Jan 162004

Michael Blowhard hypothesizes two concert attendees, one of a Black Sabbath show (Oz-era, one hopes), the other of Pollini playing Chopin. They both report that the show was “great,” and Michael has a few questions, which I will number for convenience:

1. Knowing nothing else about these two people, would you feel capable of saying that one of them had a “greater” experience than the other?
2. What is the relationship between the greatness of a given work and the greatness of the experience a spectator/consumer/user has? Does any such relationship exist, necessarily, at all?
3. Is it possible, or even semi-possible, to assert that greater works deliver greater experiences?
4. By what measure and on whose authority?
5. And to what extent does the answer depend on who’s doing the experiencing?

Let’s get one thing straight first: the aesthetic experience, like all experiences, exists entirely in the mind of the audience. Of course the stimulus, the work, is real, but no aesthetic experience is possible without an audience. Art is art by virtue of communicating something to someone else. The viewer recreates the work for himself, which can be done well or badly, and it is only the recreation that counts. The viewer is his own artist, not in the deconstructionist sense of all interpretations being equally valid, but in the sense that only he is responsible for bringing the art back to life. As J.V. Cunningham puts it:

Poets survive in fame.
But how can substance trade
The body for a name
Wherewith no soul’s arrayed?

No form inspires the clay
Now breathless of what was,
Save the imputed sway
Of some Pythagoras,

Some man so deftly mad
His metamorphosed shade,
Leaving the flesh it had,
Breathes on the words they made.

To experience a work of art well is to see what is there and nothing that is not. Let’s simplify Michael’s hypo a bit, controlling for the variables. Imagine the same person reading the same book twice, say five years apart. Everyone has reread a book and said to himself, “My God, how did I miss that the first time?” This happened to me with Portrait of a Lady the third time I read it, a couple years ago. Finally I’d had enough adult experience, and paid close enough attention, to understand, among other things, the solipsism that makes Gilbert Osmond such a monster, his insistence that everything in his universe reflect his pinched self. I can judge the aesthetic value of my three readings because I have direct introspective access to all of them. The third reading was deeper, broader, more complete — greater, in a word.

The answer to Question 1, however, is no. In the trivial case the Chopin fan may be a chronic liar who slept through the concert and praises it to impress his friends. More seriously, there is something to be got out of Black Sabbath, though less, perhaps, than what can be got out of Chopin. Quite possibly the Sabbath fan has concentrated so much better than the Chopin fan that he has had a superior aesthetic experience, though from an inferior work of art.

Which brings us to Question 2. Greater art offers the potential, but only the potential, for a greater experience. The viewer must realize that potential, and the work lies fallow unless he’s up to the task. Intensity, I should emphasize, is not the standard, but propriety. People are often deeply moved by bad art because it happens to accord with their prejudices. This is like being deeply moved by the sound of your own voice. We have all reread books that mattered to us as adolescents, only to be horrified at how bad they really are. The first reading sours in retrospect, and it should. The experience was meretricious: you were taken in.

To Question 3, which is the guts of the matter, we’d better be able to answer yes, otherwise critics, English teachers, and culturebloggers may as well hang up their collective spurs right now. Fortunately we can. There are things to notice in works of art. It is better to notice them than not to. Great works of art simply have more to notice. Nobody’s in charge, of course, and there is no quantitative standard (Question 4). We argue about what is there and what is not, and the best argument, if we’re lucky, carries the day.

If the answer to Question 5 isn’t obvious by now, imagine that the Sabbath fan, who hates classical music, was forced to attend the Chopin recital and the Chopin fan, who hates metal, was forced to go to the Sabbath show. Wouldn’t both of their experiences suffer in consequence? Sure they would.

Aren’t you sorry you asked?

