HOUR 4: The Eye of the Beholder

It is pretty common in semi-heated discussions on college campuses that someone will voice their opinion on an issue and a frustrated interlocutor will say “but that’s your OPINION though.” This, of course, is not just a simple tautology. The person who says this is saying something else entirely that lies implicit in their words. If I proclaim that your opinion that the transformers movies are garbage is “just your opinion,” what I’m really saying is that What you think about those movies has no fundamental validity outside of your own mind. Therefore, I don’t have any responsibility to respond to your claims because, after all, your claims don’t really matter in the grand scheme of things. In short, you thinking that the movies suck and my thinking that the movies are good do not have to be in dialogue at all. You do you. Stop worrying about what I like.


In discussions of art, (a category to which we must admit even Transformers 2), this kind of blunt dismissal of other people’s criticisms or feelings is usually voiced in the following phrase:


Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.”


Much like, “that’s just your opinion,” this claim in the modern age is taken to mean more than just “people find different things beautiful.” It’s not just a restatement of “there’s no accounting for taste.” It also works as a kind of imperative telling us to accept the fundamental validity of the perspective of the beholder. Similarly, the beholder in question gets to hold that claim up as a kind of shield protecting themselves from criticism; If beauty is in the eye of the beholder, then I don’t really have to give an account of the fact that I saw Transformers 5 in the theatre and thought it was dope. “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder” is the original “we made this movie (that got awful reviews) for the fans, not the critics.”

Consider the circumstances where the claims “but that’s your opinion” or “it’s in the eye of the beholder” or “don’t yuck my yum” or “The movie was good for what it is” are even spoken. It’s when the subject of some work of art is raised that someone likes, and someone else in the room speaks ill of it in some way. These claims are reflexive responses, deployed to protect the speaker from having to evaluate or question their own pleasure. We have great fealty to our own pleasure, you see. And it makes us suck at thinking. So. Let’s take the “eye of the beholder” line and see what happens when we think through its implications.


Subjective or Objective?

It seems to me that there are two extreme responses to the claim that beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Extreme agreement, which results in a kind of relativistic subjectivity. And extreme disagreement, which results in a hard core objectivity. It is my mission now to demonstrate that both of these responses are very, very wrong.

Consider the claims made by Robert Florczak.

I would say that Florczak is a champion of objectivity, which he codes as universal standards of excellence. He follows the narrative that the works and subject matters of modern art represent the decline of art, which he seems to see as exclusively the product of European art makers. The decline, he says, began with “the eye of the beholder” conception and dropped like a 340 ton rock thereafter. There are a couple problems here.


(And I should say, these problems are fairly common. Just check out this video, which roots objectivity in theism.)


First, it’s difficult to work out why the standards that gave us the works that he thinks of as being great, are “universal”. Are we to believe that if we  paraded The Girl with a Pearl Earring around the entire world of the 17th century, that every person from every culture would agree as to its beauty? I don’t think we can say that.


Now, what a jerk would say is: “well, those people simply don’t have access to universal standards of beauty because they are primitive or a member of the lesser races (which, let me tell you, Europeans were saying some version of this in the 17th century).” But even if we brushed aside all that racism and accepted it as true, this would actually counter the claim that there could even be such a thing as universal standards of beauty. On this score, what Florczak might claim is universal is really just a particular set of standards masquerading as universal. In other words, this is what some might call a colonial conception of culture. “If you don’t appreciate the value of this thing that we think is beautiful, you are wrong because we are the true champions of the universal.”


In short, the “universality” central to being able to claim that some art conforms to universal standards of excellence while other art doesn’t is really just a declaration of universality premised upon the default worthlessness of all other perspectives. People who believe this tend to think think rap music doesn’t count as real music. Also, “get off my lawn, ya punk kids!”


Another problem that is maybe not super relevant for our subject right now but still important is that Florczak seems to think that the subject matter of art has also taken a nosedive. The claim seems to be that there are some things that are not worth making art about, because, you know, see earlier discussion about “universal” standards of excellence. Once again, without access to his universality, I can’t tell why a statue about dying is dope on the basis of its subject matter, but a statue about nature (a la the 340 ton rock) or a pee covered statue commenting on freedom of religion and expression are wack partly because they have wack subject matters. But nature and the freedom of expression were ideas addressed by many of the old masters prior to the “nosedive” or art. In addition, art history is literally one of artists pushing the boundaries of what can be talked about or reflected upon in the public sphere. To voluntarily limit what can count as appropriate without continued discussion is to miss the general point that art is always about ideas and it is sensible to think that subject matters will change over time.


