Aesthetics II: The Revenge of Aesthetics (this time, it’s personal)

I feel sure  learned aesthetics is rubbish, and that it ought to be a matter of literature and taste rather than science.

-Bertrand Russell, some of the very few lines he ever wrote on aesthetics

Heinrich Runge approves of... Something.

Heinrich Runge approves of... Something.

In the past, I would have wholly agreed with the above Russell quote. I was more or less an avid subjectivist: what you liked was good. The more you liked it, the better. I have, more or less, abandoned this position in favour of another – quite like Russell did on almost all opinions he ever held, too. So, in light of Pontifus’ current excavations on what art is [->], I figured that it was a good time to write this post, which has flown around inside my skull like a crazed bat on speed for quite some time, but not had the confidence to write.

This will be a perhaps tad too personal post; I don’t like it more than you do, but such is the narrowness of my mind as to preclude any other way this post could have looked like. I’d suggest not reading it at all. And yes I namedropped Russell solely because comparing myself with him implicitly compares me with sheer genius.

Beatrice, for example, is always art and beautiful. Objectively so.

Beatrice, for example, is always art and beautiful. Objectively so.

My original opinion (slightly hinted at in this [->] mostly self-satirical account of how and why we rate) was as follows:

  1. There is no ontological grounding for what good and bad is.
  2. Thus there is no standard against which we may judge good and bad.
  3. Thus any and all utterances pertaining to quality are “true”, if any truth-value at all can be assigned to them. If anything, it should go by enjoyment.
  4. It is wholly pointless to argue, think or talk about.

I still hold 1 as true. Propositions 2 and 3, once I inspected them closer, fell down. And 4 took the dive later on.

Needless egocentric ramblings follow. Do skip them.

I spent the last year and a half in a depression; while I’d doubt to call it particularly deep, it impaired me socially as well as creatively. For with it came a crushing conviction nothing I wrote or did could possibly be of any value to anyone, not even myself. Or perhaps vice versa, this conviction led to the depression. They were certainly tangled into eachother, though distinctly seperate –  the bad confidence persists beyond the death of the depression, though weaker. Naturally, being human, I was simultaneously convinced I was certainly capable at writing and philosophizing, so those mutually incompatible thoughts clashed incessantly. As a result, I could barely do anything, being an insufferable perfectionist.

How can you doubt the quality of what you do if you think that quality as-is consists of mere whim and subjective enjoyment? Well, for a while, it was mostly that I figured that I was incapable of doing anything intelligent, something I ascribed far heavier objectivity to. But, ultimately, after a strong dose Wittgenstein, I began figuring that “good” and “bad” are used very differently from how enjoyable is Even I myself did so. There must be a definite divide inbetween them, I thought. Not an ontological one, but definitely an experential one. But what on Earth could that be? I pondered this, covered in more falafels than healthy, because I had nothing better to do than to ponder a philosophical area I at the time found profoundly useless while eating massive amounts of falafel. Chewing on them did little to help my pondering.

What is good, I concluded, would be what seemed to require a lot of talent, skill and energy. I felt sheepish for taking that long time to reach such an obvious conclusion – “good things are what people who are good at doing those things do”, to put it borderline tautologically. What saves it from being tautology is, of course, that  Still I find it rather stupid to at all require to spell it out for myself. It did little to assuage my despair or even get me writing/drawing/playing anything. Thus did propositions 2 and 3 fall to simple thinking, though they persisted in modified form – naturally, we are not all equally good at judging what takes talent or not, since we do not all know equally what is hard to do or not due to differing experience. A level 50 dragon is pretty much as hard for a level 1 warrior as a level 100 jellyfish is, a level 50 warrior has better perspective at the whole business. It made sense then that I was generally very concerned about story and directing, while more or less ignorant on music and art, when judging quality – that was simply what I had even the slightest clue what to judge on.

