Objectivity in Art

Jonathon Chatham, Staff Writer

Can forms of artistic expression be considered in an objective sense? Some may consider forms of art to be entirely subjective, up to the observer to decide – fantastic to some, yet boring to others.

However, that doesn’t necessarily mean all art is subjective. Much of modern and post-modern art can be considered subjective, but I would argue there is plenty of real objectivity in plenty of other art forms. In animation, traditional art, music, and visual design, there is some objectivity to be found.

Nothing can be perfect, so nothing can be perfectly objective nor perfectly subjective. I would argue that the biggest influence of whether we, as a society, consider art to be good or bad is reliant on the circumstances it was created in, and whether or not it achieves the purpose it was meant to.

Traditional art is the most subjective kind of art since its inherently difficult to find objectivity in it. When Banksy shreds his art, only for it to go up in price afterward, while another child-like drawing from an elephant is worth hundreds of dollars, I find it difficult to define any kind of objectivity. Nonetheless, I have to come back to the fact that circumstances matter more than anything else. 

The time period is extremely important; a painting from Vincent Van Gogh likely wouldn’t be seen as beautiful if it was created today, as it is out of its era. Likewise, Banksy’s street art wouldn’t be received well back in the 19th century.

Art by Van Gogh

The reason elephant art sells for hundreds of dollars despite its simplicity is because of the circumstances it was made in: an elephant made it. In addition, much of modern art is driven by the emotion of the artist at the moment, which, even if seemingly simplistic, is meant to convey the emotion of the artist, and evoke emotion from the observer.

It separates itself from the drawing of a child in that same way. The drawing of a young child is most likely made as something fun to do at the time for them,

Art by Banksy

but it wasn’t made to evoke an emotion. Context matters; it changes whether or not a drawing is considered as a drawing or as art to be observed for years, if not generations and centuries to come.

 

Music is likely the second most subjective art form. It begins to have some objective qualities to it beyond more philosophical ones: music can be bad. A trumpet player playing out of tune without proper breath support is bad music. Yet, static behind a beat is considered a genre, not bad music. But what I believe is more important about music, that isn’t found in nearly as much art, is whether or not it achieves its purpose.

Music can be extremely low quality; if I were to attempt a guitar riff without ever touching a guitar, it would be bad, especially so if my purpose was to create something worth listening to. However, if my purpose was to sound bad on purpose as a joke for some friends, the music becomes enjoyable to those who get the joke.

This purpose is crucially important in music. While some people may consider the lo-fi genre to be bad because of the white noise throughout the song, the noise is generally not harmful, but beneficial because the static is purposeful. The entire genre was born off of this imperfection. The imperfection holds purpose, so the genre holds purpose.

Cover art for “The Room”

Purpose is the ultimate definer in what gives art objective value. If a piece of art fails its purpose, it is extremely difficult to find good qualities in it. Whereas art that achieves its purpose, art which sets out to do something and does it, gives the art an objective quality, it gives everyone a way to define the quality of a piece of art without bias.

The last kind of art I would like to touch on for this is entertainment arts: movies, television, animation, video games, and others. Before I go too deep into this, I would like to address the idea of “so bad it’s good.” I don’t necessarily hate this idea, but the real phrase should be “so bad it’s enjoyable.” Movies like The Room have achieved notoriety because of this, but The Room can still be considered a bad film, even with its unique impact on certain subcultures in society. It isn’t a bad thing by any means to like something because it’s bad.

Typically in television and movies, there are two major subgenres, each achieve quality in different ways. There is a standard format: plot-driven shows that follow some kind of predetermined format. This type of subgenre is typically the easiest to quantify. A story can be seen as objectively good or bad. While there is subjectivity in the enjoyment, the objectivity lies in its quality.

