Cribsheet: Relativism vs Expertise

This is a longish (1,700 word) cribsheet on how one can judge gardens – and fashion, art and much else – almost objectively. It aims to counter the relativism and populism of the argument which suggests that all opinions are subjective and thus purely a matter of personal taste.

I say relativism is populist: that’s because it insists that there are no facts, and therefore nothing for anyone to be expert in. If there are no experts, there’s no need for elites. Bingo: connoisseurs and the educated are on a par with the pig-ignorant and the unwashed.

Remember, though, that the biggest divide in the Western world is between those who have been to University and those who haven’t. Academia pumps out a message of equality of opinion and value but it lives and feels an entitled superiority.

To get to cases.

It is commonplace for an untutored person to say, “That piece of so-called Art is a con”. Old school and unreconstructed buffers may say of a work which displeases them that it is “bad.” Connoisseurs of a certain school might agree with both views amongst themselves and if no PC young are around. Plenty of modern young people, echoing the formal Post Modern and Structuralist view of their tutors, reply to all of them, “That’s just your opinion”. Indeed, they often insist, there is nothing objective in the definition of Art, which is anything anyone says it is. These are all the same sort of stand-off.

Let’s unpick things a bit.

Consider William Morris’s remark that one should have “nothing in one’s house one does not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful”. It points to the way that utility can be discussed in almost factual terms (they can be known) but that beauty will always be in the eyes of the beholder (it is a matter of belief not proof). Put it another way: one can judge a pot, say, in different terms or under different categories. This matters.

Some questions in life can be answered by discovering where the facts lie. (Does that pot hold water?) In such cases solid evidence can be brought into play. Such propositions are open to being proven false. They can be shown to be right or wrong, with no ifs and buts. They are acknowledged to be objective.

But in many judgements there is less clarity. Aesthetic, cultural, and historic judgements are not provably right or wrong. On the face of it they look to be wholly subjective. Some such questions are indeed so. (A pot may seem ugly to you and lovely to me.) I am free to think and feel what I like about such issues and I cannot be contradicted because in the final analysis no-one who disagreed with me could prove their view to be any sounder than mine.

But suppose two friends wanted to talk about – actually to discuss – the merits of a pot, including its aesthetics. They might be using the occasion to better understand each other. They may think this is a proper exercise in the mutal empathy they seek. This is more than a matter of agreeing with one another. I think they might seek good territory to debate, and do so by using various sorts of evidence rather than just opinion.

Their conversation will probably tease out two sorts of question. Is it possible that my opinion might be worth more than some random person’s? And how might one start to judge how that might be so? The answers will lie in whether someone can get toward proving – at least demonstrating – that he or she has insights that validate their opinions. That depends on what sort of evidence they can bring to the table in any particular case.

Enter the judging system at the Chelsea Flower Show. On TV this week (May, 2019) it was explained that medals are doled out by a panel of experts. That’s easy to agree with. Obviously, having several judges somewhat dilutes the chance of idiosyncratic personal prejudice swinging things. And, outside theoretical academic discussion, not many people dispute that it is a good idea to attend to people who know what they’re talking about.

Things got very interesting when a pair of the judges explained that they are not allowed merely to rank the competing gardens as being subjectively enjoyable. Rather the judges must look at categories in which it is more likely that a sort of objectivity comes into play.

Thus, if I recall, they have to dissect and score the gardens or floral displays as to their being ambitious (which I took to be a proxy for originality), technically difficult, fulfilling the client’s brief, and so on. Each category makes the judges apply themselves to a dissection of a garden’s performance in particulars one can calibrate. For instance, under originality, a new garden clearly based on Gertrude Jekyll’s planting rules and designed to imitate a known example of her work, would not do well.

You can readily see how this might translate into a judgement of a book or poem or a painting or fashion.

So the trick seems to be: listen to several expert opinions; avoid people-pleasers who might be too subject to group-think; and devise categories which are capable of cool calibration.

Immediately there are difficulties of course. One might need a different collection of categories in the case of illustrations as opposed to paintings, or portraits as opposed to abstracts. Certainly, judging – and defining – poetry would need different categories than for discussing painting. But these are readily adjustable.

The ideas of subjectivity and objectivity are themselves complex. Relativist theory does not really believe there is something called subjectivity (it thinks we are all cyphers of thought and speech patterns we inherit or absorb) and modern science doesn’t really believe in something called objectivity (since reality is a pretty fluid matter, in their book). So perhaps the bottom line is that artistic judgement can be on solider ground than might be supposed, and scientific judgement on rather shakier ground.

Besides, what is undoubtedly subjective in art is the fact that different works move people differently. And what is undoubtedly objective in science is that, say, boiling water scorches you.

Relativism partly matters because though it is supposed to make people less judgemental, those who espouse the new creed seem often more brutal in their condemnations than many of those who swear by coming to firm opinions.

Relativism also matters because it is often almost completely ignored or contradicted by the daily practice – often benign and valuable – of critical appraisal in myriad fields. From X Factor to the Times Literary Supplement critics are at work with barely a nod to the dominant paradigm of relativism. Such critics might politely tack a virtual “IMHO” on to all their remarks, but their best efforts are often devoted to mounting an objective account of a creative work whilst they would also accept that there is a high quotient of the subjective. Their opinion needn’t be humble if it is well-explained.

The peculiar fact remains that our age fetishises relativism in all sorts of matters and yet it remains cruelly judgemental of people’s looks (not to say, their opinions). Thus people often contort themselves into conformity with fashion in clothes, body shapes and much else (including opinions). Peer pressure and mob pressure seem to have survived the very movement which thought it was setting people free to be independent.

Whilst “judgemental” is a term of abuse, and the attractive idea of discernment is rather discounted for fear that it may be confused with the bogeyman idea of discrimination, all of us do of course go on sniffing the air for books, music and shows which will not only appeal to our own taste but also pass muster with the sort of people we aspire to be.

Given that we do all have to make choices as to prioritising art, books and opinions we spend time with it becomes clear that relativism is an impossible doctrine. As we choose, how can we do other than try to work out what works we can properly believe to be valuable or excellent sooner than find we had squander lives on the meretricious?

Compared to becoming efficient members of this or that herd we might just as well cultivate an educated taste and even connoisseurship.

Naturally, there are dangers in education and even in a refined discernment. Elitism is a wonderful thing but it is obviously capable of becoming a vested interest and is often next door to snobbery. And it is hard to have an educated taste which is not also one which lacks spontaneity.

That may be the price of adult seriousness. Children are free to have a natural, untutored, and impulsive response to the world. Many modern adults try to preserve that immaturity especially in their entertainment. But the rest of us often seek to grow up a bit and to discuss objectively the things we see, hear and read. If we agree to temporarily avoid essential but perfectly subjective matters such as whether we are moved by an artwork, or even whether we call it beautiful, there are lots of headings under which it can be discussed almost objectively. Almost all of these objective issues can be discussed usefully only by people who bother to spend time looking at and learning about the matter in hand.

And then, rather wonderfully, all thoughts of objectivity are put behind us in some very important moments. Wandering round the V&A Dior show this week, I was just one of hundreds who had come to worship rather than to rationalise. After all, many of the clothes were absurd in all sorts of ways. Hardly any of them were sensible. But we were moved. We were in the presence of beauty, and beauty of several different sorts. What’s more, seeing the classical and the outrageous costumes side by side, and hearing my neighbours declare this or that their favourite, I could not at all predict who was swooning over which.  We had come to be englamoured, as the 17th Century called it. We had come to unlock the parts reason cannot reach.

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Publication date

26 May 2019


Mind & body; On art