It’s All Subjective

I’ve noticed these days that many people seem to have a fundamental lack of understanding when it comes to the critical evaluation of creative work. Put bluntly, all critical evaluation is subjective. It may be rooted in objective observations and statements, but if it’s any good at all, it rapidly descends into the realm of subjectivity. Being able to distinguish between objective and subjective discussion of artistic work is critical, because otherwise it’s impossible to engage with critical evaluations.

Disagreeing with an author does not mean that his or her criticism is wrong, hopelessly flawed, or tainted by the presence of an assertion with which a reader disagrees. Disagreement simply means that one does not have the same subjective reaction to an artistic work. That one reads a work in a different way. Yet, again and again, I see people asserting a piece is simply wrong or not worthy of attention because they don’t personally agree with something someone says in the course of a critical discussion. Often, this disagreement is rooted in a fundamental lack of perspective, and the inability to accept that other people have differing points of view which might be equally valid.

Just because artistic work can only really be discussed subjectively does not mean that it shouldn’t be discussed. On the contrary, contrasting subjective responses and talking about why people interpret the same thing so differently is, I would argue, a pretty critical part of critical evaluation and processing of creative work. Just because two people have totally differing views doesn’t mean that either one has a “wrong” read on something. It means that they read a piece and responded differently, which is really not terribly surprising, because they are different people.

Everything that we interact with is perceived through the lens of our own subjectivity. Countless experiences and characteristics inform our responses to things. Each person is a unique makeup of traits, characteristics, beliefs, and experiences, which means that everyone responds to things in a unique way. A friend and I, for example, can watch the exact same Dollhouse episode and have totally different responses.

The flaw in logic that people make is the assumption that because someone is responding differently, he or she is wrong, because one’s own experiences are believed to negate someone else’s. That’s not the case. If I think that True Blood is an allegory for racial segregation in the American South and someone else thinks that it’s an allegory for homophobia, that doesn’t mean that either one of us is wrong or right. It means that we have different reads on the same creative work. I can come up with plenty of supporting arguments for my read, informed by my subjective viewing of the work, and someone else can come up with an equal number of arguments to support the other point. Both of us, in our own way, are right, and it’s in engaging with each other that we actually learn something.

Media criticism can straddle the divide. Objectively, for example, one can say “the production values on this film were poor.” That’s an objective statement, based on an understanding of poor production values, the distinguishing characteristics of poor production values, and the circumstances which lead to such values. But when one makes the next logical leap, such as “the poor production values on this film are an artistic choice which is designed to feed into the themes of this work,” or “this film is bad,” one has transitioned into the world of subjectivity.

“Bad” is subjective. There’s no way to get around it. De gustibus non est disputandum, as they say, and it’s a good thing to keep in mind. My definition of bad is not the same as someone else’s, and just because someone thinks that something is bad doesn’t mean that my reading of it as good is wrong. It just means, again, that we are responding to the work in different ways. My read of a character as hopelessly cliched and stereotyped, or a scene as problematic, comes from my own experiences, including a lot of serious evaluation of things from a feminist perspective which definitely colours the way I respond to media.

The point of discourse in media criticism, for me, is to explore the different subjective readings of creative work. It is to say that many people can interpret something in radically different ways, and that all of those ways should be explored, acknowledged, and discussed. I think it may be time for people to start learning to identify the difference between objective and subjective, to explore the fact that these are two distinct things, and to keep that in mind in discourse about critical evaluation of creative work.

The critic is not responsible for holding the hand of the reader. It is up to the reader to understand when a critic is being objective, and when a critic is being subjective. It’s also up to the reader to know that the critic’s discussion of the work is coming from a personal perspective, because all criticism is inherently personal. The critic does not need to issue a disclaimer or tag text with explanatory footnotes differentiating between the personal and the impersonal. The reader should innately know this, or he or she is unable to engage with criticism. Conversely, of course, critics cannot confuse subjective judgments with objective facts, nor can they dismiss critical responses to their own work out of hand.

The ability to distinguish between one’s personal response to a work and indisputable facts associated with that work is important. Because it is in the differing personal responses to art that true art lies: if we all felt the same thing, we wouldn’t call it art.

4 Replies to “It’s All Subjective”

  1. I’m curious if you would say that subjective responses cannot be wrong. You seem to imply it, but I’m not sure.

  2. It’s kind of a fine line, I think. As a general rule, I am loath to call someone’s subjective interpretation of something wrong, but I am not afraid to call an objective interpretation out as wrong if it is not factually correct. If you were to look out my window right now and say “the sky is overcast,” I would say that you were wrong. But if I looked out the window and said “it’s a nice day,” which is a subjective evaluation, you could say “no, it’s not,” because your subjective assessment of a nice day may be different from mine. So yeah, I guess I would say that subjective interpretation cannot be wrong for each individual, although I may violently disagree with other people’s subjective evaluations at times. My disagreement, however, does not invalidate someone else’s opinion or experiences.

    For example, if someone said “Seth Rogen is a terrific example of a feminist filmmaker,” I would rabidly disagree. But, you know, if Seth Rogen really is a great example of a feminist filmmaker according to that person’s understanding of feminism, then that person would be absolutely right when ou made that statement. My discussion of that statement would not revolve around “you are wrong,” then, but would rather attempt to explore that person’s version of feminism, to talk about the belief system and experiences which are underlying the subjective assertion being made. Ultimately, of course, I hope that I would reach the goal of changing that person’s perspective, but attacking that person as “wrong” would not be a great way to start that conversation or to be taken seriously.

    There’s more ground for argument in grey areas where the difference between objective and subjective is maybe not so clear. I can’t pull any examples out of my mind right now, but I think you can probably think of a few. And I think that you can argue that some cultural issues are hugely divisive in large part because the line between subjective and objective is not clear. (For example, abortion: anti-abortion folks believe that abortion is, objectively, murder, and have arguments to back up that assertion. I argue that the interpretation of abortion is subjective, therefore making the issue much less clear cut. Which of us is right? Which of us is wrong? If someone knew the answer to that question…)

    I think it’s really critically important to be aware of the fact that subjective opinions coming from people who are not in a position of privilege are often derided and ignored, rather than being engaged with. (So, of course, are objective facts presented by people who are not in a position of privilege, but that’s another matter.) This undermines the humanity of people, in addition to being really counterproductive, and it’s part of an overall system of cultural oppression. Saying “you’re wrong” means that you are not interested in actually engaging with someone or considering alternative points of view. Saying “really, why do you think that?” admits the possibility that there may be more than one subjective evaluation of something, and that, furthermore, you are interested in how that person arrived at his or her conclusion. Mistaking subjective statements (opinion) for objective ones (fact) is a really common trait among people of privilege, who use their privilege to silence and invalidate others. (As seen in the slew of offensive (and deleted) comments I get all the time about how I’m “missing the point” on a variety of issues.)

  3. Interesting. Your initial post made me think of all the problems I have with postmodernism, or at least extreme forms of it. I think your intent is more geared towards how the mangling of the line between objective and subjective experience is used to silence arguments and kill discussion. I definitely see how that would be even more likely to happen with contentious and delicate social issues. That’s pretty fascinating.

  4. …of course…the catch 22 is that this post is entirely subjective! Argh! Damn postmodernists.

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