We were chatting on Twitter last night about music. I said: I quarrel with the notion that musical taste is purely a matter of personal preferences and further (rashly) that I would argue that some music is objectively better than other music, regardless of taste.
Here I wish to explore that idea, and also the reaction it provoked (including, from the normally wise and perspicacious Ttony: I wish you the best of luck with this one. Naughty crotchets! Wicked bass clef! )*
Can one really say that one piece of music is better than another, in an absolute sense, not just based on taste. I believe that one can.
But I shall start by talking about writing, simply because I know more about it. I will then apply the argument I make about writing (assuming its validity) to music (and the visual arts, come to that, as I notice that people are continuing the Twitter conversation even as I write, and mention has been made of Jackson Pollock).
With regard to writing, my contention is simple: that it is not a matter of opinion or taste that Macbeth is a better play than The Maid of Buttermere (by Lisa Evans, from the novel by Melvin Bragg, which is, as it happens, the worst play I can remember attending in my life).
One of the clearest ways of explaining this simple fact comes from another play, by Tom Stoppard (one of my favourite current dramatists). In The Real Thing, Henry, a writer, has criticised a play written by Brodie, a soldier serving time for going AWOL and burning a wreath at the Cenotaph. Annie thinks Henry is being a snob, and points out that Brodie wasn't trying to write Eng. Lit. Henry (to Annie's alarm) fetches his cricket bat...
Henry: Shut up and listen. This thing here, which looks like a wooden club, is actually several pieces of particular wood cunningly put together in a certain way so that the whole thing is sprung, like a dance floor. It’s for hitting cricket balls with. If you get it right, the cricket ball will travel two hundred yards in four seconds, and all you’ve done is give it a knock like knocking the top off a bottle of stout, and it makes a noise like a trout taking a fly… (He clucks his tongue to make the noise.) What we’re trying to do is to write cricket bats, so that when we throw up an idea and give it a little knock, it might… travel… (He clucks his tongue again and picks up the script.) Now, what we’ve got here is a lump of wood of roughly the same shape trying to be a cricket bat, and if you hit a ball with it, the ball will travel about ten feet and you will drop the bat and dance about shouting ‘Ouch!’ with your hands stuck into your armpits. This (indicating the cricket bat) isn’t better because someone says it’s better, or because there’s a conspiracy by the MCC to keep cudgels out of Lords. It’s better because it’s better. You don’t believe me, so I suggest you go out to bat with this (indicating Brodie's script) and see how you get on. ‘You’re a strange boy, Billy, how old are you?’ ‘Twenty, but I’ve lived more than you’ll ever live.’ Ooh, ouch!
He drops the script and hops about with his hands in his armpits, going ‘Ouch!’
Annie watches him expressionlessly until he desists.Interestingly, the point Stoppard is making here has just been made in the Twitter discussion, where PattiF wrote: 'Jackson Pollock had to know how to draw first.'
That is to say, that there is a craftsmanship essential as the underpinning of any type of art. There are certain skills that must be acquired, and moving on to the higher business of expression without the foundational skills leads to inferior art.
Lisa Evans, who subjected us to hours of tedium in the Keswick Playhouse, didn't know the basic rules of the game, particularly with regard to exposition. As the (very kind, I thought) Guardian Review makes plain, she took three hours to tell us what she had already told us in three minutes. (Was it really as long ago as 2009? I can still feel the numbness in my rear end when I think about it...) It is not a matter of personal taste to say that Macbeth is better written: it is a simple fact.
By the same token, I believe that one can say that Mozart had a mastery of his craft that surpasses the skill of, say, Michael Barnes (the main songwriter for the band The Tiffany Shade). That is a fairly indisputable fact, as is the fact that Mozart's Clarinet Concerto in A (K.622) is a better piece of music than Barnes' 'Won't you take my mind out for a walk.'
Likewise, Vermeer had a better technical mastery of painting than, say, Terry Frost, and Girl with a Pearl Earring is a better painting than Pippa Renwick in Red.
I argue all that from a consideration of craftsmanship. But there is more. I would also argue that some forms of art are (when well executed) intrinsically better than others (even when well executed). The Beatles were, arguably, one of the best bands ever. They are certainly one of my favourite bands. Yet even their best song (and I won't court further controversy by saying what I think that is) is not in the same league as Mozart's Clarinet Concerto.
Likewise, P. G. Wodehouse is a master craftsman, and one of my favourite authors. Yet even his best novel (OK, I'll risk it and plump for Code of the Woosters) does not approach Macbeth.
None of that means, of course, that there isn't scope for a lot of debate, and many, many moot judgements. But to say that any such judgements are meaningless or impossible is a different matter.
(Incidentally, I think that the Church teaches this, when it cites Plainchant as being particularly suited for the liturgy, whilst recognising the value of the polyphonic tradition, and deprecating the use of styles and instruments not fitted for liturgical use.)
There, I've said it. Let battle commence.
* I realise, I never got around to discussing the reaction and my ideas about that - perhaps another time.