the same way that the force of gravity is or the mineral composition of rocks. At least, any attempt to pin down precise qualities in one direction of art by definition contradicts the notion of qualities in other directions of art. In so far as art is an attempt to find and create meaning in the universe, its not simply a reporting of facts. At its very heart art is itself an interpretation. What, exactly, does that tell us?

The Laws of Nature coexist in celestial harmony (or at least pretend not to tread on each other’s earthbound feet), but the truth is that art is purposely breaking its own sacred rules all the time, implacably overturning unimpeachable standards, and tirelessly moving beyond hallowed traditions. It seems that as soon as you have narrowed the focus enough to properly asses one simple thing you either are faced with a new generation of evolving standards or you simply have to block out everything else.

The rules of Physics and Geology were written at the moment of the Big Bang. If there was a God (and by this I mean the sort of God who stands outside of time, not the capricious worldly gods of some cultures) her hand would be visible there, in the immutable Laws of Nature, and for all time. Looking back and looking forward its the same. The rules of art, however, started when the first human thought creatively and will end somewhere very different by the time the last human has expressed herself imaginatively….. The Laws of Art are being continuously rewritten. You can look backwards through its evolution and make sense, but there is no possible way to objectively predict the future course. The ideas of future quality have themselves not yet been written. So,

Objectivity means finding the one right vantage point to see the most clearly by. In art assessing quality means setting up your instruments first in one place and then jumping around repeatedly to cover all the relevant bases and as new ideas are born into the world. There is no Big Bang in art, simply an evolution from amoebic single celled organisms living in the primordial ooze and algal photosynthesizers floating aimlessly, to multi celled beings swimming purposefully in the salty soup, to legged creatures hungrily crawling on the shores with plants and fungus sprouting, to winged beasts and bugs vigorously flying overhead, to self reflective and emotional characters laughing, and loving, and telling stories, and experiencing existential crises…..

(Consider for a moment how far circumstances have strayed from pure physical laws once consciousness has been introduced, how that changes things. Consider for a moment how unnecessary ANY cultural manifestation is. Different cultures tell us it could have been different, it has been different, and it will be different again, evermore. Objectivity handles necessity, the facts, if it handles anything, but how does it come to grips with Freedom?)

The branches of art’s evolution are as fragmented and distinct from one another as can be, especially the further we travel in time. Each new stage writes its own rules, and each focus tells its own story. Fins are good for swimming but not for walking. Or flying. If you want to tell the story of mammals you can’t simply pretend there are not also invertebrates with their own independent reasons for being. The universal or objective things about art are not found in its diverse qualities, its many branches and flowerings, but in the connection it has to human endeavor and imagination. To being human. But we care mostly about the fragments, we care about the differences. The qualities of art are what makes them unique. In the end art is a celebration of the possibility for difference, and the subjectivity of a human experience……..


“You can’t think a story — you can’t think, “I shall do a story to improve mankind.” It’s nonsense! All the great stories, all the really worthwhile plays, are emotional experiences. If you have to ask yourself whether you love a girl, or whether you love a boy, forget it — you don’t! A story is the same way — you either feel a story and need to write it, or you’d better not write it.” Ray Bradbury

When you get right down to it, art is about the most human thing you can do. And that’s, perhaps, why we all seem to do it a bit differently……

Things to think about, at least……

Peace all!

Happy potting!

Make beauty real!


About Carter Gillies

I am an active potter and sometime pottery instructor who is fascinated by the philosophical side of making pots, teaching these skills, and issues of the artistic life in general. I seem to have a lot to say on this blog, but I don't insist that I'm right. I'm always trying to figure stuff out, and part of that involves admitting that I am almost always wrong in important ways. If you are up for it, please help me out by steering my thoughts in new and interesting directions. I always appreciate the challenge of learning what other people think.
This entry was posted in Art, Ceramics, Creativity, Imagination, metacognition, Pottery. Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to BREAKING NEWS: Scientists confirm Objective Quality in Art

  1. Richard Feynman:

    “It is a great adventure to contemplate the universe beyond man, to think of what it means without man — as it was for the great part of its long history, and as it is in the great majority of places. When this objective view is finally attained, and the mystery and majesty of matter are appreciated, to then turn the objective eye back on man viewed as matter, to see life as part of the universal mystery of greatest depth, is to sense an experience which is rarely described. It usually ends in laughter, delight in the futility of trying to understand. These scientific views end in awe and mystery, lost at the edge in uncertainty, but they appear to be so deep and so impressive that the theory that it is all arranged simply as a stage for God to watch man’s struggle for good and evil seems to be inadequate.”

