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February 28, 2005

Comments

Jon Ihle

You're right that it's a sneaky question, but it only works because their is a widespread, virtually unarguable, agreement on what constitutes good art. If we accept that judgments about art are exclusively a matter of personal taste, how do we account for this agreement? Either there is very little variation in personal taste, in which case the personal is nearly synonymous with the universal, or we have to accept that our 'taste' is conditioned by some normative factor (ideology is the usual culprit). So either there are indeed objective standards by which we judge art (and you have simply mistaken these standards for your personal taste) or the standards are socially/ideologically constructed but your subjectivity, to exist at all, has repressed this knowledge. Which do you prefer?

Frank McGahon

I'm going to resist the invitation to choose from your alternatives!

Seriously, I don't see the conflict between the widespread, virtually unarguable agreement about art and art as personal taste. You're begging the question in characterising this variation in personal taste as "little" (and thus concluding the personal to be "nearly synonymous with the universal"). Little compared to what? This is like saying that the range of heights for adult men is so narrow - between 5 and 7 feet or so - as to be nearly synonymous with a "virtually" universal height. Another way of looking at it is that, just as we are generally constrained by our genes and our evironment to fall withing that "narrow" range of heights, so are we constrained by our genes and environment (which includes society and culture) to choose from, say, a tiny minority of all possible musical arrangements. This is not quite the same as saying that the quasi-standards which flow from these constraints are socially or ideologically "constructed", or at at least in the way you imply. These beliefs are no more or less "socially constructed" than we are, or are you heading down that cartesian materialist cul-de-sac in suggesting that "real" subjectivity is the preserve of some sort of disembodied mind sovereign from the physical world?

Jon Ihle

I just don't see what's so personal about a taste that regards, along with pretty much everyone, Michelangelo as great. I see two explanations for this convergence of the personal and the universal: 1) there really are objective standards of aesthetic judgment or 2) our aesthetic judgments are constructed in such a way that we each produce a notion of personal taste that exactly aligns with a historically/ideologically/socially determined set of standards, especially when we are judging artifacts, like the work of Michelangelo, that in fact form the basis for deriving those standards. In other words, you have a preference for Michelangelo because your standards are received historically and the history of those standards runs right through the Italian renaissance. Do you see anothe way of looking at it?

This, of course, goes back to Aristotle arriving at what he presumed was a universal aesthetics by analysing what we now call classical drama. The standards of aesthetic judgment we have derived from Aristotle onwards are not based in necessity, but the contingency of this first recorded act of judgment. The question, really, is aesthtic judgment natural (in the philosophical sense) or not? I happen to believe it is not. Yet we all manage to agree on the greatness of Michelangelo. I've offered an explanation for how that has happened. You've made a bizarre analogy to the statistical distribution of male height. Huh?

Frank McGahon

2) our aesthetic judgments are constructed in such a way that we each produce a notion of personal taste that exactly aligns with a historically/ideologically/socially determined set of standards, especially when we are judging artifacts, like the work of Michelangelo, that in fact form the basis for deriving those standards. In other words, you have a preference for Michelangelo because your standards are received historically and the history of those standards runs right through the Italian renaissance. Do you see anothe way of looking at it?

It's not so much another way as a difference of emphasis. The problem you have with 2) is that you are drawing unnecessary inferences from the quasi-standards which have evolved and insist on seeing them as "historically/ideologically/socially determined" as if there was some useful distinction between the way such aesthetic standards came to be and the way contemporary humans have come to be.

The other problem is that you are assuming an exact alignment between the personal and universal instead of a range of personal preferences congregating about a mean universal (which is where the height analogy comes in). It happens to be the case that I appreciate (most of) the work of Michaelangelo and I studied some of it at Architecture school. I also appreciate the work of Le Corbusier about which there is no equivalent consensus. It probably wouldn't take too long to come up with some artist "universally" appreciated whom I don't personally hold in high regard.

The standards of aesthetic judgment we have derived from Aristotle onwards are not based in necessity, but the contingency of this first recorded act of judgment. The question, really, is aesthtic judgment natural (in the philosophical sense) or not? I happen to believe it is not. Yet we all manage to agree on the greatness of Michelangelo. I've offered an explanation for how that has happened.

I don't think you've offered an explanation so much as a set of assumptions about how cultural preferences emerged based not on human nature but as some sort of chain of events from classical drama. This isn't exactly a parsimonious theory and would fail to explain any parallels observed between the aesthetic preferences of groups separated prior to Classical Greece or, say, any preference for certain colours, shapes or melodies expressed by newborns.

I maintain that the quasi-standards which have emerged are rooted in human nature and cultural evolution. That is there are constraints on what people will generally find pleasing and they aren't all based on an arbitrary chain of events (even though some of them might be). My larger point - and this relates to the idea of free will - is that we don't exist independent of that physical reality and chain of events. So, if you want to maintain that we don't have "real" subjectivity (or "real" free will) because "real" subjectivity (or "real" free will) requires a sovereign mind independent from physical reality, I'm happy to agree with you that we don't have that. But we do have, pace Dennett, "free will worth wanting" and we do have subjectivity worth wanting.

Young  Irelander

Er,I got 67%!Wha?!

maurice

Got 7%
my fucking belief in some kind of afterlife caused tension
if only i'd done it on a day when i didn't believe

Abiola Lapite
"So, if you want to maintain that we don't have "real" subjectivity (or "real" free will) because "real" subjectivity (or "real" free will) requires a sovereign mind independent from physical reality, I'm happy to agree with you that we don't have that. But we do have, pace Dennett, "free will worth wanting" and we do have subjectivity worth wanting."

Sure we do, but this isn't quite the same thing as the following, which would be false even according to the above:

Judgements about works of art are purely matters of taste
If we agree that human nature and shared cultural traits constrain what we can find aesthetically appealing, then we must grant that this statement does not hold, just as one must grant that human height cannot vary arbitrarily, despite varying over a broad range. The key word here is the "purely" in the sentence.

Frank McGahon

Well, ok, strictly speaking you are correct. It might have been more accurate to simply disagree with the statement. But, and this is a problem I have with the way the test is designed, disgreeing with the statement implies more than just disagreeing with the word "purely" and could either mean

Judgements about works of art are matters of taste, within a range constrained by culture and nature*

or

Judgements about works of art are not matters of taste at all

I would guess that most of those who disagree, agree with the second statement, not the first.

* I also have a problem with philosophical questions which are intended to query or reveal something interesting about humans which purposely ignore the physical constraints of humans, then use those very constraints to somehow contrive an apparent contradiction. The classic example of this is the notion that free will and determinism are incompatible. This is only so if you think that the mind is somehow sovereign from physical reality. If I choose to kick the wall, the incompatibilist argues that because I was going to kick it anyway, my choice to do so was not "free". But it is only "unfree" in the narrow, "purely" sense assuming that there is, or should be to qualify as "really" free, an "I" independent of all the various chain of events which moulded my frame of mind and conspired to suggest this course of action to me. It is free in the useful way. In principle, a vast intellect (such as Laplace's demon) could predict each one of my "free" choices just as in principle I could build a ladder to the moon, but in practice neither is remotely possible. Philosophers who ignore the "in practice" part shouldn't in honesty use the "in principle" concession as some sort of gotcha. So my shorthand version is that I have "free will" (by which I mean that I have a useful approximation of free will) and I also have "subjective" personal taste (by which I mean a useful approximation of subjective taste).

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