Confessions of a Hebrew Philistine

I took a lot of flak for expressing wrong musical opinions last week. Since I so enjoy the role of human flamebait, I’ve decided to have another go at clarifying my views about Art in general. See, until a few years ago, I was intimidated by art and music snobs, by the sort of person who recently deposited the following on Lance Fortnow’s blog:

man, the ignorance displayed here is taken to new levels. your ph.d. in computer science qualifies you as nothing musically, dumbass. ever heard of dynamic range? go look it up.

A bit uncivil, perhaps, but doesn’t this anonymous fount of musical wisdom have a point? After all, spouting off about quantum computers, entanglement, or Gödel’s Theorem without studying them first would certainly qualify you as a dumbass. So if I don’t think the same about music, then aren’t I a big fat hypocrite?

Ah, but consider the following. If — as the snob would be first to affirm — the purpose of art is not to assert or argue anything as a research paper would, but simply to produce an emotional response in the viewer or listener, then what does it even mean to be unqualified to voice that response? Presumably one person’s emotional response is as valid as another’s. Indeed, the difficulty with the snob is that he wants it both ways. “What made Picasso the greatest artist of the twentieth century is ineffable, indescribable — and I’m the one who knows enough to describe it to you.” “This opera is astounding because it induces a visceral, gut response in the audience — and if you don’t have that response, your gut must be mistaken.” The point is that, once you’ve declared something to be nonscientific, emotional, subjective, you have to allow that someone else’s subjective reaction might differ from yours.

So on this day, let us celebrate our freedom from the tyranny of pretending to like stuff we don’t. I’ll start the honesty ball rolling by dividing the world’s artistic output into three categories, then giving examples of each (not representative, just the first things that popped into my head).

Art that’s stirred my soul

The Simpsons
Futurama
South Park
Shakespeare (comedies especially)
Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn
The Mind-Body Problem by Rebecca Goldstein
Everything by Pixar
Arcadia by Tom Stoppard

Art that maybe hasn’t moved me, but that I can nevertheless agree is quite impressive, based not on what other people say but on my own experience of it

The Sistine Chapel (indeed, pretty much everything in Rome)
Them big paintings in the Louvre
Them big Buddhist temples in Kyoto
Beethoven
Mozart
The Beatles
Jazz improv
Jimi Hendrix
Early Woody Allen

Art in neither of the two above categories

Late Woody Allen
Everything in the MoMA
Picasso
Van Gogh
Weird indie films where nothing happens
Anything by David Lynch or M. Night Shyamalan
Rap (except MC Hawking)
“Experimental” music

PS. There’s really no need to flame me if you have different tastes, since I won’t take it as a moral failing on your part. (Except with regard to M. Night Shyamalan.)

60 Responses to “Confessions of a Hebrew Philistine”

  1. Anonymous Says:

    My first reaction is- what the hell compelled you to include M. Night Shyamalan on this list?

    My second reaction is to compare your “tastes” to someone who believes that food should be eaten for nurishment, and doesn’t understand the whole “flavor” aspect. It’s not an enviable position. One might say that you’re mentally challenged and/or physically disabled.

  2. Scott Says:

    My second reaction is to compare your “tastes” to someone who believes that food should be eaten for nurishment, and doesn’t understand the whole “flavor” aspect. It’s not an enviable position. One might say that you’re mentally challenged and/or physically disabled.

    One might say that in any case! :-) But I think your analogy is way off. Are The Simpsons and Huckleberry Finn nourishing but flavorless, the celery stalks of art?

    Far from asserting the irrelevance of taste, I was arguing for the legitimacy of judging art by one’s own tastes rather than the tastes of critics and mavens. Incidentally, I feel exactly the same way about food.

  3. Anonymous Says:

    I am an Indian who finds the Indian classical dance called “Bharatha Nattiyam” and the Indian classical music called “Karnatic Music” extremely boring and stupid. On the other hand, I found the music by the Malian singers, Amoudhu et Mariam to be very enjoyable the very first time I heard it even though I do not understand a word of it.

  4. Dave Bacon Says:

    Dude, you’re so going to get axed for “but simply to produce an emotional response in the viewer or listener.”

    I will testify, however, that dragging Scott to look at “art” will invoke the most painful expression of pain on his face (a skill which, some might argue, Scott has even raised to the level of art.)

    BTW, I also think it is relevant to ask how much experience you yourself, Scott, have had with art? For example, I might argue that I enjoy Borges a lot more because I myself have tried to write short stories. Similarly I enjoy physics a lot more because I’ve spent time doing it and can therefore appreciate the results.

    And dude, what’s up with not liking Van Gogh. You must be one of those people who don’t think geometrically, but think algebraically :)

  5. emtel Says:

    But Scott, art has structure! Perhaps not as much complexity theory, but there is definitely structure.

