It’s All Subjective

Or “de gustibus non est disputandum.”

Recently, while I was talking with a few writers, the idea that there’s no such thing as “good” writing came up. It’s all subjective.

Why get critiques then? Shouldn’t one just trust one’s own subjective taste?

Well, no. If your goal is to be published and be read by others, you do have to see if your taste matches that of others. We assume that editors know the tastes of their readers, so this makes their opinions worthwhile if you want to reach their readers. But their opinions aren’t “right” in an objective sense, just in the sense that it might be a good explanation of their taste.

I see the merit of this view, and indeed, I think it’s helpful, in general, to be receptive to feedback without treating them as dictates for how things “must be done.” But it feels slightly unsatisfying.

I’ve been obsessed, for years, with the idea that our appreciation for art is tied to our biological machinery — to the way our brains are wired. What colors we find pleasing, what tones we love, what emotional arcs we yearn for — I think these are deeply embedded in our biological selves. Human biological diversity is limited, which limits the range of cultural diversity, which limits the range of artistic responses (or “tastes”).

If we could understand how art affects us at that deep biological level, might that not provide an “objective” way to measure what art is good? The story that moves the most people most deeply because it touches our shared biological urges in an effective way is better, artistically, than other works that don’t move as many people as much, is it not? The song that resonates the most with most brains’ innate yearning for symmetry, rhythm, novelty, and most bodies’ instinct for movement is better, artistically, than other songs that don’t, is it not?

It may be that by the time such fundamental biological signals are abstracted up to the level of “artistic appreciation” the system is so complex that analysis is impossible. It may be that even within the limited range of human diversity, the range of difference is so great that effectively there are no useful universals that can guide artists.

Still, I think such a way of approaching taste objectively would be very interesting.