The Circle of Quality and Expertise

By Daniel A. Kaufman


My daughter Victoria just finished two weeks of a classical voice program at NYU.  It was her first taste of the really big leagues.  Until now, she has excelled in our small city in southwest Missouri as well as statewide.  She is the top singer in her high school and has received the highest score in several statewide competitions.  She was praised by the faculty at Missouri State, where I teach, when she participated in a summer vocal performance program there two years ago.

But this was an entirely different thing.  No longer the best, my daughter  found herself somewhere in the middle.  Rather than praise, faculty were telling her all the things she was doing wrong, whether with respect to diction, visual presentation – even how she shaped her mouth while singing.  It threw us a bit, and we spent several days wondering:  How could the teachers, professors, and statewide judges in Missouri be so wrong?  Were they wrong?  Was some sort of East Coast snobbery at work?  Were the standards being applied only relevant  to those who wanted to be opera singers at the best opera houses in the world? Victoria wondered if she was cut out for a career in vocal performance.  I found myself poring over the faculty webpages. It immediately became apparent that the professors at NYU had far more impressive resumes than those who had taught my daughter at Missouri State.  But I had seen Victoria perform demanding pieces – her last was a solo lead in Schubert’s Mass in G Major, and she has performed “Batti, Batti o bel Masetto” from Don Giovanni and “Solveig’s Song” from Peer Gynt in competition – and she was excellent.  True, I’m no expert, but I have been attending concerts involving the world’s best performers for decades and can tell good from mediocre from bad.

I was concerned and puzzled and emailed one of the professors, asking for a clear, direct statement regarding the quality of Victoria’s vocal performance.  As things turned out, the faculty’s estimation of my daughter’s abilities was greater than it appeared at first glance, and what had led us to think otherwise was simply a matter of teaching-style.   But the whole series of events set me thinking about quality and expertise with respect to vocal performance or any other artistic activity, and I am left thinking that the whole thing is essentially a big circle.


Clearly when it comes to arts, broadly construed, we think that some things are better than others, and I’m not just talking about what we like or dislike.  Even if someone likes Danielle Steel better than William Shakespeare, she is unlikely to say that The Mistress is better than Richard III.  She might even concede that Shakespeare is obviously superior, but Steele remains a “guilty pleasure.”  Another person may love Thomas Kincade paintings, but it is improbable that he would suggest Kincade was a better painter than William Turner, and if he did, we would seriously wonder about him.  And so on.

The trouble, of course, is that aesthetic values (like all values) are subjective, in the sense that they are perceiver-dependent. They are not objective features of the world.†  We’ve known this since (at least) the days of Hume and Kant.  Judgment and reality can come apart with respect to empirical and a priori matters in a way that they cannot in the case of evaluations.  Someone may think that squirrels are cold-blooded, when they are in fact warm-blooded or that 6 x 8 is 72, when in fact it is 48.  But one cannot think something is beautiful or funny or moving when, in fact, it is not, because there is no such fact, only the experience and the judgment.  For something to be beautiful, funny, or moving just is for someone to find it so.  And what goes for singular evaluations must also go for comparative ones.

But what are we to make, then, of our earlier observation; that people clearly think some things are better than others, even if they don’t personally like them better? How does one make sense of the idea that there is a normative dimension to judgments of beauty and the like?  Given that there is no objective fact of the matter, relative to which such judgments can be deemed better or worse, the only option is to treat some judges as better or worse.  And this is precisely the course taken by Hume and Kant, whose work on this question has been the most influential in the Western philosophical tradition.  Both maintained that one could deem one aesthetic judgment better than another, not because one thing was better than another, but because one judge was better than another.  Of course, they differed entirely as to what makes a judge good or better than another judge – for Hume it’s the possession of a set of credentials, while for Kant it is the capacity for complete and utter disinterest and thus, a kind of universality – but they agreed that it is the quality of the judge that lends an aesthetic value judgment its normativity, not the inherent qualities of the object.

