Thursday, December 17, 2009

Towards Defining Great Music, Part One: On Taste

To the uninitiated, the sculptures of Auguste Rodin come across as detailed, but vulgar and often hideous. Shakespeare's plays, likewise, seem mildly amusing, but fundamentally stuffy. Wagner's operas boring and dissonant. Dali's painting simply bizarre.

But who are the initiated, and by what standards do they judge? Is it the art itself that makes Great Art, or is it the ego of the person viewing that art, and the fear of seeming unsophisticated at rejecting a composer, painter, or playwright?

I do not presume to be able to answer that question, as it has too many sociological and psychological implications I'm not capable of tackling. But I will admit that the difference between Rodin and other sculptors, to me, is something I do not fully appreciate. I take it on authority that Rodin is a Master, and that his art is profound. When I experience it, however, I am baffled.* Human? No doubt. Intricate? Likewise. But its hidden, subtler virtues I have not the language or experience to appreciate.

* That I get to experience it at all is likely most of the battle. What is greatness without exposure?

Music is much the same. Without hesitation I claim that, to really understand “Great Music,” you have to know the language. Beethoven can be rousing to anyone, Mozart joyous, and Wagner mysterious (or awful, as the case may be), but without understanding dominants and tonics and substitutions the intricacy of the music comes across as little more than that. “Intricacy,” “subtlety,” and “beauty” become stand-ins for “I don't know why, but I like it.” Indeed, some listeners take this stance with pride: better to love music and not understand than to be discriminating and thereby limit the breadth of what moves you.

It is, in the end, impossible to argue against that position, but to me it smacks of choosing ignorance over knowledge because, in the end, ignorance is easier. There is, however, no black-and-white duality here. In all things we all choose knowledge and ignorance in various degree, waiting until the level of our understanding suits us, and electing to forgo further knowledge-gathering at that point with the pride of a conscious decision rather than the regret and humility of one who has too little time, capacity, or desire to know more (of course, we might feel both pride and humility). That the former is a rationalization of the latter seems obvious; “I know as much as I need to” is a refrain heard more often – or at least spoken more sincerely – than “I don't know enough,” especially when matters of taste are involved.

What qualifies as “a matter of taste,” too, is often up for debate. Today we take for granted that music has to do with taste as much as food. Indeed, what qualifies as good food in our modern world is probably more widely agreed upon than what qualifies as good music. Our broad tastes in music mirror our generally broad tastes, of course. With the possible exception of hard sciences like chemistry and physics, it's hard to claim that our society believes in the inherent superiority of one idea or another in almost any field. “To each his own” is a post-modern cry.

The post-modern world is staunchly individualistic, but is also unquestionably filled with deference to the authority of those 'experts' whose tastes are similar. Our political beliefs are shaped primarily by those authorities we agree with, our taste in movies shaped by those reviewers who's choices most often please us, and our musical preferences mapped by the record labels and critics that most capture our particular habits. All of those, in turn, are shaped by the way we were raised.

Even though we are generally self-confident, we find that we must have some authority, because as strong as our individualism may be, rarely are we willing to go so far as to claim that we, individually, know what is best. We know that we do not know the language of politics, movies, or music nearly well enough to decide for ourselves, and so we defer, defer, defer, until the very act of deference is what most determines who we are. As long as our deference is to authority we 'trust.'

Where does that trust come from? In many ways it's self-fulfilling, though of course mitigated in many realms by experience. If I trust a politician has beliefs similar to my own, but then I perceive that he does not live up to that trust, I am unlikely to vote for him again (unless, of course, he is a member of my party and I am indoctrinated enough to vote against my actual preference for the supposed good of said party). Even that perception, however, is colored strongly by the initial trust I grant. Once a fan of Pericles,* it is much easier to overlook, forget, or otherwise ignore the differences between one's personal preference and the political actions of the deemed-trustworthy authority.

