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Australian philosopher, literary critic, legal scholar, and professional writer. Based in Newcastle, NSW. My latest books are THE TYRANNY OF OPINION: CONFORMITY AND THE FUTURE OF LIBERALISM (2019); AT THE DAWN OF A GREAT TRANSITION: THE QUESTION OF RADICAL ENHANCEMENT (2021); and HOW WE BECAME POST-LIBERAL: THE RISE AND FALL OF TOLERATION (2024).

Wednesday, June 01, 2011

Is cinematic "greatness" objective? If so, in what sense?

I warmed us up for this the other day. Here's an interesting (but I think interestingly wrong) passage in the Aikin and Talisse book, Reasonable Atheism:

Although we, the authors, certainly agree that each is entitled to his or her own opinion, we also contend that with respect to paintings, quarterbacks, and filmmakers, some views are better - better supported, more defensible, closer to truth - than others. We think that there are truths about these matters. We believe, for example, that Scorcese is in fact a better filmmaker than Allen, and that the belief that Scorcese is better than Allen is objectively true. Hence we think it is not a waste of time to argue with others about these topics.

In this quote they talk about "a better filmmaker" whereas earlier in the discussion they have it as "a greater filmmaker" - those are not the same thing, or at least they don't look like the same thing to me. But regardless of whether we are arguing about whether or not Scorcese is "greater" than Allen or "better" than Allen we have a similar problem. Are judgments of cinematic merit or cinematic goodness or greatness objective? If so, in what sense?

I suggest that there is an important sense in which such judgments are not objective. But it does not follow that it's a waste of time arguing with others about the topic. The claim, "It is not a waste of time arguing about the topic" does not need to be supported by claims as strong as: "[...] Scorcese is in fact a better filmmaker than Allen, and ... the belief that Scorcese is better than Allen is objectively true."

When we judge cinematic merit, we are judging whether a film or a filmmaker has qualities of the kind that we want from films and filmmakers. There are facts about that. Nothing is added by calling them "objective" facts. They are simply facts.

Furthermore, what "we" want from films and filmmakers is somewhat determinate. People who are actually interested in films and filmmakers, which will probably include most readers of this blog - but not necessarily most people in the world - probably want similar things from films and filmmakers. Since there are facts about which of those things actually apply to particular films and filmmakers, it is quite possible to have a rational discussion. Does Scorcese possess these characteristics, whatever they are, more than Allen does?

We can ask analogous things about paintings, novels, novelists, sunsets, biological specimens, cars, tools, meals, and all the other things that we evaluate. As long as we are clear in a particular case as to what characteristics we are looking for, we can have a perfectly rational discussion - and perhaps an illuminating one - as to who or what possesses the relevant characteristics, or possesses them to a greater degree than who or what else.  As long as that's the case - and sometimes it will be - there can be determinate answers to our questions.

Here's the problem. The "we" involved is always to some extent an illusion or a fiction. In a small enough group, we may all want the same things from, say, filmmakers. However, we will delude ourselves if we think that everyone in the world (let alone all rational beings in the universe) wants the same thing. In a larger group, it is at best a fiction that we all want the same things. The fiction may be a convenient one, like many other fictions that we adopt when we talk and interact, but it is still a fiction, and I think we (again that word!) go wrong if, in a moment of critical reflection, we (!) insist that everyone wants exactly the same things.

This produces some fuzziness, or as I sometimes put it, some slippage. There is no doubt that Martin Scorcese is a better filmmaker than I am - or, rather, we can safely assume that no one who is interested in the matter can make any other judgment without having some weird false beliefs. Scorcese exceeds me on all possible criteria that anyone could ever conceivably use except in the most bizarre fantasy or science-fictional scenario. Scorcese's superiority to me is about as close to an "objective" fact as anyone will ever find in the field of evaluations.