(Update: James Joyner comments. Will Duquette comments. John Venlet comments. George Hunka comments at length. Lynn Sislo comments, and meta-comments. )

  27 Responses to “A Gloss”

  1. Question: is it simply the property of being ‘deeper, broader, more complete’ that warrants the label ‘greater experience’, or is it the effect of the ‘deeper, broader, more complete’ reading on the reader? The difference is significant.

  2. Neither. A work is ‘deeper, broader, more complete’ than some other work if and only if for some reader, a reader who "sees what is there and nothing that is not" and has sufficient experience to understand it, can see that it is ‘deeper, broader, and more complete’ than the other work.

    The work doesn’t simply affect the reader; the reader must also be properly receptive.

  3. Nicholas is asking a different question, Will. The three of us seem to agree that all aesthetic experiences are not created equal; the question is in what, exactly, the experience consists.

    My first thought was that I don’t see how to distinguish reliably between the thing and the effect of the thing, let alone why such a distinction would be significant. But that isn’t quite right. What you experience during contemplation is one thing; but afterwards you are a different person. This latter is what I think Nicholas means by the effect, although the term is confusing, since they’re both really effects, short-run and long-run respectively.

    I meant what happens during, not after. I also believe that proper contemplation of art has long-run improving consequences, but that’s a matter for another thread, on another day.

  4. So you think you can insult the great Black Sabbath — and, by inference, Ronald James Padavona — and escape unscathed? From now on my comments will consist entirely of Black Sabbath lyrics.

    (This will work better if you post on the subjects of recreational drug use, mental disorders, and people who were turned to steel by great magnetic fields.)

    The Arch-Enemy of "Low-Company"

    "There is surely no principal of fictitious composition so true as this, – that an author’s paramount charge is the cure of souls, to the subjection, and if need be to the exclusion of the picturesque." -Henry James.

    I like this, it’s from Wydham Lewis’ "Men Without Art" (not Henry, Henry was about the only one in the book he didn’t trash.)

  6. from ur chopin is greater than black sabbath statement it is obvious that u must think the NFL is a superior product to college football and certainly high school football.
    I contend you would be wrong about that also

  7. Nicholas: The reaction to the thing, the experience, does indeed differ from the thing itself, but I don’t think I equivocated on the two. Because I wanted to emphasize that the qualities inhere in the work itself, I used "notice" rather loosely however: I meant it to wrap up the whole process of informed evaluation. The complete experience is both a noticing and a judgment, which we tease apart at our peril.

    Steve: Thanks for the Lewis quote. He is one of the hugely underrated figures of the 20th century, and I will get round to writing about him one of these days. He’s a bit harder on James in Men Without Art than you make out though.

    As for the rest of you lot, I own as much Sabbath as Chopin, for the record, and listen to it more often. Now come on Floyd, are you really ready to put anything from the Dio ouevre up against Paranoid?

  8. But Nicholas, I think that’s precisely what "a mature understanding of a mature work" does guarantee. We’re after propriety, not intensity, as I noted originally. To revisit one of my hypos, you reread a book that affected you deeply as an adolescent and its flaws become apparent. Your second reading leaves you "relatively unmoved," but is nonetheless a superior greater if you like experience. Better to understand why it is bad than not to, wouldn’t you agree?

    Though I cannot hope to define greatness here, this should point you to what I have in mind. There is nothing more civilizing than to enter into, really completely understand, the thoughts of a mind greater than one’s own.

  9. The premise of this discussion is that both Chopin’s music and Black Sabbath’s show are art. This seems a dubious premise. I would argue that only Black Sabbath’s show is art and that Chopin is merely decoration for the ear.

    There are numerous definitions for what art is and isn’t, but most have meaning as a central condition. "Art is a lie that shows us the truth," says Picasso. "Art is a selective representation of reality based on the artist’s metaphysical value judgements," says Rand. Where is there any element of truth or value in purely musical expression? I say there is none unless it is coupled with some element of meaning, generally lyrics.

