I initially wrote the following, in very slightly different form, as a clarifying comment on my recent post A Democracy of Creation and Taste (But Not Quality). It's long enough, and I put enough work into it, that I didn't want to simply leave it relegated to the comments section of a post where it's less likely to be seen.
My concern in that earlier post was not to promote any sort of unitary or definitive hierarchy of the arts nor the idea that there is any single way to discern, appreciate, or evaluate art.
For instance, the following selection from the post in which it’s clear that there are a variety of potential criteria, the choice of which leads to different evaluations or appreciations:
“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…”
If you’re uncomfortable with the use of terms like “higher” in this context (and to be honest, on further reflection, I’m a little uncomfortable with the way I phrased that myself), think of it more that certain works are actually, empirically more a certain way than others, regardless of personal taste.
I’m certainly not in favor of any sort of (re-)instatement of some simple high art/low art division that’s arbitrary at best and reflects/reaffirms a stratified class system at worst. I think one of the best and most important consequences of postmodern theory over the past several decades has been to open up serious consideration and reflection on a much fuller array of artistic production. This is reflected in my own thinking, e.g. the way in which in the earlier post and other recent posts related to the topic the discussion has readily considered together as if not unusual Beethoven, the Ramones, Louis Armstrong, Mozart, free jazz, John Cage, Slayer, etc., something that would have been intellectually improbable if not almost impossible a few decades ago. One thing I resist in some varieties of postmodern thinking is a flattening of criticism, discernment, evaluation, and ultimately the appreciation of art or ideas for their own qualities.
Taste may be subjective. (I do question the extent to which even taste can be properly regarded as subjective. I know that my own taste in classical music, for instance, is partly the result of my experience with it. Prior to dating the person who became my partner, a man with a great passion for certain varieties of opera and classical music, as well as for other particular musics, I had not had a great deal of exposure to classical music, and didn’t really have a taste for it. It’s over the past eight years that I’ve cultivated a strong taste for that type of music, though at the same time, simple exposure to and experience of a variety of classical music doesn’t really explain why I have strong preferences for some classical music and not for others. To the extent that most of us are largely unaware of the sources of our preferences, I think it can be said at least that taste largely operates as if largely or wholly subjective.) But while taste may be subjective, the qualities inherent in a work are not subject to our particular tastes.
One thing I’m against is the “anything goes” approach to art appreciation, the sentiment of Family Guy’s Quaqmire that is can mean anything I want because it’s poetry (see the earlier post for the context here), or the sentiment that I’ve heard all too often at cocktail parties (really more at receptions or other semi-formal gatherings, since I rarely go to cocktail parties) or in seminars that because beauty is in the eye of the beholder, whatever thoughts I might have while viewing a painting are in the painting or are the painting’s meaning. Most of us probably have had the experience of having a long chain of thought initially prompted by some work of art, an often pleasurable and intellectually stimulating, and thus important, experience. Once such thought strays beyond any significant correspondence to the work (a grey matter, of course, but an important distinction nonetheless) we’re no longer thinking about the work. I can think what I want when I read a poem (and that’s a good and often enjoyable thing), but I engage in fabulation, inventing a fiction, if I think and claim that anything I think is the meaning of the poem.
Everyone can like what they want. One can prefer, for example, the drumming of Max Roach or Elvin Jones or the drumming of 6025 or Ted (drummers at different times for the Dead Kennedys) or Paul Cook (of the Sex Pistols), or like them or dislike them equally. At the same time, the various performances (recorded and not) of these distinct drummers had particular qualities. The drumming of Elvin Jones was often polyrhythmic, and that’s not a matter of taste, but a quality of his music, and if one chooses to ask whose drumming was typically more complex (which is simply one among many possible empirical criteria for discernment or evaluation) between Jones and Cook or any other set of drummers, that’s a matter of looking to actual empirical qualities, not of taste.