Wednesday 18 November 2015

Some criteria for discernment...

In yesterday's post I spent most of my time making the easier part of my case for being able to claim that some pieces of music are intrinsically, objectively, better than others. That was the argument from craftsmanship.

That alone, I think, suffices to justify my claim.

However the second part of the case I treated rather lightly, though in fact I think it the more important aspect. I wrote: 'I would also argue that some forms of art are (when well executed) intrinsically better than others (even when well executed).

I then exemplified that by citing The Beatles  and P.G. Wodehouse (chosen because in terms of personal taste, they are favourites of mine) in contrast with Mozart, and Shakespeare.

However, I did not argue that case. So here I propose to do just that.

This is, of course (and particularly in our current intellectual climate - a fact I find very significant) a much harder case to make. Arguments of the 'What is Art?', and particularly of the 'What is Great Art?' variety are notoriously difficult.

The modern temperament on this topic is admirably captured at the start of the film Dead Poets Society, when the hero (John Keating, played by Robin Williams) tears up, in contempt, the opening pages of a worthy book on literature that attempts to do this by saying that one can determine great art by multiplying the greatness of the theme by the quality of its execution.

Keating's view, as far as one can gather, is the more fashionable one that great literature is literature that moves one, and that is finally a subjective judgement. That is, I think, the great Romantic conceit: the elevation of personal sensibilities to be the supreme measure of judgement.

That is not to say the the potential of a work of art (including literature or music) to move one is irrelevant: far from it. But it is not the only criterion, any more than 'greatness of theme and the quality of its execution' are the only two.

Since discernment is all the vogue these days (and my readers know how important it is to me to stay with the fashion) I thought I would offer a few criteria for discernment when trying to think about whether a particular work, or indeed a genre, is great.

I offer these with some trepidation, and am certainly open to suggestions for criteria I have missed, or better expression of the ones I have identified. And I make the claim for these criteria that Stoppard makes for the cricket bat in the passage I quoted yesterday: they do not exist because of some conspiracy by the academy, but rather because experience has demonstrated that they work...

My first draft criteria for evaluating a work of art as good:

  • It does what it sets out to do skilfully
  • What it sets out to do is worth doing
  • It moves the audience/viewer/reader/listener 
  • It moves the audience/viewer/reader/listener repeatedly when engaged with on second and subsequent occasions
  • It both demonstrates and provokes insight
  • It makes demands on the audience/viewer/reader/listener
  • It has some element of novelty or originality
  • It mediates truth and beauty (though that may be in the negative way: eg demonstration of evil at work etc)

I think that interesting, as one can then see both why a successful soap opera or a good pop song works (eg it does what it sets out to do skilfully, it has some element of novelty or originality, it moves the audience) and also why it is unlikely to be watched or listened to again by succeeding generations (it may not meet many of the other criteria).

I am also interested in the fact that many people will find this a difficult argument to swallow, but want to think further about that before I write too much more.

And I am also interested in the link between this argument, and C S Lewis' The Abolition of Man, but again, I want to reflect further on that before committing myself (others, of course, think I should have been committed years ago, but that's another story...)


Ttony said...

What about the intention of the composer? you haven't mentioned that. What is the difference between a Goya painting of a naked woman posed on a chaise longue and a Playboy photograph of an identical pose? What happens if a composer sets out to identify the elements of cheap popular music that attract young people: does that invalidate his work? (If so, why? and if not why not?)

I think that there is definitely a difference between good and bad art, but the only objective criterion I can come up with is that I can tell which is which, and until I become Supreme Leader, that probably won't do (and pedants might have the temerity to think that even after I become Supreme Leader it still wouldn't do).

And how are you (if you can't study the subject) going to tell whether, let's say, Lorca is a genius of modern literature or a gay icon whose fame is due to his sexuality? And what if, when you accept (as anybody should) that the answer is the former, rather than the latter, you can see where the answer comes from, but you just don't like Lorca? (As a music lover might see how brilliantly Tchaikovsky could string the notes together, but hated the mellifluous, self-pitying, exorbitant, selfish and self-centred result.)

These are just a few first thoughts, but I think they are pointing me towards an Academy, or, perhaps, a Magisterium.

Equally, I may be completely off-beam.

Ben Trovato said...

My intention was that the intention of the composer should be considered as part of my second criterion.

As you will not be Supreme Leader until you have deposed and executed me, I am not so worried about that part of your argument.

If you can't study the subject, clearly you have to rely on experts whose judgement you trust, or (horror of horrors) not have an opinion! As it happens I agree about Lorca, though not Tchaikovsky. Clearly there is a place (and an important one) for taste and personal preference; but to say that only what I like can be classified as great is somewhat egocentric (even for me). Time is quite good at shaking these things down. Who seriously imagines that anyone other than scholars of the absurd will be reading (say) Dan Brown in 50, or even 15, years time?