A Brief Comparison of Aesthetic Objectivism, Relativism and Subjectivism
Providing a standard for appreciating art and beauty
I was recently asked to define aesthetic relativism, objectivism and subjectivism and to offer pros and cons for each school of thought. Anyone struggling to understand art wonders why there are no exact, clear-cut rules for defining what art might be. The breadth and scope of this question is quite large, however, and many scholars have devoted considerable time and thought to aesthetic classifications. I am many years removed from any academic study of art and its systematic categorization. Subsequently, I will address this question only in the broadest possible sense.
In the most basic terms, these classifications each attempt to provide a standard for the classification of beauty, ostensibly to assist in its appreciation. The very existence of multiple standards suggests the difficulty in establishing a criterion validated through consensus, and the discussion takes on a philosophical rather than functional tone. The question as asked seeks pros and cons of each aesthetic “camp,” but this proves problematic. Suggesting what is good or bad about a specific school of thought is subjective and perhaps out of my league. I will offer my opinion instead and hope this will suffice, noting that my own views might differ from art historians or philosophical scholars.
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Classifying art is a difficult undertaking
Inherent in this discussion of beauty, of course, is an analysis of art. Categorizing art sometimes blurs the distinction between two separate activities: deciding what art is and evaluating art. If we had an absolute method for distinguishing art from non-art, we would not necessarily have the means to measure its quality. When a viewer sees a calendar with car wax applied to it and asks, “Why is this considered art?” are they asking why it is thought to be art or why it is considered good? The difficulty in distinguishing between these two questions is not satisfactorily resolved through establishing aesthetic categorizations, but it might serve as a starting point.
Aesthetic objectivism asserts that standards for the appreciation and evaluation of art must hold true across time and cultures. Art that was considered beautiful 100 years ago is beautiful now and will continue to be beautiful 100 years from now. This type of classification is meaningful in articulating an aesthetic standard, but only time can validate it. Michelangelo’s “David” might be considered beautiful for centuries to come, but a day might arrive when the human body is considered vulgar or obscene. Would “David” still be considered art under these circumstances? From a cultural perspective, it conceivably would not be viewed with the same appreciation it now earns, so perhaps it would merely be considered bad art.
My personal view on objective standards is that they are defined by nature, not man. We can apply aesthetic objectivism to beauty but not art. The universe is beautiful and will always be; a rainbow, flower, bird or mountain range is and will be beautiful, as well. Nature’s beauty is not dependent upon human perception and interaction, making it (in my opinion) the only true example of aesthetic objectivism.
Aesthetic relativism is a judgment of beauty relative to individuals, cultures, a particular time period or context. It allows for changing sensibilities and norms. We are allowed to appreciate art without applying a uniform or modern-day standard, recognizing it as a product of its times and culture. For example, a marble statue from 600 B.C. of a youth would be considered primitive by contemporary standards, but it is appreciated as art when placed in the context of its time period. What if a Salvador Dali painting was taken back through time to be viewed by the ancient Greeks? The symbols would be unidentifiable and likely transcend their ability to appreciate it, even though their culture placed a premium on the appreciation of beauty. Placing each in a historical context allows us to consider both true art and aesthetically pleasing. Relativism permits us to appreciate the crude drawings of a small child, understanding that its appreciation does not diminish the works of Van Gogh or Monet. This seems an aware, logical application of aesthetic “standards” and can be applied to art as well as the more generic category of beauty.
Aesthetic subjectivism is a judgment not affected by standards or norms through which art or beauty is typically judged. “I know what I like” is the battle cry for aesthetic subjectivism. This category can include beauty, art and virtually anything else on earth, and is the broadest aesthetic classification. No one must justify their singular appreciation of beauty to anyone, and there is no compulsion to define it within a larger context. This broad appreciation of art and beauty simultaneously allows for both the most and fewest philosophical arguments, but also offers room for everyone to be an expert in their own mind. I do not fault anyone for appreciating art in a subjective way. Relying only minimally on shared meaning and perceptions, however, I do find fault with an artist using aesthetic subjectivism to call anything he or she wishes art.
From a personal standpoint, aesthetic relativism seems the most practical means of evaluating aesthetic beauty. Objectivism is too difficult to validate and subjectivism seems too broad in scope. In terms of “pros and cons,” I would judge relativism to have the fewest “cons,” but that is a personal opinion only. In fact I see them not as competing categorizations, but rather as parts of a whole.
A scale of classification
Objectivism defines aesthetics narrowly, subjectivism broadly, and relativism sits between the other two. Based upon such loose definitions of each term, it becomes possible to view them collectively as something more. When summarizing aesthetic objectivism, relativism and subjectivism, one can see them combining to form a type of scale. Perhaps all three categories are part of a greater whole, and it isn’t necessary to embrace one aesthetic standard at the expense of another. This could serve as a means to categorize our judgment of art, if not to actually define it. We can acknowledge objective beauty. We can also understand the cultural context making an appreciation of other works of art relative to time, place or circumstance. We can enjoy that calendar with car wax smeared on it without the need to justify the pleasure we derive from viewing it. Viewing all three philosophical perspectives as a single whole allows us to embrace art and beauty in an all-encompassing manner.
This should be the ultimate goal in appreciating art and, on a larger scale, beauty. It should not be our task to define or categorize it, but rather to embrace it. Irrespective of the era and cultural milieu, we should allow ourselves the freedom to appreciate the magnificent perfection that surrounds us. That seems like what art and beauty should be about.
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