PRINT November 1991


THE MAINSTREAM TRADITION in Western philosophy—what Richard Rorty has called the Plato-to-Kant axis—has argued for universal and unchanging criteria of quality that are supposedly valid for all times and places. There are differences in expression—Plato, for example, spoke about objective universals and Kant about subjective ones—but it is a shared idea that correct judgments are based on a correct perception of universals and incorrect ones on a misperception of them. Absolute values, in this view, are inborn in all humans identically in all times and places, in what Plato called the Eye of the Soul and what Kant called the Faculty of Judgment, or Taste. Some people can apprehend these inborn ideas clearly and some, because of a variety of obscuring factors, cannot.

This belief implicitly underlay the most influential Modernist art criticism from Roger Fry to Clement Greenberg, critics who felt, and were able to convince others, that they had a specially clear ability to perceive the universals. Though Fry is dead and Greenberg retired, the attraction of the universals is still formidable. Even if they don’t articulate it, the most outspoken proponents of the priority of quality over all other issues in art today still assume this theoretical foundation, which is especially associated with neoconservatism and the opponents of so-called political correctness. Though the issue of quality seems to me a somewhat archaic one, I’d like to use these pages to address it, since I feel that it has not yet been fully sorted out, and since the discussion should make clear at least part of what I feel is the role of criticism today.

Even the partisans of universals should have to respond to issues of reasoning and evidence, and there is nothing that could be called evidence suggesting that quality is objective and universal rather than subjective and relative. There is, however, abundant evidence on the other side of the question. First there is the historical evidence: the simple fact that taste changes over time. Countless examples could be invoked to illustrate this; we’re all familiar with them. Artists seen as great by their own generation may seem mediocre to a later one, and vice versa. The very notions of what makes a work good have been observed to change from age to age.

If quality is to be regarded as an unchanging universal even though the idea of quality frequently changes between one period and another—even though such changes are so widely recognized that they are in fact one of the signposts distinguishing different periods—then one or the other, or both, must simply be wrong. In fact, since no past age has had quite the idea of quality that prevails today, it would follow either that we are wrong in our judgments or that all past ages were wrong in theirs. Faced with this dilemma, and unable to take the former alternative seriously, classical Modernists tacitly affirmed the latter, however preposterous it might seem. Indeed it was supported by the classical Modernist belief in progress, a belief involving the idea that all past ages were essentially striving to become what we are now. Yet it is hard really to imagine what it would mean to say that the peoples of the past were somehow “wrong” when they lived their lives upon the earth as we are now living ours. If, on the other hand, we accept that quality is relative and shifts as time passes, then each past culture may be regarded as right in its time and in its way.

There is a second avenue of approach to the question, not through history but in terms of cultures that coexist in time. Here again one sees striking regional variations in the notion of quality. The idea of a “good” picture changes from Kinshasa to New York to Beijing to Alice Springs. The same alternatives that followed from reflections on historical change follow here: either some cultures are right and others wrong, or quality is not an unchanging universal but a subjective reality projected outward onto things.

The classic Modernist solution, which was characteristic of the colonialist era, was essentially to say that every culture but ours was wrong. Nowadays that opinion seems to reflect a chillingly, even tragically flawed self-absorption. To be objective rather than subjective, such a judgment would have to be made in some extracultural place with a clear view of every culture including our own—a view unavailable from within any culture. Clearly, no such vantage point is available to human beings. The alternative, which has had currency recently, is to say that the reality of quality changes from culture to culture, as it does from age to age, and that no culture’s—or age’s—idea of quality can claim a universal validity. Since no body of observable evidence has ever been adduced for the idea of universality, I see no escape from this conclusion except wishful thinking.

This idea, however, makes many people deeply unhappy. Some feel that it leads to a chaos in which subjectivity reigns to such an extent that discourse becomes impossible. Connoisseurship, and the cultural hierarchies that rest on it, are eliminated in turn. Finally, the fear goes, by giving up the idea that our own quality judgments are universal, we end by somehow betraying our own culture. I think these views are mistaken, and furthermore that they go against their own intentions by treating our culture as fixed and rigid, as if it were obsolete, before that moment has in fact come.

By recognizing the fluctuations in the idea of quality we are not abandoning the quality discourse, merely giving it limits. The situation that follows is not in fact chaotic, for the history of connoisseurship suggests that quality judgments do have a degree of stability within limited contexts of time and space. People in the same culture, with the same education and the same class background, living in the same time in history, may well have similar ideas of quality. This is no small fact. Really it saves the idea of quality, because it means that value judgments can still be regarded as meaningful among the members of any of the conditioned groups from which a society is constituted. This opens the door far enough for the culture of connoisseurship to come in. That an informed viewer of, say, Modernist abstract paintings (or for that matter baseball cards) should have a better sense of what it is appropriate to call a “good” example of the genre than an uninformed viewer is not in question here: “good” in this context means simply what a consensus of informed viewers would agree on. And they would agree, loosely, which shows that something real is going on in the value judgment, though this reality seems not to be an objective perception of universals.

