Misinterpretation, Subjectivity, Art, and Politics

If art matters, it has to be because its interpretation is multiple, confused, and, not infrequently, broken. Art’s value isn’t in objective expertise, but in its ability to confound subjectivity and objectivity, to scramble the barriers between how one person thinks, how that other person thinks, and how everybody thinks. In art, a misinterpretation may be wrong, but it is always an opportunity.

You can read the whole piece here and btw it’s a cool piece, this paragraph hints at something that bothers me and has been parroted at me throughout my life. Because it doesn’t draw a line between a plausible new interpretation and a clear misinterpretation.

I declare that it is possible to misinterpret art and that misinterpretation is bad.

When people say everyone is entitled to an opinion it’s always in the context of wanting their opinion to be valued the same as another, better informed, one.

Arguments from subjectivity always bother me and especially in art because if we can’t agree on shared values then we can’t actually discuss anything. If we’re looking at a painting and a painter says it’s bad because the brush work is sloppy and a mechanic says it’s good because it’s a painting of an apple and he really likes apples then they haven’t actually said anything to each other. It’s entirely possible for both of them to like the painting with sloppy brush work but one is more qualified than the other to say if the painting is good.

So when people something is good and their explanation for it’s goodness is that they like it they are saying nothing. If you point that out however you will be called pretentious, not because you are but because that’s the quickest way to cut down someone you’re afraid is more knowledgeable than you and knowledge is power.  It’s an intellectual sin to assert that something is beyond criticism and especially if you’re only reason is you’re now conflating criticism of it with criticism of yourself.

Listening to the song Photosynthesis by Frank Turner (Peace be unto Him) a friend remarked that for him the song was about people who refuse to change, that the negative trait he’s describing in others is an unwillingness to adapt. Which is perfectly what the song isn’t about, the song’s protagonist is the one refusing to change and he’s saying that adapting means giving up. When I pointed this out my comrade’s response was “I like my interpretation better.” and for him that ended the discussion. Once someone invokes the myth of infallible subjectivity any conversation is over because there’s no meaningful common reference anymore. So it wasn’t the opportunity as described in the above quote at all.

And the problem with the myth of infallible subjectivity gets much worse when it creates a lack of skepticism. I’ve never met someone who didn’t pride themselves on questioning everything, everyone thinks they are the exactly correct level of skeptical. But while everyone thinks they’re questioning everything I’ve met very few people who are good at questioning themselves. As if the universe is to interpreted by them but not including them. This is why we have an epidemic of undeclared and unaware solipsism.

It starts with art because they are so many more millions of people who aren’t artists than are that the non-artist segment can be it’s own echo chamber on the issue. So it’s populist to say that no one could know what’s good or bad and every interpretation is equal.

It’s taken for granted that art isn’t as important as other things like politics but that’s where the idea has spread. There’s a lot of talk about living in a post-fact era right now, and I think it’s because with so many lines of contrary thought running passed, over, and around one another it’s easiest to decide we’ll never know the real truth about anything.

Anne Applebaum made a great point when talking to Sam Harris in which she points out that when the Russians were accused of shooting down the Malaysian airliner rather than deny it they flooded different medias with different stories, dozens of different -and often ridiculous versions- of events. And what happened? When people were asked later what happened to the air plane the most common response to agree with was that we’ll never really know.

And when one can’t know the truth one has to hold on strongly to whatever one believes, whatever one feels. Made worse by the fact that we can all silo ourselves in internet echo chambers that confirm even the suspicion of those who don’t understand clouds and conclude the world is flat.  Made even worse again by the fact that because great political authority always proves itself untrustworthy people have leapt to the conclusion that all authority is not just untrustworthy but surely deceitful. So people only want to have an ‘honest’ conversation with those who agree with them and are not smarter and only want to ‘debate’ people they think are much dumber. And now we live in a world where everyone’s dumber than everyone else.

So when we cop out talking about art we’re framing the way we will cop out talking about other things. We need to get to a point where people feel accountable for their opinions and to each other.


Singer/songwriter, jerk.

Posted in Pragmatism
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