So as I progressed in this “how the hell can I judge on whether or not I or anyone else is capable of anything” I reached the rather obvious point of differing aesthetical goals. We all want different things with our art; some of us make very detailed programs for it. One might well consider that while both Mies van der Rohe and Josep Maria Jujol were at least level 75 architects with a lot of grinding behind them, they likely would find each other’s buildings outright horrible. Or more relevant to the purpose of this site to be nerdy1, some hardcore Gamist roleplaying game constructors would likely find hardcore Narrativist constructors – forgive me all that forgespeak – merely churning out crap and vice versa, despite both being, let’s suppose at least, talented and generally very good at doing what they do. Aesthetic programmes, what of them? Should I find them mere chauvinism?

I did not think I could. I do not think I can. Not wholly, in any case. Nay, for one question arose here, when proposition number 4 reared it’s head – what use is aesthetic judgments anyway? Are they merely to give respect where respect is due? Well, partly, sure, but the whole business seems so removed from the artists, so close to the fans and non-fans of the artists. I can argue for hours about how great Legend of the Galactic Heroes actually is, regardless that I have not even the slightest belief that anyone involved in creating it will ever catch on to what I am doing in their honour. Obviously aesthetics has a deep personal value, somehow.

Is it just pride? “I must be right”? Well, that’s a very superficial answer. There are reasons behind pride, and while I am not entirely certain, I deem it most likely it’s a matter of identity. A question of whether it is right or not right to be as you are (like what you do); a question of distinguishing yourself from other people.

Naturally, I figured, aesthetic programmes are all about what kind of art you like. Enjoyment had joined in again, full circle. But, more than that, aesthetic programmes are a goal for (forgive the cheesy word which means very little) self-realization. To justify the pride we have in our own judgments and enjoyments, and to distinguish them. And furthermore, it is a sort-of-formalisation of how you work, and how you want to work. Being wholly absorbed by questions of what I could do to at all make my creative works worth the while – that is, appreciated and thought of as at least decent – I concluded that aesthetics at least for me was vitally important to, at all, live. So I wrote a tractate (which is likely too boring to read; I shall spare you). I am most temtped to say, that because it is slightly meta-aesthetic, it is closer to be meaningfully called true than any other aesthetic programme, but that is surely chauvinism and nothing but chauvinism. Suffice to say – aesthetic had gone from being something I scoffed at to philosophy of life, mayhaps higher than ethics. Proposition 4 had weakened and nearly died. So it goes.

Summarum: What is good is judged after what we think requires talent, and after how well we think it meets our own aesthetic criteria. I am neither quite an objectivist nor a subjectivist regarding aesthetics anymore. It is objective what meets our criteria, which are in turn subjective, but grounded in objective facts (that is, whether or not something really is hard to do).

Needless egocentric ramblings are mostly over here. Yeah the whole post was a “boohoo I had it so bad bros” post. Nevermind.

In conclusion – have this good helping of pure sex.

Because there cannot be too much Umineko in one post.

Because there cannot be too much Umineko in one post.



1This supposing architecture isn’t nerdy. …Is it?

Leave a comment


  1. Your summarum is win:

    What is good is judged after what we think requires talent, and after how well we think it meets our own aesthetic criteria. I am neither quite an objectivist nor a subjectivist regarding aesthetics anymore. It is objective what meets our criteria, which are in turn subjective, but grounded in objective facts (that is, whether or not something really is hard to do).

    Your apologies for your the deluge of personal sharing is unnecessary. Many, or perhaps most of crafted blogposts are narcissisms in variable degrees.

    • Kaiserpingvin

       /  30 April 2009

      I feel quite uncomfortable doing it, though, since I am quite convinced I am uninteresting, at least in the shade of whatever idea I try to put forth. So yeah.

      And. haha, good to hear something with the post was liked!

  2. but “difficulty” is far from objective. What’s difficult for one might be easy for another. Not sure you provided another instance where we ground our aesthetic judgments on objective facts either.

