If You Don’t Like This Photo, You’re Not a Very Good Person.
As anyone who has perused a ‘photo critique’ website knows, there’s a fine line between respecting others’ right to their bad taste and opting to participate in it or encourage it. There’s a lot of truly awful photography peddled via the internet..or, at least, that’s my take on it. Most people would reject my judgment as snobbish. Taste is taste; who am I to pass judgment on the tastes of others, right?
The question is the degree to which peoples’ inability to agree about aesthetic matters is itself something we can agree on (i.e. it’s all simply a matter of ‘taste’), or is there something objective we can point to when arguing for an aesthetic standard? Is my claim to recognize ‘good’ versus ‘bad’ creative expression simply subjective or does it entail an objective standard that I’m in possession of?
The post-modernist belief is that the plurality of aesthetic points of view is the necessary result of the diversity between human beings. This is a good thing, and we should celebrate the fact that we are all free to judge for ourselves what appeals to us. We moderns think of aesthetic disputes as reflecting a person’s ‘taste’. There’s no arguing over taste, the assumption being that taste is subjective and therefore unimportant as a means to differentiate people. I don’t believe that, and one look at your average photo enthusiast website should be enough to convince you I’m right. I believe a proper understanding and recognition of superior aesthetics is something one develops. It’s a skill learned like any other. Some people possess a better understanding of it than do others who are too slow to understand what they don’t know – think of it as the Dunning-Kruger Effect applied to aesthetics.
This is a Good Photo. Those 3 Birds Make It. Somehow I Forgot To Include it in Car Sick.
The Ancient Greeks agreed with me. They believed in an objective standard of the beautiful, a standard that was, in theory, available to any rational person. In the Euthyphro, Plato, via the voice of Socrates, claims that our disagreements always involve one of two subjects: ethics – how to act – and aesthetics – what is beautiful – in his words those that have as their subject matter “the just and the unjust, the beautiful and the ugly, the good and the bad.” In various Platonic dialogues, you’ll often read of some horny old philosopher praising some nubile young boy for his noble birth, his virtuous character, and his handsome body, all at the same time. That’s because in ancient Greek, the word “kalon” (‘noble’ ‘virtuous’, ‘handsome’) fused aesthetics and ethics into one thing. The beautiful was just, and the just was beautiful. Likewise, the trite or banal or vulgar was ugly and unjust, and those who mistook it as beautiful were compromised personally. They were, in a real sense, deformed.
For Plato, your ‘tastes’ irrevocably reflect your status of personhood. They indicate your progression in the state of being. They are a badge of your refinement, a refinement developed through your concerted effort. It takes a lot of intellectual and spiritual work to recognize the beautiful and embrace it when most others cannot or will not. It takes knowledge and courage to reject the facile sub-standard banalities that so often are publically celebrated as virtuous. Plato has no problem with you pointing and laughing at the guy sporting the Canonikon with 17-280 kit zoom who would look at Robert Frank’s The Americans and criticize it for not respecting the Rule of Thirds.
Your tastes in effect define you as an ethical person. In fact, your tastes constitute an ethics in themselves; if you have “bad” taste, you are, in some sense, a “bad” person i.e. deficient in some way. Likewise, having “good” taste makes you a “good” person, and this aesthetic divide between two human beings obstructs their ethical relations. I suppose it’s why I find the usual suspects – the guys flogging their association with Leica as a badge of their creativity, when in fact it’s just the opposite – so pathetic. Plato would find them pathetic too.