Art is not Subjective: Differentiating between Personal Context and the Objective in Art

Art is not Subjective: Differentiating between Personal Context and the Objective in Art

I will discuss this subject with respect to a single work of art, and relaying my own personal context as well as what I think is objectively conveyed in Bryan Larsen's painting Heroes. You can view an image of Heroes here and purchase it if you like what you see.

It is a common refrain of the subjectivist, postmodernist, abstract "art" defending so-called "intellectuals" that art is subjective, and there is no such thing as objective interpretation in art. Moreover, the subjectivists claim, there is no such thing as "good" or "bad" art, and that anything can be art. This is bunk.

There is one sense in which individuals, based on their own lives and their own specific context, could enjoy art differently even while sharing the same overall philosophy of art, even assuming they share the same explicit and implicit philosophy of art. They may appreciate different mediums more, prefering sculpture to painting or vice-versa. My friend might prefer painting because during his childhood his family used to collect beautiful neoclassical paintings associated with many fond childhood memories.

I love Bryan Larsen's Heroes for both the universal values it conveys (optimism, the unbridled possibilities of man's reason to achieve unlimited possibilities, transcendence, etc.) as well as some reasons which are deeply personal. A man and his son watch as a rocket blasts into space, perhaps towards Mars to engage in various scientific and commercial activities unimaginable just 50 years earlier.

One of the things I love about Bryan Larsen is his ability to convey the imagination and sense of wonder in children. Their curiosity has not been crushed by public school indoctrination, and their dreams haven't been crushed by parents who want them to pursue something "normal" and "practical." They convey the endless potential that the future holds. This might be a personal issue of emphasis, because I loved my brief time working as an educator and seeing the sense of wonder and imagination in young children. Their focus on achieving their goals is, in a way, deeply selfish. They love learning new things, and haven't yet been conditioned to view standing out or ruthless passionate pursuit of these goals as a vice. They're simply focused on doing the things they love to do.

While this may be something I think of or focus on, Elon Musk may look at Heroes and see SpaceX's goals actualized. He might appreciate the composition, the fact that the young boy holds a model rocket in his hands, and be inspired by the young engineers and programmers of the future. It may cause him to think of future generations transcending Earth to go out and explore new worlds, pursue new scientific achievements, and populate the universe in the name of spreading humanity for the sake of exploration. He might think of his deceased son, and all the possibilities that could be explored in curing rare genetic diseases. He might think of the work he has strived to achieve, and be reinvigorated by the "spiritual fuel" necessary to work another 18-hour shift to meet SpaceX's target for the next launch.

This is not because art is subjective. As Ayn Rand wrote of extensively in The Romantic Manifesto, people need great art to inspire them by providing them with this "spiritual fuel." Art is universal in its ability to inspire – consider Michelangelo's David or Atlas Shrugged. People may focus on certain elements more than others because of their own personal context, but this context is informed by their own life and their own values. Career is a significant part of this, though memories might be an influence as well.

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