If you took yesterday off, you missed the unveiling of the Teachout Cultural Concurrence Index. Click on the link and take the test, or at least look at it, before reading the rest of this posting.
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For those of you who had nothing better to do on Monday than visit “About Last Night,” the TCCI was a joke–but a serious one.
I spent the evening of July 4 at home, eating deep-dish pizza and watching An American in Paris with a friend who just got back from her first trip to Paris. She asked me to compare the dancing styles of Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire. I did so, going on to explain that the Astaire-Kelly dichotomy was an example of the two-kinds-of-people heuristic at its most powerfully explanatory (I didn’t put it like that, though!). If I tell you that I prefer Astaire to Kelly, you’ve learned something about me that can help you make educated guesses about certain of my other aesthetic preferences, and the more such data you have in hand, the better you’ll understand how my taste works.
Two Kinds of People is, of course, a cool party game, and I improvised a few similar examples to prove my point: Balanchine/Graham, Verdi/Wagner, Matisse/Picasso. But it’s just as easy to come up with examples that measure different aesthetic polarities–The Great Gatsby versus The Sun Also Rises, for instance. Nor is my own taste always consistent (about which more later). I think Howard Hawks was a better director than John Ford, but I also think Ford’s The Searchers is a greater film than Hawks’ Rio Bravo, if not by much.
Now it happens that I studied statistics and experimental design during my two-year stint as a psych major, back when I still thought I wanted to become a shrink. As a result, it occurred to me that if you collected enough data points about the taste of an individual, you could easily put together a test that would provide a fairly accurate measure of the extent to which the test-taker resembled the test-maker. It was this insight that inspired me to create the Teachout Cultural Concurrence Index, a battery of 100 questions that measures how closely your taste agrees with mine.
Aside from making the test easier to score, the reason why the TCCI consists of 100 questions is to pull the results as far away as possible from any one axis of taste. To this end, I constructed the questions in a variety of ways:
– Some measure your preference for opposing but not mutually exclusive alternatives (“Matisse or Picasso?”), while others require you to make an either-or choice (“Sushi, yes or no?”).
– Some, by contrast, ask you to choose between similar but not identical alternatives (“Grosse Pointe Blank or High Fidelity?”).
– A few ask you to choose what I consider to be the lesser of two evils (“Minimalism or conceptual art?”).
– Some questions aren’t about the arts (“Bus or subway?”).
– A few questions were purposely framed to be difficult for particular friends of mine to answer: Maud, for instance, loves Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer and Graham Greene’s The End of the Affair, while Our Girl in Chicago owns both an Eames chair and a Noguchi table. I did this partly for fun and partly to increase the test’s subtlety.
– For the same reason, I made the TCCI a forced-choice test, meaning that each question compels you to choose between a pair of alternatives, both of which may seem at first glance to be equally attractive. If there were only ten questions, the results might end up being too arbitrary (especially if some of the questions asked you to choose between alternatives with which you weren’t sufficiently familiar), but in a 100-question test, the flaws of each individual question become proportionately less significant and the results more accurate.
So what does the TCCI do, accurately or otherwise? It measures the extent to which your taste resembles mine–but that’s all. What’s more, you probably noticed in taking the test that my taste can’t be “explained” by any one principle or theory. Had I scrambled the order of the alternatives and asked you to guess my answers based on your prior knowledge of my work, I doubt many of you would have scored much higher than, oh, 70%, unless you also knew me personally and very well indeed. Yes, I’m a classicist, but I also prefer Schubert to Mozart, which tells you…what?
This brings us to why I created the TCCI in the first place. A few weeks ago, Parabasis, one of my fellow arts bloggers, posted an item taking me to task for the review of “Sensation: Young British Artists from the Saatchi Collection” that I wrote for the Washington Post back in 1999, then posted here apropos of the London warehouse fire that destroyed some of the art included in that show. I didn’t agree with him, but I thought his comments defensible and not at all rude.
I was, however, taken aback by this prefatory remark:
Terry’s also a good deal more conservative than I am, at least in taste (Balanchine instead of Trisha Brown or Cunningham, Satchmo instead of ‘Trane, etc.).
Well, guess what? The fourth essay in A Terry Teachout Reader, “Merce Cunningham: Pale Horse, Pale Rider,” is a lengthy tribute to Cunningham. And while I do indeed prefer Louis Armstrong to John Coltrane, regular visitors to “About Last Night” shouldn’t need to be reminded that I’ve written enthusiastically about such indisputably contemporary jazz musicians as John Scofield, Maria Schneider, Luciana Souza, and the Bad Plus, none of whom makes music that is “conservative” in any obvious sense of the word. Whatever else I am, I’m not so predictable that my taste can be summed up that way.
Are there other critics whose taste is as predictable as that? Sure–bad ones. And how can you tell they’re bad? Precisely because they are that predictable. Taste is not an ideology. It’s a personal response to the immediate experience of art. If your responses to new or unfamiliar art are wholly predictable, it means that instead of allowing experience to reshape and refine your taste, you’re forcing your perceptions into the pigeonhole of your pre-existing opinions. That’s the opposite of what a good critic does.
I don’t think my taste is incoherent. To me it makes perfect sense, and I know it well enough to be able to second-guess my responses to new art with modest confidence. But I’m always prepared to change my mind on the spot, and I do so all the time. I didn’t expect to like William Forsythe’s One Flat Thing, reproduced–but I loved it, and said so. I expected to hate Edward Hall’s Rose Rage–but instead I ended up giving it an enthusiastic review.
My point is that when it comes to art, I’m not an either/or thinker. Alas, such thinking holds powerful sway in America today, especially now that our political discourse has become so intensely oppositional. We live in an age when the dangerous implications of such sayings as Who says A must say B, The personal is political, and Pas d’ennemis à gauche (or droit, for that matter) are no longer widely understood, much less acknowledged. I’m sure there are plenty of people, for instance, who take it for granted that I’m a homophobe simply because I don’t like Tony Kushner’s plays (a “fact” that would doubtless come as a surprise to Mark Morris, or to the author and director of I Am My Own Wife). By the same logic, the fact that I love Aaron Copland’s music should make me a Stalinist. G.K. Chesterton said the last word about that poisonous style of thinking: “‘My country, right or wrong,’ is a thing that no patriot would think of saying except in a desperate case. It is like saying, ‘My mother, drunk or sober.'”
Hence the Teachout Cultural Concurrence Index, a holiday jeu d’esprit which, as promised, also turns out to be more than a little bit serious. It is also, I hope, a useful reminder to readers of “About Last Night” to steer clear of the Great Simplifiers who seek to stuff us all into cultural pigeonholes. The good news is that I don’t stuff so easy–and my guess is that you don’t, either, even if you do insist on preferring Cat Power to Wilco or white wine to red.