There are terrible problems with both accounts that are, in a sense, mirror images of one another.  One can easily imagine a judge like the one Hume describes, but it is quite clear that several such judges, with identical credentials, could nonetheless disagree vehemently with regard to the beauty or humor of something, thus rendering the account useless for explaining why one judgment is better than another.  And while one can easily see how one might think that two utterly disinterested human beings would find the same things beautiful and funny, it’s impossible to imagine such judges actually existing, insofar as no one can ever be completely disinterested, which also renders Kant’s account useless for the purpose of explaining why one aesthetic value judgment is better than another.

I don’t want to discuss these problems, as they are standard fare in the literature.  Instead, I want to speak to something else that gets us to the matter of circularity mentioned in my title.  Even if we ignore the problems just mentioned, the question arises as to what about the objects determines how credentialed/disinterested (un-credentialed/interested) people will react to it?  It’s all very well to say that what’s good is what a certain kind of judge likes and what’s better is what the better judge likes, but why do judges like certain things rather than others? This has led philosophers and art historians and critics down innumerable rabbit holes in search of “golden ratios” and “divine proportions” and “unity amidst variety” and the like.  I hope I don’t need to explain why there is no chance one will be able to find some such quality (or qualities) of objects that will explain peoples’ varying reactions — Hume wisely just left it at “some particular forms or qualities are apt to please and others to displease”  — for every one that has been suggested has been contradicted by counterexamples.

It appears that what makes an artwork or performance good or better than another is that certain kinds of people think so, and the reason why such people deem some artworks or performances good or better than others is because they have the sorts of qualities that people like them like.  This is the tightest circle one can imagine – a vicious circle, in fact – and it renders our initial sense that some things are better than others, regardless of what we ourselves might like, problematic once again, in a way that returns us to the proverbial drawing board.

In reflecting on my reaction to my daughter’s situation and subsequent behavior, it seems clear that my inclination to accept the judgments of her NYU professors over those of her local teachers – or mine – was a function of a kind of social deference to those who have had certain kinds of educations and experience and who occupy certain kinds of institutions.   I am not saying this in a populist or conspiratorial vein, and my point is not that such deference must be fought or that the powers that be must be overthrown or anything like that.  Indeed, I don’t think anything of the sort.  Rather, I simply want to understand where the ultimate hierarchies of artistic quality lie and it seems to me that it is in the social hierarchies that we have created and (mostly) accept.  We acknowledge the superiority of Shakespeare over Danielle Steel or of Turner over Kincade , because the people whom we take to be superior in such matters prefer the former over the latter.  This is not some matter of arbitrary or blind obedience.  The people to whose judgments we defer are highly educated in the relevant areas, have substantial experience, the capacity to make fine-grained distinctions and overall, possess a measure of sophistication that the untutored or less tutored or more poorly tutored lack.  Consequently, the things they deem good or better will tend to have more complexity, depth, subtlety, longevity and the like, and though there is nothing about such qualities that make things intrinsically good or better, that we take them to be so is an indication of our respect for the sorts of qualities in people that results in these sorts of judgments.  Circular?  Yes.  Comprehensible and (in my view) legitimate?  Yes.

† There is another sense of value in art that might be considered objective, as in whether a work of art succeeds in fulfilling some intended purpose or function.  Of course that doing so is valuable is going to be subjective so this doesn’t really change anything with respect to the question of subjectivity and value.  I took up this topic in my 2003 paper, “Normative Criticism and the Objective Value of Artworks.”

Relevant Links

Victoria Kaufman performing “Batti, Batti o bel Masetto” and “Solveig’s Song.”

David Hume, “Of the Standard of Taste.” (1757)

Immanuel Kant, Critique of Judgment, Part 1, Critique of Aesthetic Judgment. (1790)

This Week’s Special: David Hume’s “Of the Standard of Taste.”






21 responses to “The Circle of Quality and Expertise”

  1. As a judge of artistic quality, I would be completely unbiased — which is to say that I am not qualified to make such judgments at all.

    Rather than praise, faculty were telling her all the things she was doing wrong, whether with respect to diction, visual presentation – even how she shaped her mouth while singing.

