Tuesday, 20 October 2009

Tuesday Thought Experiment: Subjectivity

"My opinion is as good as yours" is something you often here when discussing what we consider subjective forms, such as art for example. When it comes to what we like or dislike, we assume that ultimately it comes down to our own thoughts and feelings - and no-one can tell us otherwise. Who are Rolling Stone to argue that the latest Pearl Jam CD is bloated and repetitive? What we like and dislike ultimately comes down to ourselves.

So consider the following thought experiment...
There are two people brought in to assess a song written by what the record company see as the next big thing. The first person is a music theory professor, who has studied music for decades and has absolute pitch. The second person is someone pulled off the streets who is essentially tone deaf and has had limited exposure to music. Both people listen to the song and both form their own opinions on the music.

Both people have offered their opinion as to what they thought of the music, yet we should be able to distinguish between the opinions of someone who does and who doesn't know what they are talking about. At the same time, we do not hold the opinion of the expert as absolute. Yet if it were true that one opinion is as good as another then we should no more consider the trained and learned opinion than we do the random opinion of someone on the street.

So what does such an experiment tell us about the nature of art? It should be apparent that complete subjectivity is as much a myth as complete objectivity, yet this should say something deeper about the endeavour of art in itself. How can there be even the slightest objectivity at all?

And that in itself should cast some light of art in explaining something about the human condition. That certain works will be preserved over time, cherished by future generations and still have something to add. We can vividly recall the names of great dead composers such as Bach or Beethoven. Or writers like William Shakespeare. Their works have well surpassed their generation and audience and still resonate with the learned in their respective disciplines today.

While most high school students I'm sure are cursing Shakespeare's name (I recall a scene from Blackadder where he goes back in time and kicks Shakespeare "for every school child for the last 400 years") yet while in high school I questioned why we were reading the likes of Othello or King Lear, have a new-found appreciation for the genius present in those plays. Of particular note, the Shakespearean fool comes to mind every time I see Jon Stewart doing what the media should be doing.

The objectivity it seems is not a universal, rather it is an expression of who we are as a species. That within limits, there are those who can better capture an essence of ourselves and express it in such a way that is transcendent of time and culture. That it has the capacity to touch and inspire another and do so that resonates in such a profound manner. But perhaps I'm getting a little ahead of myself.

The point is that when one person says their opinion is just as valid as another, it may be wise to agree in order to stop a fight, but in reality such a statement is nonsense.

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