We’ve all had that moment when a friend shows us a piece of art they love and we just nod and smile. “Oh, it’s great,” we say, as we try to think of a way to change the subject. Or, even worse, we all know that feeling of disbelief when we look at certain art pieces that are displayed in museums. “I could do that. How did that piece of art end up in a museum?!” There’s no doubt that art brings up a lot of conflicting opinions. But is it actually subjective? Is there any objective criteria that art abides by?
All art is subjective because it relies upon the opinions of its viewers. That said, whether art is good or bad isn’t just about subjective views. Popular opinion can be swayed by the fame of the artist, the amount of exposure a piece of art has, and the impact of societal norms at the time.
Of course, the question of whether art is subjective or not can’t be answered with a simple yes or no. There are a lot of factors that go into our notions of whether art is good or not. Let’s dive into a few of them.
Art Competitions HAVE to be Objective, Right?
Art competitions make the conversation about whether art is objective or subjective really complicated. A competition just doesn’t seem fair if it’s solely based on a judge’s opinion and has no objective criteria for people to follow.
Yes, art competitions usually have a list of criteria for artists to follow. This criteria is normally developed depending on the type of art that’s being made. For example, a photography contest might care about color saturation and crisp images, while a drawing competition might care about realistic shading and shape formation.
But, here’s where the issue comes in. How are you supposed to know what good color saturation is? How are you supposed to know what realistic shading looks like? In an art competition where all of the artists show a lot of expertise in their work, all of the competitors might seem to be equally skilled in all of the categories.
So, subjectivity usually breaks the tie…even if no one admits it.
A very skilled art judge will be able to see slight variances in each piece of art that will make it objectively better or worse according to the criteria. That said, there’s no doubt that this is really hard to do. It’s REALLY hard to look at something fully objectively without any subjectivity slipping in. Curious what it’s like to judge art? Check out the video.
More often than not, subjectivity plays a role in judging art, even when we’re trying as hard as possible to stay objective.
Art competitions are where art is looked at the most objectively. Otherwise, art is often subjective, which is a great thing.
Why Subjectivity with Art is so Great
I don’t know about you, but I’d be bummed if all artists decided that they were going to create their works based on some universal, objective criteria of what makes art great. We’d get a ton of lookalike designs that lack a lot of individuality and creativity.
The fact that we all enjoy art in different ways is what gives artists the freedom to create whatever they feel called to create.
How awful would it be if we decided that there’s only 1 type of cartooning that meets the criteria for objectively good cartoons. We wouldn’t have so many amazing comics, Disney movies, or children’s books. The fact that we can all subjectively decide what types of cartoons we like allows for so many more cartoon styles to all coexist.
Every artist has their own tribe of fans that love and appreciate their work. This isn’t based on any sort of objective criteria about what good art should be. Instead, it’s purely passion and interest based.
We need art to be subjective in order for so many different styles of art to exist and thrive.
Enjoying Something is Different Than it Being Good
This is an important point. Just because I enjoy a piece of art doesn’t mean that I also think it’s good. I have a lot of guilty pleasure TV shows that I really enjoy, but wouldn’t say are quality art. That’s still subjective though.
Outside of competitions, where are the objective criteria that tell me whether art is good or bad? I don’t know about you, but I’ve never gone into a gallery to find a rubric of all of the objective areas that the piece of art either satisfied or missed. Some will say that the fact that it’s in a gallery to begin with is the evidence that it’s good. Ok ok, but we’ve all seen some questionable things in art galleries.
Even if I enjoy a piece of art, deciding whether it is good or not is still another subjective opinion I need to make. When I sit down to watch my guilty pleasure TV shows, I know that I’m not considering it to be high quality TV. That said, other viewers may differ in that subjective opinion and find my guilty pleasure TV shows to be high works of art.
Guilty pleasures aside, we usually enjoy things that we think are good works of art. So, to keep things simple, for the rest of this article we’re going to assume that we consider the art we like to also be high quality.
