The question of whether some art is always better underlies debates about art criticism, cultural policy and, of course, public spending. It is an important question because how it is answered is a matter of power, not taste. A belief in absolute standards depends on treating art as if it were a branch of the natural sciences, like physics or biology. Art, though, is among the human experiences that do not respond consistently to external laws: the social sciences were invented to understand these realities and, insofar as possible, to identify patterns and forces that make them more predictable.
If art were a natural science, we could apply standard tests to reveal its qualities, as a chemist can to a compound. But there is no objective test that can distinguish good art from bad, or even art from what is not art. Attempts to establish one – such as Hume’s idea of a reliable critic or Danto’s of the artworld – are concepts of social not natural science. They have no applicability beyond the societies in which their formulators lived. However, it does not follow that all art is equally valuable because we cannot easily say, by asking an expert or through some other test, that one book or picture is better than another. The existence of reality or truth does not depend on our ability to perceive them. Relativism in the arts can be just an honest acceptance that there is no objective basis for imposing one’s taste on others. It does not also have to deny – as its critics often argue – the very possibility of standards.*
What matters in all this is how we act when there is no common value system to guide us. In morality, society protects itself by imposing standards, if necessary, by force. It’s no use proposing a different view of the morality of theft in front of a magistrate. But should we – can we – impose a similar conformity in art, as some cultural commentators seem to desire? No, because to do so would be to concede the failure of one’s arguments. No, because the history of the Reformation and Counter Reformation show us the dangers of resorting to force in matters of belief, No, if we place any real value in liberty and democracy.
It is one of art’s most important qualities that we don’t agree about its purpose, meaning and value. It gives us a much safer territory on which to argue for our beliefs than most of those we use. It might be deeply frustrating, even offensive, to live with artistic expressions that seem to despise our core beliefs, but we cannot win the argument by closing it down. There is already far too much unjust use of force in the world. We don’t need it in the arts.
* Cf. ‘There is reason in history, just as there is knowledge about the past. But whether or not there are ultimate reason and absolute knowledge is beside the point since we cannot have access to them – our own place within the story deprives us of that Archimedean point from which to see the whole’
Tony Judt, The Burden of Responsibility, 1998 Chicago