Sunday, July 13, 2014

Arbiter elegantiarum

The Roman writer and courtier Petronius, usually taken to be the author of Satyricon, was given the title arbiter elegantiarum which is defined as "a judge of artistic taste and etiquette". Doesn't that describe quite well the function of The Music Salon? Of course my main struggle is just to defend the idea that there is such a thing as artistic taste and etiquette.

Or is this just a narcissistic delusion?

I have posted at some length about the problem of relativism in aesthetics, which turns out to be very similar to the problem of relativism in ethics. Here, here and here are a set of three posts on aesthetics taking my cue from the writings of the philosopher David Hume.

I don't intend to take the discussion any further than I did in those three rather lengthy posts. I think I have clarified the issue enough for my purposes. But let me just pull out a couple of fundamentals. The most brilliant counter to relativism in ethics was a comment by Bertrand Russell that I quoted in the first Hume post. He said:
"I cannot see how to refute the arguments for the subjectivity of ethical values, but I find myself incapable of believing that all that is wrong with wanton cruelty is that I don't like it."
Hume, however, did, I think, give some pretty good arguments refuting the absolute relativism of aesthetic judgment, which I discuss in those posts. The bottom line is that objective aesthetic judgement is possible if the critic is knowledgable, experienced and has the delicacy of perception necessary. All sorts of biases can interfere with true judgment, so the critic must be careful to avoid any hindrance or distraction, most of all coming from his own biases. There is a sound foundation to all aesthetic appreciation, which lies in the universal nature of human sentiment and the human organs of perception. We all have approximately the same ears and the same brain, though we differ in the details. Some have more acute hearing than others, but for the most part, the differences in hearing are due to variations in our ability to listen. With ear training our listening skills are improved. With knowledge and experience we can hear and identify expressive devices in music such as the appoggiatura and modulation.

But there are still practical problems that limit the ability of any critic to render objective judgements. No-one can be thoroughly knowledgeable in all styles and genres of music. Even though I grew up listening to my mother play old-time fiddle tunes, I am no judge of fiddle music. I can appreciate, to some extent, bluegrass music, but I hesitate to render judgment on it. Why is this? I have never played bluegrass and so lack practical experience with it. Neither have I studied its history and theory and become familiar with the important repertoire and players. Without this, any comments I make will be superficial and prone to error.

None of us has the time and talents to become knowledgeable about every field of music--it is simply too vast. But on the other hand, as we progress through life, we are attracted to some areas and bored or repulsed by other areas in music. We are forced, all the time, to make judgments on a mere smattering of evidence. Because there is no time to become familiar with everything, we have to choose which kinds of music we will invest our time in.

So we are confronted with a paradox: on the one hand, we cannot make objective judgments without a certain depth of knowledge and experience. On the other hand, we simply do not have the time and energy to give every field of music that sort of attention. So we progress by trial and error, just like in most fields of human endeavor. We make general judgements about the large continents of music and narrow things down that way. A long, long time ago I made a snap judgement about classical music, based on listening to a few pieces. The judgement was that this was a much more interesting and powerful field of music than the rock or old-time music that was all I had known up to then.

From time to time, often in connection with posts on this blog, I re-test this judgment by doing some listening in other areas like current pop or jazz. On the whole, I find that my estimate remains correct. Though, from time to time, in areas like contemporary music and jazz, it is certainly challenged!

And then there are the Beatles...


1 comment:

Rickard Dahl said...

Hmm, yes. We seem to end up in a range of music that we enjoy and are familiar with. While we may want to stay in our musical comfort zone, it's important to challenge ourselves by listening to something outside of it. However, some music is just not worth the time, in my case that is most of pop music. Some music is on the other hand very worth of exploring, in my case most of classical music.