    • What Kaiser has proposed is similar to Marx’s labor theory of value, to wit, that the more effort (including education and training) thrown into a job, the more valuable it is. And Marx had a ready answer for jp_zer0: what’s important is socially average difficulty or ability, not individual. So, for example, I might be a genius at doing X, and it might take me very little effort to produce X, but as long as the average social difficulty of producing X is high, my work will be very valuable. On the other hand, if I’m terrible at a (conventionally agreed) simple task, and it takes me a long time and I had to buy 3 books to learn how to do it properly, it still won’t have a high value, because the measure of value is a social average (in this case I should just give up and try my hand at something else)..

      And of course, for Marx labor was the source of goodness. If for Kaiser aesthetics is the source of goodness, then Marx’s theory of labor value may be neatly mapped onto Kaiser’s theory of aesthetic goodness.

      • This, pretty much, though I probably wouldn’t have thrown in Marx, since I know little of him, and what I do know I generally think he is somewhat wrong at (he is far too simplistic in his analysis of history, I think).

        It is of course not exactly a very clear divide. It’d be easy to say that this [->] is something pretty much anyone who can write in English could have done (and quite a few who could not); there are probably not many alive who could pull this [->] off, if any – but to settle whether Crime and Punishment or Absalom, Absalom! is the better book, might be harder. It certainly is not something as objective as whether modus ponens is correct – it is neither, however, wholly subjective, as you can be shown right (or wrong).

      • I could almost extend the Marx/Kaiserpingvin theory futher and say that the greatness of the novel must be measured by the effort put into by the characters within the novel, so that in your example one would have to weigh the turbulent depths of the Russian 19th century psyche against the crushing pathos of the Missisissippi famer/slave relationship. But that would be the biggest load of bull ever, so I’ll pass.


        In that case I suppose the greatest book ever would be The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, I hear the lengths he goes merely to explain his own birth are quite meticulous and very laborious.

      • Apophasis on animekritik’s part there.

        At one point Tristram realises that it’s taken him 364 days of writing to cover the first day of his life, so his task is actually growing, not shrinking, as he continues.

  3. Pontifus

     /  30 April 2009

    I sort-of agree with you, I think — I have some doubt as to how much we overlap, as I word it differently, but I at least agree that the skill of the creator comes in somewhere. For me, it’s before artistic appreciation; I maintain that interpretations and opinions as such have no truth value, but that’s after we take into consideration the quality of the craft itself. If shoddy workmanship (say, bad writing) keeps us from even reaching the art-experience, then that’s that. Granted, what constitutes shoddy workmanship is still subjective, but not as wholly as the subsequent artistic appreciation or whatever we want to call it.

    …naturally, we are not all equally good at judging what takes talent or not, since we do not all know equally what is hard to do or not due to differing experience.

    I don’t think this means that, for example, a fiction writer is “better” at appreciating fiction. She might be better at pointing out shoddy craft, but mostly due to familiarity with the fiction-writing community and its standards; shoddiness is largely relative. It does likely mean that a fiction writer will appreciate different novels than a construction worker or corporate CEO — not more or less novels, necessarily, just different ones.

    • I think we have slightly parallel ideas yeah, in different clothing.

      Whether someone has “good” taste – id est, likes things which are good – or “bad” taste, matters little, if at all. Though I am due to my musical ineptitude quite interested in whether my taste is good or bad, I would not care much either way, ’tis mere curiosity. Appreciation is the same regardless of what you enjoy (say, from my “oh Penderecki is rather nifty shit” to a musical theorists’ “oh wow I love what he did with the atonal scale here”).

      I would, however, if the musical theorist said that Penderecki was a bad composer, have to say that I had no idea, but he probably was right.

  4. Kaiserpingvin

     /  4 May 2009

    lol, I notice a halfway-unfinished sentence. I always manage to shove those in don’t I?

    What saves it from being tautology is, of course, that

    …goodness is relative to scarcity of ability in this case.

    Gods I suck.

  1. We End Up Watching More Anime, Here’s How « We Remember Love

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