    I would be inclined to see that as a positive. She is finally getting the kind of feedback that she needs.

    The critics might not be right in their judgments (if there even is a right or wrong here), but she is now getting feedback on how others react. And for a performance artist, how the audience perceives her performance is surely important.

  2. Oh, I agree. Starting with my daughter’s case was just for the purpose of indicating what led me to the question with which the essay is concerned.

  3. 1970scholar

    Full disclosure: I am a pianist/composer so predictably I have lots of opinions on the issues you raise (and address quite well I might add in this piece). Prior to attending New England Conservatory Of Music in the 1980s, my musical experiences included training at an arts high school. Without a doubt at this arts high school they did not go easy on me. But I felt they were fair. Also, this was the mid 1980s. Now my first musical instruction was in Tampa Florida. People were more impressed with me in Tampa, given my age and the context. Going to the Northeast is a game changer. You express well the full range of issues involved here and added a philosophical dimension that I normally don’t find in discussions like this which are usually framed in terms of education wonkiness or pedagogy. Also I have no idea how much of it is the changing times from 80s/90s to now, since the philosophy of Ed must have gone through some changes since then.

    I really enjoyed your daughter’s performances. I hope she continues.

  4. Chuck Sullivan

    I’m reminded somewhat of the following lines from Mill, especially the last sentence as it relates to deferring to the authority of those with more substantial experience.

    “It is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied. And if the fool, or the pig, are of a different opinions, it is because they only know their side of the question.”

  5. s. wallerstein

    My son, now 39, is a musician. He studied classical guitar, got the Chilean equivalent of a BA (licenciado) with excellent grades, then got a Masters in musical composition and now is getting his doctorate in composition.

    He is a very talented guitarist, but apparently not gifted enough to be a world class performer. It took him years to realize that he was not going to star on the stages of New York, London and Berlin because among his peers, he was one of the best.

    He taught music for about ten years after leaving the university, then began to produce the work of other musicians and now is selling real estate to support his family, although, as I said above, he is getting a doctorate in musical composition.

    My point is that very few of us are world class performers, but that even if our children’s dreams of triumphing in the big time don’t work out, intelligent kids find their way in life and don’t starve to death.

  6. S. Wallerstein: My daughter doesn’t have such ambitions. She is much more interested in choral performance and conducting anyway.

  7. Rich Thompson

    I feel like the overwhelming proportion of the difference between the Missouri response and the New York response is a matter of how fine a distinction the different judges are (capable of?) making. I also wonder if there are different thresholds for “good enough”

    I did both an undergrad poetry workshop and a graduate poetry workshop, and the identical poem got far more criticism in the grad workshop. This seems to be expected- and as well, as you noted, the group that your daughter is being compared to is also different and to the degree that judgements are against the context of judgments of other performers, this would also be an important distinction between the two contexts.

    Was the advice for improvement helpful? Would it actually result in higher “quality”?

  8. Rich, it *did* result in higher quality. My daughter said that the performance she did at the end of the 2 weeks is the best she’s ever done. And she learned a bunch of things about the purely performative part of singing — i.e. the parts that have more to do with “acting” — that are never emphasized in her local instruction, but which apparently are crucial at the higher levels.

    It’s interesting that most readers seem interested in the first part of the essay. I guess it says something about philosophers that we take such human-interest narratives and spend our time wondering about what they tell us about abstract questions, like the relationship between quality and expertise. I’m not sure whether it speaks well of us or not. 😉

  9. Rich Thompson

    I think a huge challenge to the golden ratio type approach is that originality is a key criteria in the arts, and almost by definition this defies attempts to quantify/objectify. Relatedly, there’s something like “fashion” that very much interacts with that. So, to write a sonnet now, it would be very unlikely that any good critic alive today would like it, whereas 150 years ago, it would be much more likely. Certainly there are past sonnets that people continue to read and enjoy and regard as very fine art, but there is also a vast majority of poems very highly regarded at the time that have not aged well at all.