  10. I understand your position now, Aaron. Fair enough.

  11. The third reading was deeper, broader, more complete greater, in a word.

    Aaron, have you ever thought that your latest reading was not the best?

  12. Sure, all the time, especially with verse. If I’m distracted, or worried, or tired, my reading will be inferior.

  13. To experience a work of art well is to see what is there and nothing that is not.

    Balderdash. That’s how to experience a menu.

  14. I don’t know who gave Bill and Baloney the impression that art requires propositional content, but I’m sure it wasn’t me. I write mostly about art that happens to have such content only because there’s a larger vocabulary available to discuss it. About music, as music, there is very little to say.

    I agree with Mike about menus.

  15. The Chopin concert is clearly inferior because it doesn’t convey any propositional content.

  16. Aaron,

    Because your answer is so solipsitic, it is not in the least responsive. I don’t care whether YOU think that art requires propositional content, I care whether art conveys meaning as that term is commonly used. No meaning, no art. That is what most of art theory says. Thus –as you taught me — some modern art is really just decoration. Pollack is an example. As such, some music is merely decoration for the ears.

    Richard Strauss might want us to believe that a listener can tell which of Don Juan’s conquests in the eponymous tone poem had red hair, but no one I know really can. Sound alone is not representative of anything other than sound. I suppose there might be some cause to think there is content in the French taxi horns in American in Paris, but that too is dubious. On the other hand, when The Who sings: "…And a parting on the left, is now a parting on the right…" we know what they mean. That is art.

    Now just because we have a fetish for the term art, doesn’t mean that art is always better than non-art. I would rather listen to the Goldberg Variations than to 50 Cent any time. I would pay for one and avoid the other assiduously. But how good something is is not the standard. Meaning is the standard.

  17. Fair enough, I’ll discuss this argument seriously. I agree that art is mimetic, and music does not appear to be, at least not directly. The people who maintain that there is such a thing as "program music," that, for instance, the 1st Movement of Beethoven’s 6th imitates chirping birds, are wrong. Richard Strauss is wrong too, if he ever said that seriously about Don Juan, which I doubt.

    What music imitates, I think, is one’s pattern of thought. (Abstract painters sometimes say the same thing, that they try to paint consciousness directly, but they have a weaker case.) This might stretch mimesis past its limit, but the mathematical relations in music argue for this position. It also feels this way to me when I listen to it. But if someone has a better answer I’m willing to be talked out of this one.

  18. There is no doubt that something strongly resonant in some people about certain works of music. Depending on mood, I imagine that my soul is well described by Mahler’s 1st or Sibelius’ violin concerto. Then I remember I am not a college freshman and laugh at myself. Nevertheless, the feeling repeats on further listenings.

    The notion that mathematics and music are related is scientism of an old sort. Pythagoreans held that belief along with one having to do with the sanctity of beans.
    It begs the question: What is NOT a mathematical relationship? I have argued that there is a mathematical relationship between legal abortions and the decline in strength of the Democratic party. Just because I say that one political party is aborting itself out of existence doesn’t make it true. But there is a mathematical relationship nonetheless.

  19. I don’t like my answer much either. But the point here is that we can’t proceed as arch-rationalists. If we adhere to a definition of art that excludes music, the correct procedure is not to maintain that music isn’t art, but to reexamine the definition.

  20. Nonsense. Bach was a great decorator and we are undiminished for the redesignation.

  21. "Where is there any element of truth or value in purely musical expression? I say there is none unless it is coupled with some element of meaning, generally lyrics.

    Hilarious! Bill Kaplan is quite an entertaining fellow.

  22. Hmmm. In my neck of the woods, art used to be about "beauty" rather than "truth".

    It’s been said that beauty is truth and truth beauty, but that’s always struck me as a romantic absurdity put about by those with more regard for beauty than truth.

  23. Bill Kaplan: "No meaning, no art."

    Of course, you’re entitled to stand by your own definition of Art. But don’t take it as Ultimate Truth, because it isn’t. If I ever figure out just what Art is, I’ll let the world know.

