August 2

What is art? vs What is GOOD art?

This post is a response to two videos by YouTube user PaulMcKeever which attempt to answer the basic questions “What is art?” and “What is GOOD art?“. PaulMcKeever is an objectivist/Ayn Rand apologist whom I generally agree with. The videos themselves are in response to YouTube user Luke12000, a young thinker whom I have followed for a while now and find very interesting. Let me preface this by acknowledging that I realize I’m a bit late to the ballgame as these videos are a few years old, but nevertheless, I was compelled to throw in my two cents, as this is a subject I have pondered before. Paul:

First, you attempt to answer the question “What is art?” by rejecting the premise that an object’s state of being art, or what I shall call “artness”, is subjective, and therefore you reject that “anything” is or can be art, subjectively – that is, you imply that “art” MUST be an objective subset of things in the real world. You compare this to the definition of an apple, and whether, if one also called a banana an “apple”, and then expanded the word “apple” to mean any number of things, the definition of the word “apple” would lose its meaning and therefore become meaningless. However, you fail to define the word “art” as you see or understand it. For the sake of clarity, I will use the definition of art as “the quality, production, expression, or realm, according to aesthetic principles, of what is beautiful, appealing, or of more than ordinary significance”. The fallacy with your argument, then, is that while an apple contains a certain, rather minimal, set of physical qualities that give it “appleness” – its shape, its texture, its color – “artness” is instead a fully subjective condition wherein the subset of qualities is entirely dependent upon the viewer, and may not fall between the lines of what is generally accepted as “art”. That is, one person may perceive a plastic bag caught in a tree as the most beautiful thing they have ever seen, and while others may find that odd, they are wrong to imply that the person is somehow incorrect for perceiving the state of the object or objects as art.

Now, in attempting to answer the question of GOOD art, you juxtapose subjectivism vs objectivism (vs intrinsicism, but I will omit that here due to relevance). You then launch into a diatribe about the correlation between metaphysics, epistemology, ethics, politics, and art, but the question of “what is good art?” is never answered. You then state that subjectivism is “entirely wrong”, after stating that subjectivism implies that “nobody’s art can be judged to be good or evil” – implying that art SHOULD be judged on the criteria of “good or evil”. Now, in an attempt to answer this question for you, I will again invoke your apple metaphor. We can judge whether an apple is a “good apple” because a good apple has utility. We can cut an apple open and generally perceive whether it is fit to be eaten, or whether it is rotten or not ripe or spoiled in some way. The utility of art, however, is again a subjective trait – an object has utility as art only if the viewer perceives it as such.

I think your method of analyzing both of these questions fails because you try to apply an ethical standard of subjectivism vs objectivism to a type of object which can be no more “ethical” than that which it represents in the real world. For example, a painting of an apple cannot objectively be ethical or unethical, at least within the generally accepted set of ethics, because an apple itself cannot be ethical or unethical – they are both NON-ethical (is there another word which describes the absence of ethics?) objects. A painting of a murder, though, can subjectively be ethical, unethical, OR non-ethical, depending on the viewer.

The only way in which we can even attempt to decide “What is GOOD art?” from an objective point of view is to determine the intent of the artist in its creation. If the intent was to illustrate a banana, but the painting clearly illustrates an apple, then it is BAD art – but ONLY from an objectivist standpoint. Some who look at a painting of an apple that is supposed to be an apple will think it is bad, and on the contrary, some who look at a painting of a banana that is supposed to be an apple will think it is good. Therefore, we reach the answer to the question “What is GOOD art?”, and it is the same answer to the questions “what is the best music?”, “what is the tastiest food?”, and “what is the prettiest color?” – the answer is SUBJECTIVE to one’s OPINION. Any attempt to classify art as “objectively” good or bad would be to arbitrarily impose one’s taste on others in an elitist fashion. Therefore, in a Rand Objectivist definition, I would submit that “good art” is that which one perceives as “art” and which makes one happy – subject only to the self.