How Do We Form Our Subjective Opinions of Art?
Ok, so if we don’t have some objective criteria to use when we form our opinions of art, how do we figure out what we like and don’t like? Where do subjective opinions come from?
We’re all born with innate interests. This is why I always gravitated to running no matter how many tennis classes my mom sent me to. For some reason, we like what we like! I was horrible at tennis, so that was definitely a factor too. But, that doesn’t mean that we pop out of the womb with fully formed objective opinions.
There are actually quite a few things that can influence our subjective opinions. This isn’t an exhaustive list, but they’re our big players.
Life Experiences Play a Huge Role in Subjectivity
No matter how much we believe ourselves to be independent thinkers that can withstand persuasion, we don’t live in a vacuum. We are constantly exposed to different opinions, perspectives, criticisms, praise, and more. We are constantly asked to defend our points of view and stand up for causes we believe in. We are constantly discovering new artists and deciding what we value in the art world.
Everything we experience, discover, and interact with goes on to inform our beliefs and opinions.
Subjectivity is always influenced by something. It can’t exist in a vacuum.
We see this every day.
Maybe we like watercolors because a family friend has it around their house and it brings up good memories. Maybe we like pet portraits because a celebrity on Instagram just had one made of her cat. Maybe we like cartoons because we have a best friend that’s a cartoonist.
Everything we like, dislike, love, hate, and feel indifferent about has been shaped by our life experiences. It’s nearly impossible to weed out everything that could have influenced the reasons why we like a piece of art and simply look at it objectively.
This begs a question – should we worry that subjective opinion is swayed by the world we live in? Wouldn’t this mean that we’re forming opinions with tunnel vision on our own experiences?
Think about the common advice to college students to take a gap year or study abroad. We encourage young adults to experience the world, gain knowledge, and try new things. Basically, we want them to collect information that they can use to form better subjective opinions in the future. Hopefully, they come back from their time abroad wiser and more informed than they were before.
We put a lot of value in trying new things, seeing the world, and meeting new people. If we don’t have enough life experience, we might not have enough information to make valid and informed opinions.
We end up seeming naive.
Personally, I believe that we all need to stay open minded, understanding that there is a lot that we have yet to experience. All of us will be short-sighted in our opinions. There’s just no way around it. The goal is to be humble enough to admit that we’re wrong and commit to continual learning.
But, let’s get back to art.
When we’re talking about forming subjective opinions about art, we’re not talking about the big questions of life. Or even the huge decisions that college students often face of choosing a career or moving to a new place. Being naive and lacking experience is a HUGE deal in that case. But, the same idea rings true, whether we’re deciding on a big life decision, or evaluating a new artist.
We don’t know what we don’t know.
If the only art I’ve ever been exposed to is the watercolors on the walls of my childhood home, I might not realize that I really like pastels as well. I’ve just never seen them.
If you want to improve your abilities to make subjective opinions about art, keep exploring it.
Give yourself an excuse to go to an art gallery, scroll through Instagram, and buy tickets to an art festival. Expose yourself to as much art as you can. This will help you build a base of knowledge of what you like and don’t like as far as art is concerned. Not only is this a fun project and excuse to look at art, it will help you build your subjective opinions.
So, the first step in understanding how our subjective opinions are formed is to take a look around you. What you experienced in the past and what you choose to expose yourself to now will play a HUGE role in the way that you seek out art and form opinions about it.
Popularity Can Make Art Seem Good
Sadly, there will always be amazing artists that never get noticed and mediocre artists that live a life of fame and glory. You can subjectively decide who those mediocre artists are for yourself.
Like it or not, the artists that gain the most visibility are often the ones that make the most impact. They can get in front of more eyeballs.
And, when something becomes popular, it often increases in likability. Part of this has to do with the exposure factor. The “we don’t know what we don’t know” thing. When something becomes popular, a lot of people see it. For better or for worse, given technology these days, this can really favor artists that understand how to use social media.
