On Music: Standards

All art criticism implies an objective standard, even if that standard can only be discovered by intuition and good sense. If music truly is all about “what I like,” then virtually every album review containing any sort of opinion is a waste of time; it’s just based on the personal tastes of the reviewer. Since the critic’s opinion is no more important than yours, and has no bearing on the latter, you might as well just listen to the music yourself to determine if it’s something you like.

How many read music reviews, and even employ the language of objectivity (e.g., “their newest album isn’t as good as their last,”) and yet also claim that music can only be judged according to subjective taste, that there is no such thing as inherently good or bad art? I don’t think we can have it both ways, and I come down in the camp of real standards in music.

Certain analogies illuminate our case. I would doubt too many people would argue every piece of writing is of equal merit. Some writings adhere to grammar rules, while others show themselves deficient when laid next to the yardstick of convention. Some express ideas more cogently and accurately than others, which is more or less easy to measure; some have certain aesthetic qualities that others lack, which is harder to measure but no less detectable. Hence, in school papers are graded on objective rubrics– the element of subjectivity in grading stems not from the standards themselves, but from the standards imperfectly applied by imperfect human teachers. Some parts of the rubric appear black and white (e.g., the grammar rules) and make application easy, but I would argue that standards that are a little harder to divine (e.g., expression, aesthetic) and thus apply are no less existent. They might be harder to know or articulate, per our limitations of human perspective. But that does not mean they are not there, and that we may not develop intuition and taste to access them. For instance, perhaps with not too many explicit reasons why, we can all see that the pulp of the Left Behind series pails in comparison to the literature of Dickens.

Since music is about effective and artful expression, just like writing is, I think all the same arguments apply to our subject. And what’s more, I have the strong conviction that musical development is learning to enjoy something you can tell is good. To borrow an example from another art form– I know the movie Schlinder’s List is excellent, but I do not like watching it. If I really immersed myself in what makes good film, I’d learn to appreciate it to the point of actually enjoying it, even though it is terribly disturbing. I think music works the same way; it’s not necessarily what we like (although that can be an element), but what is artfully executed. To attempt a shoddy paraphrase C.S. Lewis in An Experiment in Criticism (who argues for an objective standard and a proper way to approach art, by the way), it’s not about how “catchy” the symphony is, but how well it is constructed and how it expresses what it is trying to express.

If there is objectivity in music, even if it is often difficult to measure, then music is interesting– something worth getting passionate about and arguing about with others. Even though I strongly disagree, I appreciate it when someone tells me Pinkerton sucks because I know we at least agree that some music sucks and some music doesn’t, and if then we agree on a particular work, it is all the more satisfying. But all disagreements about specific pieces of music are really arguments about what the softer standards (e.g. aesthetics) consist of. That is a philosophical argument, which is the highest kind of dispute. But if every piece of music is of equal merit, if everything is what it is, there is no risk and romance in art, and there is no common plain on which to wage any kind of fruitful dispute.

I suppose you could argue that every piece of music has at least a modicum of worth– they are all products of the creative impulse, which is one of the most glorious things in the universe. I’d have to agree. But I think there is a relative scale (think of it as sort of a Neo-Platonism, where pure evil is the complete lack of good, as increasing cold is the increasing absence of heat). And I think God is the ultimate arbiter of what makes good art– after all, of His creation, He declared “it is good,” which is a value judgment.   But even if I am completely wrong, if Bach is no better than Nickelback in any transcendent sense, if objectivity of music is a mere working fiction, it is at least a tremendously enriching and useful fiction: keeping thousands employed as music critics and at least providing the fleeting suspense of arguing about music as if it mattered.

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3 Comments

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3 responses to “On Music: Standards

  1. Holly

    The same holds true for wine. An individual may not like a particular varietal or wine style, but there’s such a thing as a good chardonnay, a good Chianti, etc. This objective judgment is based on the balance of the wine, and when the wine is unbalanced, it tastes odd.

    Some might say that this is a democratization of taste, where what tastes good according to the majority is in fact declared to be good, but I would argue that it’s more of an illustration of Aristotle’s Golden Mean. I think that most people are predisposed to preferring balance.

    That said, we can’t forget that much of one’s taste formation is cultural; if it weren’t so, then we should see a lot more urbanites enjoying country music and vice versa. But we can still say that there is good urban music and bad urban music, and good country music and bad country music.

    I think a lot of what goes into these types of judgments is the authenticity of the music — is the artist being true to him or herself or merely trying to make music that will presumably sell records. But then we run into another problem: how do we determine the intent of the artist? Sometimes the artist tells us what he or she was thinking when inspired to produce a certain work of art; but many times we simply do not know. And then what about the case of the artist who is being true to himself but he has simply made bad music?

    Therefore, I think that there are three standards which taken together, though not always, can aid us in determining the value of any given work of art:

    1) Is it authentic?
    2) Is it balanced?
    3) Is it sophisticated, expressing a complex idea and not merely regurgitating a cliche? Art can deal with the cliche, but lasting art complicates the cliche and explores it from a new angle.

    I haven’t delineated #3, but I think that it’s the reason why you think that Bach is good and Nickleback is bad. If one were to write a cantata in the style of Bach today, imitating the great composer to the extent to which it would be nearly impossible to say it was not authentically Bach, would it be good music or not? I would say no, because even though the resulting cantata would be balanced, it would not be authentic and, as imitation, it would perpetuate a cliche of sorts. One could probably make some money off it, in the short term, but the piece would not ultimately last. It would cease to be played because in the end, it is not authentically Bach, and Bach spoke to his time and our time in a way that modern musicians need to speak to their own time on their own terms. Bach would speak differently now if he were composing today, but he still speaks powerfully to us today because we forever know him as an 18th century composer.

  2. GCC

    The elimination of standards in art is an attempt by the under-educated to satiate their desire to be engaged despite their ignorance. And they may very well even been ignorant of that fact.

    Also, upon examination one typically finds that a given tune is “catchy” precisely because of the artful way in which it conforms to the standard.

    Finally, Bach would definitely speak differently were he alive today. There were a number of influences in his life that helped direct his artistic output that simply are not present today. Still though, it’s exceedingly difficult to imagine him speaking as a pop musician. It would be better to compare pop songwriters to each other as they have their own unique set of standards. (Please note the exclusion of “artists” here; they provide profoundly little value.) An entirely different conversation is the comparison of art music and pop music, whether or not one is objectively superior to the other, etc. This is of particular interest today because it goes rather directly to what we expect music and other arts to be.

  3. FR

    because of the absence of the transcendental signifier, standards are problamatic. Under the auspices of Aristotelian or Thomistic metaphysics, standards/structures for creating, understanding, criticizing the art object are ordered by and proceed from the Godhead/The One. These totalizing and objective ordering structures are no longer possible because all meaning is now cultural. Structures now, cannot be separated from the art object; that is, the art object generates its own rules, it’s own singular structure. This is what makes the art object art.

    The 18th century would have appreciated or ‘read’ Bach in ways foreign to the 21st. There is always an irreducible gap between the structure of the dictionary and the speech event. Grammar is not static, it is always changing always moving. So to the art object is always one step ahead of the tradition or canon of established work. The art object becomes its own transcendental signifier, residing with in the context of the tradition but always transcending it. We know what good art is because we have learned how to ‘read’ it. learned not from a rulebook of standards but from the individual and autonomous works themselves. Any definition of what good art is, aside from pointing to the objects themselves, necessarily must fail.

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