    As far as Black Sabbath and Chopin go, 200 years from now, when Black Sabbath is nothing more than a footnote in an undergraduate Musical Archeology thesis, that same thesis-writer will probably be going to an all-Chopin concert.

    Music is non-verbal communication (operas, cantatas and oratorios aside). If music does not convey any emotion to you, then you have neither ear nor soul for it, and would be better off talking about Text.

  24. Mike: I prefer Liszt (the b minor sonata, for example) to Chopin, but I get the point. Chopin IS greater than Black Sabbath; but of course Bosco is more delicious than Creed. Relative merit is not what we are discussing, but rather proper taxonomy. Pure music is elemental; other "art" is at least molecular.

    Will: Beauty, yes, beauty. I used to think beauty was a necessary if not sufficient condition for art. Then I read "Notes from the Underground", saw "Guernica", heard "Wozzeck", and concluded art need not be beautiful. Today I am convinced that Hermes scarves, Van Clef jewels, Badgeley-Mishka dresses and the SR-71 Blackbird are much more beautiful than the vast majority of things normally called art. I except John Singer Sargent and H.M.W. Turner, of course.

  25. Bill, to Will:

    "Today I am convinced that Hermes scarves, Van Clef jewels, Badgeley-Mishka dresses and the SR-71 Blackbird are much more beautiful than the vast majority of things normally called art."

    Now I think we’re getting somewhere: to the question, What is Art?

    To your last sentence I would add an emphatic "today!", as in "what is today called art". I’m of the opinion – possibly minority – that art ought to be pleasant to look at (or at least not revolting). The 4 examples you cite certainly meet that criterion. Your other 3 examples show that, indeed, art need not necessarily be beautiful.

    The difference seems to be one of talent. Dostoevsky, Picasso and Berg had the advantage of talent, and when they wanted to, they could do beautiful. But they also realized that art is capable of showing us the dark side of life as well as the bright.

    Much of what passes for art nowadays concentrates on the dark side, without the talent to support it.

    What do you think of the Turner Prize? Is that art? I say it is not, neither art nor Art.

    (And if you prefer the Liszt sonata to Chopin, then I was mistaken when I said you have neither ear nor soul for music.

    But do you really think that that sonata, and the "Annees de Perelinage" are nothing more than aural decoration?

  26. The answer to question #3 is most assuredly NO, and incidentally English profs et al. SHOULD hang up their spurs as you suggest.

    Take the advice of this economist for what you will: all value is subjective. You cannot state that greater works (can) yield greater experiences because the entire idea of "greater works" is fundamentally meaningless. Nothing, least of all art, has intrinsic value. Any value that exists, exists in the mind of a good’s consumer.

    The Sabbath/Chopin thought experiment (or its analogues) are used in economics to teach the insight of subjective value. The point you’re supposed to take away from the lesson is twofold: that you can’t compare the values of the two concert-goers, and that comparing the two works themselves without respect to their consumers is not only impossible but an intellectually bankrupt exercise from the start.

    (And honestly, everyone asserting that Chopin is superior to Black Sabbath is an art snob who’s never even bothered to actually /listen/ to metal with anything but a predetermined judgment of "this is trash" in their minds.)

  27. Noah: Suppose you read a poem and didn’t understand part of it. Then suppose someone explained it to you. Wouldn’t you have a superior experience reading the poem again, with the explanation in mind? Don’t you think the explainer performed a useful exercise?

    Von Mises is a hero of mine and I do not dispute that subjective value reigns supreme in economics. Nor do I believe that aesthetic value exists anywhere outside the mind of the viewer. I note, though, that while Mises’s official, "economic" position is that aesthetic value is entirely subjective, he does not hesitate, in other places, to assert that certain writers and artists are geniuses. In other words, he uses evaluative terminology when it suits him, like everybody else.

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