Monday, June 6, 2011

What’s the Point of Arguing About Art?

We’ve all been witness to the following type of conversation:

Anthony: Have you heard the new so and so album?

Maria: Yea, it’s wack. So and so is falling off.

Anthony: You’re trippin’. Did you listen to track 10? It’s fire.

Maria: Yea, I listened. That track just sounds lazy, like so and so didn’t even take time to think about the lyrics…

Anthony: But what about this verse…?

From the outside (or the inside) it can appear as if engaging in this type of conversation is a waste of time. After a certain amount of time, it will likely seem that Maria and Anthony just aren’t going to come to an agreement about the album they’re discussing. From the fact that persons in Maria and Anthony’s position will not likely come to an agreement, people tend to draw the following two conclusions:

1) There is just no fact of the matter about whether the any work of art is good (or beautiful, or groundbreaking, etc).

2) Engaging in arguments about art is a waste of time because aesthetic judgments are purely subjective.

Here I assume that the former conclusion is true and take issue with the latter conclusion. The claim I advance is this: even if it is true that there is no fact of the matter about whether a given work of art is good and even if aesthetic judgments are purely subjective, there are reasons to engage in arguments about the value of any given work of art.

There are two things that one could gain from engaging in such an argument.

First, in engaging in an argument about the value of some work of art, we may come to see something in that work that we were unable to see before. That is, we may come to see a beautiful aspect of a song, painting or novel that we would have not been able to see without the help of another.

Second, in engaging in an argument about some work of art, we may come to see something in our interlocutor that we were previously unable to see. That is, we may see our friend as more thoughtful, more perceptive, more sensitive to certain aspects of the world than we had previously suspected.

On the first point, consider Joseph Jastrow’s duck-rabbit (pictured above).

Imagine that Maria is only able to see the figure as a duck. Imagine also that Maria can’t help but seeing ducks as ugly. Let’s say that Anthony understands that one can see the figure as a duck, but is also able to see it as a rabbit. In talking to Maria about the figure, Anthony can point out things to her that she is unable to see at this point.

Anthony: I know you hate ducks, but can’t you see the rabbit?

Maria: No, I’m only seeing a duck. An ugly duck.

Anthony: But look at the duck’s beak. Can’t you also imagine the beak being the ears of a rabbit? Look closely.

Maria: Ah! Ok. Now I see it. That ugly duck is still there (in some sense), but now I can see the rabbit clearly.

I admit that this is an artificial example, but I think it is instructive. Imagine Maria and Anthony not simply talking about the duck-rabbit, but about a movie. We can imagine Anthony saying something like the following:

“I know it seems like a silly love story at first, but think of it as a commentary on the regrettable state of romance in this country. I think this is what the director had in mind.”

This beautiful, more thoughtful aspect of the film could strike Maria just as the rabbit strikes her. She could, in the middle of her argument with Anthony, come to see greatness in a film that she at one point dismissed as silly.

On the second point, in seeing the rabbit or in seeing the film as thoughtful, Maria could also come to see something in Anthony. When Anthony said that he liked the duck-rabbit or that he liked the film, Maria likely saw him as naïve and unsophisticated, as a philistine.

But in seeing the rabbit and in seeing the film as a sophisticated social commentary, Maria is also in a position to see Anthony differently. This one time philistine is now a person who is able to skillfully bring his life experiences and intelligence to bear on his aesthetic judgments. He is now a deeper person to Maria. She comes to know him better in coming to see what he sees in the work of art they discuss.

At this point you may be thinking the following: Sure, what you say may be right, but if we’re assuming that there’s no fact of the matter about whether any piece of art is beautiful, why encourage folks to engage in arguments about aesthetics? It makes no sense to make an argument for or against a claim that is neither true nor false.

My response to this worry is this: It seems that when we argue about the value of some work of art, we aren’t attempting to show that some claim follows deductively from some other claims. What we’re doing is attempting to get our interlocutor to see what we see in the work. In this way, we can understand aesthetic arguments as intelligible even if we assume that there is no fact of the matter about the beauty of some particular work of art.

So, please, continue to argue about works of art. Continue to think of interesting ways to get others to see what you see in a particular work and be open to seeing aspects of a work that you are currently unable to see.


  1. I'm curious if you were reading anything in particular (hint hint, Wittgenstein) that made you think of this. Partially because of the generally Wittgensteinian theme, but also because my thinking in this vein is influenced by little snippets where he indicated a view of aesthetics roughly similar to this. If you're not actually drawing on that here, it is (I believe) in G.E. Moore's notes on W's lectures at Cambridge, collected in Philosophical Occasions, and I believe there are some other things in the Lectures and Conversations on Aesthetics, Psychology and Religious Belief.

  2. Ah, thanks. I thought I was inspired by something Cavell says in The Claim of Reason. But, when I went to look, I didn't find what I thought was there. So, the source of my inspiration remains a mystery to me.