De gustibus and all that

I originally posted this as a response to a very powerful rant by yuki_onna here but it struck me I should probably repost it here. (Essentially, with particular reference to Phantom Menace, the Matrix sequels, Avatar and the Who finale, Cat was bemoaning that so many otherwise intelligent people are content to take pleasure from material she regards as shit. That’s a very brief summary of a nuanced post – I don’t think it is a misrepresentation, but I urge you to read it, and the discussion that follows it).

Later Below, calimac argues that I have indeed seriously misrepresented Cat and that part of what she is arguing is that, if people like the worthless, how can she trust their judgement when they like the good. I don’t think that my summary above so much misrepresents that position as leaves it implicit, but fair enough…Like I say, read her post.

Even later Cat has clarified her position and agreed to me quoting her:
I actually did not mean to make calimac’s point
I meant to say: I don’t know if I can really tell, in my own work, good from bad
the people who made those bad things thought they were good
Which is not to diss calimac‘s position, because he and I have been having a version of this argument for some time in his own right.

It’s not a knock-down argument when we are mostly talking about popular culture, but it is worth remembernig that Tolstoy wrote a long essay explaining why he thought Shakespeare in general, and king Lear in particular, was total rubbish. Not every intelligent, aware reader likes everything.

I am very fond of two art forms that give many of my friends hives – opera and superhero comics. There are plenty of my friends who like neither, and plenty who like one and cannot abide the other. Mostly I don’t try to get them to make the breakthrough. And let’s be clear, I like almost all opera, even minor verismo things that I know are not all that good – they touch something in me amd I would rather have, say, Giordano’s Siberia in my life than not have it in my life. I feel the same about, oh, I dunno, Kurt Busiek on an off-day, though the best of his superhero work amazes me.

At the same time, there is work I suspect to be great that I just do not get on with. The organ music of Messaein, say, or anything by Stockhausen. Many years ago, I shared a flat with musicologist Paul Griffiths and we argued endlessly about the course of C20 music – we both liked Bartok and Stravinsky and the Second Viennese School. But he could not abide the Soviet composers and I could not be doing with the Darmstadt school; over the years, and I have not been in touch with him for decades, I know from his writing that he changed his mind over the Shostakovich string quartets that I tried to hard to get him to like and I know he won me over to Piette Boulez as a composer, but again, not at the time.

It is a fallacy, I think, that any of us is going to like everything that is good, or everything with good aspects that other people like. It is a fallacy that there is any moral component to this – there are very few works of art that it is immoral to like and very few that are so glorious that to be blind to them is a moral failing.

I’ve mentioned Tolstoy; Beethoven got very upset that Mozart had written Cosi Fan Tutte because he thought it was an amoral heartless piece that was cynical about women and cynical about love. In a sense he is right, but posterity has generally considered him wrong both in his reading of the work and its assessment of its merits.

We have just to live with the fact that it is an imperfect world and that we are all of us imperfect and that sometimes posterity gets to sort out which of us was right and which of us was wrong.

And quite a lot of art goes in and out of eclipse, and quite a lot is forgotten. Yet the pleasure it gives in its day in the sun is still genuine aesthetic pleasure and the world is better off for it.

Later Still I would also like to stress that I disagree not so much with Cat as with the voice in my own head that feels as she does. My respect for her as artist is almost beyond the telling of it, and her high standards may be one of the reasons why her work is so fine. It might be so.

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About rozkaveney

Middleaged, trans, novelist, poet, activist
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32 Responses to De gustibus and all that

  1. gonzo21 says:

    It would be a strange world if we all liked the same things.

  2. cmcmck says:

    I know what you mean- I have an ongoing love affair with Futurism as an artistic movement even though it leaves many of my friends cold while absolutely loathing Wagner and Britten as opera composers (although I love opera in general).

