Judging Art (and Life) with Emotions and Intellect
I was originally going to title this post: Why the Art World is Loathe to Admit the Emperor has No Clothes. Then I realized the problem I was going to discuss is not an art-world one, but a universal one. The problem is how we tend to define things as good or bad, right and wrong. We flatter ourselves, crediting our choices and beliefs on our brain power, intellect, and research. Now some people do frequently make informed choices, and most people make at least some informed choices. If we're being honest though, it must be admitted that more often than not, our declarations of good and bad, right and wrong, are based on how we feel about them. Then our intellects kick into gear and fill in the blanks. For example...
As a writer and parent, I like to stay up on the latest book trends. As my "About" page notes, I am fascinated with human psychology. I am insatiably curious about people and the choices they make. Whenever someone declares a book "good" or "bad", I always ask why. Invariably, the person's answer is based on how they feel about the book, or rather, what emotions the book brings forth. Is it exciting? Is it sad? Is it a page-turner? Is it short? Are there too many big words? Is it informative? I always tell my students really important concepts to ask themselves are, "What does the book teach? What is the moral? Is it a good moral?" and "Why?"
I've noticed a similar trend when my friends and I debate on the worth of a film (I suppose I could have also titled this, In Which I Reveal My Media Snobbery). I love a film based on the cinematic qualities of setting, film technique, costuming, originality, acting, storytelling, and moral lessons. Ergo, The Lord of the Rings films are among my favorite films. Some of my friends love a movie because they like looking at a beloved actor (ok, I'll be honest, I'm not above this one), or they want to enjoy a simple escape from reality. Maybe they want to laugh, tickle their dark side, or get a scare. These are all valid reasons to watch movies, but can we go any deeper with them? What else (if anything) are they teaching us? Does it even matter?
As a photographer, I follow a lot of blogs, read a lot of art books, and visit a lot of museums and art galleries. I have seen the work of both acclaimed and up-and-coming artists. I feel that many of the most praised photographers...well, stink. Their work is not all that great, technically speaking. It isn't beautiful (to me), it doesn't teach (me). Usually it's just bizarre (to me) or perverse.
Morals and Life and Religion, Oh My!
I have noticed over the years, people tend to apply emotional judgements to determine bigger, more important life questions as well. When I ask others why they chose a particular religion (or no religion), they usually say, "it felt right", or they "felt peace" about their decision. When asked where they stand on certain moral issues, people often respond with what they believe, followed by an intellectual answer like, "it just makes sense that..."
Usually, one's religion or lack thereof, colors one's moral beliefs about life. How then, can a potentially life-changing, emotionally-based decision such as religious beliefs (or no religious beliefs), proceed to intellectually inform one's morals honestly? If one's morals are truly intellectually based, it suggests that if facts change or new information is brought to light, one's morals would likewise change. Yet, that rarely happens. Information is often suppressed in tight-knit groups, and morals are colored instead by cleverly disguised, emotional dogma.
What do you find true, noble, or praiseworthy?
These opinions of mine are precisely why I like to ask others what they see. Different people have different sets of eyes, ears, and minds that interpret the same piece of material that I see, hear, or consider. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and if you have not seen that classic Twilight Zone episode, you can correct that in 25 minutes here. :)
Still, there is also truth to search out. It is overly simplistic, pacifistic, and erroneous to simply claim that everyone is right (ever see Bruce Almighty?). It is fine, even necessary to be entertained and have fun, but it is important to exercise our brains by asking questions and thinking carefully about the answers. Why is something appealing and what does it teach? Can it be proven or disproved?
I like this quote from the Book of Philippians chapter 4, verse 8 in the Bible, "Whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things." I used to think that meant whatever I found noble, pure, lovely, etc. was, obviously, what everyone should find noble, etc., as well. After all...