Monday Musing: Eclectic Taste and Artistic Truth

Posted on February 20, 2012


The critic is running out of facial expressions.

I’m decidedly omnivorous in my musical tastes; if you read my blog regularly, you know this. If not, a quick glance at the genres of the music I’ve reviewed in the past few months should confirm it pretty rapidly. Taste, however, is a matter of discrimination, of distinguishing one thing from another, and if I deny myself the use of genre as a basis for taste, I’m refusing what is probably the most widespread single criterion for forming musical value judgements. There are those devoted fans of particular styles who can exercise a finely honed awareness of generic convention to position a sound precisely, and to assess its quality, according to the criteria of their particular brand of purism. And while I don’t subscribe to such notions of cultural essentialism, I sometimes wonder whether my own position of fundamental eclecticism is actually any more useful. If you like everything, how can you possibly make a meaningful statement about the quality of a piece of music? What is ‘real’ artistic value, and how relative can it be without vanishing up its own rectum? This edition of Monday Musings will attempt to unpick some of the threads that make up this skein of confusion.

I used to think there was really no basis for an artistic value judgement; you either like something or not, and attempts to valorise one kind of utterance as superior to another can be dismissed as the attempts of particular interest groups to reify their own culturally conditioned preferences. I think (although I’m far from certain) I developed this view while studying art history; I recall attempts to introduce value judgements into an academic discourse that was trying hard to be objective, and to distance itself from the ideologically partisan positions of historically important critics like Clement Greenberg. Greenberg is a good place to start actually, since he first rose to prominence as the author of an essay titled ‘Avant-Garde and Kitsch’, which sketches some territory, and articulates some views that are not so far from where I’ve arrived myself, although I once found them laughable.

Briefly, Greenberg held ‘that true avant-garde art is a product of the Enlightenment’s revolution of critical thinking, and as such resists and recoils from the degradation of culture in … mainstream … society’ (Wikipedia), while ‘Kitsch pretends to demand nothing of its customers except their money – not even their time’ (‘Avant-Garde and Kitsch). These are premises I could work with now, but the trouble is that Greenberg and other Modernist critics elaborated this position into an extremely elitist, essentialist and prescriptive view of what art could and could not be, who could and could not make it, and what could constitute ‘good’ art. The dismissal of mass produced culture as Kitsch went hand in hand with a dismissal of its audience, as an ill-educated mass in need of ‘improvement’, and a blindness to the creativity and subversion that many of its creators infused it with. At the time I encountered these debates, my own thoughts were basically that this elitism was indefensible, that people were entitled to like what they liked, that there was no sound theoretical basis for artistic value judgements beyond personal preference. I still don’t have any truck with elitism, but I have come to share some of Greenberg’s basic premises regarding the valuation of work; artists who engage critically with the process of creation (or to pull my head briefly out of my arse and speak in plain English, those who think about what they’re doing) are more likely to make work that possesses the qualities I value, than those who make work to address a particular market, or to conform to a set of generic conventions. I think Greenberg’s central failing was in associating his valuations with particular genres and methodologies (in his case, abstract work that stressed the ‘essential’ characteristics of its form – flatness, in the case of painting).

This still leaves unanswered the question of precisely what qualities I value in creative work, and whether it’s possible to make an objective(ish) argument for their value (not to mention exactly why generic, mass-market work is less likely to possess them). Clearly, if I can’t make a good argument for them, they’re profoundly uninteresting: I’ve never, as a writer about music, wanted to share my opinion as such, although I’ve wanted to share music that I think is ‘good’. Instead I’ve tried to share a description that will help readers decide whether to investigate further, and to share my understanding of how the music works, and what meanings might be implicated in it. My opinions, although usually visible in my reviews, are not particularly relevant to the task, in my view, and since I like music of every kind, they are unlikely to be a good touchstone for anyone else’s preferences; as I said at the beginning, I think most people’s taste is powerfully inflected by style and genre. It’s fairly straightforward for most people to say that they like particular types of sound, perhaps a powerful bassline, which might then lead them to like some relatively disparate styles with that unifying factor, say dubstep, reggae, funk and hard rock. But if you like ambient electronica, grindcore, free jazz, traditional Irish folk, powernoise, disco, classical and samba in roughly equal measure (as I do), where do you look for the unifying factor? What I value in art (of any kind) is artistic truth. Now there’s an ambiguous, ideological, subjective and questionable idea if ever I heard one!

I’m going to turn from Clement Greenberg to another New York Jewish intellectual to help articulate this idea for me, and I’m going to turn from visual art to literature (‘why can’t he stick to talking about music?’ I hear you cry, but the history of thinking and writing about music is remarkably thin on this kind of thing). The novelist Frederick Busch, in his book on writing, A Dangerous Profession, devotes an entire brief chapter to the subject of the bad in literature: he begins with a discussion of the assumed ‘negritude’ with which fashionable white writers in the 1960s laid claim to the term ‘bad’, then moves onto an extended discussion of things in American public life that are straightforwardly ‘bad’ (betraying a personal blind spot regarding some of critical theory’s useful insights), before eventually getting to the meat, and describing bad writing – and in doing so, of course, he tells us what he thinks good writing is. Speaking of a clichéd description of two characters dancing, he says

‘They are constructed of received language, and they are not speaking to us … The character ceases to be particular when expressed in such language; she here becomes an echo of ten thousand writers and ten thousand characters who enjoyed being held by a man while dancing. Each time a writer fails to particularize such a moment, a character dies … It’s the jokester’s convention, and the master of ceremonies calls out, “Number Eleven,” and everyone knows to laugh.’