But whether or not Scorcese is "better" (which I think is probably a component of "greater") than Allen is another thing. What "we" want from filmmakers is pretty damn fuzzy; there is not any full agreement on the characteristics "we" are after in a filmmaker. Moreover, even if "we" came up with a relevant list of agreed characteristics, we would not all place the same weight on the various characteristics. The result is that we can each be provided with all the relevant facts of the matter, and we can still disagree. No one need be making any mistakes about the world.

It's conceivable in any given context that there's enough underlying agreement on what we really want that, after exhaustively obtaining all the facts, and after exhaustive rational reflection on what we want, as individuals, from filmmakers, we will converge on the same evaluation. The smaller and more like-minded a group of people, the more that is likely to happen. But convergence can never be guaranteed, and the failure to achieve full convergence need not be because anyone has failed to engage adequately in rational reflection. Nor is it necessarily because anyone is making a mistake about the facts. It may well be, instead, that there are real underlying differences among what Persons 1 to n actually value in filmmakers. And if that's the case, the judgment made by Person 1 is not binding on Person n on pain of making some sort of empirical mistake or some sort of logical error.

In that sense, judgments about the merits of filmmakers are neither just arbitrary nor strictly objective. That's a false dilemma.

There are facts about filmmakers. There are facts about what people who are interested in cinema tend to want from filmmakers. There are facts about what individual people want. All of this enables us to have rational discussions of the respective merits of, say, Martin Scorcese and Woody Allen. But there are also facts about circumstances in which we can make different evaluations without anyone simply being illogical or mistaken about reality. In that sense, judgments of cinematic merit are not objectively binding on all rational parties.

That's all we mean - whoops, it's all that I mean - when saying that the claim "Scorcese is better than Allen" is not an objective one. It may be objective in other senses - e.g. I may make that judgment without being biased by any particular liking or dislike for either auteur as a person. Judgments of cinematic merit can be, or at least approach being, unbiased or disinterested. But a judgment of the kind we're talking about is not going to be objectively binding on all others.

I can imagine someone with a post-structuralist bent claiming that no propositions are ever objectively binding on all others. Perhaps; but I see no reason to think this, and it creates a logical paradox which nothing I've said above creates. I am not claiming that there are no facts about, say, what awards Scorcese has won ... as opposed to what awards Allen has won. There are plenty of determinate facts in the vicinity, as far as I can see. The point is that, even if we have these sorts of facts about the world, evaluations are not the same thing. There is an extra layer of difficulty about evaluations. Something more is going on.

None of this need be a huge problem. We are fluent in evaluating. We all negotiate the dangers of life every day making all sorts of perfectly rational, non-arbitrary evaluations. But we don't all make the same ones, and that need not (always) be because someone is mistaken. No doubt we have reasons to gather as many facts as is practical when we make evaluations and to engage in as much rational reflection as we can. That will produce more informed evaluations. But it won't produce evaluations that are binding on everyone else, irrespective of their more general desires, values, and attitudes. If we think it does, we are making an error about what it is to evaluate something.

Aikin and Talisse go on to claim that there are objective facts about moral goodness and rightness, but they are unable to tell us what makes such evaluations objectively true or false. The relevant discussion later in the book is almost embarrassing. But they needn't go down that path. Evaluations can be biased or otherwise, they can be well-informed or otherwise ... they can be many things, and they need not be arbitrary or beyond rational discussion. That is all we need if, for example, we wish to engage in cinema criticism. What evaluations cannot be is objective in the strongest sense.

But we don't need them to be. No one who gets to this point need be embarrassed about that aspect of human life.


Bao Pu said...

Reminds me of a passage in an ancient Daoist classic, the Zhuangzi (Chuang Tzu)...

Nie Que asked Wang Ni, "Do you know what all things agree in calling right?"

"How would I know that?" said Wang Ni.

"Do you know that you don't know it?"

"How would I know that?"

"Then do things know nothing?"

"How would I know that? However, suppose I try saying something. What way do I have of knowing that if I say I know something I don't really not know it? Or what way do I have of knowing that if I say I don't know something I don't really in fact know it?"

reg said...

