The Expert's Ear: Expertise And Aesthetic Judgments

The Expert's Ear: Expertise And Aesthetic Judgments

Arts November 04, 2012 / By Sam McNerney
The Expert's Ear: Expertise And Aesthetic Judgments

Do objective standards in art exist? Are experts in the best position to recognize these standards because they appreciate work conducted within their domain of expertise?

The first time I listened to Pinkerton, Weezer’s second studio album, I hated it. And so did almost everyone else. Rolling Stone readers ranked it as the third-worst album in 1996. Writing for Entertainment Weekly Jeff Gordinier compared it to “a collection of get-down party anthems for agoraphobics.” Reacting to a wave of negative reviews the lead singer of Weezer, Rivers Cuomo, confessed that Pinkerton is a “hideous record.” A few years later something changed. In 2002, Rolling Stone readers – the same readers that said Pinkerton was the third worst album in 1996 – voted it the 16th greatest album of all time. In 2004 Rolling Stone re-reviewed the album and gave it five stars. A 2010 “Deluxe Edition” reissue of Pinkerton claimed a perfect score of 100 on Pitchfork likewise gave it a perfect 10.0. Today, Pinkerton is one of my favorites. What, exactly, changed?

To paraphrase Charles Murray, author of Human Accomplishment, a person’s appreciation of a thing or event varies with the level of knowledge that a person brings to it. If you know a lot about hockey, for example, you and a novice will pay attention to different parts of the game when there is one minute to go in the third period and the home team is down by a goal. Will they pull their goalie? Will they pinch the defensemen? Will the coach call a timeout? These questions never cross the novice’s mind because he doesn’t know the rules of the sport. Both you and him might enjoy the game equally, but your appreciation of it is objectively greater.

Academic interests provide other examples. Is there any question that a Lincoln scholar would appreciate the chance to meet Lincoln more than someone who knows little about Lincoln? If you are a geologist what you see when you visit the Grand Canyon is different from what a non-geologist sees. If you are a neuroscientist a full neurological explanation of consciousness is more exciting for you than for someone who knows nothing about the brain. I’m certain that the physicists working at CERN were many times more excited when they discovered the Higgs-Boson than I was when I first read about the discovery.

Appreciation is a function of knowledge because experts know what to look for. This is especially true in art. Think about Philip Glass listening to Arnold Schoenberg, Picasso looking at a Monet, or Rodin in front of Venus de Milo. My knowledge of modernism music, impressionism art and ancient Greek sculptures, in contrast, is next to nothing, so it’s nearly impossible for me do anything more than listen and gaze. If I took a class on these subjects I would appreciate them more. In the meantime Monet’s Impression, Sunrise is just another “famous” painting.

In Of the Standards of Taste David Hume likewise argues that experts in art are drawn to the best work because, just like a scientist is in the best position to recognize good ideas in his area of expertise, an artist, having refined taste, is in the best position to recognize superior work in his domain. Here’s Hume in his eloquent 18th century prose:

A great inferiority of beauty gives pain to a person conversant in the highest excellence of the kind, and is for that reason pronounced a deformity: As the most finished object, with which we are acquainted, is naturally supposed to have reached the pinnacle of perfection, and to be entitled to the highest applause. One accustomed to see, and examine, and weigh the several performances, admired in different ages and nations, can only rate the merits of a work exhibited to his view, and assign its proper rank among the productions of genius.

The question is if experts are “right” and the rest of us are “wrong.” Is my judgment of 20th century music neither more nor less true than Glass’? In How Pleasure Works Yale Professor of Psychology Paul Bloom mentions Art, a play by Yasmina Reza that comments on the tension between novices and experts with respect to aesthetics. The main character, Serge, purchases an unframed white canvas with some hard-to-see diagonal scars – perhaps homage to Robert Rauschenberg. Serge shows it to his friend Marc:

Marc: You paid two hundred thousand francs for this shit?

[Serge complains to another friend later in the play]

Serge: I don’t blame him for not responding to this painting, he hasn’t the training, there’s a whole apprenticeship you have to go through.

Most people side with Marc’s implication: Serge is an art snob who claims to have superior taste even though taste is purely subjective; it’s impossible to determine if art is “good” or “bad” because what’s “good” and “bad” is matter of opinion. On the other hand, it seems true that the reason experts prefer certain works (i.e., Bach) to others (i.e., Britney Spears) is because experts are drawn to compositions that require excellence and have the biggest aesthetic payoffs. Presumably, this gravitation is based on objective qualities distinct from subjective tastes.

And so it was with Pinkerton. When Weezer released Pinkerton a small group of dedicated fans and critics praised the album. They probably saw the rest of the world like Serge: everyone else “didn’t get it” because they don’t have the “training” to appreciate it. Like Marc, I thought they were all snobs. This line of reasoning bothered Hume. In his essay he does not deny that subjective tastes exist but he does maintain that judgments could be better or worse and that experts, by virtue of possessing the most knowledge with respect to their domains, have the best judgment. He would agree with Serge that truly appreciating visual art requires knowledge of visual art. Accordingly, Serge is in a better position to comment on visual art, just like a geologist is in a better position to comment on the geology of the Grand Canyon. I think Hume is right. I was in middle school when I first heard Pinkerton. To the end, I was a novice listener in regard to contemporary Western rock music. A few more years of listening to music – I also learned a few instruments and was in a ragtag Weezer-wannabe band – and I came to appreciate Weezer’s album because I was in a better position to appreciate and judge it.

Does that make Pinkerton objectively good and that with enough expertise anyone will see why? In Human Accomplishment Charles Murray argues that relationship of expertise to judgment forms a basis for treating excellence in the arts as a measurable trait. “The high correlations among [experts] are a natural consequence of the attempt by knowledge critics, devoted to their subject, to give the most attention to the most important people… Various factors go into the estimate of importance, but they are in turn substantially associated with excellence.” Hume partially agrees. Experts are not infallible or free from cultural chauvinism - he clarifies that the experts “must preserve his mind free from all prejudice.” But despite potential biases, true standards of beauty are determined by the “joint verdict” of “true critics.” (Although both never claim that experts could be “right” in an absolute sense).

I leave the last word with you, the reader. Do objective standards in art exist? Are experts in the best position to recognize these standards because they appreciate work conducted within their domain of expertise? I think the answer is yes… but maybe that’s just my novice subjective opinion, uninformed by experience.

This post originally appeared at Big Think.

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