It seems clear that we take as objective measures of value what we have been conditioned to take that way. This is not so simple as it might sound, however, because there are a lot of conditioning factors involved. One of these is the cultural tradition in which one lives. In the Western tradition in general, for example, any art that rises from the Greco-Roman lineage (and even more broadly the Sumero-Egyptian) looks recognizable as art and thus will respond to some degree to our tradition of connoisseurship. Along with the conditioning influence of tradition are factors such as class; region too has an impact, with inhabitants of certain areas of the United States, say, more likely to appreciate country and western music than inhabitants of others. Outsiders to that region can of course discuss the tastes and ideas they find implicit in country and western music, and their critique may suggest to them conclusions different from those of the people who cherish it, but this is not a matter of their being right and the natives being wrong. It’s a matter of the shifting framework around the act of judgment.

Other factors that underlie and shape value judgments are gender, age, occupation, physical and mental health, and so on. Even within relatively small, highly defined groups, such as, say, the members of a particular college class, there will be differences based on individual neurotic formations—one person’s desire to agree with his or her parents, another’s desire to disagree with them, and so on. The conditioning situation does not mean that all the members of a culture will agree, like identically programmed robots, but that the set of options available within a given culture, though complex, is still limited. It is also important to acknowledge that conditioning can be amended and expanded by people trying to educate themselves and to pursue their interests, and that a culture’s set of mental options is always changing and always to some degree up for grabs.

At the same time, however, the forces that control the society around us, powerful conditioning agents in themselves, can be depended upon to use their position to advance their own program. Hence value judgments are subject to the influence of forces like what Theodor Adorno called the Culture Industry, what Louis Althusser called Ideological State Apparatuses, and so on. The prevailing value system of a society is in part a concealed ideological tool. (The use of Abstract Expressionist painting as what Max Kozloff called a tool of the cold war is one conspicuous example.) All value judgments and the conditioning that produces them are in part ideologically motivated, and thus susceptible to social change, but it is to the advantage of the controlling group to posit its own criteria as eternal and universal. This doesn’t mean that these criteria are invalid; the powers that be, to make their system as convincing as they can, are apt to make use of the most highly focused sensibilities in the service of bonding society around the structure they desire. And a value judgment, though not a universal, is still a very real expression of a culture’s sensibility, an avenue to the appreciation of what might be called its soul. The relativized position thus does not betray the integrity of a culture. It’s worth remembering, however, that the Platonic-Kantian tradition performs class service, and that its invocation usually signals a defense of power.

I’m not advocating that we dispense with the value judgment—I’m not sure how we could. But we could become more self-conscious in our exercise of it, and, ultimately, could learn to make new uses of it. First of all we have to criticize our own tastes, and to see that certain elements in them are fake and local and temporary and have low-down hidden motivations. Second, we should learn to relativize our own value judgments, to see them as arising from certain circumstances, and to see that other circumstances would give rise to others.

The question of how to phrase such a judgment also needs attention. It’s always valid to say, “I like A better than B, just because of the special and peculiar person I am.” Beyond that, to say that one thing is better than another without further qualification is not only illegitimate, because of its undefended appeal to universals, but meaningless. Lacking universals, to say that something is good can only mean that it is good for such and such a use, or good in such and such a way. One might say, “Granted such and such a set of values, A seems better endowed in these terms than B; granted such and such a purpose, A seems better or more useful than B,” and so on—as long as one is prepared to explain why.

SO WHAT ARE value judgements for?* Socially they serve to define and bond groups—communities of taste—in ways that are often useful and always dangerous, because by bonding some people they exclude others. It’s because of that danger that there is an urgency to this whole question. For when one community of taste attempts to enforce its idea of quality on another such group, an irrational and dangerous act is performed that can only rise from hidden violent motives.

Aside from this social function, judgments of quality seem to serve some of the legitimate needs of individual selfhood. The pleasure of exercising judgment is a pleasure of self-realization, self-recognition, and self-definition. One reflects oneself, and contemplates the reflection of oneself, by bouncing one’s radar of appreciation off this and that, rejecting this, rejoicing in that, putting certain things in a class with oneself, excluding others from it, and so on.

I think that this process could be converted into a social force with far greater usefulness if it were pushed farther than we are accustomed to do. Usually we experiment with our appreciation radar in childhood and early adulthood, then rigidify around the results. This is what we like, and who we are, forever. Behind this rigidification of taste is a not necessarily articulated assumption of universality. We feel that we can’t change a preference we held in the past, because to do so would be to admit that we had been wrong. But once we abandon the idea of universality this issue disappears. We realize that from a certain point of view that we once held, such and such a judgment was valid, but from a different point of view that we now hold, another becomes valid. Yet we can understand both points of view at once, and therein lies the key.

Through a deliberate extension of this ability, the act of self-recognition can grow into an act of expanded self-creation. By learning to appreciate the values of groups other than the one we were born into, we in effect expand our selfhood. In this piecemeal way we can approach the project of becoming not universal in a metaphysical sense, but global in a humbler and more pragmatic sense—I mean the sense of incorporating, through deliberate effort, some feeling of what is meant when an Indian, or a Japanese, or a Senegalese, or an Australian says this or that is good.

To me it seems that this is the whole point of our present confrontation with the idea of the value judgment: that there are ways in which this human activity can be used far more sanely and helpfully than it has been used in the past, and that this moment is our great opportunity to articulate them and put them into practice.

Thomas McEvilley is a contributing editor of Artforum. His most recent book, Art and Discontent, was published in May by McPherson & Company, Kingston, N.Y.