No, Art is Not Purely Subjective

by  in Comic News Comment
No, Art is Not Purely Subjective

I’m sorry, it isn’t.  I know it’s a golden little dream that feels warm and cuddly when we hold onto it, but it simply isn’t true.  Now, one’s reaction to art IS purely subjective.  But one’s opinion or enjoyment of something does not affect the work itself.  This isn’t going to be easy for me to write, as I (and many others) have gone over it repeatedly on various message boards.  Let me try to keep it succinct and to the point.

It is possible for art to be good or bad; even moreso it is possible for art to be better or worse.  And the more extreme the difference, the easier it is to tell.  If I draw a little cartoon, that cartoon is not as good as a Quitely piece.  Even if my mom looks at it and loves it, it isn’t better.  It is worse.  It’s OK for my mom to like it more; that is her subjective opinion.  But it would be silly of her to try to objectively claim it was better.  It isn’t.  That is a fact.  I don’t know how to draw.  Every technical aspect would be worse.  Every creative aspect would be worse.  And if I drew more panels I guarantee the storytelling would be in every way worse than a Quitely page.  Is my mom stupid for liking mine more?  No.  Do I look down on her?  No.  But is my page better?  Absolutely not.

Now, of course, it isn’t always that easy.  I am not advocating complete black-and-white thinking on this idea.  You get a Quitely page and stack it against a Williams III page, they are so similar in quality that it would be nearly impossible to objectively rate them against each other.  They clearly both are better than, say, a Greg Land tracey-porn page, a muddled teaser poster with inconsistent lighting and anatomy, or David Finch’s weird line-filled work.  And, once again, if someone likes any of those latter three more, that is perfectly fine.  Your taste is subjective, but has no bearing on the quality of the work.  Perhaps the quality of the work can affect your taste, but not vice versa.  No matter how much I love America’s Funniest Home Videos or Tron, they are terrible.  Do I care?  No.  If someone says they are terrible, do I get offended?  Of course not; they’re right.  But I don’t feel bad for liking them.  That’s the subjectivity of taste versus the objectivity of art critique.

And that word explains the problem I have with a lot of the reviewing at this site, especially Greg’s.  When we founded this blog, I wanted it to highlight the good and the great, no matter how we felt about it.  I can recommend a comic I don’t particularly like, because I can ascertain it is objectively good.  And there’s nothing inherently wrong with recommending a comic based purely on how much you like it.  But from time to time I see some objectively bad stuff being pushed forward while personal taste of a reviewer is pulling down Good Work.  And it bugs the shit out of me.  When a bunch of us left because of this sort of thing, Brian recruited a bunch of new reviewers singing the praises of Manhunter or Secret Six or whatever just because of personal taste.  In moderation, that’s fine.  I enjoy the hell out of the Goon Noir, and recognize it’s no Eightball.  We all like some stuff that isn’t so good.  But when the chaff drowns out the wheat, we’ve got a problem.  This is why I give Burgas a hard time.  He’s got a forum here that people obviously read, and that’s great.  But his critiques rarely go much beyond “I like Moon Knight” when he’s reviewing a book he’s got personal taste for.  And when you’re spending more time praising a middle-ground-at-best superhero monthly, you’re shortchanging a lot of work out there.

Now, see, I started on another tangent there.  The point is, art isn’t completely subjective.  That doesn’t mean it’s completely objective.  Of course taste comes into it.  But not every opinion is equally valid or even right.  If it’s someone’s opinion that Watchmen is poorly crafted, they’re wrong.  They’re free to be wrong, of course, but they shouldn’t expect people to treat that opinion as valid.  You can know more about comics, about art, about storytelling, about craft and your opinion can be more valid; HOWEVER, this doesn’t make it automatically right, either.  Scott McCloud can still be wrong about something like anyone else.  True, I’d probably give his opinion a bit more weight than, say, Greg’s.  But he could still be wrong and even Burgas is right about a book occasionally.

It bugs me when people say “It’s all subjective.”  No, it isn’t.  Your enjoyment is, obviously.  But I’d like to think this site is capable of a bit more than “I like this.”  I’d like to think that this site, and the minds behind it (even Brad-haw) are capable of “This works and this is why.”  Or “This doesn’t work and this is why.”  Or “I don’t like this, but here is why it’s great.”  I think it’s high time we raised our game.  There are smart people here.  We read a lot of comics.  Let’s still have fun, let’s still talk about what we like, but let’s try to look at the why’s.  Try to look at the larger scale, too:  what is this doing, what is it saying, etc.  It isn’t easy.  I fall into the same traps myself.  But this site gets a lot of hits, from what I understand.  That’s a lot of people we could turn on not just to good comics, but to better comics.  A lot of people we could get to think about craft, about higher quality, and about objective standards for art.  AND a lot of people we can joke around with and talk about the horrible things we love.  But enough pontification.  I want discussion.

No, Art is Not Purely Subjective