  2. More Feynman:

    “It is imperative in science to doubt; it is absolutely necessary, for progress in science, to have uncertainty as a fundamental part of your inner nature. To make progress in understanding, we must remain modest and allow that we do not know. Nothing is certain or proved beyond all doubt. You investigate for curiosity, because it is unknown, not because you know the answer. And as you develop more information in the sciences, it is not that you are finding out the truth, but that you are finding out that this or that is more or less likely.

    That is, if we investigate further, we find that the statements of science are not of what is true and what is not true, but statements of what is known to different degrees of certainty… Every one of the concepts of science is on a scale graduated somewhere between, but at neither end of, absolute falsity or absolute truth.”

  3. Henry David Thoreau:

    “My desire for knowledge is intermittent, but my desire to bathe my head in atmospheres unknown to my feet is perennial and constant. The highest that we can attain to is not Knowledge, but Sympathy with Intelligence. I do not know that this higher knowledge amounts to anything more definite than a novel and grand surprise on a sudden revelation of the insufficiency of all that we called Knowledge before — a discovery that there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamed of in our philosophy. It is the lighting up of the mist by the sun. Man cannot know in any higher sense than this, any more than he can look serenely and with impunity in the face of the sun: “You will not perceive that, as perceiving a particular thing,” say the Chaldean Oracles.”

  4. Robin Wall Kimmerer:

    “We poor myopic humans, with neither the raptor’s gift of long-distance acuity, nor the talents of a housefly for panoramic vision. However, with our big brains, we are at least aware of the limits of our vision. With a degree of humility rare in our species, we acknowledge there is much we can’t see, and so contrive remarkable ways to observe the world. Infrared satellite imagery, optical telescopes, and the Hubble space telescope bring vastness within our visual sphere. Electron microscopes let us wander the remote universe of our own cells. But at the middle scale, that of the unaided eye, our senses seem to be strangely dulled. With sophisticated technology, we strive to see what is beyond us, but are often blind to the myriad sparkling facets that lie so close at hand. We think we’re seeing when we’ve only scratched the surface. Our acuity at this middle scale seems diminished, not by any failing of the eyes, but by the willingness of the mind. Has the power of our devices led us to distrust our unaided eyes? Or have we become dismissive of what takes no technology but only time and patience to perceive? Attentiveness alone can rival the most powerful magnifying lens.


    Having words for these forms makes the differences between them so much more obvious. With words at your disposal, you can see more clearly. Finding the words is another step in learning to see.


    Having the words also creates an intimacy with the plant that speaks of careful observation.


    Intimacy gives us a different way of seeing, when visual acuity is not enough.


    Its life and ours exist only because of a myriad of synchronicities that bring us to this particular place at this particular moment. In return for such a gift, the only sane response is to glitter in reply.”

  5. Christopher Knight:

    “For the debut exhibition in its newly opened building in downtown Manhattan, the Whitney introduces a fifth-floor gallery with a wall text that makes a slew of incoherent claims about critics of their 1993 Biennial exhibition. I’m the only critic named, and the WhitneySpeak is rather more malicious than tossing a simple oxymoron like “jumbo shrimp” or “the living dead.”

    WhitneySpeak: My review attacked the show’s art and artists as lacking quality.

    Reality: My review attacked the show’s curatorial thesis as lacking quality.

    WhitneySpeak: My review was narrow-minded, blaming the lack of quality on the unprecedented racial, sexual and gender diversity of the show’s artists.

    Reality: My review was open-minded, blaming the lack of curatorial quality on the strictly uniform type of art that museum staff required.

    WhitneySpeak: The avalanche of withering reviews, with mine singled out as “typical,” came from conservative critics.

    Reality: Negative reviews came from across the critical spectrum, including Roberta Smith writing in the New York Times – not exactly a conservative darling – and Arthur Danto in The Nation, a century-old magazine self-described as “the flagship of the left.”

    WhitneySpeak: The negative reviews of a multicultural show represented distaste for “political correctness.”

    Reality: My review even went so far as to say, “Forget ‘multicultural’ or ‘politically correct’.” Those red herrings are irrelevant to the show’s actual problem.

    That problem – and it’s a serious one – was that the Whitney finally invited a diverse array of artists to participate in one of its closely watched, potentially career-making Biennial exhibitions, but then promptly stereotyped them. The show stipulated that art by historically marginalized artists had to confront marginality to be of any value.

    Pretty much anything else was kicked to the curb – unless it was art by a straight, white male. Then, establishment social privilege was allowed to remain unconfronted and invisible.”

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