The above post summed up in one word: "intersubjectivity".

reg said...

(the main post that is. not the first comment.)

Russell Blackford said...

Sure. But for some people this kind of intersubjectivity is not enough. Part of my current set of projects is to explain it and argue for it. Eventually I hope to write a book on the subject.

Jason Streitfeld said...

There's a movie by Alejandro Jodorowsky called "El Topo." I don't much care for it, but I'm willing to say that it's a very good film--maybe not great, but very good. Yet, very few people have ever seen it, and I don't expect many would want to sit through it. I doubt many would like it. There's another Jodorowsky film that I absolutely love, and I think everybody should see it, called "The Holy Mountain." This is a great film. One of the greatest. But I doubt most people would be able to sit through it. Few would like it.

If I reject that there's some objective sense of cinematic greatness, then how could I make sense of what I've written about Jodorowsky's films?

If I say that cinematic greatness is just subjective, then how could I say a film I don't like, and which most people wouldn't like, is very good? Obviously I'm appealing to some standard which I adhere to, and yet which is not based on my tastes or anybody else's. So either I'm talking nonsense, or I'm appealing to an objective notion of greatness. If you say it's nonsense either way, then I think there's something wrong with your analysis. Because what I've said about Jodorowsky's films seems to make perfect sense, and I can even analyze it rationally.

I recognize artistic achievement in Jodorowsky's work. I recognize the vision, technique and effort that went into it. I recognize it's distinction as a work of art. Part of that distinction is that it is not easy to watch. It's not light entertainment. It's not conventional story-telling. It's not something most people want. But that's all intentional. It's success has nothing to do with how many people like it.

We can objectively define the success of a work of art in terms of intentions and results of the work. That's a plausible and objective way of approaching the topic. It doesn't mean people should like Jodorowsky. It doesn't even mean people should see it. (Similarly, I think Allen's greater than Scorsese, but I wouldn't fault anybody for preferring Scorsese over Allen. Liking a director and recognizing their greatness are two different things.) People interested in experimental cinematic technique and/or subversions of religious symbolism should watch Jodorowsky. That's based on fact, and it doesn't mean anybody should actually like his work.

Lodo Grdzak said...

Its certainly one person's subjective opinion over the other when it comes to taste. But it cannot be denied that if a majority of people in the same field say someone's better than someone else, then that is fact.

For example, you may believe Allen is better than Scorcese (or visa versa). But if you took a poll of professional film-makers and a significant majority of them said Scorcese was superior to Allen (or visa versa), then that would be a fact (a fact that more film-makers chose Scorcese over Allen). If someone who was not a professional film-maker and chose to challenge that fact, their opinion would not hold nearly the validity to me as the professionals.

Jason Streitfeld said...

Of course, you can say that I'm using a peculiar notion of "greatness." Maybe I've chosen an objective one where most people prefer a subjective one. Many people probably are talking about their personal taste in films when they say a movie or auteur is "great." But a lot of people--perhaps even the vast majority of connoisseurs and critics--also use an objective sense more or less along the lines of the one I am using.

So my criticism of Aikin and Talisse runs a little differently: While we can say there are facts about which filmmaker is better, it does not mean that there are facts about what people should or shouldn't like. We can't say that somebody is wrong for not liking a movie. We can say that they don't appreciate the art, or something like that. But their lack of appreciation doesn't necessarily mean there's something wrong with them. It can just mean that something about the movie doesn't resonate well with them. So we can't go from facts about cinematic greatness to facts about what is morally right or wrong.

I should also point out that, while we can disagree about what criteria to use when evaluating cinematic greatness--and we can have a variety of wholly objective criteria to choose from--this still doesn't mean greatness is not objective. This kind of disagreement is verbal, not conceptual.

Marshall said...

I can imagine someone with a post-structuralist bent claiming that no propositions are ever objectively binding on all others.

