Wednesday, May 7, 2008

The Quality of Art

"I may not know what I like, but I know art."

I forget who said that. A rather dubious thread at Althouse (where I was flamed as a racist for mentioning that I had a teacher who didn't like Jimi Hendrix!) has devolved into a discussion on the value of art, and who's a snob.

We all know snobs. Anything you do or don't do can be the basis of snobbery, whether you're projecting it or receiving it. I mean, fercryinoutloud, there is fast food snobbery! I've seen people throw down over Carl's Jr. versus Jack In The Box, or McDonald's versus Burger King. (Back in the day, I saw two guys nearly come to blows over the merits of Kentucky Fried Chicken versus now-extinct Pioneer Chicken.)

There are artists that I like and artists that I don't like, but I don't think that reflects generically on my value as a person. Nor you. (I may find you have more value to me as a musical conversational buddy if you like di Lasso, but I'm not going to think less of you as a person.) I have not always viewed it thus, but I suppose a lifetime of being on the wrong side of popularity contests leaves me little alternative.

Anyway, over the decades, there are two ways of evaluating art I've seen that rear their ugly heads repeatedly.

  1. Popularity = artistic quality
  2. Art has objective standards that only I (and my ilk) are capable of judging.
I riffed on Althouse commenter Revenant for suggesting the first, and suggesting that an objective measure of artistic quality is how many people get pleasure from it.

Some kind of happiness is measured out in miles
What makes you think you're something special when you smile?

So, Rev's point, apparently, is that artistic quality is measured by volume.

Mass * pleasure = quality.

That's objectivity!

This is how we know, for example, that Mariah Carey is going to be the greatest musician who ever lived. (Assuming that she goes on to break the other bestselling records, and using bestselling as a crude reflection of people buying what they like.)

Real life's a little messier, of course, I mean, after all, say we take a universe of two people, John and Kev.

John likes music "A".
Kev likes music "B".

We can therefore, according to Rev's formula, say music "A" is objectively equal to music "B" in quality.

Now, music "A" is longer than music "B", so that the pleasure that John gets lasts longer. It's over 15 times longer, and therefore 15 times better!

A = 15B

But wait, Kev really, really, really likes music "B". I mean, he likes it so much, he can't stop singing it. He's dreaming about it. 24/7, he's going.

John likes music "A" a great deal, but it's not something he could hum all the time even if he wanted to. If he spends two hours a week thinking about it, that's a lot.

So we'll take the 84x factor for "B"...

15A = 84B (reduces to) 5A = 28B

So, "B" is looking to be about 5 times better than "A" at this point.

But now, Kev's starting to get annoyed. Our formula doesn't factor in negative pleasure. But shouldn't that count, if it's volume that matters? What if fully a third of the people who hear "B" want to gouge out their eyes? What if Kev's co-workers want to gouge out HIS eyes, every time he comes down the hallway singing it? What if Kev starts to want to gouge his OWN eyes out but he just can't stop himself?

And, more importantly, what if Rev's formula of musical quality being "what brings pleasure to people" is a ridiculously simplified, narrow-viewed form of confirmation bias?

(For purposes of experimentation, I was assuming that "A" was Bach's "Toccata and Fugue in D Minor", which is widely known even though people couldn't name it, and "B" was the classic Oscar Mayer Bologna song.)
Snark aside, it's just not that simple.

I've never been a big fan of contemporary pop music. I listened to the Beatles, but I listened to them a decade after they broke up. My favorite Paul Simon album is "One Trick Pony," the absolute nadir of his popularity. All those greatest hits of the '80s commercials? Most of those songs I heard for the first time on those commercials. I played "Stairway to Heaven" for years before ever hearing it. Etc.

It's not snobbery, I'm just not "in the loop". Radio is too chaotic for me to listen to for very long. I like most of what I hear, frankly, though I'm not inclined to listen to most of it again. Back in my school days, I'd pick up riffs because I heard them and they seemed catchy, but more than once I was derided for it. ("I thought I was just playing notes, guys, not making a political statement.")

I treat music like I treat politics, really: Let history sort it out.

But this doesn't get us any closer to whether the quality of art can be measured, and if so, how.

One big problem with Rev's formulation that it brings pleasure to people is that it assumes that there is only one sort of pleasure, and that all forms are equal. (I'm not assuming he couldn't come up with a better formula, I'm just working with what I have.) It also assumes that music has no other purpose. But even if we just restrict the equation to pleasure, we're presented with a complex problem.

For the purpose of generating a lot of random hits on the site, let's compare it to sex. Sex is generally pleasurable, I'm told. (Some people just plain don't like it, but they're the equivalent of music-haters here and so don't enter into the equation.) But all sex is not equally pleasurable. And I've heard on more than one occasion that sex for procreation is entirely different from sex for recreation.

You know, if we apply Rev's formula to sex, we get a desperately busy street-walker as being of the greatest sexual quality, because she has the highest numbers.

But music--like sex!--is about communication, as is all art. Art communicates. All art can be seen to have technique and message--though if the technique is good, you don't need the message.

It's easily observable that the best technique doesn't equate to the most popular art. The more obscure forms of music (so-called "classical", "art" or "avant-garde" music or jazz) can get absolutely lost in technique. There is such a thing as "musician's music".

But our answer is in there somewhere: If art communicates, isn't it fair to say that the art that communicates the most is best? Well, that's probably better than talking about "pleasure", as pleasure is too narrowing. But it's worse on the other hand, because it's even vaguer.

And while I was rather joking about the annoyance part above, shouldn't that be a concern? And what about usage? Art can be used to degrade (see Riefenstahl, Leni): Shouldn't we measure art by whether it uplifts?

I mean, if you're angry, the latest gangsta rap might hit you between the eyes. (Or maybe, for an older generation, "Hey, Bulldog!" at the top of the quote above.) But to reference another pop icon "Me and you are subject to the blues now and then/But when you take the blues and make a song/You sing them out again."

In other words, at some point, does music give us the power to own the things that afflict us?

Beyond that, can it show us something greater (or at least different) than reality as we perceive it?

Aren't these things at least as important as the momentary pleasure given?

1 comment:

  1. You are right that it is very hard to quantify what is "art" and what is not. High culture is the province of the snobs for the most part, but plenty of people you wouldn't expect love opera, and classical music. Low brow culture is now so pervasive due to television that it is very hard to miss. Music especially. We had an interesting problem at the store. We had to download a lot of new songs because everyone was getting tired of what we were playing from the beginning. So I brought a bunch of my cd's home and had someone download them. You know what was the most popular? My old school soul with AL Green, the Chi-lites and the Sytlistics. But no one wants to hear my Van Morrison stuff since they say it is too boring. Just goes to show you, you just need a beat that you can dance to. Like American Bandstand


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