July 18, 2013

Stick Your High Art Where the Sun Don’t Shine!

OK, not really. I’ve got nothing against what most people think of as “high” art – I enjoy quite a bit of it – I just object to the classification. Regardless of how well-meaning or merely taxonomic it strives to be, it carries an implied judgment of “low” art as being, somehow, not worth as much. By further implication, it suggests that those who enjoy or make “low” art are somehow lesser than those who deal with “high” art.

I bring this up because of a recent essay over at the New York Times philosophy blog by Gary Gutting (with an assist from Virginia Woolf) about the divergence. Along the way, he appears to argue that musical worth, at least (it’s unclear if his metrics would apply to literature, film, or visual arts) can actually be quantified and judged objectively.

Along the way, he lays down this assertion:
Centuries of unresolved philosophical debate show that there is, in fact, little hope of refuting someone who insists on a thoroughly relativist view of art. We should not expect, for example, to provide a definition of beauty (or some other criterion of artistic excellence) that we can use to prove to all doubters that, say, Mozart’s 40th Symphony is objectively superior as art to ‘I Want to Hold Your Hand.’ But in practice there is no need for such a proof, since hardly anyone really holds the relativist view.
* raises hand *

I’m not sure how many of us there are, but I for one will proudly admit to being a relativist on the quality of art. Someone’s interaction with art is so personal, so bound up in the quirks of our own experiences, that it’s impossible to convert that interaction to some kind of objective measurement. For the record, I’m not ignoring the objective fact of consensus – that I like something a majority of the world can’t stand doesn’t make them right and me wrong, but it does mean I’m swimming against the current.

Anyway, back to the philosopher, who continues:
We may say, ‘You can’t argue about taste,’ but when it comes to art we care about, we almost always do.
Well, yeah, people will argue about things that matter to them, be it art, politics, or sports. Just because we do doesn’t mean the arguments can be won on some kind of objective scale. Humans will argue about anything!

He goes on:
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
Several things strike me as wrong about this.

The most important one, I think, is that Gutting is conflating the manner in which someone defends a preference with the actual basis upon which that preference rests. I’ve listened to an awful lot of music in my four decades on the planet, from the most popular radio hits to the most obscure wind band compositions. A lot of those I’ve listened to because of “hey, if you liked X, you’ll like Y, too” recommendations. I’m not sure they’re worth any more than a coin flip when it comes to predicting whether I’ll like it or not. Some things move me, some things don’t. The same is true for everybody, isn’t it?

More likely, these “objective” standards upon which Gutting relies are not the considerations we have when we decides something moves us, but post-hoc rationalizations to try and explain why that thing moved us. At the end of the day, I can’t really say why I prefer Marillion to Magma.* I suppose I could dig into the construction of the various songs and come up with some reasons for it, but they’d be meaningless. Most of the time, I’d rather listen to Brave than Udu Wudu. But sometimes not, you know? I can’t really tell you why.

Gutting’s reference to “objective” standards make me think of people who argue about whether one athlete is better than another when they’re separated by decades. Yes, statistics will be trotted out to support argue that Pele is better than Lionel Messi (or vice versa), but they don’t prove anything. Too many years have passed, the game has changed, etc. Ultimately, we have our favorite in mind before the argument begins and scramble to find some justification for it. If it was as simple as “consult these objective measurements” there’d be nothing to argue about.

Another flaw in Gutter’s presentation is assuming that those things he lists are “objective” to begin with. I’ll give him a pass on complexity for now (although more of that later), but the others have not just some, but large amounts of, subjectivity inherent in them. Whether something is “derivative” is a value judgment, in the end. Any musician is influenced by other music she’s heard and is, to some point, derivative of what’s come before. What’s the dividing line for being too derivative? What if it’s a parody, pastiche, or homage, anyway? Even more untethered from objective measurement are a piece’s “emotional range” and “intellectual content.”

As for complexity, how to measure it and what it means isn’t readily apparent. “Complex” generally implies some amount of difficulty, but any musician will tell you that sometimes playing something “simple” precisely and with musicality is more difficult than playing something that’s a tangled flurry of notes. Furthermore, that something is more complex doesn’t make it inherently more likely to connect with the listener. Quite the opposite, in fact. Returning to the Marillion/Magma example, few would argue if you called Magma’s more complex, but that wouldn’t lead inexorably to a conclusion that it was superior. For some folks it would be, for some folks it wouldn’t. For some people, there is a point where there are simply too many notes.

For another thing, using complexity as some sort of taxonomic tool fails to conflate like with like. Of course a three-minute song recorded in the early days of multitrack recording by four guys is less “complex” than a half-hour long symphony written to be performed by a full orchestra made up of dozens of people. So what? How does that help us judge either piece? It’s like saying desert is less nutritious than the main course – it utterly misses the point.

Someone in the comments to Gutter’s piece trotted out Duke Ellington’s aphorism:
There are simply two kinds of music, good music and the other kind
But even that’s not quite right – there’s what you like and what you don’t; what moves you and what doesn’t; what you want to hear and what you don’t. That a lot of people agree with you, or a consensus develops down through history that a particular work is a masterpiece doesn’t change that.

At the end of the day, as I said, art is personal. To label some of it “high” and some of it “low” throws up class barriers where none really exist. People like what they like. Sometimes, they like the same stuff you do. Sometimes they don’t. Deal with it.

* Before I get any angry letters in Kobaïan, I dig Vander’s bunch when I’m in the mood. Don’t take it personally.

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