How Do We Judge Art and Music?

If you or I want to pursue the best music or art in life, it’s only fair that we discuss at this point how one identifies the best things so as to pursue them. One encounters a bewildering array of recommendations. Charlie Brown’s friend Schroeder likes Beethoven. Bill Clinton likes Fleetwood Mac. One’s roommate swears by a band called Panic! at the Disco. Most bewildering of all is the consistent dichotomy between what is highly regarded by experts and what is actually popular. According to Billboard, the American rapper Eminem was the most successful musician of the last decade, but his work rarely appears in the curricula of university music departments. Something like one in twenty American homes contains a Thomas Kinkade painting. Why, then, does not a single major museum? Musicologist Joseph Kerman compares listening to Beethoven’s String Quartet in F Major, Op. 59, No. 1, to a trip to Athens or a first kiss. You would think many would be drawn to such pleasure. And, yet, do you personally know anyone who is? Anyone who listens to this quartet for pleasure? The dichotomy is so striking that we naturally want to understand it better.

Adherents to the classical view of beauty have an explanation: the masses are too stupid to recognize how to get what they want. The classicist thinks he knows why ordinary people include art and music in their lives, and he has developed all sorts of rules for pleasing them. But, again and again, people don’t seem to be particularly moved by the results of his rules. And, again and again, he has to bend his rules to explain why certain unclassical works deserve a place in his canon (his authoritative list of approved works). What does a classicist do, for example, with the titanic asymmetry and sweeping transformations of the Beethoven quartet just mentioned? He cannot, with a neo-Aristotelian formula, explain the delight he takes in them. And there are other even more embarrassing problems with the classicist’s typical take on the dichotomy (that is, the dichotomy between the tastes of the few who love highbrow things and the tastes of the many who do not). “Some critics write of those who constitute the literary ‘many’ as if they belonged to the many in every respect, and indeed to the rabble,” wrote C. S. Lewis.

We know members of both groups too well to be convinced by any explanation of the difference between them based on differences in moral character or intellect.

Postmoderns look for a political explanation. Perhaps the works of art and music in the college syllabus are there because powerful people prefer those works and are in a position to foist their tastes on students. If I hold a relativist mind-set, I do not study a Houdon bust or a Brahms intermezzo because Houdon or Brahms have some wisdom to share with me, which I will be happier for having encountered. At most, I study them as historical artifacts—evidence of how Houdon and Brahms manipulated people to reinforce social systems that were advantageous to Houdon and Brahms. After all, if every claim to beauty is equally valid, then there can be no grounds for including some works in a syllabus and excluding others, other than historical curiosity and a sense of representational fairness.

Those who subscribe to the historic Christian view of beauty, however, think they have a more plausible explanation for the difference between great art and popular art. It can be argued that something is beautiful when its form realizes a good purpose. If people differ in their purposes for looking at art or listening to music, it follows that they will be attracted to different kinds of art and music, according to the forms that best realize their purposes. And it’s evident that people do have different purposes—various, good purposes—for art and music. So only a foolish critic tries to judge the absolute worth of a piece apart from questions of purpose. One smiles to think what impression Gregorian chant would make if a DJ played some at a dance; this does not in the least lessen the value of Gregorian chant for another purpose. Likewise, a parent trying to soothe a tired baby would be foolish to use a military march. The planner of a funeral would be foolish to hire a polka band. And if you need background music at a party, don’t select an opera.

Is it possible, then, that Schroeder and Mr. Clinton like different music because they have different purposes for their music? Might the few mean one thing by the word like (when they say they “like” great art) and the many mean something else entirely (when they say they “like” popular art)?

Published by Intentional Faith

Devoted to a Faith that Thinks

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