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For Sophia


by Miles Mathis

I was talking today with a girl (named Sophia) in a coffeeshop about Pride and Prejudice versus Madame Bovary, and the matter of taste in art.   She is a student at Stanford, and she told me that although her professor in literature was an "aesthetic subjectivist" he had argued that MB was superior to P&P.  He had told her that this was demonstrable.   She and I both saw that this was a logical inconsistency, since a subjectivist generally believes that quality in art is a matter of taste.  De gustibus non disputandum—there is no arguing about taste.  If that is true, then no aesthetic qualities could be demonstrable, since a demonstrable quality would be an objective quality.

      A short time later in this conversation I admitted that I had once felt that MB was superior, but that I now felt P&P was superior.  She asked if this was not a contradiction of my belief in "aesthetic objectivism," a theory in which quality in art is not a matter of taste but of fact.  My answer was as follows.  My change in opinion was not a matter of changing taste—which would refute any objective fact—but rather, I said, a matter of changing my criteria for what constitutes a great novel.   By some criteria—the ones I held as highest in my youth—MB is truly a better novel.  By the criteria I now prefer, P&P is a greater novel.  I contended that most people would agree with me once they had agreed to share my criteria for judgment. 

      Sophia answered, in that case the choice of criteria became the matter of taste, and we were right back to where we started.  I denied that, explaining that the only thing that had been proven was that taste was a matter of taste.  Some people might prefer, due to circumstance, a novel that did one thing and not another.  Or, the very same person might prefer one novel in his youth and another as he got older.  That was a matter of taste.   But the novel did not change due to that taste.  The novel was a given quantity, an objective fact.  It remained the same whether it was loved or hated, whether it was judged above another novel or not.  What people value, at different times in their lives or in different ages changes.  There is no denying it.  But that does not make art subjective, or the value of art subjective.    

        One must make a distinction between the content of the opinion and the target of the opinion.  The content of the opinion is the opinion itself.  Whether it resides in a mind or a brain will not concern us here, but it is clear that the opinion does not exist within the work of art.  The opinion exists as a construct of a human being.  It is subjective, since it is held by the subject.  The person with the opinion is the subject, therefore that person's opinion is subjective.  But the target, in this case a novel, is the object.  Its qualities are therefore objective.  It is long or short, funny or serious, with a convoluted plot or no plot, and so on.  If you don't care much about some of these qualities and you care very much about others, then your opinion will obviously be swayed by this.  I maintain that "taste" is just the sum total of these predispositions.  If this is true, then art is not a matter of taste; opinion is a matter of taste, and that is all.  Taste is a matter of taste.

      Our conversation ended soon after this, but my new friend might have interrupted here to complain that each of these "qualities" that I have mentioned might also be said to be subjective, in the sense that none are finally demonstrable.  Whether a novel is short or long may be demonstrable, but that the sentences are beautiful or that the plot is well constructed is not so easy to demonstrate.  Some may prefer one sort of sentence and others another sort.  Some may prefer lots of finely drawn characters and high background detail and others may prefer stream of consciousness—where there are no characters, no dialogue, and no plot.   We are back to a matter of taste.

      But again I would disagree.  These last qualities are no more or less subjective than the length of the novel.  We could of course argue ad infinitum about what constitutes a long novel and what constitutes a short one.  I have heard people have arguments over sillier things.  But once a standard of length is agreed upon, it is a simple matter to count the pages.

       I would argue that the other qualities are exactly analogous.  They may be more complex but they are no more "subjective."  What many people seem to mean when they argue that something is subjective is that the standards are difficult to determine.  I agree that some standards are difficult to determine, but this difficulty is due to complexity, not to so-called subjectivity or taste.  The beauty of a single sentence is determined by a large number of things, including the words used, the order of the words, the meaning of the words, the physical shape of the words, and so on.  But again, I maintain that if a standard for beauty is agreed on beforehand, then the determination of beauty is just as precise as the determination of length.  "Length" and "beauty" are qualities that are determined by the same basic method, and they are equally objective or subjective.  That is, if you admit that the length of a novel is an objective fact, then you must admit that the beauty of a sentence is also an objective fact.  

      My friend may say, yes, but a standard for length is easy to come up with.  You just arbitrarily define a long novel as one that is over 500 pages, say.  Standards for beauty are not as easy to find. 

      I agree that a standard for beauty is arbitrary in precisely the same sense that a standard for length is.  And I agree that arbitrary means basically the same thing as subjective, in this case.  We simply choose to place these standards in a way that suits us.  But, saying that the standard for beauty is arbitrary is not the same as saying that beauty is arbitrary.