    Recognizing this aids in distinguishing between “art you like” and “good art” (not a dichotomy, of course). For instance, I really liked X-Men III, but I understand that, as art, it will be forgotten.

    This is where critics come in. No matter how much you or I personally enjoyed X-Men III, the purpose of criticism (and I say “criticism” and not “critics” to point out that anyone can practice criticism, though we do not all call ourselves critics) is to give us a framework in which we can understand that X-Men III was a shoddily written pile of crap.

    IOW, I don’t buy this extreme-subjectivity argument, whereby you can say “but it produced an emotional response in me, therefore it is art to *me*”. It may well be art to you, and that’s fine, but there are still very specific structural aspects of art that can be empirically shown to be crap or not crap. It’s like Pirsig’s old saw, Quality: you give a roomful of college freshman copies of 5 student papers, and they will come to remarkably similar conclusions about what grade each paper deserves.

  6. Anonymous Says:

    I find it sad that the Simpsons tops your list of art that moves you. I love the Simpsons: it’s one of the handful of shows that make me laugh out loud on a regular basis. But am I moved by it? Not really.

    Note: I am not saying that your tastes are wrong. Just that it is sad (to me) that this is the state of your experiences with art.

  7. Matt Says:

    This old chestnut again.

    I would like to believe that art can have objective standards just as much as science can. The main reason why I would like to believe this is that I definitely want to argue that Celine Dion is objectively bad music. If I cannot argue that this is true despite the huge number of records she has sold then I truly dispair of the world. I’ve only actually met one person claimed that Celine Dion is good, and we can write such outliers off as crackpots just as we do in science.

    I think the only reason why so many people see the arts as completely subjective is that they are much more a part of our everyday life than the sciences. Almost everybody listens to some sort of music, watches films or TV shows. They feel that this makes their opinion just as valid as anyone else’s and do not appreciate that there can be experts in these fields who’s opinions are more well-founded.

    If people generally watched complexity theory lectures for entertainment, I’m sure they would have views on who the best researcher is (probably the guy who cracks the most jokes in his talk). Still, we’d tend to give more weight to the opinion of someone who had spent their career dedicated to the subject then just any old member of the public.

  8. Scott Says:

    emtel:

    (1) You say that criticism gives us a “framework” in which we can understand that X-Men III is shoddily written pile of crap. Though I’ve never read an X-Men comic, I’m curious: what exactly is this framework? Are we allowed to examine it? Are any paintings in (say) the MoMA revealed to be crap by this framework? And what are the “very specific structural aspects” of those paintings that reveal them for the crap they are?

    (2) I disagree with your empirical claim that “you give a roomful of college freshman copies of 5 student papers, and they will come to remarkably similar conclusions about what grade each paper deserves.” I’ve found grades to be remarkably pseudoscientific and capricious; indeed, it amazes me that scientists and academics continue to accept them so uncritically. But that’s a topic for another post.

    (3) Do I think there are there any reasonably-objective measures of artistic talent? Yes, I do. For example, we could look for some combination of technical mastery of the language or medium (“I couldn’t do that!”), and enduring popularity with people from a variety of backgrounds. But such a measure would assign low scores to many things that we sensitive, cultured people know are Great Art, and high scores to many things that we know are crap. So it couldn’t possibly be correct.

  9. Anonymous Says:

    BTW, just because some “high art” is crap in your opinion (modern art, apparently, and indie films where nothing happens) does not mean that there is no notion of objective standards in art. Maybe there are isolated cases (hell, even many cases) where the standards are mis-applied.

    Also, I’ll hasten to add that even though you like to pretend that science is a bastion of objectivity, it is not without its subjective elements. Don’t believe me? I’ll point to two peices of evidence:
    (1) Fads in research topics (just look at paper titles in STOC/FOCS), and (2) In my experience (at least in my field), charisma and good looks have a minor but significant impact on the quality of the job a person will land. Yes, even in academia.

  10. michael vassar Says:

    If we want an objective standard for art, how about a schema of voting where much of the value of the public’s judgment ‘flows through’ the artists they like and falls on the artists that the artists they like like and so on. In this manner, if the public likes Alanis Morisette and Garth Brooks, Alanis and Garth like Tori Amos and the Eagles, and Tori and the Eagles like Pink Floyd, then Pink Floyd is ‘better’ than Alanis or Garth.

    I personally think that point 3) is correct. Much of what is critically deemed to be crap is good, and much of what critics praise is crap.

