Saturday, June 20, 2009



Earlier this week, I wrote that art appeals to subjective taste. It is impossible to measure “good art” because no objective standards apply to it. A person either likes a painting or he does not. There is no magical checklist that automatically transforms a scribbling into a masterpiece. Greatness depends on publicity—and enough people who like you.

What appeals to one man will not appeal to another. For a lawyer, these are difficult concepts to grasp. After all, in law school, students learn that there are objective standards to measure everything. This is complete bullshit, of course, but the law adopts “objective standards” for administrative convenience. For example, the law judges “reasonable conduct,” “reasonable belief” and “reasonable reliance.” It does not look to the individual actor to determine what is “reasonable.” It looks to a fanciful “average, prudent person” to determine what is reasonable, then compares this nonexistent person’s assumed behavior to the poor sap under review. This is a totally unrealistic intellectual enterprise. But without it, there would be no standards at all for human behavior in society. People could get hurt and defrauded. Thus, while objective standards for human behavior may be unrealistic and philosophically untenable, they are vaguely necessary in order to maintain relative decorum in society.

Yet lawyers tend to forget that objective standards for human behavior are unrealistic and philosophically untenable. Instead, they start believing that objective standards actually exist. Legal education and legal practice have a perplexing, smugness-inducing effect. After all, lawyers wield very tangible power in our commercial world. Their words and writings have the power to impact property and even bodily security. By applying unrealistic and philosophically untenable legal formulae in particular cases, they can send people to prison or take away their homes. This naturally will make a lawyer feel quite powerful in his craft. But smugness in an unrealistic and philosophically flawed analytical methodology does not change the fact that it is unrealistic and philosophically flawed. Lawyers actually believe that there are objective standards in every life pursuit. This is just wrong. As Nietzsche said, there are no absolute “facts, only interpretations.” Friedrich Nietzsche, Unpublished Fragments 7(60) (Summer 1887)(my translation). Lawyers cannot fathom this. If they did, the pillars supporting their fanciful castle would collapse.

Yet how can we really debate the fact that objective standards and “truths” depend on interpretation? They do; moreover, they reflect the perspective of those with sufficient power to press home their interpretations. Still, everyone has a unique perspective. Everyone interprets differently. No matter what the law says or attributes to a person, that person still sees things and feels things in his own way. According to the law, he may “deviate from the reasonable standard,” but that is not because the person is intrinsically flawed. It is because the law—by sheer power—judges the person according to a standard that derives from its own perspective.

In this way, the law—and juridical thinking in the abstract—wields considerable influence in our lives. It does not just constrain our behavior by threatening punishment for certain “negative acts.” It also convinces us to think that objective standards exist in life as “absolute facts.” It convinces us that there is such a thing as “reasonable behavior,” even though that is merely a figment of some jurist’s imagination. They forget that everyone has a valid perspective and actually believe that there are universal standards governing everyone. This is unfortunate. On the other hand, it is administratively convenient. What kind of society would we have if every socially unpalatable person simply claimed he “did what he thought was correct” in particular circumstances? It would be a terrible mess. Nonetheless, every individual—in a strict, philosophical sense—is entitled to his own truth, perspective and interpretation. The law is not more right because it has the power to condemn men’s bodies or property. In this sense, the law sacrifices philosophical cohesion for administrative convenience. Legal thinking does not really care whether it represents “true truth.” It is content to merely keep things working without turmoil. Practicality wins over theory.

But there are realms in which subjective taste reigns and the law has no influence at all. Even people who believe strongly in the law nonetheless relish their own, personal tastes. Taste reflects individuality, not obedience to an artificial standard. When we say what we like and what we want, we express our own desires and thoughts. No objective standard applies to these things. They come from within, not from without. In Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Nietzsche wrote: “Wanting liberates: that is the true lesson of will and freedom.” Also Sprach Zarathustra, Teil II (Auf den Glückseligen Inseln)(my translation). In other words, expressing our own wants and desires from within frees us from the objective standards imposed upon us from without. Wanting feels good because it originates in us, not outside us. Nothing controls our wants; they bespeak us. They define us. The law might say we have “unreasonable desires,” but they remain ours. And nothing in the law makes its judgments intrinsically “right.” It is “right” only to the extent that power supports it.

Taste is crucially important in our lives even though the law has no authority to influence it. What do we consider “beautiful?” Do we refer to a statute book listing the objective factors that constitute “what is beautiful?” Certainly not. We consider things “beautiful” that move us and appeal to our intuition. We define ourselves by judging people or things “beautiful.” After all, certain people find certain things beautiful, while others do not. It has nothing to do with law or objectivity. Rather, it has only to do with individual desire and taste. From an individual perspective, we think about these things all the time because our tastes reflect our deepest core. We pursue things that we like in life. We want to appease our tastes. We want beauty. Why do we want things that appeal to us? Because only we have control over them. We decide what we like, not an external standard. Psychologically, we live for our wants. We make ourselves happy when we satisfy them. We descend into unhappiness when life’s circumstances prevent us from doing so. Wanting is everything because we are our wants.