Instead of finding a neat piece of art in an obscure gallery that you got an exclusive ticket to, you’re suddenly seeing a piece of art everywhere you look – Instagram, Facebook, YouTube, TikTok, you name it.
Naturally, art is more likable once people know it exists. You can’t like something you don’t know exists. Once visibility spreads and something becomes popular and mainstream, people will naturally gravitate towards it. Who knows, I might have liked the neat piece of art in the obscure gallery more, but if I’ve never seen it before, I’m going to prefer the piece of art that is constantly showing up on all of the platforms I look at.
This leads us to the next factor we have to consider when making subjective opinions about art: peer pressure.
Have you ever heard of a concept called “group think”? (source). Group think is the idea that, when a group of people come together, they’re more likely to stifle creativity and individuality in favor of making a harmonious decision than bring up alternative decisions that could bring about conflict or dissent.
Even if we won’t admit it, we like to go with the crowd!
If everyone around us is saying that they love a piece of art, we’d rather agree and move on than start an argument about why it sucks. Unless we feel really strongly about the artwork, it’s unlikely we’ll get all riled up about it.
Sometimes our tolerance for peer pressure can just be a result of a lack of confidence in our own opinions. “If everyone else thinks that’s good art, I guess it is. How should I know?”
When art becomes popular and part of the mainstream culture, it can influence our subjective opinions. Maybe we get exposed to new art that we’ve never seen before. Or, on the other hand, maybe we don’t realize that there’s art in some obscure gallery somewhere that we would really love if we had access to it.
Adding to that, once art becomes popular, we can fall into the trap of thinking that we didn’t know what good art was in the first place, which can lead us to liking art simply because we don’t have enough confidence to say otherwise.
It’s also important to remember that art is a community experience. If we’re the lone wolf that doesn’t like Baby Shark, for example, we’re missing out when every comedy show and YouTube video makes a joke about it. There’s something unifying about sharing favorable opinions about art. I mean, do you remember the groupies from the show Bye, Bye Birdie? Yeah, those girls definitely bonded over their star-struck puppy love for Conrad Birdie.
It can be really satisfying to connect with others through art. Sometimes, we’d rather believe we like a piece of art more than we do just so that we can have a deeper communal connection, either to a fan group or to all of society.
Our Favorite Artists Can Influence Our Subjective Opinions Long-Term
I don’t know about you, but I have favorite artists (authors, actors, musicians, traditional artists) that I absolutely love. Whenever they create something, I’m first in line to see it. Every once in a while, one of my favorite artists makes a dud (in my subjective opinion). Yet, I still love them and follow them. Everyone stumbles every once in a while, right?
On the other hand, what if that dud was the first thing I ever experienced from that author? I would probably move on and find a different author to read.
The first lesson here is that first impressions matter a whole lot. It’s unfair, but it’s true. The second lesson is that we hold on to artists we already know and love.
We often feel a lot of loyalty to the artists we know and love. We want to support them because we cherish all of the amazing memories they’ve given us over the years. Personally, I love this because I know I can turn to a go-to playlist, web gallery, or movie and know that it will be right up my alley. I don’t have to search for something I might think is ok.
That said, it can also be stifling and influence our opinions moving forward.
Let’s use a real example here. I LOVE the Indigo Girls. Like, they’re my heroes. I can easily admit that my subjective opinions are very influenced by my love for them. Because I love the Indigo Girls so much, I’m constantly swirling within their musical genre. Spotify and Pandora create tailored playlists for me; if they partner with any other singers, I follow them; if they endorse other singers, I seek them out.
Good, bad, or neutral, I listen to ALL of their music (they don’t have any bad music). I also listen to a lot of the other artists in their realm.
Due to my love for the Indigo Girls, my musical tastes have been swayed in their direction. No EDM or Hip Hop for me. I DO love their music, but who knows where my musical tastes would have gone if I had never fallen in love with them.