That would be me. I assert that 'propositions' are expressed using linguistic abstractions which have been constructed by some 'we' and only have meaning within that group's discourse. Hence Rorty vs. Searle on whether "mountains" exist: those big stonepiles that everybody sees, are they 'mountains' in and of themselves, or only because we wish to talk about them? As you say, "none of this need be a huge problem"; I can still communicate whatever I like about stonepile thingys as long as I keep in mind what 'we' I am talking into. That is, in Appalachia a mountain is much a different thing than in the Cascades: a roundish worn-down pile vs. a more or less quiescent volcano.

Rorty uses "ironist" to mean someone who baldly asserts what is a mountain, what is a good or great auteur, what are valid moral principles as if such were true while understanding that nothing can be any such thing. Some call that "error theory" but I don't see it as an error. If there are no objective moral values, then "virginity tests" can't be objectively wrong either, which doesn't prevent you and I and Amnesty International from vigorously asserting that they "must" be opposed. And "we" can be happy that the "we" that agrees with "us" is enlarging, and there's no empirical mistake or logical error in working to reinforce that consensus and enlarge it further.

Apparently you wish to say that there are some propositions that this line of thought doesn't apply to, for example, "Scorsese is a better filmmaker than me [Marshall]". Here is a (short) film I made recently, you can judge for yourself; I like mine, and I say that it and eg Cape Fear (which I also like) are just incommensurate. Comparisons are odious.

Takeaway point: "It is quite possible to have a rational discussion." Therefore, engagement, not anti-accomdationism. What Rorty called liberal irony.

Bao Pu said...

I've had this discussion with regards to music and guitar players. A friend of mine, who is also a musician, believes John Petrucci of Dream Theater is the best guitarist, whereas my vote might first go to David Gilmour of Pink Floyd. But of course, they aren't attempting to achieve the same thing with their guitar playing, so I think it's pointless to compare. (This is why I have many favourites: I can't compare Petrucci to Gilmour, to Stevie Ray Vaughn, to Nuno Bettencourt, to Bruce Cockburn, etc.) Now, you could say Petrucci is faster and more versatile, but that doesn't make him better. One long note by Glimour may bring me more 'happiness' than a hundred by Petrucci. The same could be said with films, no? Does Scorcese make funnier movies than Allen? Is he trying to? Is a serious movie better?

Svlad Cjelli said...

@ Jason Streitfeld - It sounds to me as if you are in fact appealing to various things that you do appreciate about them.

@ Marshall - I thought Blackford's own use of the "objective" example implied that Blackford himself is a poorer filmmaker due to not being a filmmaker at all.

Though I suppose that not making movies can in fact be considered a better filmmaking habit than making them, so your point stands.

Ray said...

One thing about this discussion is that I think your choice of examples somewhat obscures the problem. You make it look like "slippage" is an artifact peculiar to value judgments, but there are many apparently value free questions that also exhibit this problem:

How many planets are there in our solar system? -- this was effectively decided by a vote in 2006, but it seems on its face to be a scientific question.

Were humans, neanderthals, and asian erectines one two or three species? -- this is still debated, and it's likely that consensus will be reached, if at all, by a standards decision.

Russell Blackford said...

I think it's quite true that the way we classify things is not going to be objectively binding on someone else. E.g. scientists could decide at a different point to use different criteria that they think are "better". Or an alien species could decide to use different criteria. There's a physical world there, but the way we divide it up and think about it for practical purposes is, indeed, largely a matter of convenience for beings like us. (But what makes it a matter of convenience depends in part on what is really out there.)

But then again, I think most of us realise that, don't we? When we say that the Solar System has x planets, that is true relative to one conception/definition of a "planet", but false relative to other conceptions/definitions of a "planet".

On the gripping hand, I was surprised that Aikin and Talisse went for an unequivocally objectivist account of cinematic merit.

reg said...