    It would be an impoverished world if we all thought and appreciated the same things :o)

  3. jessie_c says:

    SF Author Frederick Pohl once said “There is nothing so bad that someone, somewhere won’t like it. Converesly there is nothing so good that someone, somewhere won’t hate it.” This has become known as Pohl’s Law.

  4. ocvictor says:

    I’ve long been of the opinion that the purpose of so-called “low art” is to create dynamic currents in a culture, to prod new idea and directions within a form, and that the purpose of so-called “high art” is to codify and refine what’s produced “beneath” it. Shakespeare is a great example, as it was largely considered populist art at the time, and by being codified into “high art,” institutionalized some fundamental changes to the nature of both theater and poetry.

    Sometimes these things get written off as merely being about taste, when in truth, there’s a conversation as old as the culture going on — one I find absolutely fascinating.

    • cmcmck says:

      I suspect you’re on to something here and it works in both directions. For instance, it has intrigued me over years of appreciation of and involvement in folk music just how many ‘high art’ songs have ended up in the oral tradition (or have been appropriated and parodied by lewd popular ballad writers such as Thomas d’Urfey; proof, if any were needed, that eighteenth century folks were a deal less prudish and puritan that some people de nos jours :o)

    • surliminal says:

      I’ve long been of the opinion that the purpose of so-called “low art” is to create dynamic currents in a culture, to prod new idea and directions within a form, and that the purpose of so-called “high art” is to codify and refine what’s produced “beneath” it.

      I love this -it summarises pretty much what I was vaguely trying to get at below.

  5. andrewducker says:

    Different people just want different things out of their art. A friend of mine loves The Phantom Menace. Sure, he’ll agree that Anakin is annoying, that Jar-Jar is moreso. But he doesn’t care. Because the movie has a fight in it with a _two-ended lightsaber_. And the sheer coolness of that is enough to counterbalance any amount of shitness in the movie.

    Archimedes could have an infinitely long lever, with an infinite amount of godawful plot on the end of it, and as far as my friend is concerned, should Darth Maul be on the other end, armed with a double-ended lightsaber, then Darth Maul wins.

    And I’m fine with that, because he’s happy. Generally speaking, I’d rather watch something else myself though :->

  6. surliminal says:

    Thanks for this. I have rarely worried about my general failure to get much out of high compared to popular art (hate opera, not well schooled in classical music) because of all the things I am insecure about my intellect is not one of them. But having said that and made everyone hate me, i wonder if clever people like to get something out of low culture just because it is less obvious – murky and liminal textual trawling. I feel better when I spot Hamlet in Dr Who than when I spot Dr who in Hamlet 🙂

    Another simple explanation is that we like our art to hit our emotions as well as our intellect and we are not educated as a culture now to find the emotion that smotes us dumb as much in say Tolstoy as (again) Dr Who, I think there is incontrivertibly rubbish popular culture and high art popular culture. The presumed advantage of “historical” high culture is that the dross will have been sieved out. No doubt in the future historians too will be more likely to study Buffy than Neighbours.

  7. calimac says:

    Well, that is a misleading summary if not a misrepresentation, because her real point, if only half-expressed is that hating crap is concomitant on liking good stuff. If you can’t tell that the bad stuff is bad, how can you really be appreciating the good?

    Your point is different; it’s on the difference between the good and the liked.

    But if you’re trying to say that the movies she calls crap are actually good, that the problem is just that she doesn’t like them, I’d say you’d be very much mistaken. She’s right, at least about them.

    For every field of artistic endeavor and every person, there’s a matrix: the x-axis divides the good from the bad, and the y-axis divides what you like from what you hate. The y-axis varies for every person; the x-axis, I submit, while a fuzzy line is also a constant. Easy enough to tell where your own y-axis goes, but can you discern the x-axis?

    In classical music, I’m confident that I can. I have no trouble discerning the greatness in some music that I just don’t like at all, and thus when I say of some other disliked piece that it’s crap, I will stand by it. And there’s also stuff I enjoy that may be good of its kind, but isn’t significantly good. There’s also different standards of achievement: Shostakovich’s greatness is of a different kind that Boulez’s (assuming “Boulez’s greatness” isn’t an oxymoron, but I’ll hold my tongue).

