fans of popular music may respond to the elitist claims of classical music with a facile relativism. But they abandon this relativism when arguing, say, the comparative merits of the early Beatles and the Rolling Stones. You may, for example, maintain that the Stones were superior to the Beatles (or vice versa) because their music is more complex, less derivative, and has greater emotional range and deeper intellectual content. Here you are putting forward objective standards from which you argue for a band’s superiority. Arguing from such criteria implicitly rejects the view that artistic evaluations are simply matters of personal taste. You are giving reasons for your view that you think others ought to accept.
Further, given the standards fans use to show that their favorites are superior, we can typically show by those same standards that works of high art are overall superior to works of popular art.The view roughly is that some things are better than others because they are more interesting, from which Gutting apparently draws the conclusion that the more interesting something is, the better. But what if it's too interesting? That sounds paradoxical, but by 'interesting' here I mean having the kind of features Gutting mentions: complexity, originality, emotional range, and intellectual content. It is surely possible for art to be too complex, too original, too emotionally ranging, and too intellectual. I can prefer this dessert to that because this one is sweeter without its being the case that the best dessert of all would be pure sugar.
How original or complex a work should be seems to be relative to the audience or the context: to what extent is the relevant scene tired and in need of something new?, how much intellectual content can we handle? We don't want Zizek references in a Sesame Street song. Complexity and emotional range also depend on the general context, and on personal taste too, I would think. If everything is complex, simplicity might be a breath of fresh air. But it's also true that different people will be happier with different levels of complexity. I like a certain straightforwardness, a rawness of emotion. But something above the level of the moronic. I can also imagine liking a song, say, that is purely sad, or purely happy, but if too many songs are like this then I will crave emotional range. Other people are likely to be roughly similar, but their preferred ranges of complexity and emotion will vary at least somewhat, as will the background of what they have been reading or seeing or hearing lately. The relative absence of a common culture makes universal judgments of quality difficult. If the scene is Broadway or the Vienna State Opera then we can be fairly objective about what is stale and what is refreshing, what builds on recent trends cleverly and what is merely derivative, but when the scene is your cable package or my iPod then it's much harder to speak to a general audience about what is an exciting new TV series or just the same old rubbish. That is, The Wire was a great TV series, but if you are five years old it will not be much fun for you. Nor will it be if you are fifty but have been fed such a diet of unsophisticated televisual gruel that you cannot handle something so complex. When we all watched the same TV, listened to the same radio, went to the same plays and concerts, it was much easier to talk about what was good or bad, because there was one audience for whom it might be too much or not enough in one way or another. (Of course there never was such a time, but some times have approximated it more than others. We are far from it today.)
Another thing that led me to think about all this (or to want to blog about it, which, alas, is not the same thing) is the debate about the relative quality of philosophy journals and areas of philosophy. In this discussion at NewAPPS, for instance, some people claimed that the general standard of originality and rigor is lower in aesthetics and applied ethics than in other areas of philosophy. These people work in aesthetics and applied ethics, as well as in other areas, so they aren't simply attacking other people by attacking their territory. And their expertise gives a lot of credibility to what they say. And it surely is possible to distinguish good work in philosophy from bad, otherwise how would we grade student papers or conduct peer review?
On the other hand, it would be odd if someone said that, say, History is better than English. That more original work and greater rigor were to be found in one discipline than the other. Such claims might be defensible (perhaps English has been taken over by trendies spouting pomo nonsense), but they would still sound odd, like a claim that jazz is better than medieval music. How can you compare the two? This is (at least one reason) why it is important that the people on the NewAPPS thread stuck to words like 'rigor' and 'originality' rather than using the less helpful word 'better.' There probably isn't much originality in applied ethics. There would be a risk of absurdity otherwise. "Surprise! The ethics of assisted suicide is actually a pseudo-problem after all." We don't, most of us, want that kind of originality. And the kind of rigor that is possible and desirable in such a field is going to be different from that in, say, logic. Judgements about what is better than what else just don't seem helpful, or even very meaningful, in such contexts. (The relative ease with which a given person can knock out a publishable paper in one area but not another is irrelevant, it seems to me. This could just reflect that person's strengths and weaknesses rather than the easiness of the discipline or area in which she finds it easier to work.)
Statements like "Mozart is better than the Beatles" or "work in the philosophy of language is better than work in aesthetics" seem pretty useless to me, except as revealing or expressing the speaker's preferences. Expressing such preferences is perfectly reasonable. It would be weird not to have any, and there is something to be said for acknowledging them. Be true to your school, as the Beach Boys said, and the sentiment is more defensible, I think, when applied to, say, the Frankfurt School or Antirealism, than when applied to a literal school. Within a specific context one can accurately and valuably make distinctions of quality. The new Camera Obscura album is not their best work. That's pretty much just a fact, just as the Philosophical Investigations is better than the Brown Book. But is analytic philosophy better than continental philosophy, or ethics better than metaphysics, or Kant better than Nietzsche? On their own those are silly questions. Not because they cannot be answered, but because a simple Yes or No answer is no use. We need to get into the details. And after a detailed answer a summary thumbs up or down would make a mockery of the thought that preceded it.