  11. michael vassar Says:

    By the way, I think that the concept of the “hedonic treadmill” provides one justification for the concept of “high art”. Low art contributes to the satisfaction of the consumer while it is being consumed but does not satiate them for long after it is consumed, instead leaving them more in need of being entertained yet this satisfaction that entertainment is intended to bring rings more and more shallow with time. High art, when it’s real, satisfies the consumer in a more lasting manner, and makes them capable if increasingly great emotional satisfaction on those occasions when their artistic appetite does return. That is why it is invented to satisfy rich people who would ruin their lives on the hedonic treadmill if they consumed all of the low art available to them.

  12. Scott Says:

    I would like to believe that art can have objective standards just as much as science can. The main reason why I would like to believe this is that I definitely want to argue that Celine Dion is objectively bad music.

    Matt: I understand the sentiment, since I also think she sucks. But the reason I think she sucks is that when she hits a high note, I want to shoot myself. My argument is that, supposing I did enjoy her singing, it would be meaningless for some better-educated person to tell me that enjoyment was mistaken.

    Of course with celebrities, there’s the additional factor that their fame and fortune are almost always undeserved — in the sense that even if they’re not that bad, tens of thousands of other people could easily do the same things. We have slightly better anti-shnood mechanisms in the hard sciences, but we’re still far from perfect.

  13. Scott Says:

    Michael: So something is “high art” if, after you’ve taken it in, you don’t feel the need to visit another art museum for years?

  14. Bram Cohen Says:

    One could argue that certain art is ‘objectively bad’ despite producing a subjective emotional reaction in people because that reaction was caused more by the context in which the material was presented than in the material itself. Like, for example, everything in MoMa.

  15. Scott Says:

    Also, I’ll hasten to add that even though you like to pretend that science is a bastion of objectivity, it is not without its subjective elements.

    Every human endeavor is awash in bullshit; the only difference with science is that we also have a few pooper-scoopers.

  16. Anonymous Says:

    I think it is undeniable that science is, at least in some sense, more objective than art. Still, I don’t think at all that this implies that a) science is “totally” objective, b) art is “totally” subjective.

    Moreover, even if I’d claim that the “most objective sciences” are “more objective” than the “most objective arts”, it is undeniable that some arts retain, to the very minimum, reasonabe, agreeable reasons for why they’re examples good/bad art.
    There are all sorts of exceptions, but this doesn’t correspond to saying that “all art can only be evaluated on a purely subjective basis”.

    And, by the way, the problem with Celine Dion (or 99% of pop music, for that matter) is not about being good or bad art. It’s about being art at all: their sole purpose is bare, ephemeral entertainment (which may be definitely enjoyable, but doesn’t represent or aspire to any “absoluteness”).

  17. Scott Says:

    BTW, I also think it is relevant to ask how much experience you yourself, Scott, have had with art?

    My PowerPoint animations speak for themselves.

  18. Anonymous Says:

    The only significant difference between how one judges art and how one judges, say, a mathematics paper is that for the latter, there is a basic criterion of logical correctness that must be passed before one judges it further. Just like music should be reasonably encoded on a CD, and when played should produce tones within a human’s audible range.

    Otherwise, the judgement is based almost completey on superficial qualities and the aesthetic of the judge. Or is there another measure I’m unaware of? How many lives has this mathematical contribution saved? How much grant money did it receive? How many citations did it garner? How important are the authors? I think you would agree, Scott, that these “objective” criteria, while perhaps relevant, are not the crucial deciders of what makes a paper “good.”

  19. michael vassar Says:

    More or less. I would say months, not years, but I don’t think the MoMA shoul ever be visited anyway.

  20. anonymous 2 Says:

    I don’t think that people who don’t listen to music are worse than me. I just have trouble understanding or relating to someone who is indifferent to something that I’m not sure I could live without. I have a similar problem with people who find science boring, or sports interesting! In extreme cases, I can’t help but feel pity for someone who seems incapable of appreciating the things that I love, as snobby as I know that must sound. I think most people will understand what I mean if I liken it to the feeling that arises when you meet a truly asexual person: bafflement combined with pity, and maybe a little bit of terror thrown in there. I have a friend who thinks that video games are as good as any piece of literature, and I pity him. I wouldn’t want his life!

  21. michael vassar Says:

    More or less. I would say months, not years, but I don’t think the MoMA shoul ever be visited anyway, it really sucks, as does the Pompadeu.

  22. Scott Says:

    The only significant difference between how one judges art and how one judges, say, a mathematics paper is that for the latter, there is a basic criterion of logical correctness that must be passed before one judges it further.

    You overlook an enormous difference: in math, if you solve a well-known open problem, people will have to admit that you did something important regardless of what else they think about you. What are the open problems in art?

