In reply to a recent question about whether aesthetic judgments are reliable Stephen Maitzen wrote "(1) We often seem to make objective aesthetic judgments, such as the judgments concerning Bach and Rihanna that you mentioned in your question; why not take those judgments at face value? Why think we have to interpret those judgments as non-objective?" Often we (or some of us) feel that the aesthetic value of a work derives from an ontological sense that the music represents, expresses or even manifests a higher reality. We don't take Rhianna very seriously as a great artist because her music doesn't seem to convey anything of profound importance. We can feel that way even if we happen to enjoy her music a lot. If we listen to Suite Number 3 in D Major by Bach we might feel that the music conveys something grand but we can't say for certain what. It's that lack of certainty about what is conveyed by the music that I think makes people question the validity of such aesthetic judgments. If I didn't have a certain amount of faith or wonder about Bach's Suite I would honestly think that Rhianna might be a comparably great artist or if not Rhianna some other pop artist without any metaphysical pretensions. So isnt saying that we can rely on these aesthetic judgments therefor tantamount to saying that we can trust the ontological ideas that accompanies those aesthetic judgements?

Thanks for your reply.

As I did in my previous answer, let me emphasize that aesthetics isn't my specialty, so I hope specialists will come forward to answer your questions. I'm not sure what to say about the idea that a musical work "conveys something grand" or "manifests a higher reality" than what's manifested by another musical work. So I'll leave that to others to address. But we might just compare Bach and Rihanna in terms of the harmonic and rhythmic complexity of their music; their inventiveness in developing a theme during the course of a piece; their skill in writing for various instruments; whether they incorporate enough surprise in a piece to maintain our interest yet not so much that the piece lacks integrity; and so on. Pop music almost always strikes me as very simple music -- it's often more "ear candy" than something having subtle flavors -- which may explain its mass appeal. Now, it's probably unfair to compare Rihanna to Bach, because by definition Bach's music has stood the test of time: we still listen to and perform it 275 years after he wrote it. Only time will tell if Rihanna's music enjoys the same longevity, but I wouldn't bet on it.

Most of all, though, I'd emphasize that the difficulty of settling aesthetic issues, or the lack of confidence we might feel in making some aesthetic judgments, needn't be a reason to regard aesthetic judgments as non-objective, i.e., as merely a matter of personal preference. Difficult issues and lack of confidence arise in many fields -- such as history or the sciences -- where we're not tempted to conclude that everything is a matter of opinion.

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