Taste, criticism, and the fallacy of cultural decline

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Most opinions and judgements about things seem to emerge from people’s basic ‘affective fields’, i.e. their basic core set of values and way of relating to the world. These ‘affective fields’, these basic conceptions about, for example, what is good and bad in art, are subject to change, of course, but this kind of mutation happens very slowly, through a process of attrition and composition, and over a long period of time. It is close to useless to present arguments against basic conceptions of value in art or morality that people hold to be instinctively true. The information and argument, if compelling, will of course go in, and may produce sudden, unexpected change, but more often than not people are simply looking for confirmation of their own values.

I’m going to talk here a little about why I think most people’s models of taste and critical judgement, so heavily based on these slow-changing models as they are, are wrong-headed (with many notable exceptions, of course, such as Film Crit Hulk, who says ‘never hate a movie!’)…with the understanding that, in spite of the possible merits of the argument, it will take more than that to produce change in the affective fields just discussed.

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I like all types of music, from all periods. I don’t dislike things more or less because they are e.g. ‘pop’ or ‘avant-garde’ or ‘salsa’. Music, like all art forms, needs to be judged on its own terms, as much as possible. In fact, for me, all expressions of taste made outside genre parameters – i.e. by someone who is also reviewing the genre in question, not just the piece under review and what it does to and within that genre – do not merit much attention as judgements on that piece, even if confrontations of this sort with alien values and expectations often produce interesting results in themselves. The most interesting and credible critical judgements, it seems to me, are offered by people versed in a particular art work’s genre context and frame of reference. This model of criticism, objective in its emphasis on parity but generously anti-objective in its call to specificity, reveals precise inventions and modulations and singularities of art works, in a way that a discussion of, say, a minimalist composition by Pierre Boulez misses completely what it is that makes that music interesting.

Criticism should be aware of genre pleasures and conventions, and attend to how the work (re)configures these. It should also draw itself outside these sorts of artistic contexts, both to examine the immediate social mediation of the work, and also to think about how the work escapes from these immediate contexts and mediations, how it might transcend or re-align them. So, think about how Tarantino is using postmodern film conventions of reference, parody, re-purpose and so on, think about the many genre worlds and thus pleasures he is playing with within the metagenre of postmodernism, but think also about the new contexts and discourses that are being created within each work. All art works exist in context and create a context.

In any case, antagonism between different taste models and art practices is undoubtedly healthy. It’s just that I seem to have been born without the ability to be discerning enough to dislike whole genres or eras or countries.

(How this squares with my political convictions is a bit of a moot point. If music genres are, indeed, as Ben Watson suggests, ‘echoes of class struggle’, then what on earth does it mean that, as someone who thinks Marxism provides the only sensible framework for understanding ideology and political economy in Western culture, I worryingly subscribe to a friction-free, even nihilistic liberal pluralism in the realm of art? I’m not sure how to answer that, other than to suggest meekly that my all-is-good approach might be seen as a kind of liberal radicalism (after David Clarke), where Enlightenment values (high/low, West/the rest) are rejected, and art is seen as a kind of tension-filled ‘space of exception’, where people manifest something like a version of the best of themselves. Foucault’s ‘equality of worth’ value-pluralism is relevant here.)

The fallacy of cultural decline

I say all this because I want to outline something quite basic, which intersects directly with my own value-pluralist ‘affective field’. Many people subscribe to the notion of cultural decline. We’re all familiar with this way of viewing the world. ‘Music was much better in my day’. ‘They don’t make films like they used to’. ‘Kids these days…’. These kinds of attitudes are not only fucking pathetic, but they are profoundly stupid and ungenerous. Whilst I admit that my liberal radicalism (everything is probably good on its own terms) is clearly open to critique, and that it might endorse a worryingly nihilistic model of cultural production, I would insist that a more limited sense of evolving, and open-to-all, value, is imperative for anyone wanting to be critically sharp to any great extent…

For it is never art that gets worse, but YOU! It’s not that the music or films that happened to be being made when you were young (what a coincidence that would be) were somehow the best, it is that, as a lot of people must of course be aware, your standards of what is good, what is ‘the best’, were defined by that art. Taste is not a unidirectional process directed at stable art entities existing outside time. Art works mediate and produce the very frameworks of judgement in which they are judged.

Now, I can’t provide a watertight argument to support these claims. They are, largely, instinctual. But
perhaps a basic (kind of) syllogism will help clarify my thoughts here:

1. Our concept of what is ‘good’ in art is closely linked with the art that we like, and the art that we grew up with is often the art we like. Taste is circular.

2. When ‘new’ art comes along that seems to be doing very different things to what we previously considered ‘good’ (e.g. not using ‘real’ instruments, as if acoustic guitars aren’t as much of an artefactual technology as samplers are, or e.g. using (pan)diatonic harmonies and repetitive structures in 1970s composition, as if those ingredients ‘naturally’ go against what is ‘progressive’ in music), we think that that art is ‘bad’, because it doesn’t square with what we think is good. Instead of trying to ‘upgrade’ our concept of what is good and bad, instead of trying to be generous by getting inside genre worlds and seeing what they have to offer in terms of internal dynamism and productive cross-genre tension, we hold onto what seem to be ‘objective’, natural standards, but which are of course, historical, conventional standards. Taste is circular, and this often leads to a rejection of the new, speaking both in terms of avant-garde and popular forms.

3. It is not art that is wrong (for there is always a moral underpinning to these kinds of judgements), but YOU. (Or, if not wrong, then not fair, generous, or interesting.) The new is nowhere near as bad as people seem to be claiming it is. It is probably quite interesting, and even spectacular.

History provides support for this last conclusion. They said that,

-Picasso couldn’t draw.
-Beethoven had gone mad.
-Joyce was nonsensical.
-pop music was all the same.
-films weren’t the same once they became ‘talkies’.
-modernism was elitist, emperor’s new clothes bullshit.
-postmodernism was completely bankrupt and devoid of concreteness.
-Machaut was too radical.
-Opera would never work.
-Black Sabbath made stupid, unedifying, boring, dirge-like music.
-‘Dancing Queen’ was not the greatest thing ever.

Think of any art movement or artist, and they will have inevitably been condemned as worthless at some point. But, the good old days are always with us!

Now, it may be falsely inductive to conclude from this that everything condemned as uninteresting is interesting, but I think it’s just too enticing to look at these examples, see how in each case the original judgements were proved to be without much merit, and finally to end up on the side of the art itself. And so I do.

Second syllogism:

1. If art has always been good, notwithstanding more fruitful periods and artists,
2. And new art has often been rejected, invariably for its simplifying tendencies,
3. Then we should remember history’s lessons, and realise that we need to invent new critical categories to keep up with the art.

What basis does this leave us for presenting negative judgements about art works? Plenty; I’m not arguing against specific, localised moments of judgements, once these are informed by the work’s context and genre world (etc.). What I’m arguing against is the prejudicial judgement of art outside its context (musical or otherwise), and the anachronistic notion that culture can decline. Of course, the sun may not rise tomorrow, Jupiter may disappear in an instant, the laws of nature may indeed descend into a jubilant hyperchaos. In this respect, culture can of course decline. But it probably won’t.

7 Responses to “Taste, criticism, and the fallacy of cultural decline”

  1. Alex T. Says:

    Hi Stephen, Alex here from Westminster. I agree with a lot of what you said but I can’t {quite} get on board with the idea that everything new is good, or likely to be. Rose-tinting is the resort of the dim-witted, but we have to be able to diagnose one or another style or time as being better in some way than another surely?

    • Stephen Graham Says:

      Hi Alex,
      Yes, indeed, that’s what I was getting at in the last paragraph (or was trying to). I’m basically arguing for a more dynamic, adaptive approach to criticism. ‘good’ or ‘bad’, I’m not so sure if these categories make sense, beyond very personal, intuitive judgements…

  2. Mariusz Herma Says:

    Very well written, thank you,

    One thing I find gradually harder to hold onto in the case of music is judging it “in a particular genre context and frame of reference”. Traditional genres have become extremely mixed up in the lat 15 years. And so have our tastes (*). You could write about Sex Pistols or Marvin Gaye in the context of their ‘scenes’ (whether musical or social), but what about people like Frank Ocean, M.I.A. or Flying Lotus? Their ‘scenes’ aren’t really modern bi-sexual R&B from New Orleans, or modern British anarcho-pop, or modern West Coast hip-hop-influenced electronica. It’s the Internet. Which for this generation could as well mean ‘the world’.

    If we switch the side and take a look from listener’s point of view, it turns out to be exactly the same (*). A young person’s standard answer to ‘What are you listening to’ is more and more often ‘YouTube’. Frank Ocean today, M.I.A. tomorrow, Flying Lotus in between. The proper context for each of them is the whole virtual hype machine. It’s a 40-GB iPod with shuffle on, it’s YouTube, the most popular music player in the world, and all those 20-million-song streaming libraries with advanced social functions to make sure that your already scattered taste is constantly distracted by the tastes of your 500+ friends.

    If most new and interesting artists are somehow all over the place and so are their fans, it seems that almost any critical approach can be justified. Whether you put Frank Ocean in the context of emotional & socially aware black R&B anchored in Billie Holiday’s famous 1939 performance of Strange Fruit, or rather you just check how Frank would feel on the same playlist with Gangnam Style – which I’m sure already happened a million times – both methods might offer some attractive insight. Which is kind of great, eventually.

    • Stephen Graham Says:

      Hi Mariusz,

      You raise some excellent points. Genre, in 2013, means something very different to what it used to (although genres are always social processes in some kind of flux).

      However, I’d say two things. First, the ‘adaptive’, dynamic critical frame I’m arguing for doesn’t just pertain to genre; it pertains to the more general ‘meaning’ context, whether that is in terms of consumption, technology, genre, or whatever. I’m simply saying that music needs to be seen on its own terms, and as defining those terms, as much as possible. Second, it’s still the case that genre defines so much about meaning in popular (and all) music. Frank Ocean, it’s probably safe to say, does not belong in the same genre as ‘Gangnam Style’, even if the two exist side-by-side for some people, in the same digital ‘space’. We perhaps need to put work into producing this music in generic terms, but Ocean, for one, would benefit from being considered in relation to other ‘TumblR&B’ acts such as The Weeknd or Solange, as well as alongside, obviously, the ‘indie rap’ (or whatever you want to call it) of Odd Future. so, genre contexts are always necessarily clear, but reasonable ones can always be found. Gangnam Style is obviously k-pop, but also trollgaze, and…That is privileging musical style, however, and ignoring consumption patterns, to a certain extent, so this model is open to criticism.

      Maybe that’s half the work of criticism, building something into one context or another (or building the context), implicitly arguing in support of that interpretative frame by doing so, and then judging the thing within that built context.

  3. Odwrót robotów (Kiosk 2/2013) | Ziemia Niczyja | Mariusz Herma Says:

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