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.”
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.”