High Art, Good Art, & Bad Ideas

Context, if you want it: a recent article in The Stone, the NYT’s philosophy blog that Brian Leiter likes to mock. The position, if you want it: some forms of art/music/etc. are superior to others, with classical music, for instance, being superior to pop music.

My views, if you want them: sure, there’s good art and bad art. There’s also a whole lot of complications that philosophers of art, especially those who think you can make simple divisions between high culture (the kind academics like and participate in) and low culture (the kind they look down on, or study in “studies” departments) with impunity.

First complication: what is or isn’t high art/high culture, and who gets to decide? Many arguments about this tend to engage in  a sort of casuistry,* starting with clear cases of what someone thinks are examples of high and low culture, drawing out features of each, and then trying to explain what makes these features good or bad. The problem is that you begin by making an unexamined and uncautious assumption: not that there are high and low culture (I think that one’s safely assumed to have been created), but that whatever you’re picking as clear examples of high or low art are, in fact, high or low art.

For whatever reason, philosophers who try to argue that some forms of music are inherently superior to others always cite Mozart. Don’t ask me why; I find every third movement the man ever wrote to be insipid, his symphonies and many of his string quartets to be formulaic, and any number of his other pieces to be composing-by-numbers theory exercises. The same goes for large swaths of Vivaldi, Bach, Hayden…basically, everyone who wrote much of anything before Beethoven 3. Seriously, listen to all four hours of Vivaldi’s cello concerti straight through and tell me you don’t start noticing patterns in all of them (same structure, same chord progressions, same “surprising” chord progressions that he used the last six times, same length of each movement, etc.), The fact is, though, the reason why so many of these pieces sound like potboiler composing by numbers is because they are potboiler composing by numbers—dukes need  background music for their parties,  churches need hymns and organ preludes, upper-class Europeans need an evening’s light entertainment, and somebody needs to write all this. Also, composers need to pay the bills and feed their families, and cranking out light and fluffy schlock is a great way to make sure food stays on the table. Does that mean there aren’t truly great works of art written by these composers? I won’t deny that, but I will deny that, for all its popularity, Eine Kleine Notmusic is one of them.

Stop me if you’ve heard this one from me before: we’ve constructed an anachronistic, post hoc narrative that fits with our tastes and preconceptions of the past, one that, when established, perpetuates itself by making this narrative the standard by which we judge. Perhaps I could blame it on the rise of reactionary tendencies in conservatories in the late 19th century as Wagner and Mahler start writing degenerate music,** but that may be beside the point, as most aestheticians don’t study at schools of music and haven’t heard that story. The fact is, Mozart is now part of The Canon, with both his great works and pay-the-rent potboilers enshrined as what we judge high art to be. You can claim to not personally like Mozart, you can even, if you’re daring and can back it up, claim that he’s overrated, but not high art?

So, I’d argue you should start a priori with principles you’d expect to find in good art or high culture, then go looking for things that meet your expectations. Sure, you’d have to have some acquaintance with music, art, culture, etc. to have some ideas about this, but, if I can grossly oversimplify Kant for a moment, the fact that you have to first sense something doesn’t mean that the pure forms of sense aren’t a priori. No casuistry, no poorly chosen examples, problems solved.


Because, really, much as we as humans love to demarcate and categorize things, all the while acting like every demarcation and categorization is based on very real ontological distinctions, the act of drawing lines and carving the beast of reality up along its supposed joints is so very value-laden that our petty attempts to determine necessary and sufficient conditions for calling something this and not that are, to put it bluntly, doomed to fail. Our language is incredibly ambiguous, with our concepts having massive blurred edges, our laws having uncertain penumbras, and how we delineate the extension of a term more a matter of family resemblance and use in a form of life than Aristotelian genus/specific difference delineation.

Or, to translate all that pseudo-pomo gobdligook, what the hell are we supposed to do with Frank Zappa?

Genreblurring and eclectic influence has been going on forever, in pretty much everything. Zappa was a classical composer who did rock albums with a strong edge of social commentary and subversion that often got him in trouble for saying Things Best Left Unsaid.*** While I’m trying to keep this post to a merely unreasonable length (and thus not laying out my full book-length artistic theory), I’d argue that social engagement and challenging the existing order and its basic rules is a feature of good art—and if there’s one thing Zappa did, it was that. But he still had mainstream success, despite incorporating very overt references to Varèse and Webern (like at 3:23 here). So, what is this? High classical art, or middlebrow pop culture? Quite frankly, I don’t think you can decide here in the penumbra, certainly not once and for all. Fine, okay, if you had to sort your records, you might want to put We’re Only in it for the Money with the rock albums, maybe even the prog rock albums if you’re that kind of persnickity person, but I don’t think too many people really use “High” and “Low” when sorting records. For the purposes of cultural debates and commentary, I think we may have hit a bump in the road, the first of many a bit of reflection might produce.****

Okay, you’ve read this far. Have a well-deserved gamelan break.

