The other week Ivan Hewett wrote a widely-clicked article arguing Maurice Ravel was “almost a great composer.” Most immediately, a bunch of musicians sprung to social media to declaim in Ravel’s defense. A few of them offered substantive arguments; many of us—myself included—just posted favorite recordings and said things like “See? SEE?!” It made for a fun, trifling Friday-afternoon opportunity for a far-flung group of composers to revel in a mutual artistic adoration. I mean, the slow movement of the G Major Piano Concerto! See? See?!
My friend Alex Temple did not join the conversation on its own terms, but rather with typical incisiveness tweeted the following:
“I have to say I can’t see why it matters at all whether a canonized composer is ‘great’ or ‘almost great.’”
“[hazy soft-focus vision of an art world where people don’t feel the need to rank and evaluate everything]”
By coincidence, I had just days previous encountered George Orwell’s amazing essay Lear, Tolstoy and the Fool. Leo Tolstoy, as it turns out, hated the works of William Shakespeare. Late in life he supposedly reread the bard’s complete plays to test his opinion, and finding only corroboration of his previous reactions, he then wrote a pamphlet in which he lambasted King Lear in particular.
Orwell, like Alex, was smart enough to respond to a sweeping aesthetic judgment against a canonized artist not by debating its conclusion, but by casting light on its premises:
“One's first feeling is that in describing Shakespeare as a bad writer he is saying something demonstrably untrue. But this is not the case. In reality there is no kind of evidence or argument by which one can show that Shakespeare, or any other writer, is ‘good’. Nor is there any way of definitely proving that — for instance — Warwick Beeping is ‘bad’. Ultimately there is no test of literary merit except survival, which is itself an index to majority opinion. Artistic theories such as Tolstoy's are quite worthless, because they not only start out with arbitrary assumptions, but depend on vague terms (‘sincere’, ‘important’ and so forth) which can be interpreted in any way one chooses. Properly speaking one cannot answer Tolstoy's attack. The interesting question is: why did he make it?”
It’s a terribly brilliant piece of writing; I’ll link it rather than attempting further summary.
Orwell points out that essentially, artistic quality has no objective basis. We can establish our own metrics, though they’re almost certain to “depend on vague terms”—one of Hewett’s is the “sense of discovery,” which he finds lacking in Ravel. In the end there is no way to measure this, nor sincerity nor importance nor greatness itself, the way we might measure the height of a building or the mass of a watermelon.
Nonetheless, quality remains an extremely useful concept for expressing preferences and sharing aesthetic values. We will still use this idea, discuss and debate it. It underlies the search represented by our own work, and it gives shape to the way we apprehend the vast ocean of art that’s already out there.
I had the following realization this morning: many of my serious-musician friends operate every day under the assumption that most art in the world is bad, and that creating good art is tremendously hard. This is not an incorrect way to think, and it’s easy to see how they get there. There’s a hell of a lot of art in the world, and you have to sort it somehow. Moreover, we all work awfully hard at getting better, and it doesn’t reflect too well on us or our toil if we admit that, present opinions aside, our clumsy, early efforts contain just as much nobility and honesty as our later ones.
On my better days at least, though, this is my approach. In the deepest, weirdest chambers of my heart I actually believe that most art in the world is good, that there is a basic good to all of this artistic effort in the ocean, and the hard thing is recognizing it and letting it in. The challenge is opening yourself to it, whatever it is, however overwhelmed you might be, whatever ramifications it might suggest for your own art. Whatever it is, to see it as it is, and to let it live within you.
Worldview 1: Most art is bad; it’s hard to be good.
Worldview 2: Most art is good; it’s hard to see good.
Neither approach actually affects the art. My words, “nobility” and “honesty,” are basically the same “vague terms” Orwell noticed in Tolstoy’s argument, and in any situation to praise their presence or to inveigh against that of “clumsiness” or the like has no effect whatsoever on the actual work. This is what Rilke was getting at when he wrote, in his Letters to a Young Poet, “Works of art are of an infinite solitude, and no means of approach is so useless as criticism. Only love can touch and hold them and be fair to them.”
No, choosing one worldview or the other changes the art not at all, but it might change your whole life.
I used to direct hatred toward a great deal of music. I’d level it at whole styles and scenes, at specific composers or bands, usually consequent more of their contexts and social implications than of their musical characteristics. Lately, though, I’ve adopted a different mental model. It’s not that some things are bad. It’s simply that I haven’t regained them yet. This is akin to the new-age notion of human soul progress. I imagine myself to have fallen from some primordial state of universal acceptance, and every time I’m suddenly able to see the good in some music I’d previously dismissed as cheesy or boring, naive or pretentious, I have achieved a higher level of evolution. I’ll never be able to appreciate everything—this is my human frailty—but oh, I will try.
In tarot, the sequence of the twenty-two major arcana is initiated by a card called the Fool. This figure is dressed as a jester or vagabond. The sun shines on him, he carries his possessions in a knapsack, he holds a flower—and he is completely unaware that he is about to walk off a cliff.
In archetypal tarot analysis the Fool represents the unencumbered soul setting off in search of experience, buoyed by blind enthusiasm and a childlike ability to see and accept the world as it is. The card is numbered either zero or twenty-two, which makes it simultaneously the beginning and end of the journey. It is the innocence of our early works and the integrated understanding of our late ones. We might spend much of our artistic lives defining ourselves by what we like and against what we don’t, only to realize at the end of the trail that the sun shone with equal deference on all of it.
The Fool is not my personality, but my aspiration. Like the figure on the card, I’d like to depart each day on the joyful journey to make and understand music, totally oblivious to the perils that might befall my every footstep. I’ll walk off the cliff, if cliffs are what’s out there. I wonder what sort of music they make down in the canyon? Give me the experience.
Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard
Are sweeter; therefore, ye soft pipes, play on;
(John Keats, "Ode on a Grecian Urn")
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