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Art Critics as Postmodern Scouts

By John Valentine

Thesis: Modernist standards of objectivity in aesthetic evaluation are illusory. (Consider Lyotard’s “…incredulity with respect to all metanarratives.”) Art evaluation cannot logically proceed via the traditional deductive model.

Conclusion: The only relevant role for art critics today is not rational evaluation by way of reason-giving, but rather the function of the scout or “pointer.” That is, the pointer goes to the art, experiences it, and reports his or her phenomenological experience in such a way that the report causes potential audiences to notice what he or she has noticed, and thus the audiences attempt emotively to experience/appreciate the same thing he or she did. If this process succeeds, the critic has completed his or her one and only task-that of the scout.

Thesis defender: Advocatus Diaboli.    Thesis critic: Advocate Artis

The Brief:

First Particular: Modern standards of objectivity in aesthetic evaluation are illusory.

A.    “Standards of objectivity” denotes rules/criteria for aesthetic evaluation that are provably foundational and universally accepted transculturally. Notwithstanding the empirical studies in the so-called science of beauty (which generally relate to biological factors such as facial and bodily attractiveness in terms of Darwinian sexual selection), such standards are a modernist illusion. They inevitably devolve into historical and socio-economic analyses of particular regimes and power elites (Foucault). The motto for such analyses might well be: “Might makes beautiful.”

B.    The traditional deductive model of aesthetic evaluation is as follows (Isenberg): Verdict, reason, norm. The verdict is the critical value judgment: “The Mona Lisa is aesthetically good.” The reason is justificatory: “The Mona Lisa has such-and-such a quality”; for example, intensity, complexity or unity. The norm is a general standard of objectivity: “Any work which has that quality is ipso facto aesthetically good or has a degree of aesthetic goodness.”

C. The traditional deductive model is defective.

Reason 1: All deductive models are axiomatic.

All such models presuppose premises that cannot be proved within the model itself. The premises would have to be proved via the premises of a different model, thus leading to an infinite regress of models. Thus, all premises of deductive models are subjectively asserted by way of intuitions or cultural assumptions. In other words, they are contra-objective in the extreme.

Reason 2: The traditional model confuses reasons with causes. For example, the proper semantic translation of the statement, “The Mona Lisa is aesthetically good because it is intense, complex and/or unified, and intensity (I), complexity (C), and/or unity (U) are always good-making norms,” is not that ICU are objective, transcultural standards from which one can deduce and justify particular reasons about particular verdicts relating to works of art. Rather, the statement in question merely functions as a causal stimulus. It causes audiences to pay more attention to the works in question and instills in them a desire to experience said works. Again, this is contra-objective in the extreme and deals simply with socially induced tastes that are enforced via various forms of enculturation.

Reason 3: In respect to any given aesthetic norm, it is possible to claim that one finds no correctness in the norm in the sense that one is not positively reinforced by the norm or even that one finds the norm aversive. Art criticism is not a science; quantification and empirical/deductive proof of norms is not possible. The only possible alternative is one or another form of emotivism (as claimed by Logical Positivists in the 1930s).

Second Particular: If the traditional deductive model of aesthetic standards is faulty, then the only meaningful role left for the art critic is pointing.

Jacques Derrida. Of Grammatology. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1977.

Jacques Derrida. Of Grammatology. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1977.

A. “Objective” pointing: By definition, objective pointing would occur if and only if any relevant audience member’s experience of a work of art coincided with the experience of the art-scout. This would entail that the member experienced the work in the same way the scout did. However, this assertion cannot (logically and psychologically) be verified because of Cartesian privacy. Also, many psychological studies suggest that observation statements are “framed”; that is, they are biased to a greater or lesser extent, often by unconscious factors. Thus, the assumption of objective pointing is naïve and unwarranted.

B. “Subjective” pointing: Therefore (assuming objective pointing to be dubious), the only route left to the art critic today is subjective pointing, which, by definition, occurs if and only if the critic and audience member make the psychological assumption that they are experiencing relevant features of the work of art in the same way or roughly the same way. Since such subjective pointing cannot be verified, it is at best a kind of approximation or guess. Critics point to works of art and talk/write about them; audiences listen to and/or read critical reviews. There is nothing especially rational about subjective pointing in the precise sense that would reference a valid deductive model of arguing about works by means of reason-giving (no such model exists).

Q.E.D.: The modernist illusion of rational discourse vis-à-vis the aesthetic evaluation of art must be abandoned. Critics must accept their roles as postmodern scouts.

The Debate

Advocate Artis - If “objectivity” is taken to mean “empirically quantifiable” as we find the term used in the sciences, then I will concede that objective aesthetic evaluation of art is impossible. It would make no sense, for example, to claim that the Mona Lisa has a specifiable number of beauty units upon which all observers would agree. (I might add parenthetically that “objectivity” as so defined is not always found in the empirical sciences themselves, since knowledge sometimes progresses there through hunches, intuitions and guesses. Of course, all these must be verified through competent peers using the standard scientific method.)