  23. Scott Says:

    anonymous 2: We could divide humans into 128 categories, according to whether they care in a deep, existential way about each of the following areas:

    Science
    Sex
    Politics
    Sports
    Religion
    Art
    Money

    My category, for example, would be YYYNNNN.

    Now, how many of these 128 categories do you pity? :)

  24. Anonymous Says:

    You overlook an enormous difference: in math, if you solve a well-known open problem, people will have to admit that you did something important regardless of what else they think about you. What are the open problems in art?

    I didn’t address this initially because it’s so obvious: How do open problems become well-known? Which are the important ones? You have to use aesthetic criteria to judge problems as well, not only their solutions.

    For instance, why was Fermat’s Last Theorem such a big deal? 1. Mystique – Fermat claimed he had a simple proof. 2. Simplicity and clarity – even a complete novice could grasp the problem. 3. Beauty of the connections – the part that 99.9999% of people will miss are the absolutely stunning connections between elliptic curves and modular forms which were conjectured 40 years earlier. These seem like aesthetic criteria to me.

    There were and are plenty of “open problems” e.g. in music. To be grotesquely obviously, think about atonal music: Before the 18th century (in Europe), say, it was an open problem whether you could compose music which would be enjoyable and comprehensible while breaking away from the classical tonal systems. Examining the evolution of any art form (e.g. jazz in the US) reveals plenty of “open problems” that were “solved” by later musicians. For something contemporary, think about making purely electronic music that still evokes emotions, humanity, etc.

  25. Anonymous Says:

    It would be a great way to date:
    single male NYNNNNN seeking single female YYNYNYN.

  26. Scott Says:

    There were and are plenty of “open problems” e.g. in music. To be grotesquely obviously, think about atonal music: Before the 18th century (in Europe), say, it was an open problem whether you could compose music which would be enjoyable and comprehensible while breaking away from the classical tonal systems.

    The trouble with such an “open problem” is obvious: how can you tell whether or not someone solved it? (People try to pass off vague unanswerables as open problems in science also, and it annoys me just as much.)

    Fermat’s Last Theorem was indeed famous mostly for an “arbitrary” reason (though given the ideas its eventual solution required, Fermat could’ve picked something much worse for his margin). But the grounds for accepting Wiles’ proof were not arbitrary, and that strikes me as a crucial distinction. In this respect, math is actually closer to chess and sports than it is to art and music.

  27. D Says:

    You read the works of Shakespeare and liked the comedies best? I didn’t realize that was possible. Wow.

  28. Anonymous Says:

    The trouble with such an “open problem” is obvious: how can you tell whether or not someone solved it? (People try to pass off vague unanswerables as open problems in science also, and it annoys me just as much.)

    It seems that the only question here (Penrose objections aside) is whether it is possible for a body of experts in, say, impressionist paintings to arrive at a consistent judgement.

    My point being this: How do you know that Wiles’ proof is correct? Because it was reviewed by experts and then published in the Annals of Math. That’s your mathematical gold standard.

    How did they check the proof? Well, I imagine they did it using a system of rules and standards and intutions and, yes, aesthetics that the mathematical community has developed over time. When they were confident about the validity of each of the steps, and the proof as a whole, they concluded that the argument was correct. Yes Scott, that’s right–if you weren’t aware, Wiles’ proof was never encoded in a formal proof system and then given to a computer which checked that the proof followed axiomatically from ZFC. Sorry if you were mistaken.

    Ahh you say, but theoretically the proof could have been encoded in such a way that it could be checked in an absolute, formal manner, and that’s the difference between math and art.

    Well I don’t really understand the difference then: My proof that a piece of art has property P is just the computation transcript of the group of experts mentioned earlier. If they are indeed able to come to a consistent conclusion, then this is well-defined.

    How am I, by myself, without the group of experts able to judge art? The same way that the Annals reviewers can review Wiles without a computer.

  29. emtel Says:

    (1) You say that criticism gives us a “framework” in which we can understand that X-Men III is shoddily written pile of crap. Though I’ve never read an X-Men comic, I’m curious: what exactly is this framework? Are we allowed to examine it? Are any paintings in (say) the MoMA revealed to be crap by this framework? And what are the “very specific structural aspects” of those paintings that reveal them for the crap they are?

    I’ll ignore the question-begging at the end there ;) and cut to the chase. You are allowed to examine the framework – it is to be found in the collected writings of critics (with a small ‘c’) that our culture has produced over the last few millenia. You may examine the framework at your local library. It isn’t a formal framework, in the way that boolean logic is, but there is a framework. That it isn’t perfectly well-defined and unambigious doesn’t send it immediately off the cliff into the abyss of total subjectivity. This is the same type of sophistry that starts with “well how do I know everything around me isn’t an illusion?”.

    The quote you started with has a great example: dynamic range. That’s a very specific structural element of music that one can examine to draw conclusions about music. (Again, those conclusions don’t coerce you to like or dislike something when they’re done). Of course, you’re not going to end up with a partial ordering of all music based on this (and other) factors. But you have to at least admit that a piece of music with no dynamic range has one less degree of freedom available with regard to the artistic merit that can be attributed to it.

    By the way, the lit-crit crowd can and does apply the same point you’re making here to math&science. i.e., that the “framework” is defined and guarded by an elite few, and therefore should be studied in terms of politics and power, not empiricism. They’re wrong of course, and for the same reason you are, which is that they look at something that they don’t understand (a paper full of greek letters and jargon) and assume that it is just a big inside joke perpetrated by a bunch of aloof “experts”. When they do it, we call it anti-intellectualism. I think what you’re doing here can safely be called anti-aestheticism.

    (2) I disagree with your empirical claim that “you give a roomful of college freshman copies of 5 student papers, and they will come to remarkably similar conclusions about what grade each paper deserves.” I’ve found grades to be remarkably pseudoscientific and capricious; indeed, it amazes me that scientists and academics continue to accept them so uncritically. But that’s a topic for another post.

    I agree: grades are bunk. My point is that a bunch of people can usually agree that a D paper is between an F and a C paper, and an A paper is an A or maybe B paper. Or, can you show me many cases where a D paper and an A paper should in fact have gotten the opposite grades? I’m talking about freshman english papers here – you surely know how bad a bad freshman english paper can be.

    (3) Do I think there are there any reasonably-objective measures of artistic talent? Yes, I do. For example, we could look for some combination of technical mastery of the language or medium (“I couldn’t do that!”), and enduring popularity with people from a variety of backgrounds. But such a measure would assign low scores to many things that we sensitive, cultured people know are Great Art, and high scores to many things that we know are crap. So it couldn’t possibly be correct.

    Ok, so we agree that there is room for objective measures here. We also agree that any objective measure you can explain in a few sentences is probably bunk. Sounds good to me.

  30. wolfgang Says:

    Scott,

    I think “the well-tempered piano” solved a long standing problem in music.

  31. anonymous 2 Says:

    Scott said: Now, how many of these 128 categories do you pity? :)

    I say: I don’t know.. it’s hard to say until you’re faced with a specific case. Pity is a gut feeling, no? Just as your reaction to music is a gut feeling, so is my reaction to your reaction to music a gut feeling. :] It’s safe to say that anyone who has no natural curiosity would garner my pity. That doesn’t make me a snob! ;]

  32. Anonymous Says:

    In theoretical CS, don’t we often talk about a paper solving an “important” open problem using “elegant” techniques that require “hard” mathematics? Sounds pretty subjective to me. =)

    BTW, Scott, if you’re interested (and haven’t done something similar before) I wholeheartedly recommend the CD series “How to Listen to and Understand Great Music” by the learning company. I didn’t like about half of what I listened to, but I loved the other half and it gave me a new-found appreciation for the development and progression of Western music.

  33. Kurt Says:

    I’ll second the recommendation for the Learning Company.

    But at the risk of sounding like a complete idiot (well, so what else is new), here is a little anecdote about my musical appreciation development… I never really cared much for classical music until after I had kids. I had bought some of those Baby Einstein videos for our daughter to watch. “Baby Mozart” was the first one we got, and I wound up watching it along with her. I think it was because of the particularly simple musical arrangements, that I was able to hear and “parse” the different melodic elements that, in the “adult” versions of the same songs, were just a jumble of sounds for me. It really opened up the music for me.

    After that I got “Baby Bach”, and was totally blown away by it. Now, when I go back and re-read Hofstadter’s GEB, I can finally understand what he’s talking about.

    So, if the music appreciation course seems a bit too pretentious, it may just mean that you need to start at an even more elementary level.

  34. Anonymous Says:

    While we’re at reccomendations, I’d suggest “What to listen for in music” by Aaron Copland, a very nice illustration of some objective values and criteria in the musical art.

  35. Anonymous Says:

    This whole thing reminds me of a story of Feynman. Dick, just like Scott here, was brought up in an environment with little to no artistic exposure. His artistic tastes were, shall we say, unsophisticated. Over the years Feynman himself got into playing the drums and making some rather primitive pencil drawings. Still he generally held the view that art was fully subjective and mostly bluffing. He slowly changed his mind. First when better trained Europeans could tell he was an amateur drum player while unsophisticated Americans had bought into their ruse. The second was while visiting the Vatican. In there he saw a series of paintings which at first he thought were all by the same famous painter. He said to himself “the one on the end is much inferior.. hah.. and he’s supposed to be a great artist”. Not long after that the guide observed that the one on the end was not by said great artist, but by some other more minor artist. This convinced them that there was some objectivity to artistic evaluation.