    Other areas, though, I don’t. I have no taste in wine, for instance, and I know it, so I only display myself as a curiosity case in that realm, and I don’t pontificate on the subject.

    I don’t mind if people like bad movies. That’s the privilege of their y-axis. What frosts me – and , evidently – is when they claim the bad movies are good. That’s a misreading of the x-axis.

    • surliminal says:

      Oh the difference between the good and the liked? Sounded good for a min but aren’t we back at a rather essentialist folly here? i do think I can discern “good” wine but I would not say someone who else who hated my choices was merely expressing dislike not valid qualitative opinion. Cultural criticism also involves power and status. it is not chacun a son gout but that the gout is culturally determined, and varies by time.

      • surliminal says:

        And yes i know this part;y contradicts my own previous response above. I am large, i contain multitudes and i am still getting the opiates out my brain 🙂

    • rozkaveney says:

      I stand – well, not so much corrected as aware of different emphases in our reading of what Cat wrote.

      The trouble with what you are saying is that it ends up implying that certain artistic opinions terminally disqualify their holder from being taken seriously again. In the end, what you say about the placing of the x axis implies that those who get it wrong will only ever get it right accidentally, like the stopped clock that is right twice a day.

      And this is an intellectual path down which I hesitate to go, because it leads to Plato’s Guardians. I wrote about this problem here. (My review is the second one.)

      Enough musicians have been wrong about other musicians that I distrust any such idea as your ‘y’ axis. Britten thought Brahms worthless; Boulez dislikes vast swathes of music (though his canon changes). Also, if you are so sure that Boulez’ work is never touched by greatness, how can you trust him as a conductor – if you do?

      Personally, I am not sure about much of him, but the two big song cycles have moved me to tears, and not tears of pain and distaste.

      There is also the question of whether an interesting part can redeem an otherwise worthless whole – I suspect that’s another subject on which we simply disagree. Great performance in otherwise not very good film – I’d accept that; terrific version of mediocre aria – that too. In which case, what about script or score otherwise worthless that does allow the right performer to shine?

      One of the things art contributes to making us, to keeping us, human is that it starts these conversations.

      • calimac says:

        Yes, actually, I am saying that. I would advise no-one to trust my taste on wine, for instance, save the poor slob who shares my disability in that area.

        Sure, if taken too far, this attitude leads to moral guardians, but any attitude taken too far leads to undesirable results, including the adamant refusal to take any attitude too far. (“Moderation in all things, including moderation.”)

        Yes, I do have problems with Boulez as a conductor, now that you ask.

        I’m glad you mentioned musicians being wrong about each other; I meant to bring that up before. There are exceptions, of course, but great creative artists do not often make great critics. Their minds are too full of their own creativity to often be receptive to other creativities that aren’t quite in sync with their own.

        Roger Scruton’s problem, as you describe him (I haven’t read his book myself), may include a confusion of the x-axis with the y-axis (it’s hard to tell from the review), but more importantly what you call the “secular religion” of enforcing his views, and a critical inability to understand the works he doesn’t like.

        “Secular religion” is purely a matter of tone. What’s horrifying about totalitarian artistic policies is not the totalitarians’ taste in art, but that they’re determined to enforce them by threats, sanctions, and worse. I think that’s desirable to avoid at any level. I dislike being the only reviewer to cover a concert, because it turns me into an unquestionable authority … and deprives me of the security of going out on a limb if there isn’t opportunity for others to say differently.

      • calimac says:

        On further thought, why should objections with Boulez as a composer require objections with him as a conductor? Almost everybody (aside from a few outliers) considers Furtwängler a mediocre composer at best, but that doesn’t stop them from considering him a great conductor.

