Is one person’s opinion just as good as the next? Yes. Opinion is egalitarian. Taking a point of view or making a judgment indifferent to the facts or uninformed by substance disqualifies all opinions equally from anything but the most casual of chatter and the least serious of conversations. Opinion may tell us a lot about the person who utters it but offers little of value about the subject addressed.
So when it comes to evaluating art … to suggest that it’s all subjective, merely a matter of opinion, not only debases art by robbing it of substance it belies the seriousness of the claimant. (Hardly a revelation or novel insight.) And yet we hear this all the time — often from folks who ought to know better. Then when one says, as have I, that “art without content is empty” followed further by saying that content, when present, is ineffable … it’s easy to leap to the conclusion that content must be purely subjective. If content can only be ‘seen’ and ‘not said,’ whether it’s there or not, then, is just a matter of personal opinion, right? I don’t think so.
Experiencing the content in a work of art is (of course) always personal. That fact does not make perceiving content, realizing its presence, a matter of personal opinion. Anyone not deaf can hear the sounds of music, but without listening those sounds are just auditory stimulation, the acoustic equivalent of opinion. Listening makes sound music. Listening means paying attention and that takes practice, practice that can be enhanced by exposure, information, and some degree of skill.
Similarly, it’s hard to know what’s going on in a painting without the work required to see it. Seeing doesn’t just happen. How often have you overlooked something ‘in plain sight’ or fallen prey to the power of suggestion? Just looking at a painting doesn’t mean you’re going to see what’s there. Realizing content (or its absence) in a work of art requires the practice of seeing. Seeing, like listening, takes practice … enhanced by exposure, information, and some degree of skill. Seeing is an art. Seeing what’s there is more than looking to identify what’s in your line of sight. ‘Oh, those are trees,’ or, ‘Oh, that’s a Jackson Pollock,’ or, ‘Oh, that reminds me of…’. There’s no art to that.
Unfortunately, being an ‘artist’ is not synonymous with vision nor does it guarantee the presence of content in what an artist makes. Some artists like some of their audience don’t see very well and they make art with no content, art that has nothing to say. By contrast, an art with content can’t stop talking! It may also be the case, maybe even often the case, that an artist is not fully aware of what they’re seeing or saying. An artist may see in part, but when their work has content it reveals in whole. I’m reminded of what T.S. Eliot wrote in speaking about “The Music of Poetry”:
A poem may appear to mean very different things to different readers, and all of these meanings may be different from what the author thought he meant…. The reader’s interpretation may differ from the author’s and be equally valid–it may even be better. There may be much more in a poem than the author was aware of. The different interpretations may all be partial formulations of one thing; the ambiguities may be due to the fact that the poem means more, not less, than ordinary speech can communicate.
Content, like the color blue, is ineffable. It does not yield to ordinary speech. To say that it shades toward red or green or that it is more nearly a ‘pure hue’ are the ambiguities that make it something larger than the word ‘blue’ can say. Seeing the blue that’s there is more than naming it ‘blue.’ What it is and more–what it does–is not a matter of opinion, but an awareness that comes with the practice of seeing.