Friday, February 22, 2008

A Democracy of Creation and Taste (But not Quality)

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.


David Thole said...
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David Thole said...

Why is it that social science, in general, has the unfortunate habit of try to quantify that which can not (or should not) be quantified. One certainly could come up with criteria to judge a creative work but why would you want to? What are the "real sensible qualities of the object at hand"? (emphasis mine)

The problems of criteria and process aside, it seems to me that a method of empirical ranking would cheapen the experience and really misses the point entirely. There have been entire genres of creative expression such as dadaism, impressionism (including impressionistic music, such as the work of Debussy) and punk rock, just to name just a very few, that have been (in part) reactions against the notion that increasing "perfection" or "quality" was desirable.

I enjoy Max Roach, whose mastery of percussion is in my estimation unparalleled, yet I equally enjoy, what my father has referred to as, the "noise" of the Dead Kennedys. Again, why try to make an objective process out of what is really subjective discernment?

*This is a repost of an earlier comment. Edited for clarity.

Robert Philen said...

By "real sensible qualities of the object at hand," I simply mean that any work of art constitutes an object in the world that has empirical qualities that are real and sensible (i.e. capable of being sensed, not "sensible" in the sense of common sense).

I'm not suggesting a simple ranking of art (which is what I meant in discussing there being no single way to evaluate art), but where I disagree with you is in seeing the discernment of art as subjective. Taste may be largely subjective, with each of us having our own preferences, but a discernment or appreciation of a work of art that doesn't pay careful attention to the actual qualities of the work is not an appreciation of the work itself, but a fabulation.

Robert Philen said...

Further Clarification of my most recent comment:

My concern in this 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 this 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, 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.

David Thole said...

Thank you for the clarification. My initial response was prompted by what appeared to be a system of stratified ranking. When speaking of a thing that is "higher quality" it is easily interpreted that the features of that thing are "excellent" or with "merit" and possibly then implying that things of with less of that quality are without merit.

The second issue that I have is that it seems to me that you are equating evaluation with appreciation and interpretation. I need not know that Dr. Suess wrote in anapestic tetrameter to appreciate his work (and knowing that certainly does not change my daughter's appreciation of Green Eggs and Ham). My appreciation of a work is better informed by a knowledge of the context in which it was created than an awareness of the features of the work. For example knowing that Van Gogh was battling mental illness and facing the rejection of his brother who was paying for his stay at the mental hospital depicted in Bedroom in Arles informs me more about the work than the knowledge that he utilized short quick brush strokes or that the painting was lacking in complimentary colors.

I agree with your statement that taste is in part subjective but also is impacted by experience. For a long time I wondered why I had such a fondness for country music until I realized that I must have heard a lot of it growing up in Central Florida. Like you, I also have preferences most likely shaped by my experience (I can not stand pop country and tend to listen to those involved in the Outlaw Country movement and those influenced by them).

I understand your aversion to the "anything goes" method of art interpretation. However, I do not see the advantage in evaluating the features (or qualities if you prefer) in order to come to an appreciation or interpretation. Art is meaningful only thought the experience of the individual (both the creator and the interpreter). By breaking a work down to its features, one loses the context of the work and therefore its meaning. As such, I still do not see the advantage of such a method of evaluation other than to rank creative works using whichever variable has been deemed appropriate. If this is the case, then you still run the risk of creating the high/low distinction in art which you said you seek to avoid.

Hiram said...
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Hiram said...

So why don't you comment on quality? Is this because quality (and taste, for that matter) is dependent on personal preference? I suppose this is why most artists are individuals - it's hard to get a group of people to agree on quality. That's what critics are for, I suppose... they're supposed to be more discerning than other individuals. Or they just know what to say so it sounds like they are. Good thoughts! I just posted a related blog - not sure what thoughts you might have: