• Our Girl’s second critical commandment, You shall not critique a tulip by wishing it a rose, especially if you grow roses, echoes a widespread sentiment in the cultural quadrant of the ‘sphere. I incline to agree, but not always, and only up to a point.
People are forever telling me that a work of art should be “criticized on its own terms.” (Mr. Parabasis, one of my favorite bloggers, got after me a few weeks ago on precisely this count.) Fine–but exactly what does that mean? To extend the metaphor, what if the particular breed of tulip you prefer to cultivate happens to smell like horse manure? Don’t I have a right to point that out, and to suggest that roses might possibly smell better?
I’m not a relativist (surprise, surprise!). I think some works of art are better than others, and I think that issues of quality are of the highest relevance to any criticism worthy of the name. At the same time, I don’t think I get hung up worrying about the dangers of encroaching relativism, nor do I let my unswerving belief in quality prevent me from enjoying the fruits of popular culture. I draw your attention to something I wrote early in the life of this blog:
I don’t think The Long Goodbye is as good a book as The Great Gatsby, and I believe the difference between the two books is hugely important. But I also don’t think it’s absurd to compare them, and I probably re-read one as often as the other.
The point is that I accept the existence of hierarchies of quality without feeling oppressed by them. I have plenty of room in my life for F. Scott Fitzgerald and Raymond Chandler, for Aaron Copland and Louis Armstrong, for George Balanchine and Fred Astaire, and I love them all without confusing their relative merits, much less jumping to the conclusion that all merits are relative.
In case you hadn’t noticed, that’s part of what this blog is all about–a big part.
It still is.
• Just the other day I was listening to Pandora as I blogged. Allison Moorer’s “One On the House” gave way to a single piano chord, and a light instantly flashed in my head: it was Bill Evans playing “Here’s That Rainy Day.” I didn’t have to look at the screen to be sure I was right, any more than I had to think twice in the first place. I knew.
I’ll be the first to admit that there once was a time when I was disgustingly vain about my fastest-ear-in-the-west abilities, but subsequent experience has taught me that the world is full of people who can recognize Bill Evans’ playing as quickly as I can. That says a lot about Evans, but it says even more about the human brain and its stupendous capacities. To be sure, I do happen to know a little bit about a lot of things (including the life and work of the woman who wrote that line). Put me in a museum without my bifocals and I won’t have any more trouble picking out a Stuart Davis or a Kenneth Noland at a hundred yards than I did spotting Bill Evans. Yet such drop-the-needle aptitude, as I say, borders on the commonplace, and that’s the real story. How is it possible for so many of us to store so much aesthetic information in our heads, and to retrieve it so quickly and unhesitatingly? If that doesn’t strike you as miraculous, then you don’t believe in everyday miracles.
I can’t help but recall this almanac entry from two years ago. The speaker is the great French composer Olivier Messiaen:
I admit that it would never occur to me to ask a question of an electronic brain, chiefly because I’d be incapable of it. The interrogated electronic brain very quickly generates thousands, if not millions, of responses, and among those thousands of millions of responses, only one is right. Rather than bother with an extremely burdensome apparatus and spend months formulating a question, isn’t it quicker to have a stroke of genius and find the right solution right away?