"Classical Music, Why Bother?"


Here's an interesting article on Art masquerading as an article about classical music. I know we have some folks out there with some strong opinions on "best vs. favorite", to which this seems closely related. Anyone care to share their thoughts?

I am a relatively confident person about my knowledge of popular culture. I also know what is really bad and I know what I like. Now whether what I like is really the best is open for interperation. Or is it?

I know that Kenny G music sucks and I really like
Charlie Parker music. Does that make me an expert? I know that any movie that has Freddie Prinze Jr. in it is going to be bad and I really like Animal House does this qualify me to be the barometer of greatness? Who knows?

Obviously for me it does and by expressing some of these theories for others I must think I am somewhat qualified. If not I must be arrogant, stupid or delusional.

If you look hard enough you can find someone who thinks Kenny G is great and that Freddie Prinze Jr. is ready to be the next Cary Grant. They are basically only opinions and like any opinion you would be foolish not to consider the source.

Ultimately decrees of greatness are only important if you value the source. Kenny G may be a great source for what is the best in Jazz music but I sure as hell would not take his word for it. Freddie Prinze might be able to speak eloquently on the good, the bad and the great of Cary Grant's career but once again would I really value his opinion? With nothing more to judge him on then his choices in movies I would have to dismiss his opinion as much as I do his acting talent.

I avidly read what Lbangs writes on this site because by reading his stuff you know the man has the knowledge and the passion. Do I always agree with him, of course not but is he qualified to determine greatness? He sure is and anyone (thankfully there are a lot of people on Listology who fit the bill) who has the knowledge (this is key) and the passion has as much right to espouse what is great.

Of course just because thousands of so called experts think A Rebel Without A Cause is a great movie and James Dean was a great actor that holds no sway over me. I think it is one of the most overrated movies ever made and James Dean really could not act. Ultimately the best and personal favorite need to be the same thing. Otherwise you are either not being honest, you are ill informed or you lack the confidence to believe in your own convictions.

Now does that make me an A1, A2 or A3?

You've raised several interesting questions here and brought out the complexity of these matters. Let me admit that my contribution to this discussion has been broad rather than deep. Nor do I claim to have all the answers. But in the following I'll try to make some of the complexity explicit.

For one thing, we need to distinguish between an individual artwork (a composition, movie, novel, whatever) and an artist's body of work. I believe that artworks, like people, should be judged as individuals - a play is not necessarily great just because it's author was Shakespeare.

Another question is what might A1s mean by "a qualified expert"? Well, it would not merely be someone who is an avid fan. It would at least be someone who has studied the history of the artform, including the history of criticism of the artform. As you suggest, both knowlege and passion are requirements.

Next, we all tend to value our own sense of taste above anyone else's. But, if you have very strong faith in your own taste, what are you to make of an artwork you dislike but thousands of critics value highly? It isn't enough to simply call those critics "so called" experts. You should at least be willing to admit that it's possible you might be mistaken in your evaluation in this case (such an admission doesn't change your opinion).

Another complexity is the question of where an artist is aiming - at the cultivated minority to win their respect, or at the taste-challenged majority to win their money? An artist is not necessarily a critic, but is it not possible for a Freddy Prinze to be a cultivated critic while aiming his art at the lowest common denominator? And, if Mr Prinze turned out to be a cultivated critic, what relevance, if any, would his art have to the validity of his critical opinions?

On the question of your own attitude, I'd call it A1. You can have stong faith in your own taste and yet admit that your opinions are (as Jim has suggested) predictions about what artworks will pass the test of time.

Yeah, I would lean toward the "art for art's sake" argument. Indie rock is littered with stories of artists who recorded opuses on 4-tracks, just for their own enjoyment or sanity or what have you. Jack Logan, Guided By Voices, East River Pipe, and others have been hailed for their singular drive, regardless of their music ever being released. Blues archivists scour the land (albeit in fewer numbers than 40-50 years ago), looking for that one man who is preserving a region's entire musical heritage on his front porch.

To determine the best of a certain type of music, I feel that one has to be intimately familiar with that type, so as to be able to discern (even recognize) the merits of hundreds of minute factors. I think the author of the Salon.com piece alluded to the fact that artistic worth is determined by a host of factors. The title of one of my lists, "the greatest songs of the twentieth century," is a gag. I am no expert. It'll be years, if then, before I'll feel able to hold my own on rock history, not to mention jazz, ska, reggae, hip-hop, or anything else. Over time, I hope that my opinions hold more weight. But right now, I can't give you a true "best" list, unless we narrow the focus of the list considerably (i.e., best Beatles songs instead of best psychedelic groups).

Jim, there are three attitudes:

Attitude 1: Things that have value can have it independently of whether people recognise it, and such value can be an end-in-itself and need not be a means to another end. Such value is called intrinsic value. Artistic value is intrinsic value. "Ars Gratia Artis" - Art for art's sake. (The motto has been used very cynically by Metro-Goldwyn-Meyer.) Evaluation of art is properly done by qualified experts.

Attitude 2: There is no such thing as independently existing value. Things that have value, whether as an end or a means, have it depending upon valuers seeing it as such. A value seen by a valuer as an end-in-itself is called extrinsic value. Artistic value is extrinsic value. Evaluation of art is properly done by qualified experts.

Attitude 3: Same as Attitude 2, except that artistic value is not seen as end-in-itself value but as means-value, as a means to an end. The end might be pleasure or it might be monetary profit. Evaluation of art is open to all ("beauty is in the ear of the listener") and the value of an artwork is properly revealed by its performance in the marketplace.

The author of the article holds to Attitude 1, but he holds that the currently predominant attitude is Attitude 3.

To hold A1 is to believe that true lists of the best are possible. To hold A3 is to believe that true lists of the best are not possible and that all such lists are merely lists of favorites.

Allow me to play devil's advocate for a little while here. Let's take movies as an example. Say two movie critics totally disagree on a film - one says it's great, the other says it's horrible. But under Attitude 1, wouldn't that mean that one of the critics would have to have bad taste, because the movie either has artistic value or doesn't? Wouldn't this entirely undermine the value of an opinion, since greatness is a fact?

P.S. I think there are fewer modern-day classical composers because they realize that they could never match Beethoven, Bach, Mozart, Chopin, Tchaikovsky, Wagner, Pachelbel, Handel, etc.

A critic whose attitude was A1 would be inclined to say that a truly great movie (or whatever) would be one that passes the test of time. It can, A1s would say, be true that a particular work is great without that truth being immediately recognised, and, by the same token, a work praised by critics may eventually be dropped into history's trashcan. Even qualified experts can fail to correctly evaluate a work, but they are more likely than Joe Blow to get it right.

Funny, I just thought of the "test of time" test the other night (not "thought of" as in "invented", for sure). So one interpretation of a critics job is to try to predict what's good now that will still be good later. Or, to accommodate gems that fall through the cracks, find art that would stand the test of time if it hadn't been overlooked.

I like A1, but I'm unqualified. I guess I'll have to stick with my A3 opinions.