I nearly woke up a dozen times this morning, each time almost breaking the surface of an intense overwebbing sleep. I was suspended in this effulgent dream state: all brightness, and feelings without names. But there was nothing transcendental about these feelings. The only sensation I was immediately aware of was of brightness, this sensation that my consciousness was distilled from my body into a sort of sensory nodule and immersed in a coruscating sea of light.
Subjectivity vs. objectivity in art is one of the eternal questions.
By subjectivity I mean externally-received or internally-generated personal taste/inclination.
By objectivity I mean a universal standard of potent excellence, towards which all art moves, and by which all art can be evaluated and differentiated from simpler media.
By art I mean any creative act that becomes imbued with this objective standard: so it can writing, painting, music, theater, food, film, games, architecture. Other things.
There is an objective Good in art. It’s the crucial thing that separates it from all other human activity – or maybe connects it to the deepest, most resonant aspects of those other activities. What art does to you when you engage with it is as simple and irreducible and essential as what love does to you when you find it. It’s something you feel it with your soul’s every nerve; so when I said ‘evaluate’ above I meant that it’s possible to evaluate the degree to which a piece of art succeeds in creating and engaging with this feeling.
Without an objective component, art would be, in a very real way, useless; it would become media. The function that this objectively Good quality in art accomplishes is to bring us outside ourselves into something greater, or maybe up into a better part of ourselves. If the only pleasures to be had in art were subjective (that is, if it were media), the pleasure we get from it would be transient and shallow, and it would push us further and further into the smallest part of ourselves, because we’d be enjoying it only according to some internal criterion, and criteria like this form with direction or purpose.
Important to note: we can’t wholly control the inputs we receive and interiorize. Think of how profoundly parents, even loving parents, fuck up their children, how their actions insinuate into their kid’s personality and reverberate in it forever, through its whole life. I grew up with parents who didn’t ever acknowledge politics, I went to a school that shied away from engaging with them in any serious way; and so I didn’t even really think of them as a deeply important element of existence until I was much older, and already scarred in so many ways from my ignorance.
Or think about the way movies or books or stories from friends stick in your head, and fill you with preconceptions about places and things and people you’ve never seen.
And even internal subjective standards you cultivate yourself are often formed from the drawing together of disparate outside things, or made with incomplete information; and even if they can be changed over time there’s an element of them that is forever and intrusively out of your control.
The Objective Good is also out of your control, but entirely so, and unchanging, even if the ways in which it can be approached through art are infinite, just like we all try to find our own way to love, trusting that it will speak uniquely to us in its universal eternality.
I’ve said above: art without this objective Good is media: by which I mean a creation that engages only the surface level of your brain. Lots of books, paintings, music, plays, foods, movies, and games – the same things can also be art – fall into this category.
Media can be a good thing in someone’s life: can provide entertainment, distraction, comfort on certain levels of perception. It can help you shape and reinforce some aspects of your outward-presenting personality. It can just be fun, and fun is also good and important in life.
(I mean obviously art can be fun too, but still.)
At that heightened level of evaluation, though, media is worthless. It derives all its value from our subjective response to it. It doesn’t really ‘exist’ outside of our engagement with it. This is important to remember. A balanced mind wants both art and media.
I’ve thought about this question for years and years. It’s the kind of thing you and I used to talk about. You were the only person I wasn’t embarrassed to bring up my driving conviction about objective good with.
To refine the above thoughts into something pocketable, here are the four edicts I’m comfortable trying out with regards to art and objectivity within it:
- Engaging with art is essential to life as love and light and food, all the corny things. To live without it is to live a compromised life.
- There’s more good art in the world than you can possibly engage with in a lifetime.
- It’s also okay and good to like bad art/media, but:
- It’s overpoweringly important to be able to draw the line between these two things, and to keep the balance between the two correct.