Connecting the Dots Between Interpretation and Objectivity

Is your red the same as my red?

The concept of color perception is a commonly debated one. Perhaps because the final answer is hidden behind an explanatory gap, perception is such a fascinating subject for just about anyone with even a remote interest in how the human mind operates. When I look at the mid-afternoon sky, I see blue, and I recognize that it has a similar color to the ocean, to blueberries, and to Marge Simpson’s hair. I make note of these patterns and live my life by them, but who’s to say that the color I call blue wouldn’t be recognized by my friends as yellow?

Though it may not be apparent at first, this line of logic can be directly applied to the world of artistic expression as well.

This thought was fresh in my brain as I exited Regal Cinemas Fenway with a number of my friends last Friday night. I had just seen Zack Snyder’s newest film, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, and was sorely disappointed by its incohesive plotline and weak character motivation. As we stepped out of the front doors of the theater into another cold, Boston night, my friends and I were locked in a heated debate over what we had just witnessed.

Some had forgiven the movie’s story-based shortcomings in favor its fiery, fast-paced action scenes. Others outright rejected the very merits of the movie, arguing that it retconned far too much DC Comics lore to be of any interest. I fell somewhere in the middle, thinking that Snyder’s latest work was a mixed bag of both strengths and weaknesses. As we argued our points, it occurred to me how wildly different our opinions were.

Why do these differences in opinion exist? The answer seems simple, and truthfully, it is: different people are wired in different ways to enjoy a vast variety of art and media. And though this is a relatively easy conclusion to come to, the ramifications as to how we perceive artistic intent, as well as how we delineate high-quality work, are extremely interesting to discuss.

Return to the color analogy and consider the possibility that each human being sees every color in his or her own unique way. If this is the case, is there one objective, metaphysical answer as to which “true” color it is? It doesn’t seem so. No perception of these colors is, by definition, right or wrong. Colors of the world only exist insofar as they are perceived by the humans that experience them.

As it goes with physics, so it goes with artistic intent. Philosophers refer to these differences in perception as qualia. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy provides a helpful definition of qualia as “intrinsic, nonphysical, ineffable properties of sense data.” There is an inescapable gap that lies between the creator and the audience, one that can be defined, perhaps, as qualia. Regardless of what Zack Snyder sought to give audiences with Batman v Superman, philosophically or otherwise, the only relevant reality to me is the perceptions I actually walked away with.

Naturally, each person that takes in a work of art comes away with a different perceived meaning, often one that is personal and self-defined. Does this mean that, much like the act of color perception, the intent behind the artist’s work lacks any inherent value? It certainly seems that way. Without any one, strictly defined meaning, every piece of media is subject to the subconscious whims of the audience members that take it in.

Artistic intent, much like any metaphysical truth about color, will always fall by the wayside in favor of the viewer’s perception. As it should. That, after all, is the beauty of going to see a movie with friends. Each person walks away with his own lessons, his own perceptions, his own thoughts on the artistic quality of what he  just saw.

I’m aware of how postmodern of a viewpoint this is, but the reality is that we live in a postmodern society. It’s time to do away with the archaic principles of good art and bad art. Every creation, every piece of media, draws its own qualia for the viewer: “the intrinsic, nonphysical, ineffable properties of sense data” that cannot be defined. This is not to say that Michael Bay’s Transformers holds a candle to Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction—yes, there is such a thing as technical skill. But here’s the truth: we would do well as a society to remember that, in the world of artistic expression, perception is far more important than reality.

Featured Image By Associated Press