  10. dmf

    doesn’t the facility/abilities of faculty (and not just the rank/pedigree) have some role in how they get their positions and what work does “better” do here? I think if we adapt a pragmatist perspective on these matters that we are make judgments based on results and what they mean to us, make possible for us, and not some imaginary external something, than we are on the right track in terms of what is actually happening, actually possible, man as the measurer and therefor the measure of all things…
    “Another person may love Thomas Kincade paintings, but it is improbable that he would suggest Kincade was a better painter than William Turner, and if he did, we would seriously wonder about him”

  11. Bunsen Burner

    There is no shortage of artists that were completely panned in their lifetime, only to be regarded as exceptional by later generations. Likewise, you have many artists considered exceptional in their day, but now are seen as being quite mediocre. What is the reason for this? Is all aesthetics just the social propaganda of whatever privileged group is most culturally active at a particular point in time.

  12. dmf

    Bunsen I do think these matters are sociological and not philosophical, we can trace out who did what and to what effect and I think capture what is happening in such affairs, folks like the estimable Annemarie Mol are literally accounting for taste:

  13. This all seems pretty consistent with what I wrote.

  14. dmf

    very good than “better” becomes a kind of honorific not unlike John Dewey’s use of “intelligent”, meaning suits us and the things/qualities/results that please us.
    On a related note I think part of what makes folks the academic humanities so vulnerable to elected officials and administrators who want to impose accountability/quality-control (in corporate style ways) is that they don’t really have their own humanistic standards of quality that they can make explicit and or seem objective.

  15. One of my guilty pleasures is the occasional viewing of “Worst Auditions Ever” clips from talent shows posted on Youtube. Badly done art has its amusements after all; and equally amusing are the comments of the judges. But occasionally one can learn something about such contests and their professional context: One judge’s remark I remember as being more than a snide quip was to a young singer: “I think you’re a good pub rock singer, and I love rock and roll; but this is a *pop music* contest.” Judges know what they want, and they know why they want it – the kinds of audiences the performer is expected to satisfy. If a contemporary writer with an equivalent talent of Shakespeare’s were to submit to Danielle Steele’s publishers, she would rightly be rejected, because that’s not the kind of talent Steele’s publishers – or their audience – are looking for.

    After listening to your daughter’s performances, I went searching for performances of these two pieces by professionals. Because that’s what I personally needed to hear before engaging your article. I know that your daughter is not planning a professional career in concert singing; but professional quality concert singing is probably what the NYU judges had in the back of their minds. One reason the Midwest judges may have not applied that stringent a standard may be due to what I can only call ‘the Rochester effect.’ I’ve lived most of my life in Rochester, NY (home of the Eastman Music School, BTW). Every now and then, Rochester develops a kind of ‘music scene;’ I was part of the scene for punk/New Wave/hardcore music in ’80s. The average audience was about 100 – on a very good night. Basically, other musicians were the audience. But local ‘tribute bands’ (imitating nationally known acts) would draw in crowds of 300-500. Why the disparity? Because as everybody in Rochester knows, there are no professional musicians in Rochester. Music doesn’t happen here except insofar as it was created elsewhere and imported. (Obviously this doesn’t apply to the Eastman School, because the performers are students, and hence not expected to originate in Rochester, even if they do; and the 1812 Overture wasn’t composed here, anyway.)

    The Rochester effect basically assumes, that if you have any aspiration to achieve professional quality in a creative field, and if you have the talent and discipline to achieve this – what are you doing in Rochester?

    Now, I’m sure there are some really fine music schools in the Midwest (I can’t say which ones, since that’s outside of my interests). But they’re still in the Midwest. And while not all involved in those schools carry a ‘Rochester effect’ bias in their brains, something like it may influence some standards of judgment.

