What are the arguments for aesthetics? A friend of mine believes that "all Art is subjective" - in other words, it's all a matter of personal taste and culture/society. According to him, there is nothing "special" about Mozart any more than Britney Spears. Yet to me it seems obvious that Mozart's works are much more beautiful, in an objective sense. This issue came from a debate we had earlier: if a man bought the Mona Lisa and decided to burn it, I would do everything in my power to take it away from him. My friend believes I'm imposing my ideals of what art/beauty is and that's it's elitist of me. What can/should I answer?

I think there's a way to do honor to both sides. What makes works of art valuable isn't independent of human experience. It has something to do with the kinds of responses they call forth in us, though there's no simple story to be told about this. Philosophers sometimes put this by saying that aesthetic value is response-dependent. It's hard to imagine what we could mean by saying that a work of art was aesthetically valuable even though given the way we're wired, more or less no humans would ever find it valuable. And so there is a "subjective" element to aesthetic value: subjective in the sense of depending on how we respond to things.

That gets us started, but it also seems to open the door to the response that it's all just a matter of subjective taste: I like chocolate, you don't and there's nothing more to be said. So let's turn to Britney vs. Beethoven.

The first point is that there's no need to deny that a Britney Spears song can have real value. This is true even though some people will never like Britney Spears. Her music has a capacity to call forth responses in many us (yes, even me) that provide at least some enjoyment. That counts. It depends partly on what we're like, partly on how are tastes have been tuned, but partly on the music itself. But the typical Britney tune doesn't have a lot of staying power. After a few listens, we're likely to get tired of it; whatever it has to give gets given up pretty quickly.

A late Beethoven quartet seems to me at least to be different in this respect. The music may not be immediately accessible in the way that a lot of pop music is, but once you get yourself attuned to it, it rewards repeated listening. Its pleasures are more durable and more subtle. If I could have only one CD with me on the proverbial desert Island, I'd pick the Beethoven over the Britney not because I'm a snob but because I'm confident that I could keep coming back to the Beethoven without getting bored.

This isn't to say that it works this way for everyone, and it's certainly not to say that classical music is always better than popular music, but it suggests why it's not very plausible that all of this is simply subjective and nothing more than matters of taste. Some things really do seem to have a more durable capacity to produce aesthetic enjoyment than other things. It doesn't seem strange to say that the former are more valuable.

This doesn't mean that there's always a firm answer to questions about what's better than what. For my own part, I find it pretty implausible that any such thing is true. That leaves room for at least some of the subjectivity that your friend has in mind. But that doesn't mean that all aesthetic judgments are equally good.

One final note: what I've written may make it sound as though I'm plumping for a very reductive view of aesthetic value as what we might call "button-pushing" capacity. In fact I don't think that comes close to doing the matter justice . But over-simple though it may be, I hope that what's been said goes at least some way to addressing your worry.

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