Thursday, March 24, 2011

An embarrassment of riches

I don’t much like the Wanted. I don’t think I’m missing out there, because they’re not much good. I’ve never been able to enjoy Chopin much either, but my understanding is that there I am missing out, because Chopin is good. Everyone knows that, even people like me who don’t like listening to him. Maybe there are people who are informed enough about this sort of thing to hold the maverick opinion that Chopin sucks, but the consensus among those who know is, unless I’m very much mistaken, that Chopin’s good. I don’t think this gives me a categorical reason to listen to Chopin, but it does mean that if I make the effort to educate myself then there’s enjoyment to be had, and maybe some edification, elevation and long-lasting happiness too. That’s not true of the Wanted, and that means they suck. I think looking at it this way makes me an aesthetic objectivist, and I don’t think it commits me to anything weird. So I guess I must disagree with Mackie about how far his queerness argument against objective values generalises.

Now, one thing that worries me about looking at beauty this way is that too many things are going to end up beautiful. There’s a fine line between dismissing the Wanted as cynical flummery and dismissing gamelans en masse as an ugly racket. That’s the line I’d like to tread. I think the way to dismiss the Wanted is to admit it’s at least possible that some cultures’ music is just a bit rubbish. The Wanted are a midrange example of music from a recognisable subculture, but no matter how much I learn to appreciate even Take That or the Spice Girls they’re never going to enrich my life the way Mozart enriches the lives of people who really get him. And even if they did, that would be a peculiarity on my part, whereas Mozart’s music is something that pretty much anyone should be able to learn to enjoy. We’ve all seen the Shawshank Redemption.

On the subject of dismissing some cultures as not very good at music, I don’t think it makes me a chauvinist. Take all the beautiful music my culture (if you'll pardon the idealisation - nothing I'm saying needs the world to divide nicely into cultures) has ever produced and erase it from history. Would some of the dross have become beautiful to replace it, in a metaphysical seizure of political correctness? I don’t think it’s chauvinistic to say that it wouldn’t have. Our culture would have been impoverished, just as it was to a lesser extent impoverished before the Renaissance, or before the Beatles, or before The Art of Coarse Golf. Even now people freely admit that France outpaints Britain, and that person for person Ireland outwrites almost everywhere.

Having dismissed the Wanted, how do we save the gamelan? Well, I think the solution to the first problem solves the other. If I’d been a relativist of some kind and said that aesthetic judgement was indexed to a standard of taste, I’d have had a job completely dismissing the Wanted. But I didn’t do that: I said there’s nothing to stop a culture producing only rubbish. A nation of Philistines (maybe the Philistines?) might all love bad music, but nobody is missing out by not listening to it, and when their children first hear the Beatles they’ll rightly dismiss their parents’ musical tastes as benighted, and their cultural lives will be enriched as a result. But if the Philistines’ music can’t be described as beautiful just because they like it, then the gamelan can’t be dismissed just because I don’t. Not indexing our aesthetic judgement to a standard of taste means there’s an awful lot of beauty out there if you’re willing to learn to appreciate it. But that’s true, isn’t it?

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