It’s an experience pretty any music lover has had:
You and a friends get into an argument about your favorite band.
You firmly believe The Beatles are the greatest musical act ever to walk upon the earth. Friend A believes The Beatles are the most overrated artists in history, preferring instead the music of the Rolling Stones. Friend B thinks that your entire discussion is flawed; since rock music is dead, and only hip-hop and EDM acts should even be in the discussion.
These types of conversations follow a pretty predictable formula:
Each participant enthusiastically states his case, getting angry at everyone else in the room with a differing opinion. Arguments are made, rarely addressing the points raised in opposition, but instead insisting on the self-evident truth of the speaker’s opinion. In extreme cases, punches or half-empty beer glasses may be thrown. Almost always, the conclusion is the same:
“We’re never going to reach a conclusion here anyway; taste is subjective!”
But Is It?
“Taste is subjective” is taken almost as an article of faith in modern aesthetics.
It’s a version of the “you have yours, I have mine” attitude in morality: the idea that there are no absolute answers to questions where subjective values play a role.
There are basically two approaches to the question.
On the pro side (the “yes, taste IS subjective” side), people will typically argue some variation of, “I like ‘x,’ the only reason I have anything to do with ‘x’ is to get enjoyment out of it, and the same logic is behind why you like ‘y,’ so neither of us can be right or wrong here.”
On the con side, we usually find something of the form, “but what explains why so many people like chocolate while so few enjoy the taste of human excrement? This is an observable pattern that can be measured scientifically, and therefore explained scientifically… There must then be some objective explanation for the variation found among human tastes.”
On the surface, these two positions are simply incommensurable. They do not clash since they are simply talking about different things; the pro argument is about my taste; the con argument is about how popular certain tastes are.
I’ll return to this in a moment.
For the time being, let’s talk about taste in an area that’s not purely artistic, but related to art.
By design I mean, basically, commercial and industrial design; the profession that designs buildings, laptop cases, and corporate websites.
Design isn’t purely art, but art is an element of it: design is supposed to be beautiful, but it has other, more important purposes.
Design also differs from pure art in that it’s not as commonly agreed that taste in design is subjective. The most influential document in modern industrial design, Dieter Rams’ 10 principles, firmly asserts that there is such a thing as good design, with a capital ‘G’, and it is indicated by conformity to the following 10 principles:
Good Design Is Innovative.
Good Design Makes a Product Useful.
Good Design Is Aesthetic.
Good Design Makes A Product Understandable: It clarifies the product’s structure.
Good Design Is Unobtrusive : Products fulfilling a purpose are like tools. They are neither decorative objects nor works of art.
Good Design Is Honest: It does not make a product more innovative, powerful or valuable than it really is.
Good Design Is Long-lasting [avoids being fashionable].
Good Design Is Thorough Down to the Last Detail.
Good Design Is Environmentally Friendly.
Good Design Is as Little Design as Possible.
Stop and consider these standards for a minute.
Are they ‘subjective’?
Immediately, it’s clear points 7 and 9 (long lasting and environmentally friendly) are quantifiable: long duration can be measured in years; environmentally friendliness can be measured as the aggregate of a number of factors (CO2 emissions, energy use, materials used, etc).
Points 1, 2, 4, 6 , 8 and have at least some objective dimensions.
Innovation is correlated which change and novelty; for example, the ‘innovation’ in the design of a computer may be measured by how many elements in the design differ from previous computers.
Usefulness is partially subjective, partially objective: all utility is relative to a goal or desire (subjective); but how well the tool is advancing the goal is measurable (objective).
Understandability, again, has objective and subjective sides. Of course, individually, it is ‘subjective’ how understandable a product is to you; but how quickly people typically to learn to use a product, can be measured objectively.
Honesty, when discussing individuals, is a difficult topic. It’s difficult to prove conclusively whether somebody is lying or merely ignorant. In design, however, the test is fairly simple: basically, honesty equals with parsimony; an honest design doesn’t try to indicate functionality or utility it does not really possess. So for example, putting a tailfin on a car that does not actually improve the car’s aerodynamics, is dishonest design; it attempts to imply features the car does not really have.
The remaining points (thorough and aesthetic) are pretty much subjective; whether the color red is aesthetic or not is mostly in the eye of the bolder. Thoroughness, too, seems to mostly depend on perception; what is thorough or un-thorough largely depends on what the product user is expecting.
But otherwise, Rams is suggesting that Design is not really ‘in the eye of the beholder’ at all. Rather, it is firmly rooted in purpose: what thoroughness, honesty and durability all presume is that a product is designed to serve a purpose, and whether it serves that purpose can be measured objectively.
Do Dieter Rams’ Design Principles Carry Over To Art?
It’s now time to return to the paradox we left off with:
How is it that on the individual level, taste can be so subjective (i.e. I can like red while someone else can hate it), while on aggregate, there are clear tendencies for people to like certain things?