* In the interest of avoiding an unnecessary foray into modern politics, I'll go with Greek instead. Though you may not know much of Pericles, it is fair to say that, at his time, he was probably even more controversial than the people we have around today.

Which is to say that we are complicated, we humans. Even the claim to simplicity – “I am a simple man” – is wrought with complexities, effectively meaning the exact opposite. More often than not, simplicity is complexity unexamined, and not true simplicity at all. Or, put another way, simplicity is complexity in disguise, dressed up (or down) for the sake of understanding, conversation, or propaganda.* All language is inherently reductionist, and working with concepts requires a great deal of categorizing and connecting ideas that probably ought not be grouped together.

* Which may be the same thing.

Whither taste, then? Taste is a word we use, I believe, to excuse ourselves from thinking critically about things we enjoy, but instead wish to take for granted. Oh, we may permit some degree of careful thinking, allowing a comparison of works of art within a preferred genre, weighing whether one song is better than another. Indeed, “good taste” is usually marked by knowing the language of a particular genre, so that the great can be separated from the good, which can in turn be separated from the poor. That's not to say that 'taste' is a bad thing, then. Far from it. But how often do we really examine not just what the language of a particular art form is, but where it comes from as well? How often, in other words, to we turn taste not just on the members of a genre, but on the genre itself?

Is it the art itself that is great, or is it the context in which it is produced that allows for “greatness?” Are those even separable? Our American, Puritan, and democratic prejudices might lead us to claim that hard work is a necessary condition for great art, but while Beethoven was known to slave over every note, Mozart's style was quite the opposite.* Is he therefore not great? On the other hand, we might defer to authority, allowing greatness to be decided by expertise. But the language those experts use is often the language that was developed, not to determine greatness, per se, but to justify the very tastes that lead to preference of one piece or genre of music – or literature, or painting – over another in the first place. Then again, what else than this do we mean by context?

* There is even a myth that every piece he ever published was a first draft.

Taste – and we might just as easily say culture – is all tied up in language, like so much of what we do and think. When dealing, however, with art (however broadly we might define so vague a term), we run into a problem of translation. Language is conversational and, in its origins, honest. Art, in its origins, is dishonest. Not willfully misleading, mind you, but not directly representational and denotative in the way that conversational language is meant to be. The more important the word to our day-to-day operation, the less vague it is, generally speaking, meaning there is always more argument – and more art – made about the abstract than about the concrete. Even the below painting of a simple thing is famous in spite of the simple thing pictured. Instead it is favored for its abstractions. The components – the bits of language – are honest, but the mixing together confuses us, acknowledging all the while the inherent abstraction of painting (and, likewise, the written word, and probably too the spoken word; let alone music).

(Translation: This is not a pipe)

It is not my hope or my expectation to unwind language, and to make clear a thing which is frighteningly unclear to me. Indeed, with every paragraph I feel I am plunging myself and the reader further into confusion rather than bringing us closer to clarity. That, however, is closer to the point. Our tastes are as whimsical, contextual, prejudicial, and largely unexamined as our language itself, because ultimately they are one in the same. Without the language to discuss – or at least to indicate – our tastes, would those tastes exist?

The argument, however, is that there is such a thing called “Greatness” in art, a thing which transcends mere taste. That is not to say that taste does not sometimes prevent us from loving great art. It most certainly does. It is also not to say that taste does not play some role in determining greatness. Rather, I believe that the authority here is not merely the outcome of happenstance and snobbery, however much it looks to be.

How ought we decide greatness in art – and more especially in music – and what that greatness looks like are our next questions, and will be the subject of coming posts. But I believe it is important to understand that, much as I am convinced that some music is inherently better than other music – and not therefore to be belittled because it is no longer prominent among the fickle tastes of the masses – the path to that belief is a sticky one, and one that I am hardly confident in. It seems to me, regardless, a reasonable position, and it ought to be more clear when we dive next time into music itself, rather than skating on these overly broad – and therefore dangerously thin – philosophical sheets of ice.

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