I’m writing this post partly in response to a comment by the.effing.librarian to my earlier post, “On Why Punk Rock Is So Boring.” I decided to post this as a new post rather than a comment, in part because I had more to say than I’d usually want to stick in the comments section, and in part because while my thoughts here are prompted by the.effing.librarian’s comment, only part of what I have to say here directly responds to that comment.
The.effing.librarian writes that one of the important things that punk rock did was to make the point that anyone, regardless of talent or skill, could create, could be involved in the production of art or other creative expression.
I take this point and wholeheartedly agree with it (perhaps my only caveat with regard to punk rock would be to note that though most punk rock is pretty simple music and often sloppily played, most of the notable bands have not been as talentless as they’ve often presented themselves to be – the member of The Ramones or The Sex Pistols consistently played things recognizable as songs, hitting the right notes and chords most of the time).
As the.effing.librarian suggests, I appreciate this in part as a blogger myself. One of the wonderful things about the current online environment is that almost anyone with access to the basic technology (which unfortunately is not as many people around the world as would be ideal) can express what they have to say about things through a blog, on a MySpace page, in online discussion forums, etc.
In much of the world today, there is something like a democracy of creative expression, where most everyone can say what they want about whatever, even if some people are better able to have their voices heard and are more influential. In places where this doesn’t exist, I certainly wish it did and think it should.
More people should be more involved in more creative thought and expression in more forms more of the time.
This raises the related issue of taste and quality.
When it comes to taste or preference, there is a similarly democratic situation, reflected in clichés like “To each his own,” or “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.” Anyone is entitled to their own preferences, likes and dislikes. I find punk rock boring (even if as I earlier noted, I do find small doses of some punk rock entertaining), while other people love the stuff.
It doesn’t follow that the discernment of quality in creative expression is or should be equally a simple matter of democratic opinion. (Note: I’m not at all suggesting that the.effing.librarian is suggesting this. This, especially, is where my thoughts here were prompted by the comment but are independent of it. I have more in mind sentiments such as that expressed by the character Quagmire on a recent Family Guy episode in discussing a Robert Frost poem and in response to a book club member’s comment on his commentary that because it was poetry, he could think whatever he wanted.)
There’s no single way to evaluate the quality of art, but art and other instances of creative expression do have objective qualities – meaning that they are objects in the world with empirical qualities.
From this follows at least two things:
First, and more obviously, any interpretation that doesn’t systematically pertain to the objective qualities of the object in question (such as Quagmire’s) is no interpretation of the work. It may be a thought prompted by the object (much as most of this post was prompted by the.effing.librarian’s comment, but doesn’t pertain directly to it), and may be a legitimate and interesting thought in its own right, but isn’t an interpretation of the work (just as this post, except in a few places, isn’t a commentary on the.effing.librarian’s comment).
Second, the fact that there’s no single way to evaluate the relative quality of works of art, doesn’t mean that all creative expression is the equal of every other. (You don’t need talent or skill or knowledge to express yourself, but you generally need one or more of these to produce anything of high quality or sustainable interest.) We need criteria for the evaluation of quality, and such criteria are various, but once we have criteria in hand, we can and do make important distinctions between quality.
If we compare Beethoven’s Symphony # 9 or Mozart’s Requiem with the Ramones’ “I wanna be sedated” or the Sex Pistols’ “God Save the Queen,” by most criteria, whether originality, synthesis of complex themes, etc., the Beethoven and Mozart are of higher quality, even if you prefer the punk songs. There may be criteria on which the punk songs rate higher, e.g. reduction of music to its minimal components (though here, John Cage’s aleatory music, free jazz, some serial music, or the music of the band “Suicide” mentioned by David Thole in a comment to the earlier post on punk rock would rate higher still).
The important thing is that criteria pertain to the real sensible qualities of the objects at hand, and that an important democratization of expression and preference not override or destroy a discernment of the qualities of creative expressions in themselves.