The Eye of the Beholder

by Chris Horner

De gustibus non est disputandum —Roman Maxim

How can I know what I think until I see what I say? —EM Forster

When I first began to take photography seriously, as a practitioner as well as a viewer, I naturally discussed the activity with other photographers. It wasn’t long before I noticed a paradox in the way they view what they do. On the one hand, it is widely accepted that photographic results are subjective: if you like what you do, its enough: you should ‘shoot for you’, not for anyone else’s taste, because nobody can be right or wrong about what makes a good image. On the other hand there is a tendency to search out the opinions of others, talking about improving, learning from other photographers and generally getting better at the craft. Some is about the technical business of using the camera to best effect, but much more is about the notion achieving the goal of making aesthetically  ‘better’ pictures. To this end certain photographers in the various genres (landscape, street, portrait etc) are held up as exemplars (Ansel Adams, Cartier Bresson etc). So it seems that there is the belief that judgment is entirely subjective, and yet, somehow, not. But what makes something ‘better’ when it it comes to art?

A few years ago, there was a debate in the pages of a British newspaper along the lines of ‘is Keats better than Bob Dylan?’. Mainly futile, I think, as the unanswered question was surely better at what? It’s not clear that one can usefully compare -and rank -an early 19th century lyric poet with a 20th/21st singer-songwriter, because they aren’t really doing the same thing. Another half submerged question lurking in the discussion, was really: are there standards by which we can assess the excellence or otherwise of a work of art? Is there is a qualitative difference between the novels of Tolstoy and those of Dan Brown – or should we just say, ‘if you like it, it’s as good as anything else’? Here, I think, the discussion often gets confused. So we have a debate about excellence, or worth, judged according to an uncertain standard; and conflated with that another about the canon, about ‘high’ and ‘low’ art, so called. Here you might well be tempted to dismiss it all, and just say ‘if I like it, its enough’, or maybe better: ‘there are no standards beyond ones own taste’. If that is so, we might as well just shut up about what we like or don’t like in art. A person just has the response they happen to have, and different people will have different responses. The rest is, or should be, silence.

But then, how do we account very widely held agreements in the estimations of things, the superiority of Beethoven over Hummel, say, if not over Jay-Z? If the judgement of art is really so subjective, it is surprising how much agreement there actually is, at least about what counts as really outstanding. But perhaps that comes from a collective brainwashing, and the belief that A is better than B is just ideology. Perhaps the judgments we make aren’t really about intrinsic worth, and more about class, aspiration, status symbols etc, as the French sociologist Bourdieu claimed. One signals one’s ‘taste’ as a middle class consumer by preferring ‘high’ art to ‘low’ (or more accurately these days, by showing one’s taste includes rap and classical music). There is some truth in this, but it is too reductionist to be the whole answer. Aesthetic judgment becomes only a  function of class position. It misses the point that we are interested in: whether there is a justification for talking about art or beauty that goes beyond ‘I like/don’t like’. What do the philosophers say?

Hume, Kant and Hegel have all discussed aesthetic judgment. I haven’t space to deal properly with their arguments. A few points are worth noting, though. Hume denies any ‘objective’ validity to aesthetic judgement but, perhaps paradoxically, thinks there are standards of judgment. He argues that there can be better or worse judges, and that a better judge will show by their taste that they are a superior judge of art. One wonders how we can know what a true judge is in a way that isn’t circular, as the true judge just seems to be the one who makes the kind of judgments we would expect a true judge to make. Part of the answer, it seems, is that the better judge will have more experience and take greater care when they pronounce on art. So we have  the judge who knows enough about the subject matter to make an informed judgment. Not all judgments are equal.

Kant grasps the paradox that while judgements about art can’t be insisted on in the same way that they can about truth and falsity, we still want to insist to others that this, here, is beautiful. Judgments about art matter to us and we want to share them. This seems to capture part of what is happening when we judge art. Yet for Kant, this seems to be about just a shared feeling, or vibration that those exposed to beauty share. While this is promising in one way – he recognises that judgement is not entirely solitary, it seems to problematically depend on a mysterious faculty to be moved in a certain way. There is an obvious circularity to the claim that the sign you have taste is that you, like us, respond in this way, and that you respond in this way because you have taste. But what if you don’t respond in the same way? Are you an unfeeling clod, to be exiled from the magic circle of taste? 

Hegel offers us a way forward here. For him, judgements of art are always also judgments about us, since art is one way in which the human spirit changes and fashions the world in its own image. Art, along with ethics, economics, politics, religion etc., is a way in which we understand ourselves. In this it is profoundly historical and social. And so while art requires a different kind of attention appropriate to what it is, our involvement with it and the way we judge it cannot be understood as if it stood on its own, entirely divorced from our other activities. We can think as well as feel about art. Let me explain.

The mistake is to either think of aesthetic judgment as simply subjective or objective. It lies between. When we make, watch, listen or discuss art, we bring our whole self to the event, a self that is part of a time and place, and that has a history. This means we  bring what our culture and time in history knows about itself, which cannot be divorced from everything else that has happened. The differences between, say, how Hegel and his contemporaries enjoyed Rossini and how the 1960s New York art scene both influenced and responded to The Velvet Underground, aren’t really illuminated by simple judgments of ‘better’ or ‘worse’. The world, including art, had changed radically. Mid 20th century ideas about the unconscious, of the validity of randomness, and much more, differentiate the art made then to that of (say) 1810. But not entirely. Affinities as well as differences are illuminated by the art of later time. When the new arrives it changes the way we see the past; for instance, many of the ways of seeing and feeling that gripped the 20th century New York art scene had its forerunners in the romanticism of the 19th (Baudelaire and Rimbaud weren’t accidentally important to Lou Reed and Patti Smith). The art of the present changes the way we understand and judge that of the past; the conversation about art happens across time as well as space.

Our responses to art aren’t right or wrong in any straightforward way. Aesthetic judgment isn’t like maths. But there are better and worse ways of engaging with art, and of making sense of it. One essential is a certain kind of an openness to what may be new and different, strange and unsettling. That openness doesn’t mean that we switch our minds off, and certainly, some art will not seem attractive because we think it fails in some way. But we need to be patient with art, as we may come to see virtues in something we once disliked or found baffling, if we give it time,  if we ask not ‘what does this mean?’ But rather ‘what is this art trying to mean?’. Or we may come to wonder what on earth we saw in something that our earlier self thought was great. Judgement is always open to revision. 

Our judgements change, and I think we can become better judges of art, just as we can become more accomplished at making it. Here we cannot dispense with the notion of more or less informed judgment, whether it is one’s own or another’s.  In this respect it is just like the other things we do. Our judgments, criticisms and discussions continue the art work into the rest of our lives. The discussion aspect here is vital: for when we speak, write and listen new vistas can open up. If we attend to what others have to say we may learn something. They may have noticed something we missed, or be coming to the work with a perspective we hadn’t considered, or they might just know more than us about the kind of art under discussion. We needn’t feel coerced by this, as nothing says we have to agree. Also, the very attempt to articulate what we think and feel, to communicate it, can clarify our own thinking and get us beyond our initial impressions which we may come to view as inadequate.

Judgments about art are provisional. In this respect they are like most of the things that matter to us. For between the things that are just true or false and those that are entirely personal and arbitrary lies much of what we care most about: love, ethics, politics, society, other people, and more. Art, too, and what we make of it, belongs there. There is no reason to imagine ourself as locked into private worlds of wordless feeling. So when my photographer friends make an image, and when we discuss it, we are responding to and making sense of a shared world. Such a thing is not just real and possible, it is part of what makes life worth living.

All photographs are by the author.