Art and Objectivity

What is Objective Art?

Art and objectivity are rarely linked. The concept of art is popularly thought of as a subjective realm free of objective standards, thus leaving art to be evaluated solely by arbitrary personal tastes. This is, at best, a conceptually weak understanding of art derived from a misunderstanding of both “objectivity” and “subjectivity.” The definitions and clarifications I will set forth in this post may seem pedantic and distant from the central purpose of this blog, but they are absolutely essential to identifying the aesthetic nature of video games. After all, how can we establish how video games operate as art without a coherent definition of art?

By and large I subscribe to Ayn Rand’s theory of aesthetics as laid out in “The Romantic Manifesto.” Rand defined art as:

“…a selective re-creation of reality according to an artist’s metaphysical value-judgments.”

To elaborate:

“By a selective re-creation, art isolates and integrates those aspects of reality which represent man’s fundamental view of himself and of existence. Out of the countless number of concretes—of single, disorganized and (seemingly) contradictory attributes, actions and entities—an artist isolates the things which he regards as metaphysically essential and integrates them into a single new concrete that represents an embodied abstraction.

For instance, consider two statues of man: one as a Greek god, the other as a deformed medieval monstrosity. Both are metaphysical estimates of man; both are projections of the artist’s view of man’s nature; both are concretized representations of the philosophy of their respective cultures.

Art is a concretization of metaphysics. Art brings man’s concepts to the perceptual level of his consciousness and allows him to grasp them directly, as if they were percepts.”

 Put more simply, art is an instance of taking abstract ideas and presenting them in a visceral manner. All individuals experience emotions and recognize values throughout our daily lives, but only artistic products offer us the ability to examine these ideas in the form of solid, static entities. We may experience moments of courage, sensations of delight, or bursts of anger, but such instances are fleeting and exist in the long-term only within our memories. Art allows us to capture not just these moments, but any possible example of an emotion, value, statement, or really any concept, by freezing said concept in a concrete display to be experienced at will.

By creating art, we can increase our understanding of whatever ideas upon which we choose to focus. Michelangelo’s “David” allows us to appreciate strength and grace. Edvard Munch’s “The Scream” vividly presents terror, and in so doing may very well amplify our respect, if not aversion, to fear. This process of identifying and explicating ideas through a visceral medium, whether it be paintings, literature, films, or video games, can provide some of the most profound experiences known to man.

(As a side note, my conception of art slightly differs from Rand’s on the importance of the artist’s “value judgements.” I believe good art is achieved by successfully concretizing an idea, regardless of whether or not the idea itself is good or bad. This means that the “deformed medieval monstrosity” cited by Rand could still technically be considered “good art” on its own terms. That being said, I probably wouldn’t want such a sculpture in my home because I don’t agree with the ideas it expresses.

Objectivity and Subjectivity

The concept of “objectivity” is intimately linked to this understanding of art. However, to grasp this connection, objectivity itself must be properly understood in contrast to its rather weak colloquial definition.

Most people think “objectivity” refers to an evaluative state in which truth is determined by facts outside of the human mind, and therefore truth is universal, or the same for everyone. Typically objectivity is applied to science wherein scientific discoveries (ie. the existence of gravity, evolution, etc.) are said to be objective because said discoveries exist for all people regardless of what an individual might actually believe. For example, evolution is said to be objectively true, regardless of what creationists believe, because the theory of evolution is derived from facts of reality which are not controlled and do not have to be recognized by creationists in order to exist. Humans and monkeys objectively evolved from a common ancestor because that is what genetic and fossil records reveal; an individual’s personal beliefs have no bearing on this truth.

On the other hand, colloquial “subjectivity” refers to an evaluative state in which truth is determined by factors within the human mind, and therefore what is true varies between individuals. Typically subjectivity is applied to art wherein the quality of a particular piece is entirely determined by the examining individual’s particular personal traits which may or may not have any referent beyond whims. For example, one individual may deem the “Mona Lisa” to be good art because the subject’s mysterious smile evokes a sense of wonder, and for unquestioned reasons, the viewer associates wonder with profundity. Meanwhile, another individual may consider the Mona Lisa to be bad art because he likes bright colors and doesn’t care for the painting’s dull shades. Within a paradigm of subjective evaluation, both interpretations and judgements of the “Mona Lisa” are equally valid.

Based on these definitions, the introduction of objectivity into art is understandably daunting, if not arrogant. To say a piece of art is “objectively good” is taken to indicate that not liking the piece is somehow “wrong” and therefore the evaluator is attempting to establish his own arbitrary viewpoint as a monopoly on truth.

