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How (not) to be opinionated about art

As with every other entry in this section, I publish an excerpt of an email exchange with permission from my correspondent and without disclosing any private information.


You make references to painters, so I assume you know a few things about painting. […] We had a course on the history of art. […] My problem is that people insist I have the wrong opinion when I tell them that I do not like Picasso’s later works. How can I convince them that I am not some heretic?

While this is about painting and aesthetic considerations, I feel it could be generalised into a problématique on opinions in general. So you could wonder “how do I explain to people that they labour under imperfect conditions?”, or “how do I convince them that their opinions do not spring from a state of omniscience?”.

Here it is important to emphasise that we examine opinions. For example, we have facts about complementary colours like blue and orange or blue and yellow, depending on the methodology. Then we have opinions on whether such combinations are pleasant or not, under which circumstances, etc. The term “opinion” entails an element of uncertainty. Even the specifics of the “fact” of complementary colours change depending on the method we employ. So even then we can still make an argument that some degree of uncertainty is involved, although we have gone to great lengths to minimise it, have strong evidence to justify our beliefs, and so on.

[ That ultimately raises the question of what is knowledge, but let us not spend the rest of our life here—if you ever figure it out, make sure to contact me. I’ll buy the drinks! ]

In practical terms, we distinguish between matters of fact and opinion based on the reproducibility of results delivered by a given method. If the method is shown to yield consistent findings, then we assign more value to whatever insights we infer from its application than we do to any random claim on the matter.

Uncertainty is not a given value, but an indeterminate range thereof. There can be many levels of doubt, even for otherwise reproducible findings. We must thus not fall into the trap of mapping exactly how we know the unknown, which means that we ought to keep an open mind about our methods, as we might have to revise them when some new piece of information becomes available to us (perhaps because someone else shows us a better way of doing things, or some innovation enables a new perspective on how to make sense of the issue).

The way you describe your predicament suggests that we are dealing with an implicit claim that art can withstand objective measurement. Is that the gist of it, or did I misunderstand you? Can we produce a scoreboard and hold that Picasso scores a perfect 100 while Cézanne gets a solid 90? How do you benchmark those? And not just the whole corpus of each artist’s labour, but how do you compare two individual paintings especially when those are from different eras, follow distinct trends, and so on? To not belabour the point: I hold that art is subjective.

There are, in my view, two broad types of subjectivity, by which we may estimate the approximate worthiness of a painting (and of any work of art in general, though let’s keep it focused on what you asked):

  • The first is the historical view, or else the collective subjectivity, the general consensus. It answers questions such as “what was the impact of this painting in the history of art?”, “how did the painter’s peers perceive of it?”, “in which ways did it change the painter’s livelihood, if any?”. In essence the historical view is the intersubjective one: how people, in their relations, assign value to a painting and what is the substance of said “value”. There is a dynamic aspect to it as well, so not just how that valuation took place at one point in time, but how it took form and continues to unfolfds over time, such as between generations.

  • The second is the personal view of whether a given painting can withstand the test posed by the question “can I tolerate having this in my room, where I will be looking at it all day?”. This is more straightforward, though it too is not absolute—subjectivity, remember. People change and so do their preferences.

Couched in those terms you can say, for example, that in light of the first type of subjectivity you do recognise that Picasso had a major impact on the history of art because of X, Y, Z. However, for the second type, the personal subjectivity, you could remark that you would still not want to have painting P in your room, as you find its colours too intense, its shapes too stark, etc. and it would be disturbing you.

Your own opinion does not annul the general consunsus, nor does the zeitgeist control your views. Those can co-exist without conflicting with some underlying objectivity, for there is none to be determined with a sufficient degree of precision. Any attempt at delineating the boundaries and modalities of such an objective condition would constitute another manifestation of subjectivity, as I already alluded to by the scoreboard example. Though I would be happy to be proven wrong by dicovering that art is objective, with subjectivities being expressed as epiphenomena of an otherwise immutable or determinable reality.

The exact argumentation does not matter that much. My emphasis is on the underlying rationale. The point is to be clear about your method and to recognise the subjectivity of the endeavour. To me this seems like a fair approach. If your peers insist that you are absolutely wrong and will not entertain any of your counter-arguments, ask them what their method is. Maybe they know something you don’t. Be genuine about it: if they do have some insight, then you really need to know what it is, as it will make your life better—it will upgrade your aesthetic sense, so to speak. If, however, their certitude is nothing but dogma, do not hesitate to challenge them to rethink their approach.

Those granted, you did not clarify what your relationship with those people is. Are they colleagues, family? Could it be your seemingly abusive crush (and friends) that you keep forgiving because of the feeling of infatuation that you have towards that person? There is no need to give me the details—I would still tell you that what matters is to get in the right frame of mind and think things through yourself. Be dispassionate about it.

Regardless of what this relationship is, why do they even insist on such an otherwise inconsequential point? I consider it “inconsequential” since you do not seem to be tackling the underlying themes the way a philosopher or art historian/critic would. I did not get the impression that you are deeply invested in this inquiry. Instead, you seem to be caught up in an argument and are just too stubborn to back off. Please correct me if I am wrong. Again, what is your relationship with those people and how it influences your dispositions towards each other?

As I have wrote several times before (e.g. The Dialectician’s Ethos, Why I won’t compete with you), when we are interested in the truth, we do not care about winning the argument. Such is a false goal. What we want is to find out what the case is. If we have to let go of our thesis in the face of cogent counter-arguments, then so be it. We do it with alacrity exactly because it is not our thesis that matters. It is not about impressing others with our intelligence, the inane pseudo-virtue of showing an unflinching commitment to our ideas, the ability to engage in an argument… None of that matters! All we want is the truth. If the way to the truth is blocked by our stubborness to hold on to a given position, then we must recognise what the problem is, admit to be wrong, and proceed fearlessly in our quest for approximating the truth.

Finally, I will put this down for the record, though it might not apply to your case. Sometimes we find ourselves around people that we try to befriend but know deep down that things are not working despite our best intentions and efforts. We continue to be friendly due to a misplaced sense of honour, yet we actually dread being there and are too cowardly to admit as much to ourselves—such an admission should provide the impetus for corrective action. If no sensible approach works and they keep bullying you, then take it as a sign that those people are not your friends or not worth staying close to. You tried your best, exhausted all the options, but they clung on to their negative attitude and continued harassing you. The philosophical thing to do when every appeal to reason fails is to send them all to hell. Tell them to fuck off. Yes, I mean that. The philosopher knows when to quit the dialogue, stop talking about dubitativeness and such lofty standards, and take decisive action. The philosopher understands that we are only human, not some perfectly rational, or moral, or aesthetic, or whatever, agents. Those who think that we are pure love, pure reason, and other such fancies, are in for a rude awakening.