Subjectivity and Objectivity in Art
Understanding the gap between personal and public responses to art
Subjectivity in art is the word we use to explain how individual people can respond to a work of art in different ways. Subjectivity is based on personal opinions and feelings rather than on agreed facts. A painting might be “beautiful” to one person and “ugly” to another, but the material object remains unchanged.
And yet, to foreground subjectivity as the most appropriate response to a work of art threatens to overlook the matter that tastes and preferences do in fact change over time, just as morals and public standards change too. To put it another way: subjective taste has an historical dimension, even if we prefer to think it doesn’t.
In art, we tend to place a lot of emphasis on originality and with the breaking of traditions, and there are countless examples of artistic “revolutions” that have failed to meet with the tastes of society at the time, only to be subsumed into the conventional appetites of later generations — the Impressionist paintings of Monet and Cezanne being one of the best examples. One critic at the time complained that their paintings were half-finished sketches: “Wallpaper in its embryonic state is more finished than that seascape.”
More broadly, the ways that people look at the world around them — at works of art or anything else — are prone to influence from so many other spheres, from political upheavals to technological advances. What counts as “knowledge”, “proper behaviour”, “judgement” and “good taste” never stay the same.
And so, inevitably perhaps, a centuries-old artwork will look different to our modern eyes than to the eyes of those who saw it when it was first made.
An ethical aspect
One of the reasons this is a dilemma is because almost everything that counts as a description of a work of art carries a moral dimension to it.
For as soon as we call something “beautiful”, “ugly”, “valuable”, “worthless”, “better” or “worse”, then we are passing a judgement. Like patrons, we are championing certain tastes above others.
And in doing that, we cannot help but begin building a criterion for what counts as…