However, the use of objectivity in art is only problematic if one’s basic conception of art is incoherent or insufficient. Indeed, the textbook definitions of art range from vague to non-existent. Wikipedia describes art as “a diverse range of human activities and the products of those activities, usually involving imaginative or technical skill.” Google’s built-in dictionary elaborates slightly by describing art as “the expression or application of human creative skill and imagination, typically in a visual form such as painting or sculpture, producing works to be appreciated primarily for their beauty or emotional power.

Even without diving into a foundational discussion on the nature of concept formation and language, it is clear that neither definition is particularly helpful at identifying or describing “art” or “aesthetics,” especially when further exploring the key components of the definitions produce equally wishy-washy descriptions (ie. according to Google, “beauty” is “a combination of qualities, such as shape, color, or form, that pleases the aesthetic senses, especially the sight”). Combing the two definitions indicates that seemingly anything which is in some way creative or beautiful (both of which are apparently subjective in and of themselves) can be called art. By that standard, art is, or at least can be, apparently everything and/or nothing.

I don’t know of any other important concepts which are shaped so poorly and amorphously. Only art and its related concepts exist in this zone of pure subjectivity in which every evaluation is valid. Maybe someone else can state examples of similar concepts, but I cannot think of any.

“Concepts” group individual concrete units of reality to organize and economize information for the purpose of thought. If a concept is so badly structured that no one is sure what it refers to, then there is something wrong with that concept and it should be redefined. This is the current popular state of the concept of “art.”

Connecting Art and Objectivity

Ayn Rand’s definition of art, as presented at the start of this post, is an attempt to introduce meaningful parameters to the concept. To do so, she established objective borders between what is and isn’t art as well as between good and bad art. These borders are objective because they concern the relationship between the subject (the person experiencing the art) and the object (the art itself). Most importantly, this implies that the subject, object, and their relationship, have intrinsic qualities which can be contrasted with different subjects, objects, and their relationships.

To produce good art, an artist must be able to identify and utilize the objective intrinsic characteristics of the factors with which he is working. This means that he must consider who his audience is, what idea he is trying to convey, and which medium he is using to convey said idea. The better the artist’s understanding of these factors and their relationships, the better his product will be.

For example, imagine an artist set out to create a painting which was intended to provoke a feeling of calmness in the person viewing the piece. That is, the artist wanted to bring the abstract concept of calmness down to a visceral level. Then let’s imagine the artist’s first attempt consisted of a canvas displaying a series of seemingly random red and orange streaks which didn’t seem to portray anything in particular.

How should an individual evaluate this piece in accordance with an objective understanding of art?

This first attempt probably fails to even qualify as art, or at the very least, is bad art. A bunch of random paint streaks do not present a coherent concretization of anything. At best it might provoke a vague and highly abstract association with some feeling, though certainly not with “calmness” due to its color scheme. This is because red and orange are not associated with calmness, but rather tend to be associated with precisely the opposite emotions. While one can find plenty of examples of this assessment in popular culture (ie. exit signs are red), a fully reductionist explanation would likely trace back to some association between visual sensory inputs, neurotransmitters, and emotional responses.

However, technically this sort of association could be changed through some sort of concerted effort (maybe by repeatedly juxtaposing red and orange patterns with calming images over a long period of time), or perhaps there is a small portion of the population which happens to have different internal color-emotion neuro connections. That is, maybe some people have objective reasons for associating bright red and orange with a feeling of calmness and therefore my evaluation of the canvas does not apply to some people.

This is not an error in Rand’s conception of art, but rather a feature. Recall that objectivity consists of the recognition of the relationship between a subject and an object, both of which have intrinsic qualities. The rare individuals who, for some reason, innately associate bright red and orange with calmness are working off different objective standards because the nature of the subject (the person experiencing the art) is different. Thus we can say that within a framework of objectivity, there are objectively different manners of evaluation.

Unfortunately, most people mistake this differentiation within objectivity for subjectivity. That is, they consider differences in evaluations to be entirely arbitrary. After all, there are no valid objective differentiations within the field of science, where objectivity is typically applied. Thus it’s easy to see how and why most people leap from “individuals have different opinions about art,” to “all art is subjective.” However, this is a fundamentally conceptually weak manner of describing art because it obliterates all conceptual standards and leaves art in a bizarre state of being nothing, anything, or everything based on any individual’s whim.

To establish differentiated objective parameters while simultaneously avoiding the subjectivity trap, an artistic evaluator must maintain the standards of objectivity by identifying the intrinsic natures of the subject, the object, and their relationship. Often this consists of identifying a subject’s variance from a norm, such as an unusual association between certain colors and emotions which most people don’t share. Most importantly, the evaluator must not toss-up their standards to arbitrary feelings. There are factual explanations behind all personal preferences. These explanations can range from highly abstract conceptual processes (ie. choosing to value an individual after a lifetime of positive experiences with him or her) to unchosen biological processes (ie. liking the taste of chocolate because of some neurological connection between one’s taste buds and dopamine production).