Advocatus Diaboli - So, you admit that objective aesthetic evaluation is not possible under any circumstances?

Advocate Artis - Not necessarily. You have defined “objective standards” as rules/criteria for aesthetic evaluation that are provably foundational and universally accepted transculturally. “Universally accepted” is undoubtedly too strong given the diversity of human cultures and populations, and if “universal” means “everybody”; however, consider the system of the late American philosopher Monroe Beardsley. Beardsley advocated evaluative pluralism. He argued that all works of art can be rationally evaluated-to a greater or lesser extent-by looking at criteria such as intensity, complexity, unity, craftsmanship and a range of more specific evaluational standards that are specific to particular fields or sub-fields within the art world. He also suggested that these criteria would best be applied by competent judges or genre-experts (thus following in the tradition of the Scottish philosopher David Hume and his famous article “Of the Standard of Taste”). So, to go back to the Mona Lisa, Beardsley would say that if the painting contains a degree of intensity, or complexity, or unity or any of the other criteria he alludes to, then it has a degree of aesthetic goodness. Presumably, if the painting has high enough degrees of these criteria, then overall we should be able to speak of it as a good (or even great) painting rather than simply possessing some of the criteria per se.

Advocatus Diaboli - There are many problems here. First, how does Beardsley define standards such as ICU (intensity, complexity and unity) and how can they be measured, since his language implies the possibility of such measurement? Look at intensity, for example. It sounds hopelessly subjective.

Advocate Artis - For the record, Beardsley was a formalist. So, for him, intensity means how a work of art strikes one or more of the senses. Complexity means how layered or detailed the work is, and unity means how the work holds its aspects or layers together in terms of a dynamic gestalt. Intensity does indeed have a considerable subjective element to it, but is it totally so? The most dependable way to try to defend the relative objectivity of intensity-and the other two criteria as well-seems to be to postulate the existence of competent art judges/critics who compare given works against paradigm cases of excellence. For instance, given the human propensity to look at or be attracted to human faces and the human form, portraiture within the classical genre of representational realism can be evaluated by its success or failure as related to standard cases that have survived the test of time and intercultural acceptance. The gold standard for facial/bodily representation might be a da Vinci or a Raphael (among others). Thus, making such a comparison, the critic might be rationally entitled to say that another representational portrait is aesthetically good or bad. He/she might also be justified (in terms of their broad experience) in saying that “The use of colors here is vibrant and intense,” “The portrait is exquisitely detailed,” and “The final result is highly unified in terms of technical and compositional factors.”

Advocatus Diaboli - Really, all this sounds like snobbery masquerading as objectivity. The notion of objective evaluational competence-the idea of genre expertise-sounds naïve in the extreme. Where do these standards come from? Do they not have cultural/political/economic backgrounds? And how does one achieve the lofty (I would even say impossible) status of the competent, objective art judge? Isn’t all this merely a rationalization of one’s own subjective likes/dislikes? And doesn’t it devolve into intertextual influences? Read Derrida on the “parergon,” or subjective framing of a work of art; Foucault on the role of narratives of power and who controls them; Baudrillard on the dissolution of the notion of “reality”; and so on. These and other theorists in Postmodernism have brought to bear overwhelming critiques of your modernist assumptions.

Advocate Artis - True enough, the critiques have been brought to bear, but are they decisive? Are Derrida’s comments about “framing” themselves a frame? If so, we may treat them as such; if not, he is self-referentially inconsistent in the sense that he would be telling us about that which is truly the case. Are Foucault’s narratives about power themselves a sort of “power-narrative”? In what sense are they true if truth is solely a function of the discourses of the power elites? And isn’t Baudrillard’s notion of hyperreality a somewhat quixotic way of telling us what is the case in the contemporary world of images? In other words, isn’t he describing the new reality of the Internet Age? But all that being said, I want to return to the issue of standards and competent art judges. Undoubtedly, evaluational standards have histories to them, but it doesn’t follow from this that they cannot be debated, defended and applied to works of art, especially (as I have said) in paradigm cases of excellence. Consider: Audiences of works of art are always interested in the purpose of the work; whether the artist has achieved that purpose (even though such achievement is not necessarily decisive in proclaiming the work good or bad); the various types of intensity, complexity, and unity that the work presents; its craftsmanship; its creativity; and so on. It isn’t just that people across the world’s cultures ought to consider all these criteria; in fact, they do consider them when evaluating art. This leads into the question of deductive models for evaluating art. You are right in alluding to Arnold Isenberg’s “verdict, reason, norm” model (see above). If evaluational norms are axiomatic within any given deductive critique of a work of art, it is strictly true that they cannot be proven within that critique, but it’s inductively likely that the norms are valid based on what most people value in artworks most of the time. And, following David Hume’s suggestions in “Of the Standard of Taste,” we may say that competence in art evaluation is a learned skill. It must be practiced and honed by individuals who have keen senses, who can remain relatively (if not totally) unbiased in critiques, who have considerable experience in genre-areas, who appreciate paradigm cases of excellence and why they are excellent, who understand the nature and importance of technique and craftsmanship, and so on.

