On being a better critic of art


#1

I was listening to the Philosophize This podcast on David Hume. It’s a four part series on Hume and I recommend listening to the whole series (and in fact I recommend every episode of the podcast as a whole) but part four in particular was really interesting. Here’s a link to the episode: http://philosophizethis.org/david-hume-art/.

For background and context, David Hume is a radical skeptic who asks people to critically examine their own beliefs and to decouple one’s understanding of the world from moral judgements, never saying one ought to act a certain way because of the way the world is. We can never be truly certain of causal relationships. Hume is a staunch empiricist, i.e. we can only make inferences through observation, not logic, because our limited human understanding makes identifying causal relationships effectively impossible. All of your beliefs require a “leap of faith” no matter how small or inconsequential. It’s your job to figure out exactly how big of a leap your beliefs must take you.

That said, he also believes that not all beliefs are equal. As Socrates would say, the unexamined life is not a life worth living. In Hume’s eyes, someone who blindly stumbles through life believing everything their parents told them and never challenging themselves to reexamine their closely held values does not have the same right to defend their beliefs as someone who has made the effort to critically examine how and why they came to their beliefs.

This brings us to the actual topic at hand. The fourth episode in Stephen West’s series on Hume talks about the qualities of being a good art critic. After all, not all beliefs are held equal, and while art is subjective, we’d be naive to say that all art is made with equal skill. Subjectivism is really common in creative communities, with people trying to avoid critiques that say that a work is badly made. No, we can only say that it doesn’t work for us. Maybe for someone it’s the best work of art ever created! You never know. Hume would scoff at this.

He actually has five criteria that you need to uphold if you want to critique art in such a way that your opinion becomes meaningful in accordance with the work’s true merit. These don’t necessarily prove that you can identify a piece of art’s objective quality, but they do indicate that your abilities as a critic can be trusted above others.

  1. Strong Sense
  2. Delicate Sentiment
  3. Practice
  4. Comparison
  5. Lack of Prejudice

First, you have the capability to perceive the work as it was fully intended using your senses.

Second, you have a familiarity with the conventions of the piece of art and can isolate specific details. You can see the work of art for what it is, rather than just an impression.

Third, you have a lot of experience in criticism and can draw on your training and practice to inform your opinions.

Fourth, you have a lot of exposure to similar works through which you can draw comparison.

Fifth, you have to be able to separate yourself from the work of art and disregard any personal prejudices like nostalgia, melancholy, bigotry, attachment, etc that would obfuscate your ability to look at the work with clear eyes.

I think these are all very achievable. We should strive to emulate them as much as possible when giving feedback. We must practice leaving our preconceptions at the door and go in with an open mind, while simultaneously being rigorous with our craft and our critiques.

I’ll end this post with a quote from the podcast which I enjoyed:

One of the most profound points in the entire essay to me is his idea that as subjective of a matter as art seems to be on the surface, there’s definitely something consistent about great art. A consistency that you don’t see in other areas of inquiry where things seems more set in stone. The greatest scientist of our generation will probably not be the greatest scientist of the next generation. The philosopher we recognize as the best today will probably change as the centuries go on. But the da Vincis, the Homers, the Shakespeares … the brilliance of these people is oddly timeless. I mean, how crazy is it that we can read a poem written thousands of years ago and still recognize it as greatness?

Anyway I liked this episode a lot and thought I’d share.


#2

I think we can do this more but I don’t think anyone can do this completely. Art is not totally subjective: if it was you would have to say that a three year old’s hand painting is just as good as the Sistine Chapel. The former might bring more joy to the parent than the Sistine Chapel ever would but you can’t say it’s nearly as good a piece of art.

But some art has to be subjective and is up to personal taste. Where that objective and subjective line is though, is a fascinating question.

I think part of finding a critic whose opinion you respect and trust, is yes, finding someone who follows points 1 through 4, and to some extent follows point 5 but also has somewhat similar preferences as you do.

I think some art it is impossible to set aside your prejudices entirely because art often speaks to us on a very emotional and deep level, where those feelings dwell. You can try to judge the art without those feelings, but even if you are capable of doing so, I think that misses the point of what has been created.You might be able to address the technical side, how all the bits and pieces were put together, the language used in a book, the brush strokes in a painting, the acting in a play. But how something is put together is only one part of a piece of art, and in some ways the less important part. It is the emotions that art elicits that is likely the part that was important to the artist. And I don’t think you can address emotions objectively. Because emotions are personal.

I think one of the difficult duties of a critic is balancing this fine line.


#3

I think Hume’s main point is that people do this too much. We rely on our lizard brain to decide what makes something “good” and a poor critic will use their subjective experience and disguise it as an objective point. The music that inspires the majority of people, for example, is more tied to what music we listened to the most when we were pre-teens, not to an actual measure of how good it is. The main contention here is, bluntly, reals over feels. A good critic examines the work for what it is, not for what it seems like it is through the lens of their personal subjective feelings.

The episode goes into a lot more detail about this argument and how it can’t just be reduced to “but every piece of art makes everyone feel differently!” It’s a really good listen. Give it a shot!


#4

Wow .very informative


#5

Finally read the transcript. (And a few of the following ones too. Good podcast.)

As explained here, the qualities of Hume’s ideal critic boil down to being a really good describer–of detail and of context. But I’m not convinced those skills are actually of much value unless there is something objective to artistic quality. A careful Humean describer will find near-infinite possible things to notice about a work and its context; by what token are they expected to judge which of those are note_worthy_?

If Hume doesn’t believe there’s an actual rationally defensible reason that Shakespeare > Silverstein, then I submit all that the practiced critic is self-immersing in is a particular social tradition which will shape their judgment. Why should that be inherently preferable to the individual’s own “naive” judgment, the one they hold before teaching themselves what others have done and enjoyed?

The podcast is good at unpacking where e.g. complexity and novelty fall down as canons of quality…but doesn’t apply as harsh a skepticism to Hume’s criteria, which will also falter in the absence of some legitimately shared criterion of beauty/quality.


#6

I think the main idea is that the ability to describe and understand a piece of art for what it is is a prerequisite to being a good critic. Being able to do it doesn’t mean you’re a good critic but you can’t be a good critic without it. Saying that your opinion as a critic has merit without these qualities is disingenuous because you’ll be misrepresenting the piece of art; you’re not judging the same thing others are judging. You might as well just say whatever you want.


#7

I guess what I’m responding to is the idea that we can sidestep the question of “what makes good art?” and still answer “what makes a good critic?”

As soon as we allow some objective (or broadly inter-subjective) idea of aesthetics, I agree with all you’re saying. But the podcast presented this as something that can still hold true even if we can’t speak about an artwork’s quality; whereas I suggest that if we can’t put our finger on any objective indicator of beauty/quality, then indeed: