Summary: 24th Gentle Thinkers Debate (Literary and Artistic Value)

“How do we judge literary value and artistic value? Are they entirely subjective?”

Note: This summary is interpreted from notes taken during the debate and may contain errors. It is not a definitive text and should be used a means of sharing and developing ideas. If you wish to correct, be attributed to or contribute content, please contact me or post a comment.

More summaries can be found via the Summary Index.


  • Reading list and introductory essay by Thor May

  • The majority of the group agreed that literary and artistic value is subjective. Differing opinions of a work’s value are valid due to the nature of human preferences.

  • Some of us were of the opinion that good design of a work would overcome subjectiveness.

  • Quite a few of us are of the “I don’t know what art is but I know it when I see it” school of thought.

  • Humans are wired up to be attracted to symmetry and visuals that follow particular rules. As suggested by one member [Blog post].

  • Award committees for literary and artistic prizes have to reach a consensus in regards to the work’s value.

  • Value is the controversial word in the question. How do we define and determine it?

  • Something has inherent value when it has worth to someone. If people desire an object, it becomes a commodity.

  • Money is just a medium of exchange.

  • If value is based on purely monetary means, value is mostly objective.

  • In this context, creative works are valuable if there is someone to purchase them. By these criteria, an unsuccessful creator is poor.

  • The reality of being a creative means getting a day job to survive. If you are lucky, your day job will correspond with your chosen field.

  • Most of the valuable art is in museums for public viewing.

  • Including discussion about money and popularity may confuse the topic.

  • The value of a creative work could be derived from being in a particular group e.g. Art critic, artist, audience member.

  • Serious art is equal to philosophy and science as means of exploring and questioning our world.

  • We may be experiencing a creative revolution as people are trying to engage in more creative pursuits, outlets and problem solving.

  • Our definitions for “art” are expanding.

–  One member expressed the desire for art to be integrated into our communities in a similar manner to community sports. We have widespread sports programs to catch talent and dedicate considerable resources to nurturing that talent so that they can do the country proud. We don’t seem to go to that effort with creative talent.

  • Art is made by passionate and engaged people.

  • For one member, a builder is someone who makes someone else’s vision whereas artists are creating their own.

  • Curators are social anthropologists who judiciously select which works to display in our galleries and museums. They often have to pick the best representations of the collection based on a number of criteria.

  • Some creative works are done within constraints. If you are skilled, you can work within these.

–  Art (and any other powerful medium) can be used and misused. Propaganda is a form of this misuse. e.g. The music of Bob Dylan is linked to anti-conscription protests contrasted with the appropriation of Wagner’s music by the Third Reich.

  • One member claimed you can’t teach a person passion or creativity. Not everyone can be a creative.

  • Others argued against him, saying that there are “rules” to teach creatives so they can hone their skills. . Rules born from our ability to tell when something is just badly-shot, poorly-written, or badly-composed. There is a consensus of how to do things right and how to do things wrong, even in art.

  • If the above statement is true, being able to create work with a high level of technical precision doesn’t make it art.

  • People may not be geniuses but teaching them may help them develop their skills.

  • Creativity may be stifled by objective rules.

  • Those who are the outsiders of this generation could be the leaders of the next.

  • We view art via filters. e.g. Psychological, cultural social.

  • Art appreciation may be cultural. Having knowledge about that culture to frame the work can help one understand it. Not having that knowledge shouldn’t detract from enjoying the work.

  • Creators and their works are intimately linked.

  • Audiences may need to make emotional connections to understand and like a work.

  • If a work is designed to evoke emotion, it may be considered art.

  • Art can be seen as a skill in achieving emotion from an audience. A skilful creator can produce a work that induces an intentional reaction from its viewer.

  • Art courses may just be providing frameworks to produce such responses from an audience.

  • We may treasure works due to emotional ties, memories or the emotion generated by the performer and audience. e.g. We treasure the drawings from children or become enthralled by a passionate musician.

–  Good art changes you. All art probably changes you in some small way. But if a work changes you in a rational way, it may not have been art.

  • There are scientifically studied techniques of affecting people emotionally. However you can measure groups but not individuals. While we can measure populations, it can be hard to chart or predict behaviour of groups and individuals. Applying population trends to individual cases will not work.

  • People may want acceptance from a group so they may agree with the general opinion.

  • Soap Operas could be considered art as they generate emotional responses in millions of people despite the quality of writing, acting and production involved.

  • People bring context to a creative work although literary works can set up their own context for people to explore.

  • This may differ between art forms. Movies can cost millions and as such are constrained by the need to sell and appeal to a mass audience much more so than a book, which anyone can sit down and write. As a consequence, artistic and creative concerns can be given more weight in low-budget creations than high-budget ones.

  • Art can become commercialised because of media attention.

  • The longevity and popularity of a work may be determined by its good or bad qualities.

  • One group member offered up the opinion of art as food for our souls.

  • We ingest it as a means of combating the human condition, especially for loneliness.

  • Some works are like fast food whereas others are gourmet meals.

  • We shouldn’t dismiss the “fast food” variety of creative works. As one group member pointed out, we may have a fulfilling a psychological need when viewing these kinds of work. There is nothing wrong with liking this type of art.

  • Art has a function of creating social cohesion.

  • We might be making art to increase its value by convincing people to look at it.

  • Atmosphere around a location and people may not have an effect on particular people. You might not feel the awe towards a work or a place due to your personal quirks.

  • No art can be objective as humans are too varied to see it as such.

  • Thinking about the value and our attitudes towards creative works may help us understand our subjective views.

  • One member suggested that subjectivity is how we take ownership over our preferences towards things like art and beliefs.

  • Giving something meaning may give people a sense of community. e.g. Cultural artefacts.

  • The group had divided opinions over the notion; every society has a concept of art. What we view as art may be seen as religious iconography by the originating culture.

  • Some of the group shared the fear that an absence or the death of art may spell the end for humans as we know them.

Interesting questions posed by the group

Is there such a thing as artistic value?

Does the work of geniuses have value?

Are creative works valuable (creatively or monetarily) if people like them or do people like them because they are valuable?

Do you need to design something well so people can understand your work for what it is?

Does it get dangerous if you apply objective qualities to subjective things like movies for entertainment?

Is there a difference between those who create art like propaganda and those who create things of beauty?

How do we define a creator (artist/writer/musician/film maker/game designer etc.)?

Are there group consensuses for good “art”? Music is something that has a broad appeal.

Could we get influenced by the group?

Does popularity determine artistic value?

Can the monetary worth of a work detract from the value of an artwork?

One member argued that it is impossible for us to ever understand art. What if we could someday? Can we go further than the heuristics and techniques that we have developed for domains like film? Is it possible that there are procedures waiting to be discovered that you could follow to reliably produce good art?

Can we develop algorithms to make art?

Can we measure a work’s popularity and the types of responses it generates? Is it ridiculous to do so?

What makes something “art”?

If an item is a personal belonging or an early work of a celebrity, is it a piece of art or a relic?

Do we create art to make money or generate particular responses from people do artists do what they want?

Why do we glorify artworks compared to all the other items we interact with?

Additional Content

The difference between book and film adaptations

Dead Poets Society [IMDB entry], especially this scene [YouTube Video]

Damien Hirst [Website] and his sculptures [Wikipedia entry]

Creative Thought

Degenerative art as seen by the Third Reich [Wikipedia entry]

Artists and their day jobs [Guardian Article]

Artist Stipends in Scandinavian countries [The Local]

Corporate art

Social Realism [Wikipedia entry]

Fred Williams [Website] [Wikipedia entry]

George Bush the artist and former US president [Telegraph Article]

Sydney Art Week

Marcel Duchamp and his readymades [Wikipedia entry]

Procedural games [Blog Post]

Artificial Intelligence

Chat Bots

Telstra Art Award [Website]

Indigenous dot paintings as “rubbish art”, pieces to sell from trade that have no artistic value for their creators

The works of Fyodor Dostoyevsky [Wikipedia Entry]

Monomyths [Wikipedia Entry]


More summaries can be found via the Summary Index.

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