The Problem With Subjective Opinion

When dealing with any kind of creative commodity the issue of subjective opinion can become a real bone of contention between clients and collaborators; we are after all dealing with art, there is no right or wrong answer, allegedly! So who gets to decide what is good and what is not? Many would argue that we should assess art in a detached non judgemental way, which up to a point is true, but the fact remains that there are some things that make you go “wow” and others which leave no lasting impression. So why is it that some art becomes highly successful and well recognised while other, very similar works might receive no attention at all? The answer lies in the intention.

As an example; two artists create abstract paintings. It would be hard to compare them or judge them since neither works demonstrate any particular skill for painting, in fact maybe a five year old could have done the same? So we look a little deeper, and discover that one artist likes to work in abstract form because they do not possess the skills to work outside of that style. Maybe they don’t enjoy painting so much and choose to work in a less technically demanding way. The other artist however could, if asked, paint anything as if it were almost a photograph, they love nothing better than to paint and have chosen to work in abstract form. Now which painting becomes more interesting? The second artist’s work has rationale to it. It may look similar to the first, but as we study it closely it has many layers of meaning behind it. Every stroke comes from a place of intelligence, they aren’t random. The artist may have achieved flow but they didn’t act randomly. There is something in all of us that respects this, because on a deeply subconscious level we all recognise when someone comes from a place of presence and consciousness. We are all connected to a collective intelligence, almost like pool of knowledge that has evolved since the beginning of human existence. We are all capable accessing this knowledge to varying degrees. We all recognise when an individual has connected fully with the knowledge in their chosen field, understood it, and then applied it in their own unique way.

We could use the same example in music. When minimal techno was prevalent many criticised it for being simple, lazy or unfinished; people even wrote satirical songs saying “some call it minimal I call it simple”. Those songs demonstrated nothing but ignorance on the parts of their composers. Those that understood the genre knew that there was a deep rationale and logic behind minimalist music. Musicians who chose to work in this way were not taking short cuts, they we’re demonstrating in many cases highly intricate and considered work, which fortunately, enough people in the world were sufficiently educated to get!

I’m not suggesting we all have to be Mozart or Van Gough to achieve recognition from our work and there are of course exceptions to the rule; but, day to day, we all need a frame work to fall back on, otherwise we would be forever arguing over who’s design should be chosen, or who’s record deserves to be pressed.

Graphic designers use grid systems, musicians use keys and scales, authors use punctuation and vocabulary. These tried and tested paradigms exist across all kinds of disciplines giving us points of reference, conformity and structure.

I always remember this quote form the influential Swiss Graphic Designer Josef Müller-Brockmann which illustrates the point beautifully. He said:

“The grid system is an aid, not a guarantee. It permits a number of possible uses and each designer can look for a solution appropriate to his or her personal style. But one must learn how to use the grid; it is an art that requires practice.”

So...learn your craft, understand it, figure out why you disagree with its traditions, and then present your argument. Could this be the tonic which makes you work great? Who knows… it is after all, entirely subjective… ;)

Joseph S Joyce