As society moves forward, art takes on new forms and meanings. With an ever-increasing amount of works being abstract and controversial, one might wonder if there can be a way of determining what is and is not art, and how valuable certain pieces are. One of the theories seeking to answer that question is objectivism. Despite objectivism having multiple interpretations, the focus of this essay is Gardner’s argumentation for the theory.
At its core, objectivism in art is a belief that works of art, despite possible differences between them, adhere to certain universal rules that determine their value. Gardner describes this belief this way:
I believe there are standards of excellence in all the arts, fine or not fine, that transcend both individual tastes and cultural norms… Despite the many ways tastes can vary, I remain convinced that there are some universal standards in art even though we can specify them only in misty ways (Vaughn 338).
It is useful to have rational explanations of why certain pieces of art are as good and as aesthetically pleasing as they are. It makes art a system, one with rules that makes no room for interpretation. Such a system is great for determining a price of a piece of art. While people can like or dislike a piece, no one can argue against rationality.
A problem quickly arises when one thinks of a possible practical implementation of objectivism, and that is the problem of authority. Who exactly should decide on the standards for art and why? Art is as varied as the minds of artists, therefore, the authority determining these standards would need to be as diverse as humanity itself. Otherwise, there is no real difference between the well-meaning “system of value” and censorship.
The closest to being an “objective” system of artistic value for Western music is the Western musical tradition. That is the system primarily taught in Western musical educational institutions, and Western music is mainly viewed and judged through its lens. If it was to become a standard for determining, which musical pieces are art and which ones are not, many pieces of music, including ones with universal acclaim, would not be considered art at all.
For example, Ben Johnston’s String Quartets, first performed by the Kepler Quartet in 2016, would not be considered pieces of art. They are written using numerous microtonal harmonies (not in alignment with traditional European notes), and due to the immense difficulty of the pieces, until 2016, no one has ever performed them. The first successful performance of String Quartet No. 9 took almost two thousand takes over the course of several years. The resulting piece is at times jarring with dissonance, eerie, and otherworldly. This piece defies all musical traditions, yet it has gathered a sizeable number of admirers, some even proclaiming the quartet a masterpiece.
Due to all the problems with trying to rationalize art, I cannot agree with objectivism. It is a dangerous idea that promotes stagnation and authority, while art should not and cannot stagnate or be directed by someone other than the artist. Subjectivism captures this essence of individuality in art and aims not at restricting but at liberating both the artist and the consumer, and nothing is better for art than liberation. Objectivism might be appealing due to its simplicity and implications of some universal order, yet it falls flat in real circumstances.
Vaughn, Lewis. Philosophy Here and Now: Powerful Ideas in Everyday Life, 3rd ed., Oxford University Press, 2019.