@Jason Streitfeld I think you're being somewhat equivocating in your use of "like". It seems strange to you that, subjectively speaking, a "great" film could be "liked" by no-one - yet there is nothing strange in the idea of great art dealing with uncomfortable subject matter. So a great film could be liked as in respected, but not liked as in enjoyed. There is no need to appeal to objectivity here, these are merely different subjective or intersubjective reactions to different aspects of a single work.

Jason Streitfeld said...

Svlad, I don't see what difference it makes if we say that I'm appealing to my own appreciation of films. Certainly, if I appeal to an objective standard in evaluating a work of art, I must suppose that I'm in a position to appreciate significant differences in the application of that standard. Appreciation can simply mean recognition of success. It doesn't always mean it's a matter of personal taste.

I don't think there's a single criterion or set of criteria for cinematic greatness. Some standards may be more subjective than others, and we can even disagree about what objective criteria is important. The concept of "great" isn't prepackaged for scientific application. But that doesn't mean that, when a lot of people do talk about great cinema, they aren't dealing with a shared, albeit vague, concept. And it doesn't mean that that concept is less objective than the concept of "tornado."

Jason Streitfeld said...

reg, I don't see where I've equivocated. I haven't used the word "like" in two different senses. Also, I don't think it's just a matter of respect. Take the example of "El Topo" I offered: I don't dislike it because of the subject matter. I just don't find it very compelling or interesting. It's not so bad--I enjoyed it a little the one time I saw it, and maybe I'd enjoy it even more today. But I was able to recognize some qualities in the film which distinguish the filmmaker. I think he did a much better job with "The Holy Mountain," so I respect the latter film more. I have enjoyed it more. And I think it is, objectively speaking, a better film. I could be wrong. I might even change my mind if I saw "El Topo" again. I'm just making a guess when I make this judgment, but it is an educated guess. Perhaps not educated enough, but more educated than random. I don't suppose I make it with the weight of a published, peer-reviewed scientific journal entry. But that doesn't make it any less of an objective statement, does it?

Svlad Cjelli said...

I do not understand what you mean to be the important difference between liking a movie for some more obscure technical aspect and liking a movie because it, for example, is easy to sit through.

Off topic, now, I think that the new planetary standard is very poorly conceived. The bit about sweeping the orbit clean seems arbitrarily biased against distant objects. It should focus on more independent dimensions, even if the cutoff point would still be arbitrary.

Jason Streitfeld said...

Svlad, If you're responding to me, then I don't think you're interacting with what I've written. I'm not distinguishing between different reasons for liking something.

Jason Streitfeld said...

Perhaps the key is that art is audience-directed. Artistic appreciation relates the work to the audience for whom it was created. This distinguishes artistic appreciation from evaluations of personal taste or moral rightness. It allows us to objectively treat art as either successful or not, and the measure of success is only sometimes a matter of whether or not people like it. But even when enjoyment is a criteria, this is the enjoyment of the target audience, and so even that quantity has objective import.

Svlad Cjelli said...

Fair enough. This is going right over my head.

Marshall said...

I think it's quite true that the way we classify things is not going to be objectively binding on someone else...

I think the problem is much deeper than sorting objects into piles. If this kind of ambiguity is built into the notion of common nouns, then how much more difficult to communicate about abstract nouns, relationships, values, goals, what have you. Quine had a good deal to say from a strictly mathematical base. AND that doesn't mean we can't talk, which we do by responding rather than describing. But enough for this thread.

On the gripping hand, I was surprised that Aikin and Talisse went for an unequivocally objectivist account of cinematic merit.

I think practically nobody really believes that we can't put up an objectivist framework somewhere useful (... if you like, morally useful). Eg, JS. A&T think they win the argument for ... can I say "scientism" non-pejoritively? ... so they are thinking like Sam Harris, isn't it? I said before, I think the notion of having a "argument" which could be "won" puts one on the anti-accomdationist side, which is what we were taking about then.