Admittedly, identifying the underlying cause of preferences is extremely difficult, especially when so many of our preferences are either so abstract that it’s difficult to grasp them, or are essentially intangible. The intangibility is probably the most problematic. There is a fine line between using an emotional reaction to an artistic piece as one of many tools for evaluation, and as the only tool of evaluation. The former consists of experiencing an emotion and then ascertaining its cause, as well as the rationality of said cause. The latter consists of beginning and ending one’s evaluation of an artistic piece with an immediate gut-feeling which will never be burdened by introspection.

Trying to analyze each and every emotional judgment of art is a difficult process. Yet the alternative to this rigorous journey of introspective evaluation is to forfeit your understanding of your own mind and to accept whatever feelings you happen to experience as your sole aesthetic arbiter.

Given my explanation thus far, I could understand why someone would be asking why all of this matters. What’s the point of establishing rigorous parameters to attain objective evaluations? Who cares? To explain the significance of objectivity, let’s look at two more examples of the theoretical artist’s attempt at creating a calming painting.

Let’s say the artist’s second painting displays a nightmarish scene of a man being tortured while the background is filled with the most gruesome depictions of blood and gore imaginable. By objective standards, this painting constitutes art since it successfully displays coherent images, but it is clearly a failure by the standard of its goal of being calming. Again, this is because some amalgamation of social cues, psychology, and neuroscience create a strongly negative association between torture and calmness. And again, there may somehow be people out there who happen to have a pertinent positive association, in which case this may well be good art for them.

The picture could be also be considered good art by the standard of a different goal. If the artist was intending to provoke disgust, then he may have achieved his goal, but only because the objective nature of the concept of disgust, as well as its relationship with human beings, is intrinsically different from the nature of calmness and its relationship with human beings. But given the artist’s intended goal, he failed. Likewise, by the standards of creating tinder for a fire, he may have succeeded. However, since he intended the art for a specific purpose, it is that purpose by which we should evaluate his efforts.

Let’s say the artist’s third painting displays a woman with a calm expression on her face in a cozy bedroom decorated with soft images and a blue and beige color scheme. Assuming the painting is competently executed, this piece would not only constitutes art, but indeed good art. The imagery and colors are objectively associated with calmness for reasons I’m sure pretty much anyone could understand.

Why Objectivity Matters

Objective evaluation in the realm of art has the same purpose of objective evaluation applied anywhere else. It enables the creator to identify and develop the best aspects of the product to improve it.

Objective evaluation within the realm of architecture means identifying the nature of building materials and how they can be combined to create a useful structure to be utilized by individuals. That means recognizing that steel is stronger than wood, that arches can support more weight than squares, and that trigonometry exists.

An individual could theoretically engage in architecture without considering these and other similar factors. But that individual would be a terrible architect. He would haphazardly slap together random materials in thoughtless patterns until eventually something which technically qualified as a structure emerged. Or not. Maybe such an individual would never establish a building and would just end up standing on top of a pile of rubble. However, given a theoretical “subjective” standard of architecture, there would still be people who hail the terrible architect’s pile of rubble as a great structure, despite its failure to achieve even the most modest of its intended goals.

In my theoretical example of the artist attempting to create a painting which conveys the concept of calmness, each attempt was better than the last because it displayed a better understanding of the objective properties of its components. The first attempt was based on a failed understanding of what visual formations people associate with calmness, as well as a fundamental misunderstanding of the potential of the medium of painting to convey coherent visual images. The second attempt was based on a good understanding of the artistic medium’s potential to display images, but maintained the misunderstanding of what people associate with calmness. Only the third attempt displayed a complete understanding of the way all elements of this particular artistic attempt function as well as their relationship with one another.

The production of good art requires objectivity just as badly as the production of good buildings. If an artist wants to create a piece which will affect his audience, then he has to understand the true nature of all the elements involved. That is, he needs to grasp the nature of his artistic material, the ideas he is presenting, the manner in which he is presenting them, and the subjects to which he is presenting. An artist cannot convey an idea if he does not understand it, he cannot use materials well if he doesn’t know their properties and limitations, and he cannot provoke profound emotions in an audience if he doesn’t understand people.

Attempting to create art without an objective understanding of the concept will produce the same results as attempting architecture without a fundamental understanding of its objective properties. Or more realistically, the extent to which an artist produces good work, is caused by the extent to which he understands his subjects’ objective properties.

This is why we need an objective conception of art if we are to progress video games as an artistic medium. Only by identifying the objective nature of video games, that is their strengths and limitations in comparison to other artistic mediums, can developers create the best possible products.

In my next post I will dive into the specifics of what I believe to be the unique aesthetic properties of video games as an artistic medium.

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One thought on “Art and Objectivity

  1. Pingback: Liebster Award – Theory of Objective Video Game Aesthetics

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