Sunday, January 3, 2010

On The Subjectivity of Art

I'm going to take as a given that art is subjective from person to person. What one person sees as a sublime expression of grace, beauty, and the highest human yearnings, another impartial observer will see as a cliched, inane, derivative piece of trash. That's ok, and I'm not going to talk about such subjectivity.

I'm interested in how even one person can see the same or very similar putative works of art very differently. Let me give an example. I hated the movie Iron Man. I found Robert Downey Jr.'s character loathsome (and yes, I know he was supposed to be a jerk, but I just hated him even when he was trying to change and do good etc.), I thought the plot was puerile, and I kind of hate movies where the main attraction is lots of things blowing up. I don't remember all the other reasons I had for hating the movie, I think I've successfully repressed most of the memories.

Fast forward a year and a half. I see James Cameron's legendary-upon-release film Avatar. For some reason, I enjoy watching the movie. It's escapist, campy, heavy-handed, predictable, and the metal ore they were mining is called UNOBTAINIUM for goodness' sake! ...but yet I like it. I got a good laugh with my brother imagining Bill Pullman delivering a Na'vi Independence Day speech ("Na'vi... that word should have new meaning for all of us today"), the alien world (also not-so-subtly-named Pandora) was detailed and intricate, and overall it was just fun. To be clear, I don't particularly want to ever watch it again, and I certainly wouldn't call it a very good movie by any standard criteria, but it did what it set out to do in my case: entertain.

Now as I look back, I don't see too much difference in actual quality between these two blockbusters. Dialogue, acting, cinematography--all average at best in either one. Why did I like Avatar and despise Iron Man? I have no idea. My best guess is just that in one case I was in a much better mood for a mindless action flick, but I struggle to understand how that could really account for the vast difference in reaction.

I can only conclude that even within one person, art is highly subjective. Who you are with, what happened the week before, and how much you had to pay may each influence your reaction and interpretation of any movie, painting, or album in impossible to predict ways. I don't know if that's obvious to everyone else, but I was surprised to see just how much of a difference it can make. I have no hope of even being consistent within myself about what kind of art I like. But it's so fun to keep experiencing it nonetheless.

So have you ever had this kind of experience? When and how? And as a final confession, two other favorite stupid action movies of mine (which, as I said, I normally avoid at all costs): Live Free or Die Hard and Shoot 'Em Up, but that might be because I classify both as comedy; they are hilarious.

p.s. And everyone who thought the Na'vi women were hot: you weird me out. You are completely wrong.


  1. Most people intellectually regard film as something that is passively consumed, when in truth it is a highly interactive art form. Viewers bring their own experience, biases, desires, and hope and consume the medium, quietly, internally and usually in darkness, thus, we are often disarmed by the extraordinary persuasive and frequently anarchist power of film.

  2. Hmm. Having not seen Iron Man, I cannot compare the two movies, but I think that although Avatar was all of the things you said it was, it was still very entertaining visually, while maybe the ways in which Iron Man sought to entertain were less successful? I think you are right about other factors influencing how we react to something, though.

  3. This reminds me of an experience I had in high school that has nothing to do with art.

    I remember seeing this woman at the store. She had this grimace on her face and I literally thought to myself, "She's kind of ugly."

    Not a minute later I turned around, saw the same woman, smiled to hide my thought, to which she returned a smile of her own. Suddenly, she was beautiful, and I regretted what I was thinking earlier.

  4. Quiet Song: I like that description, it reminds me of the very different responses from people after watching States of Grace.

    Amanda: It's true, maybe I just like the creativity that comes with creating an entire alien world. Good call.

    GMB: I like that thought. Reminds me of the classic Seinfeild episode where Jerry's girlfriend looks great in good lighting and hideous in bad lighting. Also, though I don't have anything to add to your posts, I like your blog, especially the past-tense format. Keep up the good work!

  5. Maybe you had that reaction to Robert Downey Jr's character - it seemed from how you were describing Iron Man that his arrogance was a major factor. Maybe you found jakesully less unlikeable? And I also think the visual effects in Avatar may have lulled a lot of people into liking the movie (or at least softening the blow of its horribleness).

  6. Thanks, Austin, and great Seinfeld reference. When I saw Seinfeld in your comment, man-hands immediately popped into my mind.