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Posted August 2, 2010 by calenfretts in category "philosophy", "random


  1. By MichaelM on

    You are wasting your time arguing with any alleged Objectivist apologist without having consulted THE Objectivist’s explanation first. How can you judge how well he grasps it himself. If your rendition of McKeever’s argument is accurate, you would have rather written an entry on how poor his understanding of Rand’s esthetics is.

    At the very least, you should read these essays in her book “The Romantic Manifesto”:

    The Psycho-Epistemology of Art
    Philosophy and the Sense of Life
    Art and Sense of Life
    Art and Cognition

    She defines art as “a selective re-creation of reality according to an artist’s metaphysical value-judgments.” [TRM,22]

    Metaphysical value-judgments are pre-conceptual judgments one makes from early childhood onward of the general nature of the universe and your own relationship to it … is reality knowable?, can I know it?, am I capable of dealing with it? is good more powerful than evil? is life worth living? is happiness possible?… etc. ad infinitum. The answers to these are not consciously conceptualized. Rather they are held at as an integrated sub-conscious sum that impacts every choice you make in life— a “sense of life”. While these judgments are metaphysical in nature and not normative “ought-to” judgments, she calls them value-judgments, because they are the base of all one’s normative judgments.

    Without being able to pinpoint and define the content of anyone’s particular sense of life with any ease, you experience it in everyone as that which makes them a “personality”. It is the central component of your personal sense of identity. When, therefore, a person wishes to express himself, as in art, his selections of content and style are inevitably in accordance with his sense of life without him needing to even consider it, because implicit in every work of art is the artist’s intention to concretize existence in one form or another as he feels it should be experienced.

    Rand points out that cognitive abstractions are formed by the criterion of what is essential, normative abstractions by the criterion of what is good, and esthetic abstractions by the criterion of what is important. The purpose art serves that nothing else can is to take one’s view of life that one can only experience abstractly in the mind and to make it real—to enable the experience of it similar to the way we experience everyday life. Art concretizes one’s value-judgments to confirm them (or not) and to enable an external contemplation of aspects of oneself.

    This rigidly objective definition of art in no way impedes infinite variations of expression, but they are personal alternatives all of which can comply with the same objective principles. To say that art is subjective, on the other hand, is to say that the only standard one needs for an esthetic judgment is a whim or an urge. If that were the case then everything could be art, and if art is everything in general, it is nothing in particular.

    Rand cautions us to recognize that esthetic judgment of the technique and style of an artwork as to how appropriate and skillful is the means selected to concretize one’s sense of life is one part of judging a work of art, while judging the objective validity of the value-judgments that are its content is a separate philosophical judgment. Thus it is possible to say that a work is great art while being disgusted by it. Obviously, the work of art that approaches perfection would be one representing a valid sense of life executed in an accomplished technique in an exquisite style.

    I hope this has given you a glimpse of the profundity of Rand’s contribution to esthetics. I urge you to read her writings on it with past assumptions set aside until you have considered the entirety.

  2. By frettsy on

    Hi Michael, thanks for the post. I am familiar with many of Rand’s writings and her philosophy, although I admittedly have not read The Romantic Manifesto itself. If I understand what you’re saying correctly, though, then art can be objectively defined but is always subjectively perceived. That is, objecively, “anything” CAN be art to any one person in particular, however, that object may or may not be art to everyone else – or, subjectively, the scope of objects which one would consider art is generally limited to a subset of real objects.

    By the way, this wouldn’t happen to be Mr. Shanklin would it? :)

  3. By MichaelM on

    “That is, objecively, “anything” CAN be art to any one person in particular, however, that object may or may not be art to everyone else”

    No. A work is art when it complies with the definition and is not when it doesn’t, regardless of what anyone thinks about it. The first requirement is that it be a re-creation of reality. The purpose of the artist is to concretize his abstractions from reality of how it should be experienced. He wants to experience his view of the universe externally in real-time, not just in his head.

    Consequently, non-objective squiggles, squares, dots and smears as well as blobs of bronze and bars of steel cannot be art. They do not re-create any semblance of reality nor any sense of life worth contemplating. As Rand said, because art concretizes abstractions, the term “abstract art” is a redundancy, and the term “non-objective art” is a contradiction.

    No, this is not Mr. Shanklin, whoever that is.

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