Judgement

Standard

I overheard a father the other day, telling his teenage daughter that she shouldn’t judge people. The context was not a generic one – that is, don’t judge people for the beliefs they hold or the life style they live. He was specifically saying she shouldn’t judge them for actions they had taken and statements they had made. As if every action and every statement was of equal value or equal merit.

I resisted the urge to contradict him. After all I wouldn’t want to appear judgemental.

Exercising judgement effectively and fairly is one of the things we should all strive to achieve. There is no question that some things are better than others; some things have more intrinsic worth than other things. One of the things we try to do with the market system is to reflect that intrinsic worth as an extrinsic value, that is, a price. So we say that a Mercedes is a more valuable car than a Chevy and put a different price on it. I’m indifferent; I take the train.

It gets more complicated when it comes to things like art or writing. Is some art intrinsically more valuable than other works? Well, we certainly put different prices on them. A Picasso sells for more at auction than the daubing of Joe Blog. But that extrinsic price may in no way reflect the actual values of the two pieces of work. To Mr. Blog’s mother, for example, there can be no doubt which is more valuable. That is part of the problem in any creative activity. Measuring value is more and more subjective. Moreover each work of art is unique (for my purpose, we will say that each novel is unique even though many copies of it may be printed – the price of the object falls with the number available, in purely economic terms, but this is not a reflection of the value of the ‘idealized’ object – the specific words and sentences that make up a text). So we can’t really use the market to evaluate the comparative value of two unique pieces of art. That is, how do we say that this Picasso is worth $1 million and that one over there $3 million?

It is all a matter of taste, isn’t it? Well, not quite. Over time we can assess the value of individual works of art or even the collective output of one artist over another. We simply have to have enough critical – judging – experience. So the works of Charles Dickens are greater than those of Bulwer Lytton (who, at the time, was much more popular and better paid). So it will be for everything published today. Some will last; others will fade into a general sea of mediocrity.

Still, the father was right in one respect. You shouldn’t judge people; only the things they do or say.

But that’s ten minutes.

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2 thoughts on “Judgement

  1. Okay… but I do see a few pitfalls. First, who are “we”? There’s no doubt, for example, that artistic and intellectual work by Western women was often devalued by educated male critics in the past, to the extent that much of what was done did not survive. “We”, educated and critically experienced as we are, may not even be able to recognize works from another culture as “art.” And then… for many people, unfortunately, “love the sinner, hate the sin” doesn’t work. My brother, a theatre professional, has lost count of the times people asked him when he was going to get “a real job.” For the artist him or herself, a harsh or demeaning judgment of a work often feels like – and sometimes is- a personal attack. One blast of withering criticism is often enough to stop a budding artist from further production. Judgment should, in my judgment anyway, always be offered with humility and gentleness, with a view to reinforcing the good and showing the way to improvement.

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    • I would go farther and say that women first faced all the economic, political, religious and social control mechanisms that prevented them even having the same opportunities to create art as their male counterparts and then faced the critical neglect or oppression of male analysts — who were motivated by both the patriarchal system but other less obvious reasons.

      I mentioned Picasso in the blog in part because I have great admiration for whet he himself achieved but also his role in forcing Western critical establishments to look at African and Asian art as ‘art’ rather than cultural curiosities. True he stole mercilessly from other cultures but on balance what he did was deeply enriching to world art.

      Finally, I recognize the hurtfulness of judgmental criticism (felt a little of it myself at times — but I’m so damned arrogant it hardly slowed me down) but that shouldn’t stop us from striving for the aesthetic.

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