Dieter Rams’ design principles provide at least one possible answer:
Individual Preferences Have Two Dimensions: Associative And Functional.
In Rams’ design philosophy, the ‘objective’ criteria mostly pertain to how well a product serves its function: thoroughness, durability, un-obtrusiveness, etc. The ‘subjective’ criteria (beauty and such) are basically the relatively superfluous criteria (not crucial to the functioning of the product).
Consider this example:
A mother gives her daughter a red, warm jacket. She hates the color red, but, after taking the jacket out in a snowstorm and finding it keeps her warm, begins to wear this jacket instead of the blue jacket, which is in her favorite color but just can’t keep her warm.
Almost nobody would prefer to wear a jacket that leaves them cold in the winter; and to the extent that a handful do, their preferences can be dismissed as masochism.
As for the question of red jackets vs. blue jackets, it says more about the person than the product they’re wearing. Frankly, it is likely the product of associations formed in childhood: if an abusive parent constantly wore red, their child might form a negative association with the color red, or something to that effect.
So, is ‘taste in jackets’ subjective?
Basically, with respect to what makes a jacket a jacket, no.
But with respect to superficial features a jacket happens to have, yes.
But What Does This Have To Do With Art?
At this point it might seem like I’ve gone off on a digression.
I started off talking about taste in music, and now I’m talking about jackets. One is art, something we enjoy for its own sake; the other, we use for another purpose.
But is this distinction really so clear and straightforward?
‘Art’ is a hard thing to define; and (this is crucial), most educated definitions of art DO NOT equate art with mere sensory enjoyment. In fact, it’s quite common for art critics to say that if a work of art has nothing but sensory beauty to recommend it, it isn’t art.
According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, art is:
Something that is created with imagination and skill and that is beautiful or that expresses important ideas or feelings.
The part highlighted in bold is what’s really crucial here.
If a key function of art is to express important ideas or feelings, then art has a function beyond being merely beautiful.
For instance, among the reasons ideas might be considered ‘important’, we could list functions like:
- Educational value.
- Historical significance.
- Therapeutic or cathartic effects.
And in fact, it is precisely these functions that (arguably) make art, art.
No doubt you’ve encountered some strong opinions on modern visual art. While this opinion is far from universal, many people consider it appallingly bad, even disgusting. And yet, these pieces, like Damien Hirst’s famed formelhyde-suspended shark, are featured in art galleries, while the technically impressive works of Japanese animation are considered mere entertainment.
Are modern art promoters and buyers simply insane?
… Or, is there something more to it?
In general, modern art critics believe that art should serve a social purpose; should comment on the human experience, no matter how unpleasant it may be. In this sense, pieces that are ugly in the traditional sense may totally qualify for the title of ‘great art,’ if there really is some deeper meaning behind their often provocative exterior.
Andy Warhol’s paintings are often derided as ‘pop junk,’ and his techniques dismissed as mere photo-manipulation, similar to what any teenager could produce with photoshop. And yet there is no denying that many of his works have acquired iconic status, the same sort of ‘instantly memorable,’ ‘epoch-defining’ quality that the music of Dylan or The Beatles have.
Why is this?
Is it because Warhol’s paintings have simply been pushed and marketed so much that they obtained that status through mere saturation?
I doubt it.
Marketing and saturation alone are not sufficient to give something an ‘iconic’ status. Nothing is more heavily marketed than mass-produced pop groups like The Monkees and N’Sync, yet few of these groups ever produce anything iconic.
What Makes Warhol paintings, or Beatles songs for that matter, beautiful, is not the choice of colors or notes, but the fact that they say something. Beauty is not a thing-in-itself, but a feeling we perceive when we see other merits in something. If something is beautiful, it’s because it has values other than beauty: insight, health, economic value, virtue, stability, durability, or anything else.
Sure, taste, in the sense of ‘what’s your favorite color’ is subjective, and maybe no one taste is better than any toher. But, if we expand taste to include more substantive concerns, not all tastes are necessarily equally wise, informed, healthy or informative…
… Which is to say that taste, in the larger sense, is not subjective at all.
Dieter Rams’ list of design principles is among the most profound philosophical statements ever made, because it shows us that beauty is connected to utility. For Rams, design is ‘good’ when it does something more than simply try to look pretty; and similarly, art is beautiful when it does something more than try to look good.
This is a lesson that carries over remarkably well into the world of business. Many products, such as mail-order ‘get rich quick schemes,’ will pull out every dishonest trick in the book to sell themselves. Yet despite the ninja-level social manipulation involved in the advertising, most people instinctively spot this stuff as crap, not because they can prove it intellectually, but because of how it looks.
So the next time you think about how you’re going to market or promote your business, take a good hard look at what you’re doing, and ask yourself:
“Is this in good taste?”
If you can’t answer ‘yes’ with a straight face, many potential customers won’t be able to either.