We live in a confusing and polarizing age. Almost every social arena is weathering the winds of negation and disunity. The art world is not spared from such forces and may at times reflect them. Conversation regarding the nature of art seems to take on the qualities of discussing religion or politics – where reaching consensus is nearly impossible!
Undeterred by controversy, I am moved to consider the dynamics surrounding the subjective and/or objective nature of art. The paradoxical nature of this age-old1 conflict revolves around two seemly opposite positions. The subjective view that “art, quality, and beauty are in the eye of the beholder” – making them entirely personal, therefore indefinable. And, the objective view that “art and beauty has ideal qualities, independent of the beholder’s eye” – suggesting a universal reality. These two perspectives are usually viewed dichotomously. However, they may be viewed as a continuum where each perspective has polar positions and equal validity.
As I contemplated this polarity, a number of familiar questions surface: Is it possible to define art and beauty? Does beauty and quality possess spiritual dynamics? Does intent affect art? Do principles such as “moderation in all things” apply to art? I will not attempt to address these questions directly. My focus here is to explore the ramifications of subjectivity and objectivity in art. Furthermore, I am not interested in the usual surface discussion where subjectivity is simply defined as the viewer’s unique emotional response, and objectivity is seen as mastering techniques and composition. What interest me is how these two perspectives actually impact our lives and how deeper reflection may stimulate introspection of one’s personal conceptual framework of reality. But let’s focus on art for now.
I have a tendency when attempting to unravel complex issues to explore the extremes. Therefore, I embarked on a traditional dichotomous approach to subjectivity/objectivity in art. I confess that I am opinionated. I hold the view that the orientation produced by subjectivism divorced from the beneficial affects of objectivity has contributed to strains of art not worthy of critical assent.
As I began to formulate ideas on how to articulate this view, a crazy idea popped into my head. Would it be instructive if we applied the dynamics of dining out to that of attending an art exhibition? And by doing so, we substitute chefs for artists, and assess the quality of art like we would with food – with our actual sense of taste! There are those that will immediately challenge this notion by proclaiming there is no way to tell how anyone perceives anything therefore everything is relative – classic subjectivism! But let’s set that reality aside momentarily so we can have some fun. It is clear that the art world enjoys operating on the subjective end of the scale, while the food industry prefers a more objective approach. However, there are obvious parallels between the worlds of art and food.
On the consumer side, people’s palettes vary, but possibly to a lesser degree than with art. As with art, one’s taste may be influenced by habit, culture, acquisition of taste, and personal perception (my young children loved the taste of fried calamari until they discovered it was a sea creature with tentacles). Although our personal ideas as to what is palatable vary and evolve, they should not dramatically affect the reality of a food’s taste. The sweetness of a Fuji apple doesn’t change because of one’s preference for tartness or one’s superstitious belief that apples are evil. Generally speaking, taste sensibilities may be more universal than individualistic, thereby providing a more empirical metric for quality. This assumption can be supported by the well known fact that, “everybody likes Italian food!” Furthermore, our tongues act as a universal detector for under or overly seasoned food.
On the creation side of the equation, a chef can easily be compared to an artist. He is able to combine a variety of ingredients in a proper balance and proportion to create a flavorful and nutritious meal. A good chef has talent, experience and skill, knows how to harmonize diverse spices and ingredients, and can sense a perfect state of doneness. Regardless of skill level, most cooks attempt to operate within the bounds of health safety and wise practices.
Lastly, restaurants like art galleries and museums want to be known for excellence.
What happens when a chef/artist’s conceptual framework is exclusively built around the subjective orientation derived from “beauty is in the eye of the beholder?” In today’s art world, this mindset translates to the prevailing view that art can be anything2! Operating within this paradigm, which can yield either positive or negative results, the chef/artist is liberated from any authority or objective definition. In such a paradigm, the possibility of overstepping the bounds of moderation and perverting art's higher purpose becomes inevitable.
Let’s suppose we visit a respected restaurant/gallery, where the chef/artist is now free to pursue any form of self-expression. We order the chef’s new entre, which we have been told was inspired by his recent experience at the beach. The creation of this new seafood dish involves substituting sand for salt, and features washed up fish on a bed of beached seaweed. Having tasted this dish, would we praise the chef’s artistic passion and insight? Would we applaud the meal for its new textures and aromas? Or, moved by metaphor, donate to preserve our endangered shorelines? I don’t think so! One bite and we would instantly detect the meal’s inappropriateness and self-indulgent expression.
Actual taste sensibilities are not transferable to making, exhibiting, and viewing art. And if it were, the world would be less interesting place. And, most contemporary art is not self-indulgent or extreme as suggested by the above parable. However, some unfortunately is. In an environment where devotion to unbridled freedom is coupled with fierce competition, we get Shock Art2! No respectable chef would consciously set out to create an uneatable meal. Why should an artist intentionally create works that abase the nobility of man?