  8. tavella says:

    At this point, I find people ranting about The Phantom Menace to be a good sign that they have a thoroughly distorted view of Star Wars. I love Star Wars; when I was a child, it was the first utterly immersive movie I saw. But I’m also very aware that in a lot of ways it isn’t a very good movie; the dialogue is often cheesy, the acting more naive and enthusiastic than skilled (except for Sir Alec, of course, and he’s mostly having fun in his paycheck movie.) Yes, ESB is a better movie technically, but it still isn’t that great, nor is RoJ. Still very fond of them.

    TPM is, just like them, a mix of good and bad things. It has one truly brilliant thing — I simply adore the way that it revealed that the Good Guys *did it all to themselves* and set up their own destruction — some great fun acting (Qui Gon, Palpatine, Obi Wan), some not so great acting, etc. And Jar Jar isn’t any more of a whiny cliche than Threepio, dear GOD the number of whining obsessives on that.

    Now, that doesn’t mean you are going to like it; I liked it as a fun romp with some nice political touches, but I like me some science fantasy CGI epics and others have different tastes or value the flawed parts differently. But it’s about the same level of quality as the original trilogy, not some unholy violation of the Greatest Work of Art Ever Made.

    • annafdd says:

      Yes. I loved TPM and I still do. I loathe The Return of the Jedi, but not enough to go to war about it.

    • calimac says:

      The only reason I won’t rant about TPM is that I’ve put it totally behind me. But that doesn’t mean I worship the earlier films either. My actual response to a premiere showing of the original film was, “*shrug* Not bad.” The difference between the first film and ESB on the one hand, and RoJ and TPM on the other (I refused to see any after that) is that the first two were palatable crap. The other two were just crap, and TPM was mindbogglingly boring to boot.

      • tavella says:

        Boring… to you. A fun romp for me, with only one really saggy part pacing wise and some great characters (Qui Gon and Palpatine were awesome.) As I said, people value the strong and weak parts of TPM differently, and sometimes really have some *bizarre* bete noirs; i.e., the endless freaking out over midichlorians.

      • calimac says:

        My opinion has been received incredulously by TPM-lovers since the film was new. I feel bolstered, though, by numbers and the strength of criticism, of which – prior to that recent video – this was the most astute.

  9. annafdd says:

    You know, not only I liked The Phantom Menace, I liked Independence Day. I watched every single episode of Law And Order.

    I would go all sanctimonious and say that we should all be more tolerant and live and let live. Then I thought of Dan Brown.

    Still, after a honest effort at cultivating metta, I can say: I’m not in any position to be judgemental about other people’s tastes. And I abandoned lo many years ago the idea that there was an absolute good. In fact, I was taught there wasn’t. And the fact that Shakespeare was considered the Dan Brown of his times for much of the centuries preceding the 19th was part of it. Also the fact that people abandoned a play by Terentium to go see a bear fight.

  10. I try not to stress too hard about people liking what I don’t or not liking what I do, and I gave up seriously caring much about whether stuff is objectively good or bad long ago.

    This may also be why I object to people who insist on defining what gets to be art and what doesn’t.

    • On the “is it good or bad” question, I realized gradually that what I cared about was usually the effect of the work on me. Did it move me, delight me, chill me, whatever? I’m interested in how it did that. But I no longer see well how to get from there to some sort of extrinsic goodness, nor really wish to bother much about it.

      • surliminal says:

        I think tat’s very much how i ell too and is a key point – F vs T in meyers Brigg terminology.. eg elswehere a pal has posted alist of temn “bad” books his friends made him read – one is Little Big which sems to me to rep exactly this dilemma. Couldn’t rad it myslef.

      • rozkaveney says:

        Whereas I think Little Big is one of the most wonderful books I have ever read, and reread.

      • surliminal says:

        yeh i know . It was the patron saint book of cambridge 🙂 i was so relieved to find someone who agreed with me!

  11. x_mass says:

    crumbs

    just shows how shallow i am

    you mention title the piece de gustibus

    and I think your talking about bread

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