Next problem: appropriation of high art by pop culture, the appropriation of kitch by high culture, and the occasional instance of someone giving the trappings of one group to the other. Leonardo’s Mona Lisa, Michelangelo’s Last Judgment, Raphael’s School of Athens, all of Escher’s later graphic work, Munch’s Scream, Pachabel’s execrable Canon in D, “O Fortuna” from Orff’s Carmina Burana,half of Shakespeare, add about everything else that’s been appropriated by the admen or parodied into oblivion…well, you get the idea. They may have been great pieces once (well, save Pachabel), but you can’t think of them without also associating them with pop songs, ad campaigns, or schoolboy drawings. Pop culture has so fully appropriated them into its discourse that they’ve ceased to be strictly high art. Then there’s kitch and high art; while readymades, Roy Lichtenstein, improvising on popular tunes, and whatever it is Koons does***** seem to be the most obvious examples, there’s been quite a bit of blurring of the line between illustration and popular art and academic art, with the latter assuming the iconography of the former. There’s also the rise of indie graphic novels in the past few decades, appropriating a formerly moribund and still much maligned medium to tell innovative and compelling stories in shockingly novel ways—just don’t tell your philosopher colleagues you went to a comic book convention if you’d rather be spared the funny looks, even if half the books make highbrow theological and historical references. Then there’s one form of art being given the pretensions of the other, blurring the line between the two and encouraging the use of the interpretive apparatus usually reserved for the other. Seriously, it’s worth looking at Norman Rockwell illustrations as if they were real art sometimes, especially since that encourages the use of highfalutin’ cultural and feminist criticism. The racist and sexist message of conformity to a broken bourgeois ideal becomes even more glaring and offensive when you have to analyze exactly how he created that particular leer, the repeated use of a certain very narrow color palate in his skin tones, and the construction of an objectifying male gaze in his paintings.

Let’s not even discuss Thomas Kinkade.

I could go on. I probably will later—but that would involve laying out something like a coherent theory of beauty, which, quite frankly, isn’t something you can do in a book, much less a blog post.****** Suffice it to say, equating high art with good art, low art with bad/non art is exactly the sort of lazy thinking born out of experience with only a certain cultural paradigm and acceptance of its norms and prejudices.

Long-time readers may notice that I’m one good Marsilius of Padua reference from trotting out all my favorite hobbyhorses here. Yes, the fact that philosophers, the people who go about telling us what is good, true, or beautiful, come from similar cultural backgrounds and have a limited range of experiences and tastes is a major problem. I don’t want to say they have bad taste; in fact, being educated members of the intellectual elite, it’s pretty likely they have extremely cultivated tastes, or even get to help decide what good cultural taste is. The thing is, though, that if a few well-chosen but obvious counterexamples can be used to refute your argument, there’s something fishy with it. It’s not that I had to argue against Gutting’s argument based on some deficiency in his concept of beauty, some aspect of his aesthetic theory that was flawed or insufficient; rather, I could simply appeal to cultural phenomena and matters of fact to refute it. Had he started with an a priori definition of beauty, found examples of phenomena that did or did not conform with it, and then constructed his argument, I would have had to critique his aesthetics, his logic, and (quite possibly) his ethics or metaphysics—and, in all likelihood, have developed and argued for my own. If I may say something beyond obvious here, that’s a lot harder to do than finding counterexamples, as well as a much riskier rhetorical strategy; you can argue with my concept of beauty and pick nits with my logic, you can say that my sociological and qualitative anthropological methods are flawed, but you can’t deny the existence of Wagner-influenced progressive metal, Ai Weiwei’s appropriation of commercial culture, or the Kronos Quartet’s collaborations with both George Crumb and Nine Inch Nails.

*What? You expected a Pascal fan to be sympathetic to the positions critiqued (to put it mildly) in the Provincial Letters, or a Kantlover to eschew the a priori? No, of course not.
**Of course, my music history professor would, but, after a bit of research, I’m not so sure the late 19th century conservative/progressive divide in composing was quite as drastic as he made it out to be. Sure, the conservatives dominated conservatories, but the highly trained musicians they created made Rite of Spring, etc. possible.
***Or, if you’re a brilliant nutter and the kind of person Baltimore is proud to claim as a native son, Things Best Sung To Very Catchy Melodies.
****This may be more than a footnote, but let’s talk about bluegrass. Yes, it’s based on traditional American folk music, including Sacred Harp shapenote singing, and many of the songs do come from these traditional folkways, but there’s also a strong Delta blues and gospel undercurrent, the same that leads to rock & roll at about the same time bluegrass was developing. There’s so much genre blurring and cultural appropriation going on that the idea of people reacting to newgrass or progressive bluegrass as being “impure” is ironic, hilarious, and revealing.
*****No, I don’t exactly know either; it’s not appropriating the iconography of popular culture into a form of critique if you’re not actually critiquing the culture, but rather benefiting from its grossest excesses.
******Which isn’t to say I won’t try to at least take a stab at it. Impossibility isn’t always a good enough reason not to try something. For the moment, I’ll say that I think that Sartre’s on to something, but not quite everything.

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