Recently, I thought about all these questions when reflecting on my own tastes. I thought about people I find beautiful. What turns me on? What makes me say: “That is a beautiful man” or “That is a beautiful woman”? For the longest time, I thought that everyone could agree that certain people are beautiful, at least from a sexual or aesthetic perspective. But then I realized that I was imposing my own tastes on everyone else. This revealed to me just how pernicious objective thinking can be; it leads us to substitute our judgment for others in areas in which we have no authority. After all, we live in a society in which we learn that we can objectify things and rate them according to “reasonable criteria.” This modality works in some areas, but it definitely does not work in others. When it comes to beauty, everyone has a different view. And we have absolutely no right to judge another person’s view about “what is beautiful.” Some people find Tiger Woods beautiful. I don’t. By contrast, I think that Fernando Torres (the Spanish soccer star) is extremely good looking. Yet I’m certain that many people find Tiger Woods more beautiful than Fernando Torres.

Objective standards play no role at all here. Taste is subjective and individual. No one can take it from us. Only we know whether something appeals to us, no matter what anyone says in a book or manual. There are no “universal principles of taste or beauty.” If anyone dares to lay down such principles, he does nothing but memorialize his own subjective desires. True, many people have similar tastes. But tastes remain subjective. We cannot control the myriad details in life that excite our interests or lusts. At the same time, the same details that excite me may not excite my neighbor.

We should never be ashamed of our desires and tastes. In fact, they define us as much—if not more—than our DNA. Nothing truly expresses our individual uniqueness more than the judgments we make about beauty. Taste and desire live within us, beyond all juridical control. We need not conform our tastes and desires to some external standard; we are always free to like and desire whatever appeals to us. We may never get a chance to enjoy or relish the things we want and desire, but that does not deprive our power to want. That power always remains in us.

“Wanting liberates.” It liberates us from external strictures and gives us free rein in a uniquely individual realm beyond all external controls. I think it is important to remember this in a world that mercilessly seeks to hold us to objective standards. Worse, our world even attempts to change our wants. Why do advertisers try to foist a certain image of beauty upon us? Are we not free to make our own judgments based on our own tastes? Skinny, tan white chicks may appeal to many, but not all. Abercrombie boys may appeal to many, but not all. I find it presumptuous when mass media attempts to displace our own desires with “better ones.” When mass media does this, it encroaches on sacred ground—our ground. Wants and desires belong to us and no others. There is nothing “better” about one person’s ideal of beauty as against another’s. All are valid. Powerful people may ridicule less powerful people for having “strange wants and desires.” But those judgments carry no real force. We should be most vigilant when defending ourselves against attempts to “change our wants.” Our wants are us. If we allow others to displace our wants—or even to doubt or regret our wants—they displace us completely. When we no longer want, we no longer are.

For better or worse, our tastes reflect our individual humanity. They might be “weird,” “off-color,” “unconventional” or even “deviant” in some eyes, but they remain uniquely ours. No matter what the law says, objectivity is a fantasy, and subjectivity really does matter. It matters because our whole existence is subjective. No one will ever experience life the way we do. No one will ever see, feel, hear, touch, taste and smell the world in precisely the same way we do at this very moment in time. Our unique experiences and senses lead to unique emotions that no one can duplicate or even really understand. Our existence is subjective. We can only look through our own eyes; we have only our feelings. We have only one consciousness—our own. Within that consciousness, we want, we desire, we think; we even dream and fantasize. No one else does it the same way we do. And that is a wonderful thing if you stop to think about it. That is why our tastes, desires and wants really do matter, even if they mean nothing to the law.


Nothing Profound said...

Am a writer/poet myself and I agree absolutely with the main argument of this piece. Duchamp said: "Art is always a matter of taste, never of quality." This is a hard pill for many artists and critics to swallow, since they want their work and judgment to prevail over everyone else's. Art may have no value at all except to those who choose to give it one. A little bit of humility never hurt anyone.

Another Blogger said...

Just want to say you doing great with this long post. Something I can't :)

Timoteo said...

Personally, I think Harry Belafonte is more beautiful than either Tiger Woods or Fernando Torres. But I think Lucy Liu is more beautiful than all of them. Guess that just proves your point.

Augustin Popescu said...

)'ve just bookmarked your blog hopping to find the time to read it all.

Balthazar Oesterhoudt said...

Thank you for all your comments! Subjectivity is everything in both life and art. We try our best to impose objective standards in many life pursuits, only to find that we are imposing our own judgments on matters that are beyond objective control.

I wrote another piece that explores these same issues in the context of "great art." Thanks for taking the time to read the blog... I know there is a lot here, and I genuinely appreciate everyone who takes the time to dig into my writings! It means a lot.

Balthazar Oesterhoudt said...

The second piece is here:

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