Sunday, January 07, 2007


I first encountered the online essays of Paul Graham some years ago: I think it was his essays on programming languages that attracted me. He has long argued that the best tools are not the "most popular" ones, but the ones that experts use, and therefore a manager who wants to attract smart programmers should base the project on Python and not Java. Elegance is as important as power here.

In a recent essay, he explores the question of what constitutes good taste in art, observing early on that

One problem with saying there's no such thing as good taste is that it also means there's no such thing as good art. If there were good art, then people who liked it would have better taste than people who didn't. So if you discard taste, you also have to discard the idea of art being good, and artists being good at making it.

But this is not just another attack on leftie notions of cultural relativism. He essentially argues two things: (1) that taste is determined by the audience, and (2) artists try to trick you.

Art is man-made. It comes with a lot of cultural baggage, and in addition the people who make it often try to trick us. Most people's judgement of art is dominated by these extraneous factors; they're like someone trying to judge the taste of apples in a dish made of equal parts apples and jalapeno peppers. All they're tasting is the peppers. So it turns out you can pick out some people and say that they have better taste than others: they're the ones who actually taste art like apples.

Or to put it more prosaically, they're the people who (a) are hard to trick, and (b) don't just like whatever they grew up with. If you could find people who'd eliminated all such influences on their judgement, you'd probably still see variation in what they liked. But because humans have so much in common, you'd also find they agreed on a lot. They'd nearly all prefer the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel to a blank canvas.

I buy that, up to a point. People admire Michelangelo because it is supremely well done, depicts a scene in pitiless detail, and speaks to them directly. They admire Marcel Duchamp's Fountain because the art critics have told them to admire it. (I don't suppose anyone admires Duchamp's "La Joconde aux moustaches", though it may elicit a smile.)

But is that all there is to it? There is much art that appeals to experts but not to the general public. There is a lot of art that met with initially hostile, even violent reactions (Impressionist painting, Stravinsky's "Rite of spring", Bob Dylan's first electric folk-rock performances) but won over the critics and, eventually, the audiences (in some cases, the other way around). I doubt any of these examples would appeal to someone from a very different culture. Was everyone brainwashed or "tricked" into agreeing that it was good? Or does good art "grow on you", requiring some time (and some self-education) before it can be assessed?

Who is an expert? By analogy with an expert in programming, let us say that an art expert is not an armchair critic, but someone who produces art that appeals to other experts. (A circular definition, but it doesn't matter.) To paraphrase what Graham argues in the case of programming tools, perhaps the best art is not the most popular, but what the experts enjoy.

But if we grant that, what do we make of twelve-tone music? Originating from Schoenberg, it caught on with practising musicians and composers to the extent that it dominated "serious" music for the first half of the twentieth century. Yet it never found much favour with audiences, and eventually composers too started to abandon it. Twelve-tone music is still played and recorded, but the market is very small and will likely get smaller.

When do we decide that the experts can see or know something we don't, and when do we decide that the experts have "tricked" themselves? It appears that, for the most part, history has to be the judge.


km said...

People admire Michelangelo because it is supremely well done, depicts a scene in pitiless detail, and speaks to them directly.

Thomas Kincaid's sugary, mass-produced cottages have the same effect on *many* people. As does Kenny G's music.

That doesn't make it art. Or does it? ;)

I think this topic goes from being about art to "seeing", in that Zen sense of the word.

We can all lay claims to being admirers of Impressionism or Cubism or whatever. But can we see a form, a tree or a painting without the "cultural baggage" (for what is taste but that?) and see it for "the first time" without the intervention of memory, knowledge and judgement?

Rahul Siddharthan said...

Yes, the reason Graham's article disturbed me a bit was that he seemed to be saying if people like Kenny G, it must be great art... I think the test of time is important: people still listen to scratchy Louis Armstrong recordings 70 years from now, if people are listening to Kenny G in 2070 I will have to admit there must be something in him that I missed.

And what that may mean is that his influence has been so great that, as you say, people in 2070 are influenced by "memory, knowledge and judgement" while listening to him.

Nah, I'm not that pessimistic... Kenny G will be forgotten.