    But the question of “professional quality concert singing” raises another important issue, and one that perhaps brings your argument some difficulty. Listening to Sissel Kyrkjebø’s Solveig’s Song, and then Kirsten Flagstad’s from 1929, both are moving, yet there are clear differences. Listening to the young Patricia Janečková’s Batti, batti, o bel Masetto, I was impressed, but thought her a little too young to carry the dramatic/ flirtatious weight of this piece. This led me to her performance of the non-verbal vocalization of Morricone’s Once Upon a Time in the West, which she first performed in contest at age 14, and then to Claudia Couwenbergh’s (considerably more mature) professional rendition. The differences seemed to me quite clear – and I have no training in classical/concert music. But there is something there in the performance. We may not have the language for it; or perhaps our language has been ‘cooked’ through over-usage or traditional re-iteration (“dramatic/ flirtatious weight of this piece” – what is that?). But whatever it is, it is to be found in the performance itself. Otherwise discussions concerning judgment would be completely hollow and artificial.

    Of course one has to be trained in the appreciation of any art – or of any genre within an art. I have no idea what would make a good romance novel. And unfortunately, we are surrounded by those who don’t care to develop a taste in any art or genre. So it is not a given, but a development of character within a given community. Nonetheless, it concerns shared goods and not just arbitrary social determinants.

    (One of the interesting things about Kant’s aesthetics is that he himself had no taste. He writes of aesthetics trying to figure out what others mean by “beauty,” etc. Thus what reads as legislative may very well amount to a sociology.)

    What do we mean by “beauty?” We know; we cannot say.

  16. davidlduffy

    I was thinking that modern musical academics, like modern listeners, appreciate different styles with completely antithetical criteria for goodness. I liked a comment by a music professor who plays in a gamelan orchestra about how anemic the sounds from a Western orchestra sound for some time until his ear switches back. Of course, there is the neuroscience literature on the shift in cerebral lateralization for musical professionals, which is interesting too, to me, re Kimura’s hypotheses on Asian v. Western language lateralization. .

  17. The mind-independent element of the arts is usually referred to as ‘technique.’ And there is no doubt that an older, experienced professional, who has had to confront and attempt to win over differing audiences sharing the same interest, will have a greater repertoire of technique than a younger, less experienced artist or professional. and that technique is there, in the performance, just as much as in the technical know-how of the mechanic who knows how to use a 7/8ths wrench, rather than a 9/11ths.

    I think that causes problems to the argument presented here. The judges are judges because they can not only judge achievement of technique, but whether such technique is applied in a manner that moves *appropriate* audiences.

    We don’t have the language to say what beauty ‘is’ (logically); what we can say is what practice achieves its desired effect with an appropriate audience in such a way that the audience will be moved, desire it, remember it – and desire more of the same.

    The art of art – is a rhetoric. Who knew?

  18. Dan,

    I feel for your daughter, but her experience is, I think, part of becoming real good at something. Important here is that there’s no unique or correct way to play or sing a piece of classical music. Just listen to a Beethoven symphony conducted by Von Karajan and the same symphony conducted by someone like Philippe Herreweghe. Same notes, same score, different music (and I much prefer the style of Herreweghe).

    “Interpretation” is very important in classical music, and it is something different from technique. But both are obviously related: you need to master the techniques adapted to a particular interpretation. Perhaps the reactions your daughter received should be seen in that light.

  19. Kate

    Professor Kaufman, former student of yours @ MSU. Was wondering deeply what are your thoughts on the new “cancel culture” fad that has been circling around in the media recently. if you have heard of it.

  20. Not familiar with it. Please elaborate.

  21. Animal Symbolicum

    Those whom we tend to collect under the epithet “critic” are often experts. But in addition to finding interesting qualities and being receptive to fine distinctions, the good critic-expert can sometimes bring her audience to appreciate the interesting qualities she experiences and can convince her audience to undertake the task of grasping (the judiciousness of) the distinctions she senses. I think the possibility of this phenomenon makes your circle less tight — a circle still, yes, but looser, or more mediated. Our trust in expertise gives us a reason to try to experience for ourselves what the expert experiences, and if we experience it, we have more reason than we did before to find one thing better than another. (Clearly, I’m taking the word “reason” to have a broader sense than what much philosophical literature takes it to have.)