    For sure there are impostors out there, and a lot of modern art today will be laughed at in a hundred years, but also quite a bit will survive the test of time and be enjoyed by future generations.

  36. Scott Says:

    Thanks for the Feynman stories! I don’t think I’d heard those before.

    So I guess I’m just waiting for a revelation comparable to Feynman’s. Following Dave Bacon’s philosophy of “WWFD?”, I’m sure Feynman wouldn’t want me to change my views until I had such an experience myself.

  37. Anonymous Says:

    The trouble with such an “open problem” is obvious: how can you tell whether or not someone solved it?
    In the case of music, let the dancefloor and/or the critics decide.

    In the general case, when something “new” happens, either people really love or hate it. When you make art that generates both feelings at the same time, I’ll say that you’re close to solving such “open” problem. Good luck!

  38. michael vassar Says:

    Scott: I’m skeptical of your Money category of potential caring. Certain specific luxuries might be potential categories to care about or not to care about. Travel prehaps. But money is basically a means to an ends, or rather a means to practically all ends. (An excellent servant but a cruel master said Voltaire) Anyone who cares about Science, Sex, Politics, Sports or Art should care about it to some degree as a sub-goal, though for reasons originating in religion it has been considered desirable to deny such an interest for a very long time.

  39. Michael Gogins Says:

    Well, the purpose of art is not necessarily to cause you to “feel” something. People make art for many reasons, but from a scientific point of view, they do so because making art is part of being a social/technical species. It is an adaptation. Feelings are invoked, but that’s only part of the tale. Some works make a better society than others, just as some science makes a better society than other science. If the purpose of art is not primarily to cause feelings, then your feelings are no clue as to its worth.

  40. Scott Says:

    I’m skeptical of your Money category of potential caring. Certain specific luxuries might be potential categories to care about or not to care about. Travel prehaps. But money is basically a means to an ends

    That’s what they all say… “I’ll just trade derivatives for five years, then spend the rest of my life traveling and pursuing what I’m passionate about.” And how many actually do?

  41. michael vassar Says:

    Scott; I’m sure Feynman would want people to change their views in response to the assertions of trustworthy sources. He surely did it all the time, for instance, when he took trips to foreign countries and packed clothes appropriate to the supposed climate he was visiting rather than to his own climate. The question is simply “which sources are trustworthy?”. One must test some claims in order to establish an answer to this question.

    Say I’m living in the 19th century. From my perspective, the existance of tornados is non-disprovable and no-one can deliver a tornado upon demand for me to observe. I can’t make any model that predicts tornados, and a-priori they seem very unlikely. Likewise earthquakes. If I’m rational I probably believe in both on the strength of the argument from authority in favor of such a belief. Now meteors… there the authorities are more mixed and skepticism is more appropriate.

    BTW, wasn’t the Feynman story mentioned from Surely Your Joking?

    I have seen A and C papers the grades of which could have been reversed, but never A and D papers.

  42. michael vassar Says:

    I think that there is a quantitative but very real difference between art and science in the number of frauds & imposters. This difference leads to a world where many people doubt the legitimacy of the critical artistic enterprize while almost no-one honestly holds such doubts about science (more people hold them dishonestly).
    An importand and large quantitative difference between art and science can be measured in the frequency of consensus in the face of surprise. Independent judgements of when an open problem has been solved are surely much less strongly correlated in music than in math, with science probably being intermediate but much closer to music than to math. Rapid acceptance of Godel vs extremely slow acceptance of many much less surprising scientific propositions even after the evidence should have been compelling is part of why we have the concept of the brilliant “mad scientist” even though historically mathematicians (such as Godel again) seem to go mad far more frequently than scientists.

  43. Scott Says:

    Michael Gogins: I see. So artists and musicians are basically like highway engineers, creating the songs and paintings that will furnish maximum benefit to society. How selfless of them.

    This theory of art certainly had currency in the Soviet Union, but outside a totalitarian context, I’d be curious to know if there are any artists who actually agree with it.