Monroe C. Beardsley. Aesthetics from Classical Greece to the Present. The University of Alabama Press, 1966.

Monroe C. Beardsley. Aesthetics from Classical Greece to the Present. The University of Alabama Press, 1966.

Advocatus Diaboli - I remain unconvinced. Look at the PBS show Antiques Roadshow, for example. What a display of emotivism and subjectivism. Masses of greedy people appear in hopes that the so-called experts will praise their heirlooms and appraise them highly. The whole farce is driven by the agenda of kowtowing to the arbitrary tastes of snobs. There is nothing remotely objective about any of this, and moreover the evaluative statements of the “experts” only function in the way of causing people to notice what the judges notice and agree with the judges’ market evaluation of each piece. And don’t try to evade the problem of establishing your “paradigm cases of excellence.” How hopeless is this. And circular: A paradigm case instantiates ICU and other criteria to a high degree, and we know these criteria are important because we find them in paradigm cases. It’s more intellectually honest simply to concede that art critics only point (in ways described earlier) and that there is nothing rational about what they do.

Advocate Artis - But what is circular about inductively concluding that most people who experience art appreciate it more if it is well-made, creative, intense/complex/unified, etc., and has stood the test of time and intercultural acceptance? A reasonable criterion of whether a work of art is desirable is whether it is desired (notice I’m not trying to collapse the is/ought gap by equating the desirable and the desired). Humans-especially those with wide experience in the arts-can usually tell when a work is done well and has high levels of the aforementioned criteria. The philosopher Denis Dutton makes this point in his book The Art Instinct. Briefly, he claims that what most people look for in good art involves some combination-or even all-of the following standards: direct pleasure; skill and virtuosity; a recognizable style according to rules of form, composition or expression; novelty and creativity; situatedness within a critical nexus of judgment and appreciation; a separate and dramatic focus of experience; expressive individuality; emotional saturation; intellectual challenge; and an imaginative experience for both producers of art and art audiences. Given the evolutionary preponderance of these standards, this is how paradigms emerge historically. Now, it is certainly open to anyone to reject the idea of paradigm cases or announce that he/she doesn’t like any given example of one. But how does that invalidate rational art evaluation in general? Enough people will agree on evaluative standards in order to establish the basis for rational discourse. And as to the experts on Antiques Roadshow, most, if not all, of them exactly instantiate Hume’s criteria for competent discussion of artistic value. True enough, they usually talk about monetary value, but not always. They often discuss the aesthetic value of the pieces brought to them. And if you listen to their arguments, they make points for or against specific works based on criteria to which I’ve already alluded. Thus, they aren’t just pointing to things they want us to notice, they are also evaluating. Surely, you can see that, when critics point to aspects of works of art, they have already made a value judgment: The aspect is worth pointing at. And they usually want to tell us why that is so.

Advocatus Diaboli - Ramble on as you will, there is no way you can convince me that the art world is not basically run by an elite capitalistic aristocracy that manipulates tastes as to good and bad art. The objectivity of art evaluation died with Modernism. Today, egalitarianism rules: if you like a work, it’s ipso facto good; if you don’t, it’s bad. If it pleases you, it’s good; if not, it’s bad. And the narrative of the art critic is nothing more than “yay” or “boo” when he or she writes an article in The New York Times!

Advocate Artis - Well, I have no doubt that today there is a marriage of art and money. But that’s not the main point. You claim that “X is aesthetically good” is completely reducible to “I like X” or “X pleases me.” But the English philosopher G.E. Moore at the beginning of the 20th century already showed that these equations are semantic fallacies, and that “good” is not tautologically reducible to “liking” or “pleasure.” And no one would really suppose that art critics have no reasons for their “yay” or “boo” statements about art. To do so would be to treat all artworks as having equal aesthetic value: my painting of a figure would be just as good as a painting of the same figure by Raphael. Surely, this is absurd and no one in the art world really believes it to be true. If they did, they would immediately have to eliminate museum shows, gallery exhibits, instruction in art colleges, prize competitions, and so on. Quality is real and it matters.

Advocatus Diaboli - Enough for the moment! Let’s agree to disagree and return to these issues again when we have consulted with our fellow partisans. I still believe you are a sophist and your arguments are suspect.

Advocate Artis - Very well, then, let’s continue to think about all this. It does seem as if much is at stake. And let me remind you, my friend, that even the sophists realized they were bound by the rules of logic.

John Valentine is a professor of philosophy and has taught at the Savannah College of Art and Design since 1990. His publication credits include the textbook Beginning Aesthetics (McGraw-Hill, 2007), as well as articles in the Florida Philosophical Review, the Southwest Philosophy Review, the Journal of Philosophical Research, the Journal of Speculative Philosophy and The Philosopher; poetry published in various journals, including The Sewanee Review, The Midwest Quarterly and the Southern Poetry Review, among others; and six chapbooks of poetry.


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