In addition, characters are meant to adhere to themselves, they have to be consistent, or at least consistently inconsistent to facilitate a character arc. It often isn’t difficult to spot a bad character: take Kirito from Sword Art Online. He has consistency, but he is inexplicably powerful for the sake of being powerful. He doesn’t have motivations for most of the series, and he has no depth as a character. Again, this isn’t to say people shouldn’t like him as a character, but he’s fundamentally poorly made. It is easy to see that he’s a bad character.

A scene from the crossover couch gag between ‘Rick and Morty’ and ‘The Simpsons.’

 

By extension of this, SAO is easily a bad show, and yet it has a quality that most other shows don’t have: impact. While impact doesn’t make a show good, it makes it important, and is an objective quality. SAO had an impact of introducing a new genre to people otherwise unaware of it, widely popularizing anime outside of Japan. Likewise, The Simpsons introduced adult comedy to animation and Rick and Morty later introduced much more dark comedy into American animation.

Impact exists outside the argument of good or bad qualities of a show, but it does establish objectivity. The original Star Wars film is iconic mostly because it was the first movie in a culture-defining movie series. It may not have been the best, but it certainly was the first to leave an impact. Being iconic, defining culture, is something that can be quantified, and it deserves to be recognized along with objective indicators of quality when considering pieces of art.

The second type of shows and movies are much more character-driven stories. The plot isn’t that thick or is nonexistent for most of the series. These are shows typically aimed towards young teens and children with most stories being contained within a single episode without much of an overall arc.

The anime industry in Japan has gotten a grasp on these types of shows where the focus of the show is in the characters, especially character interactions. Typically, these types of shows are comedic and fall under the ‘Slice of Life’ genre. Quite literally, the viewer sees slices of the characters’ lives. The viewer sees the characters live, maybe not all the time, but the emotional moments, both happy and sad, of a character’s life are always featured. Some choose to live vicariously through these characters, others may just enjoy the comedy, but there is an objective quality to be found despite all of this: consistency. The comedy of these types of shows can be very hit or miss depending on who you ask. Being funny isn’t necessarily what is important to the show; it is being consistent.

The cover art of the first manga volume of ‘New Game!’ a story about an all-female game company.

It’s important to note that consistency is not thing as stagnancy. Characters can, and should, grow, but characters will still typically need to adhere to their core traits. If a highly investigative character were to suddenly start acting like a carefree, and lax teenager, the audience would naturally deem the character as a bad one. Likewise, the plot should be consistent, not stagnant. In a show such as New Game!, the consistency of the plot comes from the idea that there really is no overarching plot, but rather a consistent plot structure for every episode: the characters work on game design, jokes are made along the way, and everyone is happy in the end. This is the structure for the grand majority of the show’s first 2 seasons – it is consistent.

However, though it is usually better for shows like this to have some kind of non-episodic plot structure. However, by not properly setting up the plot events that will shake the series, the audience is left with a bad taste in their mouth, with a seemingly major plot twist coming out of nowhere. At the end of the second season of New Game!, one of the managers leaves the company for France. This doesn’t come out of nowhere; it is set up that she feels like she can do better elsewhere, she shows a vested interest in France, and it seems reasonable she made this choice. However, if she were to suddenly leave despite it seeming like she was in love still with her current company, the audience would raise questions about it and be felt feeling dissatisfied.

Because there are so many forms of art, I would like to give a summation of sorts to be able to tell what is objectively good or poor. I don’t mean to be pretentious, people can enjoy whatever they want. I would go so far as to argue that there really isn’t good or bad art, but rather good and bad qualities, and it is how much a person weighs those qualities to others that will greatly affect whether or not a person thinks an art piece is good. No art piece can be objectively good. No one will ever agree that something isn’t bad, but many people can agree that a certain element of art is good.

All art should seek to achieve a purpose, and if it achieves that purpose, that is what you should take away from this. Enjoyment is not the same as quality, but that isn’t to say enjoyment isn’t important for a person. Respect other’s opinions on art, recognize that not everyone has the same taste in media as you, and that would be for the best.