  44. Anonymous Says:

    “First when better trained Europeans could tell he was an amateur drum player”
    A slightly racist remark, although I forgive you anonymous, because I fully believe you meant no insult. But being a Latin American, I can’t let it pass. Feynman learned to play the Conga (an African instrument consisting of a single tall drum. The word Conga obviously comes from the name Congo). He also learned to play the Bongos (another fine instrument of ancient African lineage. This one consists of two small drums connected to each other). Here you can see him playing both. Feynman learned to play these instruments during his frequent stays in his beloved Brazil. Here is a quote from wikipedia on Feynman. ” He learned to play drums (frigideira) in acceptable samba style in Brazil by persistence and practice, and participated in a samba school.” So, he did not learn ”drums” from white-assed Europeans as you seem to imply, but from African descendants in Brazil.
    R.R.Tucci

  45. Anonymous Says:

    This seems oddly appropriate here…

    :)

  46. Scott Says:

    LOL

  47. Anonymous Says:

    BTW, wasn’t the Feynman story mentioned from Surely Your Joking?

    It appears in one of his autobiographical tomes, either “Surely You’re Joking” or “What Do You Care What Other People Think?”.

  48. Scott Says:

    Thanks — I must have forgotten it in the decade or so since I read those books. (I do remember a different art-related story, involving Feynman’s first wife Arlene convincing him that a certain brush stroke was “objectively too blobby.”)

  49. Anonymous Says:

    There is no racism in my remark, neither intended nor implicit.

    Firstly, nowhere did I claim he learned to play in Europe. I said he couldn’t fool the Europeans.

    Secondly, if you actually read the story rather than just play the offended minority by misreading my message, you’d see that those better trained Europeans were so because they had exposed themselves to African sources.

  50. Nagesh Adluru Says:

    Subjectivity is a very essential fuel for progress. Eg. Einstein used the subjective/relative experiences of reality to comeup with his theories. Art, I think is a useful bye product of using this fuel.

    Objective results are not possible for every subjective input. Science happens to experience (for a truly deserved reason) higher frequency of such results than art.

    Subjectivity and objectivity if measured on the dimension of time: former is a highly dynamic curve while latter is more steady one. There would be variations, changes in paradigms etc. but since very slow are regarded as nicely designed curve rather than noisy curve. Again it’s a perception.

  51. Nagesh Adluru Says:

    This theory of art certainly had currency in the Soviet Union, but outside a totalitarian context, I’d be curious to know if there are any artists who actually agree with it.

    It’s true, if you don’t have a totalitarian perspective of subjective curve it would be noisy. But whether totalitarian perspective matters is more a relavant question:)

  52. t Says:

    Ugh. disgusting. – (That was my response the moment I set eyes on your list. And it only set by the end.) OK, we don’t profess the same views on “art”…

  53. Paul Says:

    I did not know the story about Feynman, but the same thing happened to me, in a Museum of Modern Art first, then with medieval art too. It increased my interest for “official” art. However, such a revelation wouldn’t have happened if I were not in a Museum of Modern Art in the first place.

    My question to Scott is: how many times did you stand in front of an original Van Gogh with your mind (or senses, if you prefer) completely open? How many times did you look at a modern work of art? I am the original barbarian, yet quite often, as I go to more exhibitions, I find that I pick as good works that, I learn eventually, are praised by critics as well. Which is not to say that I don’t have idiosyncratic (idiosyncretic?) tastes too, or that there is not a vast body of recognised works that I just don’t get. For instance I am not keen on Cubism, and this put me off Picasso for many years, then I gave his other works a good go, and some of them moved me more than almost anything else I have seen. And the examples could go on and on. if you want to appreciate something, you need to give it a chance first.

    As for open problems in art, have you ever spent half a day in a good museum organised by movement and chronology? As anything else worth aiming for, art appreciation comes through education too.

    Just for the record, I don’t like “David Lynch or M. Night Shyamalan” either (although in the case of Mr Lynch I can understand the fuss, and I respect Mr Shyamalan’s devotion to his work). And I abhor Celine Dion’s music, but she seems genuine enough about it, so good luck to her. Oh, but I do like many ‘weird indie things where nothing happens’.

    In my experience (at least in my field), charisma and good looks have a minor but significant impact on the quality of the job a person will land. Yes, even in academia.

    Now that’s unfair. I don’t know about your field but in mine there are some very successful charismatic persons and all of them deserve to be every bit as successful as they are.

  54. gregv Says:

    Yikes, I wish I hadn’t been working all morning, or I could have weighed in sooner. I learned one cool idea from studying “hermeneutics” (sadly that one thing was not what the word ‘hermeneutics’ even means).

    Let us define “good” art as that art which has a richer set of possibilities for human experience.
    This art means more insofar as there are more meanings that humans can draw from it.

    Advantages:
    This takes the taste of one individual out of the picture. Whether you like a piece of art or not, personally, doesn’t matter.

    It leaves subjectivity as part of the equation. Indeed, unlike mathematics, art has little meaning outside the sphere of human experience. This takes the connection between art and subjective human experience of being in the world into account in a relatively objective way (that is, without reference to one person).

    You can subtract the “vacuum divergence” of people who just think anything can be the most meaningful thing in the world.