Now don’t get me wrong. I am not advocating inhibiting or censoring artistic expression. More important, no one should be allowed to force his opinions upon another person. The axiom that “beauty is in the eye of the beholder” is not debatable nor is it without its mystery. However, acknowledging the reality of individual perception does not negate the existence of universal compositional principles and a profound natural order that surrounds art as well as of everything else. By the way, this last statement drives those that are fearful of any form of an objective standard crazy.
My whimsical notion of exchanging food for art suggests that personal perception can be part of a reality that also admits to universal truths or ideals. These polarized points of views can be harmonized. However, without this unity, we will continue to experience art that shocks and degrades rather than benefits and uplifts.
In my experience, most artists and viewers of art will adamantly profess that they can determine beauty and truth for themselves. No one will tell them what is right. Many will also acknowledge that there are universal forms that apply to creating quality art. Still fewer will identify these universal forms with natural law or have the desire to contemplate its profound and mystical nature. I have the suspicion that there may be an unconscious avoidance of reflecting too deeply on this subject. One reason could be that many artists relate to the idea of laws as a restriction of freedom – “laws are made to be broken.” On the other hand, there is a wide acceptance of the invisible forces of intuition that effect an artist’s creative decisions. These feelings and spiritual forces are employed to achieve excellence and quality. Similar feelings are what viewers use to detect and appreciate beauty.
The reason we can discuss these is dynamics is because our hearts have been given the power to respond to beauty and excellence in art and in the world. Although art and beauty may be challenging to define, one thing is true: “no one adverts their eyes from beauty.”4 One reason for this truth may be that beauty is a sign of the Creator. Likewise, attributes such as perfection, moderation, unity, symmetry, and harmony delight the heart because of their mystical connection to the laws of the universe. When art corresponds to natural order it affects our nerves, heart and spirit. Art in conformity with these laws inspires noble thoughts and becomes a source of comfort and tranquility for troubled souls5.
It is my conviction that these powerful dynamics of natural order exist both outside and inside the realm of individual perception. It is the stuff of art and deserves reflection. I believe that the “beholder’s” inner eye can be developed to perceive beauty in higher degrees and in unlikely places. And, that it can penetrate the mysteries that surround art and life. As an artist, I strive to operate within the mystery of natural order and the spiritual realities that surround it. My goal is to create work that attains a level of resonance with this mystical reality. And hopefully when it does, the human heart detects it and it is filled with joy. These are some of the reasons making quality art is so difficult, and why experiencing beauty in art is so wonderfully mysterious and magical.
I welcome your views and thoughts – for ultimately the conscience of the artist and viewer must wrestle with the paradoxical nature of subjectivity and objectivity in art. Or conversely, not want to think about it at all and just let the experience of art waft over you.
1. Philosophers throughout the ages have viewed the nature of art or more precisely beauty somewhat dichotomously. Pythagoras, Plato and Plotinus connect beauty with the objectivity of ideal forms. Plotinus attributes spiritual responses such as love and unity to the nature of beauty. Aristotle acknowledges a degree of objectivity but differs with his teacher Plato on the nature of the artist. On the other hand, Kant and Hume are hardcore subjectivists. Kant basically expounds that reality is a product of personal perception.
2. Today, art can be anything and anyone can be an artist. Art is art by just saying that it is. Contemporary views constituting what is art are fuzzy at best. Some art seems indistinguishable from pornography, while conceptual art may resemble protest or crime! There are those that seek clarity and desire to define art as something that is noble, possessing merit and having lasting value. In my mind, these defining characteristics may be better attributed to the degree of quality in art rather than art in general. Art forms, like all created things, possess both its own heaven and hell. How either characteristic is manifested may depend on the spirit or intention of how it was created and how it is perceived.
3. Examples of performance (shock) art from Dazed magazine (warning: descriptions may be disturbing):
At Art Cologne 2014, Swiss artist Milo Moiré stood naked on a pair of stepladders outside the German art fair, proceeding to squeeze paint-filled eggs out of her vagina. Each egg smashed on the blank canvas below, creating a supposedly colorful expression of fertile creativity. Moiré explained: “I’m interested in pushing boundaries through art, living and expressing my art with my body and mind while opening mental doors.”
"No religion forbids cannibalism,” argued Chinese artist Zhu Yu. "Nor can I find any law which prevents us from eating people. I took advantage of the space between morality and the law and based my work on it." Zhu Yu recorded himself in his own kitchen eating a six-month old dead fetus, which was supposedly stolen from a medical school. It led to a global outcry, and as a consequence, China’s Ministry of Culture cited it as a menace to social order and the spiritual health of the Chinese people.
In a performance piece that caused fury amongst animal rights activists, Costa Rican artist Guillermo Vargas tied a starving dog just out of reach of a pile of food. The animal was supposedly captured in the alleys of Managua – near to the exhibition space Galeria Codice – by some children paid by the artist. Meanwhile, the statement “eres lo que lees” - “You are what you read” - was written on the gallery wall in dog food. Vargas received dozens of death threats, but it merely proved his point: take a stray dog off the streets, put it into a gallery, and it suddenly becomes an ethical phenomenon.
4. Kiser Barnes
5. Paraphrasing 'Abdu'l-Baha
5. Paraphrasing 'Abdu'l-Baha