     To continue our analogy, a standard for length does not mean that length is arbitrary.  By defining "long" as "500 words or more" we have not thereby made the length of any specific novel subjective.  We have not made it a matter of taste as to whether the novel in question is over 500 pages.  It either is or is not.  And the term "500 words" applies to the novel, not to my opinion of the length of the novel.  It is the novel that has the quality of length, not my opinion. 

     My friend may now say that my definition of objective is so stripped-down it is no longer useful.  All I seem to be saying is that the work of art has some definite set of characteristics.  But this is not helpful, since one era may define those characteristics as beautiful and another era define the selfsame set as ugly. 

     First of all, my definition, even seen as simply a set of characteristics, is much more than tautological.  Many postmodern theories have denied any characteristics to the object; many have denied the object itself.  Most, in fact, have been forced to retreat from any statements about the object at all in order to remain consistent.  If arguments about opinion cannot be referred to some external standard, then opinion itself becomes solipsistic—all argument becomes futile. 

      But beyond that, my definition has a number of uses that the solipsist or subjectivist can never achieve.  First of all, my placement of qualities within the object, rather than in the mind of the subject, undercuts immediately the relativism and "creative freedom" of Deconstruction.  If a novel or other work of art has definite characteristics then these characteristics cannot be manipulated by subsequent "theorists."  Or, if they are manipulated, this manipulation can be countered by pointing to facts.  The existence of any facts, no matter how basic, is deadly to Deconstruction.  Real characteristics existing within the novel allow for argumentation about both the characteristics and opinions about these characteristics.  A subjectivist can dodge any criticism, since all his characteristics are ultimately constructed subjectively, that is, in the mind.   But an objectivist may eventually get down to brass tacks, since there are ultimately facts to argue about, facts that do not shift after each sentence in a conversation. 

       For instance, if you force an argument about quality to get down to very specific questions, such as the beauty of sentences, or the importance of characterization, then you can get your opponent to admit to things like this: he or she may say, "Well, yes, characterization is very important in novel writing, I suppose, but it is something I can just as well do without."  Then the question becomes, "Why can you do without it?"  And the answer invariably has to do with the psychology of the reader.  It is linked to specific experiences he or she has had.  Experiences that are in no way universal.  And you can get the reader to admit this.  These are admissions that the personal taste of the reader is skewed in some way.  The reader will say, "Yes, I know that X is a great novel.  By all these standards that even I would admit are meaningful and important, X succeeds.  It is just that it reminds me of Y (some painful childhood experience, maybe), and I can't get past this." 

       I am not saying that all disagreements about art devolve to pathology in one or the other reader.  I am saying that the fact that so many people will admit to bias of one sort or another means that there is an explicit standard at work.  Bias is deviation from an agreed-to standard.  You cannot admit to bias without admitting to the existence of standards.

      To give a non-literary example:  many people like to listen to music that was popular when they were growing up.  This preference is called nostalgia, of course.  The song we hear on the radio is linked to the things we were experiencing at the time, and these experiences color our experience of the song.  But most of us would admit, under close examination, that these songs—despite being among our favorites—are not of the quality of some others that we might not like as much.  This admission of bias is not a proof of subjectivity, it is just the opposite.  It is proof of standards that we accept.  It is the acknowledgement that we are overriding standards due to our own idiosyncrasies.  But to override standards, you must have standards.  The overriding is itself proof of the standards. 

        Nostalgia is not the only overrider of standards.  Current politics also overrides standards.  I believe this is what happens with the avant garde.  Under close examination, most who have liked the avant garde would admit, "Yes, judged by artistic standards, this stuff really doesn't hold up too well, but I am not concerned about art.  I am a modern person—I am bored by art.  Politics seems much more relevant to me.  Personally I find politics much more exciting.  These conceptual pieces push my agenda in the here and now.  They allow me to feel involved, as a thinking person.  Whether they have artistic qualities does not concern me."  This admission is not proof of subjectivism, or lack of artistic standards.  Again, it is only an admission of bias, which is an implicit admission of standards to be biased against.


Now, to return to Madame Bovary and Pride and Prejudice.  I think I would admit, under close examination, that my current preference for P&P is based on idiosyncrasy.  It is based in part on my recent viewing of the BBC production, which I like very much.  It is based on the copy of P&P that I own, which is bound in red leather and has illustrations I love.  It is based on a current preference for humor and escapist reading, which is in no way permanent.  In the end, I would have no problem admitting that “Great Novels” and “Novels I Currently Like” are two entirely different categories.  The latter is obviously subjective.  The former is not. 

       To really argue in earnest about how Pride and Prejudice and Madame Bovary fit into the former category would take much more work than I have so far done in trying to judge them objectively.  But I do believe it is possible to do so.  One must be very thorough, very specific, and must spend a great deal of effort suppressing bias.  And, of course, once one has done all this, one cannot turn round and claim to be an aesthetic subjectivist.  For that would be the ultimate absurdity.

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