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.