    If I hear Shakespeare for the first time and say “huh?”, I don’t just walk away saying “it’s just a matter of taste and I don’t like it”. I note that Shakespeare apparently resonates strongly with human experience. Then I try to figure out why. Maybe I’ll come to understand, but at the very least I will understand something more about either myself or humanity.

    Drawbacks
    There is really no way to analyze art based on this principle. We don’t have access to all the possible subjective experiences of a piece of art, and never will.

    Nevertheless, we don’t let our isolation stop us from constructing models of human experience of others or ourselves. We use these models to think about art, and we use art to modify our models. The hope is that this iterative process approaches a stable solution. A solution to…um…life…the universe…and everything.

  55. Lee Says:

    “Your opinion matters as much as anyone else’s; when a person has studied a topic, he has no more real knowledge than you do, just a hidden agenda.”

    This is one of the fallacious principles behind the American Cargo Cult — the argument that all opinions are equally credible simply by virtue of being opinions.

    To give one totally venal example: Simon Whatsisface on American Idol is absolutely, emphatically unqualified to judge entrants who are performing in the country-western style, because he personally loathes C&W and will never have anything positive to say about it. This does not make his opinion any less valid (I loathe C&W too), but it does mean that he can’t offer any credible criticism, because he lacks the tools to do so.

    Approaching it from a different angle: some years back, someone gave me a CD of a jazz band they liked. I listened to it, and it proved to be jazz of the “endless improv, no melody” style. The musicianship was excellent, but this is a type of music that doesn’t appeal to me at all. Does that mean it “wasn’t art”? Of course not; it just means that it was art that needed a different audience.

    I am sorry to see someone who seems otherwise intelligent and articulate conflating the validity of a person’s individual opinion with its credibility in arenas beyond the personal.

  56. Scott Says:

    The musicianship was excellent, but this is a type of music that doesn’t appeal to me at all. Does that mean it “wasn’t art”? Of course not; it just means that it was art that needed a different audience.

    I created the “Art that maybe hasn’t moved me, but that I can nevertheless agree is quite impressive” category specifically to handle cases such as this. I even included jazz improv in that category.

    Why would I have done that, if I didn’t respect excellent musicianship? What many commenters seem to have missed is that my beef is specifically against art that

    (1) I don’t find moving or enjoyable, and

    (2) requires no apparent technical skill (as evidenced, for example, by the fact that I could have done the same).

    Your otherwise intelligent and articulate friend,
    Scott

  57. Michael Gogins Says:

    Michael Gogins: I see. So artists and musicians are basically like highway engineers, creating the songs and paintings that will furnish maximum benefit to society. How selfless of them.

    Scott: This theory of art certainly had currency in the Soviet Union, but outside a totalitarian context, I’d be curious to know if there are any artists who actually agree with it.

    I (Michael Gogins) am a composer, and I agree with the theory I put forward, but not with the one to which you have replied.

    I see that I must be more precise in formulating my argument or you will selectively interpret it.

    I did not mean to claim that the main utility in art is money or any other “common good.” What I did mean is that personal preference is not the cause of art (i.e. does not scientifically explain it) and also is not the ONLY or even the MAIN purpose of art (i.e. does not morally justify it).

    I think we’re more concerned with justifying than explaining art here (though the concept of justifying something is difficult). Does anything justify anything in your view (by negation from your remark, yes)? Then how? In my view art is justified by personal pleasure, by social utility, by beauty which is an end in itself like truth, and by glorifying God.

  58. Jud Says:

    Re the central point of the post, I agree – de gustibus non disputandum est and all that.

    Re the intrinsic worth, if it exists, of art, food for thought: Why does a popular date for the evolution of “modern” man coincide with the appearance of cave art?

  59. mach3k Says:

    was it art in the first place? man invented tools before art. I dont mean to flame anyone but art is a sideproduct of the human evolution, yet a useful one.I partly agree with Scott that art does not need rigor or structure, as long as it vibrates to people.

  60. Shtetl-Optimized » Blog Archive » Prague-ing Says:

    […] Have you heard of Jan Hus? A century before Martin Luther, he was already pulling the same shtick: condemning the selling of indulgences, advocating a return to Christ’s original teachings, etc. Of course the Catholics burned him at the stake. This led to the Hussite Wars, which I guess I would’ve learned about had I stayed in high school long enough to take AP Euro. Anyway, there’s a big statue of Mr. Hus in Prague’s Old Town Square (you can see a photo of it on Hus’s Wikipedia page). Get this: the statue is glaring angrily at a nearby Catholic church. As you might have gathered, I’ve never been much of an art critic, but I think I more-or-less understood what the sculptor was getting at. […]