When thinking about the art that you like, look to your absolute favorite artist as a hub. What other artists come out as spokes from that hub? Maybe your favorite artist recommended another artist who you started admiring. A lot of times you’ll see that your favorite artists sent you down a path of discovery with other artists in that genre. It’s not a bad thing, but just a way to notice how your subjective opinions can get pigeonholed.
At the End of the Day, Our Subjective Opinions Are Built By Exposure and Experience
If you look back at everything we’ve talked about so far, you’ll notice that it’s all based on your past experiences and things you’ve been exposed to.
If I didn’t have parents who also loved the Indigo Girls, I might not have discovered them from such a young age and set off on a musical journey inspired by their genre.
If I didn’t pass by that obscure art gallery, I might not have discovered that unique piece of art from an artist I had never heard of before.
Every single day, we’re either enforcing our current opinions or discovering new things that will eventually change our future opinions. We either continue to explore the art we already know and love, or we open our eyes to new artists that expand our horizons in regards to the types of art we enjoy.
We don’t know what we don’t know. We need exposure and experience to know what it is we’re having an opinion about in the first place.
Think about trying to have an opinion about food you’ve never eaten before. If someone asks you whether a papaya is good or bad, you would say that you would need to try it first to find out.
Experience and exposure needs to come before opinion.
That’s not to say that many of us try to have opinions about things we know nothing about but, clearly, that’s not ideal. It’s also a great way to look like a fool. This is why we often say that older adults have a lot of wisdom. They’ve experienced a lot of the world. That’s exactly it.
We Need Subjectivity in the Arts
There are times when subjectivity gets a bad rap. We get annoyed when personal opinion plays such a big role in whether something is classified as “good” or not. Sure, there are things that should be objective like scientific experiments, laws, and the deliciousness of peanut butter. But, subjectivity is SO important in SO many different fields.
Subjectivity adds character, uniqueness, creativity, and passion to life.
I love that I can rave about the Indigo Girls and try to convince others to feel the same (doesn’t take much persuasion. They’re great). I love that I can discover new artists and decide for myself whether they are good or not. Not by some static list of objective criteria, but by my own criteria of passions, interests, and desires.
Can you imagine a world where art wasn’t privy to personal opinion and preference? Where everything came with a set of criteria telling us how “good” it is in comparison to other things?
That doesn’t sound like a world I want to live in.
Subjectivity is partly what makes art so fun and enjoyable. It’s also what inspires artists to take risks, stay creative, and experiment with new things. If all art was objectively judged, think about how many people would never even become artists in the first place. There would be no room to create new things and simply enjoy the process.
Another VERY important piece to this puzzle is creative freedom. If we suddenly found a way to objectively judge art, who would be the one to create that criteria? Given what evidence? Based on what culture or ideology?
Art plays such an important role in helping society express itself and connect with the issues it is struggling with. Artists use art to convey various ideas about society, politics, culture, identity, and more. As viewers, we seek out art that helps us explore these topics more.
We seek belonging through art.
If we suddenly decided that art should be graded as good or bad depending on a certain rubric, we would probably stifle 99% of the creativity and expression that we value so much.
So, whether I’ve convinced you that art IS subjective or not, I hope I’ve convinced you that it SHOULD be.
A lot of us crave objectivity. We want a clear and defined box to put things into so that life makes more sense. When decisions are made for us, we don’t have to work as hard to form our own opinions. That said, a lot of the fun of art is about developing our own subjective opinions about why we love various artists and types of art. Without subjectivity, art would lose a lot of what makes it so great in the first place.
Diana has been an artist for over 25 years and has training in drawing, painting, digital drawing and graphic design. Diana’s latest obsession is digitally drawing with Procreate and creating t-shirt designs with Canva. Diana has experience selling her art across a number of platforms and loves helping other artists learn how to make money from their art as well.