Aesthetic judgement

RG Berkson
Jun 26, 2017 · 5 min read

Some interesting discussion recently around Ann Leckie’s essay on liking things that are in some sense not “good”. I’d like to pull up some of my thoughts here.

Leckie writes:

I have no difficulty telling the difference between a pop tart and a gourmet pastry, velveeta and some of the certifiably best cheese in the US. And not because I think there’s no such thing as standards–just because I like something doesn’t mean it’s particularly good […] It’s entirely possible to criticize things you like. It’s entirely possible to like bad things and dislike good things.

Several people had a problem with the formulation of liking bad things. Surely if you like something, you by definition don’t think it’s bad.

Part of the issue here, I think, is that “bad” and “good” are incredibly generic words and people will understand all kinds of different things by them. There’s the moral sense; part of Leckie’s point is that personal tastes aren’t moral or immoral. It’s not morally bad to like popular and accessible stuff, nor is it morally bad to like obscure, expensive high culture things.

At the same time, I don’t think personal taste is the only criterion other than moral by which anything can be judged. I do believe there’s such a thing as artistic merit, and this is a meaningful way to consider creations. I’m reluctant to use terms such as “objective” because that adds confusion, not clarity to this sort of discussion. But artistic merit has a basis in external reality, it’s not just whether or not you like something, nor the consensus of whether lots of people like it. There is such a thing as standards.

There are works which take substantial effort and skill to produce, which bring something truly new and original into the world, which have the capacity to move people profoundly. And there are works which don’t have any of these properties, and it’s not bad that they exist or that people enjoy them, but they aren’t great art. My feeling is that the reason this claim is controversial is that the judgement of artistic merit requires a certain degree of specialist knowledge of the field of endeavour and surrounding culture. That means that the judgement can’t be measured mechanically, it requires actual human experts, and even they are not going to line up absolutely perfectly in how they rank works. So this kind of judgement has something in common with assessments which are merely personal preference and don’t have much reference to external reality, but that doesn’t make it the same kind of thing.

Further, artistic judgement isn’t at all democratic and often isn’t very accessible. Each individual is the expert, indeed the only person who can decide, in their own tastes and whether they like something or not. Not so in deciding what is artistically valuable. I picked up the idea from my brother the philosopher of connoisseurism. That is, if I’ve understood it correctly, the concept that making artistic judgements is a learnable skill which can be mastered. And people who are more expert in it are more right than amateurs. Which is not to say that such judgements can’t be biased; certainly, works that conform more to what is socially valued will tend to be more favourably rated, eg if they’re made by high status people such as hegemonic men, or if they come from a historical period currently in favour, or if they’re like the sort of thing previously decided to be good. And I have no doubt that artistic judgements fail to be completely pure of any influence from just whether the person deciding likes the thing; still, part of the point of connoisseurship is that you put effort into learning to separate your own personal tastes from a more shared idea of what is worthy.

The other problem with needing a certain level of expertise is that acquiring such means picking up the culture and values of the existing cultural gatekeepers. People who are already on top of society are more likely to have opportunities to become experts, and therefore their judgements tend to reinforce existing hierarchies. For example, I’ve come across people who are totally convinced that Western art music is inherently superior to the music of any other culture, because they’re unconsciously or even explicitly setting criteria for good music that conform to the trajectory of European music development since the Renaissance. And judging one type of cultural product by standards that belong to a different context is going to lead to meaningless results. Again, that doesn’t mean that all such judgements or all standards are meaningless.

So I have no problem with Leckie’s claim that it’s “possible to like bad things and dislike good things”, assuming that bad and good here refer to artistic or other creative merit. The thorny issue here is what happens when two people disagree about a judgement. If the judgement is about personal taste, it’s foolish and probably pointlessly rude to disagree about it; you shouldn’t judge other people for liking what they like. But if it’s about artistic merit, then it may in fact be correct to say, I know more about this area of culture than you do, and I consider that what you rate highly isn’t that good. There’s still an issue of tact; outright calling someone ignorant isn’t really helpful, but that’s true equally when the disagreement is about a matter of scientific fact. Sometimes there’s just horrible crossed wires because of the multiple meanings of “good”; it’s easy to confuse criticizing someone’s aesthetic judgement with criticizing their personal taste, or even calling them a (morally) bad person.

Defensiveness may have a more subtle origin than that, though, it might be to do with the fact that being an expert requires access to appropriate education and not everybody has that access. There’s also the snobbism side of it; there are plenty of people who don’t really know how to judge the artistic merits of something for themselves, but have had access to the kind of education where they’re simply told what to value. And people like that may be perceived, sometimes correctly, as looking down on others who don’t like the right things. That encourages the sort of reverse snobbery that Leckie refers to: if privileged people are setting themselves up as false experts because they know what sort of wine or food or art or music or literature is worthy, it’s understandable that others will simply reject anything that seems to be valued by the cultural elites.

I slightly have the feeling that I’m rehashing Plato here, but there are worse things.

RG Berkson

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I support and develop active collaborative learning at Anglia Ruskin, and volunteer with the Jewish community & interfaith groups. All views my own.

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