So while it might be hard to see an exact musical equivalent to the particularisation of character and incident, it’s really experience we’re talking about in both cases, and the capacity of the artwork to find an echo in its audience’s experience; ‘received language’ is as much a problem for musicians as it is for writers, and the stock response called for by a stock musical gesture will kill that echo as surely (and for the same reason) as a handful of salt will kill a bowl of clam chowder. Busch goes on to characterise such work as ‘unmediated by thought or the gift of artifice, or by the author’s belief in a character sufficient to move him’. That’s the crux of it for me: the author’s belief. The author of an artwork, be it novel, song, painting, tattoo or practical joke, needs to believe in their own work; they need to put their own truth into it, in order for it to resonate with our truth. That’s what I mean when I talk about ‘artistic truth’.

But I still haven’t said why this is good, or why its absence is bad! Many of you will jump straight on board, and share these valuations without an argument, because the ideology of authenticity is probably the most widespread set of values regarding art. However, there are specific reasons why I make these valuations. I’m not too keen on the whole idea of authenticity, and I certainly wouldn’t use such a shaky edifice (cliché alert!) as a foundation for anything else, but that appeal of the specific to the general (i.e. to a recognisable, shared experience) is to me what separates ‘good’ from ‘bad’ art, while the latter is predicated on an appeal of the generic signals it uses to the specific experiences of its audience, treated as interchangeable and standardised. Well, people are not interchangeable or standardised, but the more they are addressed as such by their culture, the more their entertainment hails them as customers rather than as critical subjects, the more they will behave as though that’s the case. For example, when I play World Of Warcraft, an entertainment product that requires an entirely standardised set of responses, I manifest those standardised responses, and although I respond critically to the visual and functional design, I basically allow it to confirm me in some questionable but easily digested assumptions (mashing key combinations is fun…) On the other hand, when I listen to The Lovely Eggs, a band that subverts or repurposes every convention it employs, I laugh (confirmed in my generic response that absurdity is amusing), but I’m also challenged to think, to step away from the readymade site for an emotional response and go to the place where The Lovely Eggs would have me respond. The work asks me to engage with it actively, to perform some personal experiential manoeuvres rather than to simply sit and absorb it. The obvious objection to this is ‘but I don’t want to be challenged, I just want to have a nice soundtrack to my life’, and that’s entirely valid, but there’s always a balance; nothing is ever entirely one thing or another. Wallpaper is not art, however (except when it’s made as, or appropriated by art), and my interest as a music writer is in art, not interior decoration.

So where does this leave us? More confused than we were to start with, in my case… The thing is, that even when we’re talking about wallpaper, the mass market version is infinitely inferior (obviously, neither I nor anyone I know can afford hand-made wallpaper, but the principle remains), because its details connect us to nothing more real than a marketeer’s idea of our tastes and aspirations; it makes our home a generic place, one that could as easily be occupied by anyone else. This, however, is the world we live in, and for convenience we all (or most of us) accept some compromise with the generic. Getting back to music, and taste, the next question is, how can we tell if something is ‘good’, possessed of artistic truth, or ‘bad’, trading in generic gestures?

Sometimes when I first encounter a style I mistake a regurgitation of generic tropes for an innovative artistic practice, and I’m forced to reassess later when I’ve heard more of it. Which seems a pretty stupid way to decide whether or not I like some music; either the sound appeals to me, or it doesn’t, surely? Well, that’s true, but if I’ve heard that exact same sound a hundred times before, masquerading as something distinctive, I’m likely to be bored with it. Novelty matters, although it’s nothing special in itself, and I love a lot of music that lacks it (such as old blues records); however, I think you can continue to hear new things in good, non-generic music, however well you know it, so there’s one measure of quality, right there. Old blues records are usually filled with random asides, unintended noises and spontaneous licks, where the mass produced sounds of the contemporary music industries tend to leave very little to chance. There’s another measure: the sense of chance, of possibility, of artistic risk, the sense that something is at stake, and that the outcome of the process is not pre-determined. But ultimately, I don’t believe it’s possible to define an objective measure of artistic quality, in my or any other terms; the individual listener will always have to decide for themselves whether they can hear the specific in some music, an address specifically to them, from some identifiably specific creator. A great deal of mass market work has always (ever since culture was first industrialised in the nineteenth century) slipped some artistic truth under the radar; much of it is made by artists who would far sooner be doing their own thing, but they need to make a living. A smaller subset of the mass market has exploited its specific qualities as commercial work to achieve some highly specific, and sometimes extremely subversive effects: the early graphic novels of Alan Moore for example, or the 1970s albums of David Bowie, to pick two examples more or less at random. The mass market has also recognised the niche market for subversive, or notionally underground work, and so good stuff does get picked up and distributed. Clement Greenberg and his ilk copped out with their essentialist model of culture, refusing to see the generic in the work of self-consciously avant-garde artists, or the particular in anything distributed through the mass market. This is really my point: judge art on its merits, and look for its merits in the complexity of your own response, not in the dazzling artifice of its shiny surface.