Sunday, April 19, 2015

Aesthetic vs Economic Value

I just read a blog post in which the writer is discussing the difficulties in trying to reprogram a young person who has been miseducated into believing all sorts of nonsense about economics. The author writes:
Anything: good, labor, service, all it's worth is what someone else will pay for it. If you want your good, labor or service to be worth more, then it's up to you to make it worth more. That's a fact of human existence as immutable as gravity is in the physical world. Any philosophy, political or sociological, that denies that simple truth is destined to fail, utterly and catastrophically.
Which is a nicely uncompromising statement of fundamental economic truth. The only problem is, he bills this theory as a theory of "value" tout simple. All value. OK, if the value of something is what someone will pay for it, nothing more, then what is the value of the Bach B minor Mass? The Herreweghe recording is available on Amazon for $24.43. Is that the value of the work? Well, no, because, for one thing, the ontological status of a piece of music means that it includes the totality of all presentations of the piece including the original score and all subsequent performances and arrangements of it. That's pretty hard to calculate. But it still doesn't actually deal with what I consider the most important aspect of the value of the piece: its aesthetic value. What is aesthetic, as opposed to economic value? There is also another kind of value that is left out of the above argument: moral value. I don't think that anyone, even those who would question the very existence of aesthetic value, would deny that moral value exists. Well, some might, which tempts me to go over to their place and steal their car. Hey, there is no such thing as right and wrong!

Economic value can be measured in units of currency, but how can we measure aesthetic or moral value? I suppose that the justice system, when it is functioning properly, is a mechanism for weighing moral value, at least as defined by laws. If you are bit bad, you get fined, if you are very bad, you go to jail for a certain amount of time. But this mechanism is about measuring degrees of badness. The civil justice system weighs both goodness and badness, I suppose, as it tries to determine between two or more disputing sides which one has more right on their side.

But aesthetic value is very, very tricky. If we return to my original question, what is the aesthetic value of the Bach B Minor Mass, we would be puzzled to offer an answer. For one thing, we don't seen to have any units available. There is a whole panoply of awards for composers today, such as the Pulitzer Prize in music, awarded to John Luther Adams in 2014 for his Become Ocean, or the Glenn Gould Prize, just awarded to Philip Glass, or the Grawemeyer Award for Music Composition given to Esa-Pekka Salonen in 2011 for his Violin Concerto. If these awards are a proxy for aesthetic quality, then we could add up how many awards a composer has received and take that as a measure of aesthetic quality. That is certainly how the current musical world seems to operate. There are prizes for performers as well.

I hope that makes you as uncomfortable as it makes me! One artist, opposed to these kinds of prizes, said that a musician is not a race-horse. There are lots of reasons why we should be suspicious of these awards. Sometimes they seem to be given for superficial reasons. One suspects that Adams got the Pulitzer for writing a politically-correct work. You would certainly be denied awards if your music was conspicuously politically incorrect. The award is really only as good as the quality of the jurors who made the decision. If they are composers, then ideological rivalries will play a role. If they are "cultural figures" as in the jury for the Glenn Gould prize, then they will tend to pick someone who has a name and is considered cool, like Philip Glass. The Grawemeyer Award goes through three stages: (quoting from Wikipedia)
The first is a panel of faculty from the University of Louisville, who hosts and maintains the perpetuity of the award. The second is a panel of music professionals, often involving conductors, performers, and composers (most frequently the previous winner). The final decision is made by a lay committee of new music enthusiasts who are highly knowledgeable about the state of new music. This final committee of amateurs makes the final prize determination because Grawemeyer insisted that great ideas are not exclusively the domain of academic experts.
Which seems to me to be the best system of the ones I know. You will not win the prize unless you can appeal to all three: academics, professional musicians and enthusiastic listeners.

I am reminded of the dilemma Plato presents in the Euthyphro: is murder wrong because God (or the gods) condemn it, or do the gods condemn it because it is wrong? Applied to the aesthetic question, is the music of prize-winning composers good because they won prizes or did they win prizes because their music is good? The answer I think is correct is that aesthetic value transcends whatever prizes the composer may have won. In fact, if you win a lot of prizes it may just mean that you are writing exactly what the jurors are looking for, i.e. something fashionable.

I lean to the view that while we can, at any given moment, have better or worse aesthetic judgements, depending on how well they are founded, our knowledge is always imperfect and it can take quite some time for the more balanced judgment of posterity to become clear.

A very important process crucial to the formation of well-founded aesthetic valuations is the role of music critics. They are the ones who should be digging up important information, passing over unimportant information, weighing the reception of the music and coming up with evaluations that may well evolve over time. Alas, this whole field of activity seems denatured these days with the disappearance of many music critics and the lowering in quality of many of those who are left. Too many writers on music have little or no understanding of music and merely pass on their biases to their readers.

We might, just a tad frivolously, measure aesthetic value according to a scale derived from Bach. A new piece for voices and orchestra, such as Thomas Adès' Totentanz, might, after suitable examination and reflection be awarded a value such as 0.01 B Minor Masses. Not enough? OK, how about .02 B minor Masses? In other words, it would take 50 Totentanzes to equal one B minor Mass. Seems about right...

Let's have a listen to Herreweghe's B minor Mass:


Anonymous said...

Prizes are bad. One way to see why is to consider the old question: what is honoring what?

The latest recipients of the Nobel prize were honored by the accolade (quick: name them and tell me what they discovered?). On the other hand, by giving it to Einstein or Heisenberg, the Nobel prize was the party honored by the transaction, because the two scientists were way above a mere honor like a Nobel, so the honoring flowed the other way.

So we end up with the paradox where, if your work is honored by the prize, then it probably doesn't deserve it. And if the prize is honored by your work, then your work doesn't need the honor.

Picture Bach today receiving a Pulitzer for his Mass in Bm. Whoop Dee Doo! And perhaps next year, Beethoven will get one for this piano sonatas.

The whole idea is laughable.

Bryan Townsend said...


And sometimes both are dishonored...

But you can only be aware of this if you have a transcendental standard.