While most people will agree that art is subjective and that it’s OK for tastes to be somewhat different, there’s often also this underlying belief that there are certain objective standards that make certain works of art objectively greater than others. For example, an English teacher might understand how his students might have different opinions on Shakespeare’s best work. But if a student considered a Batman comic to be of greater artistic value than Hamlet, the English teacher, along with his colleagues, may consider the student to be objectively wrong in his opinion, and blame his opinion on lack of education.
I would claim, however, that the teacher in the above example is wrong, as are all who judge the student’s opinions to be inferior. I think the problem stems from how people mix their honest emotional responses to pieces of artwork with what they think about a piece’s influence and apparent complexity. That is, if something is clearly popular, acclaimed by academics and critics, or seemingly more complex, people will hold their emotional responses in less regard and form opinions based on these alternative standards.
Influence is perhaps the most obvious factor in determining an artwork’s level of “objective greatness.” If a piece of art has influenced many, clearly there must be something objectively good about it. How else could it have such influence? And the more influential a piece is considered, the more influential it seems to become, as new audiences are introduced to and become influenced by the work by the mere virtue of its being considered influential.
Complexity may also be taken into account when determining the artistic value of a work of art. There may be a natural bias towards the complex. I have not thought about this strange bias enough to have any good guess as to why it may exist. My current guess is that people assume that more complex works are the results of a greater care and thought on the creator’s part, and are therefore more naturally valuable. It’s a completely illogical bias, as audiences can never truly know how much thought went into something, and what seems complex to one person may not seem so complex to another.
I don’t mean to claim that works of art can’t or shouldn’t be judged by these standards. While I don’t think there’s any objective way to do it, I’m not sure there’s any reason or method to stop ourselves from doing it naturally. What I argue against is the natural but illogical tendency of supposing that these qualities determine (or should determine) emotional responses and the validity of the emotional responses of others.
An emotional response is a natural emotional reaction to an experience of art. To simplify, an audience member will, after experiencing the artwork, love it, like it, be indifferent to it, dislike it, or hate it. It is a bit more complicated than that, of course, because we don’t judge our experiences as a whole; we judge them in pieces and sometimes in separate factors. For example, we can enjoy the music and acting of a film, but hate its storyline. We can love a singer’s voice, but hate the song they sing. Our emotions are also biased by factors outside of our experience of art, such as: our emotional state before experiencing art, peer pressure, tastes and preferences, background knowledge of the art’s production, and even our sense of self and social status. No emotional response can be evoked only by a piece of art; no emotional response bursts into existence out of a vacuum.
My argument is that, because these emotional responses are natural, they can never be invalid. There is no such thing as fake joy or sadness. Influence and complexity do not necessarily infer more pleasing emotional responses, and they certainly don’t create them. If a Batman comic fills one with more interest and inspiration than a Shakespearean play, that interest and inspiration is not somehow lower or worse. If a pop song fills one with more joy than Beethoven’s Ninth, that joy is not somehow less valid or less real because more professors hate the pop song.
“Oh, sure,” you may say. “Of course art is subjective! But the people who love Beethoven’s Ninth are of course more educated people.” If that is your response, you have clearly not understood my points at all, and I’m not sure how better to explain them.
By this line of logic, there is also no such thing as “high art” (as I’ve argued before). There is certainly “popular art” (whether that popularity is academic, professional, commercial, etc.), but to claim such art is therefore objectively better or higher than other art, or should evoke more greater or more valid emotions, is terribly pretentious and completely illogical.
It’s natural for us to not understand what it’s like to be other people or experience the same emotions that other people claim to be experiencing. But that does not mean that they’re lying or that the emotions you know you’re feeling are more real or justified than theirs. Your opinions can never be better or more justified than anyone else’s.