The last issue I’d like to address in this video is the appeal to experts. (It is interesting that he uses the example of figure skating judges to demonstrate our willingness to defer to the expertise of others, but denies that same privilege to art curators and museums, but whatevs.) This is also problematic. Let’s explore how after the following video:


The thrust of this little philosophy lesson is to try to figure out how the “eye of the beholder” claim can be false, but without committing oneself to a full on “objective” framework. This led the youtube philosopher to Hume and his conception of experts. As he says, Hume’s work on taste “it is a means for judging judgement.” This is not bad, per se. Here is how I might try to improve things.


First, let’s go back to the figure skating judges. Those are cats that have a relatively limited set of criterion for judging performances. Also, crucially, they themselves have distinct way of judging something. That’s why one judge can give an 8 and another can give a 10. What happens is that their judgements, rendered as numbers, come together into one number, a numerical consensus on the quality of Michelle Kwan’s routine.


Consensus is a kind of resolution of disparate judgements. Numerical consensus is not possible in discussions of art, since the factors that one can possibly consider in explaining whether a work of art is good or bad, but seeking out resolution is a worthy cause. We don’t do this necessarily by consulting Humean experts. We do this, I suggest, by striving to become experts in our own right.


I said earlier that claiming that “beauty is in the eye of the beholder” with all that this implies makes us suck at thinking. The point is that putting up this shield takes away from us one of the things that is most amazing about works of art. They give us something to contemplate and in that contemplation they give us the ability to grow and develop our intellects and our overall personhood.


In striving to become your own expert, you have to determine not just whether the art is good or beautiful, but also what the criterion for the judgment of the art even are. And to do that, you have to talk about it. You also have to be willing to learn something new about the work itself. You also have to be willing to change your orientation to it if someone offers you a new way of seeing things that reveals aspects of the work you had previously not considered. This all takes work, homies. Work that you should be willing to do.


Other issues.

There are a couple things that have come up in this reflection that are worth considerings. The first is the problem of objectivity. The pro objectivity people and the anti-objectivity people both make claims like “and yet, certain works seem unquestionably better than others.” Fair enough. But does this mean there are some hidden objective criterion somewhere? Nah, I don’t think so. I think we need to just listen to the people who sell art for a living and figure what they think.



Notice that even though they  legit utter the  “eye of beholder” line, they immediately recontextualize it to reference what the beholder usually finds more attractive. (Paintings of White females, obvi.) In other words, what other might take to be an indication of objective standards is really just a descriptive claim on observable tendencies among those who consume art. It’s simple. People tend to like certain works. This is not an immutable claim about the nature of those works, but it is reliable enough for us to think about mass appeal and the tastes people mostly hold in common. But once again, we have to defer to the specificity of the community and not to some universal out there governing tastes.


Another lesson of note from this video that NOT ALL ART IS ABOUT BEAUTY. Here is some satire on the subject.


But more seriously, peep Fred Wilson right quick.


“Beauty can hide meaning.” This is important, because it clues us into the notion that we do not have to gain pleasure from art as a revelation of the beautiful. We can think about art in other ways. Art doesn’t necessarily succeed or fail based on its ability to please our senses or give us some enjoyment. Once again, the core here is reflection. Are you made better by responding to the challenge of this art? Then hey, it’s a good day.

Speaking of challenging art. I’m just gonna drop this right here…

Okay.  This next video is probably the closest to the position for which I am advocating re: becoming your own expert. Here, the expert is described as an art historian. But note the activity of the art historian.

Also of note here is the response to the “my kid could draw that” criticism, which is another shield that people put up to prevent them from thinking about what is happening in art and critically engaging with others about it. Good stuff.

So. Instead of saying “beauty is in the eye of the beholder nyah nyah”, instead say, “what are some ways that we can think about this work of art together that can perhaps improve our ability to think period? Let’s discuss!”

Oh, last thing! Before we end this hour, I want to reference an offhanded comment that Florczak made about graffiti. He seemed to think the stuff was worthless. I think maybe it is good to have a better notion of its history before forming such an opinion.


(Also. There are so many analyses online for the puppet video.)