Recent years have seen increasing controversy around the concept of quality in the Arts, both in terms of where it can be found and what it actually is. Many long held canonical assumptions have been attacked or overthrown on various grounds from racial and gender imbalance to cultural shifts in the wider populations. In classical music this has been particularly noticeable in the rediscoveries and promotion of music by female or black composers, but also in the increasing marginalization of classical music itself. These developments inspire many questions about the nature and purpose of Art, and the concept of quality, some of which I would like to explore here.
From the dawn of philosophy there have always been attempts to clarify the relationship between quality and taste, between the assumed objective hierarchy among works of art and the personal likes of the individual. We learn to appreciate certain things as particularly successful whilst remaining free to enjoy anything we want, and also to disagree with such assumptions, albeit while accepting their authority. We 'know' that Bach is a great composer, but might actually prefer to listen to Telemann. We might find that Weber is overrated, or that Rachmaninov is underrated for very specific reasons. We might suspect that certain composers are undervalued because of where they come from or who they were - in short, we might accept that there is a premier league of composers but that the placings are something we can debate and change with time and the changing of values.
We can also refute the very idea that one composer is better than another, and instead argue that our personal preferences are all that matter, and that there is nothing else. No authority should be able to tell us what is better or worse, and there are no criteria valid for judgement other than our likes and dislikes. In the world of liberal democracy this notion is very attractive and probably ultimately inescapable - if I am free to choose my own God, Gender and Government I must presumably be free to choose which composers I value most. The very idea of some group of people telling me that something is better, especially something that I am not especially familiar with and that sometimes feels like hard work, is absurd. In our egalitarian world how could we possibly posit that some things are better than others?
However attractive this notion might feel, there are problems with it. Quality criteria are things we unquestioningly accept in most aspects of life. We will naturally talk about better food, better furniture, better cars; many people take great interest in judging the merits of others - the most successful TV programmes are often based on judging others and establishing the most rigorous hierarchies between the achievements of our fellow citizens. One could say that the internet has spawned an almost hysterical obsession with judgment in the form of reviews to the degree that it has become a liability. The popularity of sport lies not least in its competitive nature, its clear demonstration of superiority. The idea that we refuse to accept that something is better or worse is laughable in the wider sphere of life. Judgment infects almost every minute of our beings.
It is of course the case that no one is forcing me to agree that some cars are better than others, or that a given writer is superior to another. I can disagree. I can buy whatever car I like. But nevertheless it is impossible not to acknowledge that there is a general consensus on what is better or worse, even if I myself disagree. I might prefer a Lenovo to an iPhone, might even argue that it is a better phone, but I couldn't pretend that there wouldn't be a majority opinion to the contrary. Many of the specific criteria for deciding whether one phone is better will be completely functional, ie longer battery life, longer expected life in general, more functionality, but many will be more subjective such as design and fashion. And in any case all purely functional criteria are subject to my own priorities. The free market is the clearest demonstration of our belief in quality and the social consensus it involves. An artistic canon is little else than such an agreement, over a longer period of time and a more complex and diverse list of criteria. Nobody is forcing me to listen to Beethoven, I can just as well immerse myself in wall-to-wall Cherubini. But I could hardly deny that more people feel more value in Beethoven than in Cherubini.
The concept of objective quality is very much connected to specific criteria. If we say one thing is better than another we are on the whole not thinking that God ordained it so, we are thinking of certain things it does more successfully. If we use a different list of criteria we will of course come up with a different judgment. If a table wobbles it is not as good a table as one that doesn't, unless the stability of the table is irrelevant to us. However, the stability of a table is usually quite high on the list of requirements so it tends to be a common factor in judging. Similarly there are generally factors that make a piece of music appeal to more people, and depending on the type of music these factors will vary. You wouldn't judge a pop song by the same criteria as a symphony; they are not trying to achieve the same thing. And with time the check list will change, so a symphony that fulfilled all its objectives might be less interesting a hundred years later when we are looking for different things. It is always surprising when things remain valuable over a long period: it almost seems to suggest that there are some human needs that do not change substantially, no matter how much life changes. Many of these factors may be quite difficult to put into words, hence the vast reams of texts devoted to aesthetics. But that doesn't make them less important. The ineffable may be invisible but it is not irrelevant.
Why bother to worry about whether one composer is better than another? What is the point, and is it not in some way divisive? If I belong to those who agree that iPhones are better than Lenovo phones why should I rub it in the face of my fellows? What is to be gained? There are some features of looking at things hierarchically that can be attractive in themselves. One such feature is the fact that discussing why something might be superior to another is a thinly disguised way of discussing values: if I value a composer for their originality in spite of their less beautiful music then that is a statement of what I might value in the world at large. If I value a composer because they appeal to more people then I am implicitly valuing something that commands a wide consensus. Thinking about why I value something can help me find out what is important to me, and on a social scale it can reveal what society wants at this point in time. Discussing what we value is surely the best way to decide how we want to live as a society, what things matter to us.
The philosopher Hannah Arendt took this feature even further and based her political philosophy on it: Arendt held that a well functioning society needs a common ground, a platform that all or most of its members share, something that will bind them together and give them a sense of community. To Arendt the distinction between taste and objective quality was one between private and communal.
We are entitled to like whatever we like, but for the sake of community we accept certain judgments as tokens of our community, even if we might differ in private, and the ongoing discussions on these public judgments are what forges the common bond anew every day. If we sign up to the same values we signal our commitment to the community, but that does not stop us debating these values and changing them in time. We can after all only debate something that we are both interested in - if we don't care what the other likes or dislikes because it is just a matter of taste then there is no point in debating it, and the lack of debate abandons an important tool in leading our societies where we would like them to go.
It is important here to distinguish between the artist and the art. We can value something in a work of art without condoning the artist, but equally we can determine something to be less successful without thereby suggesting that the artist is somehow deficient. The abandonment of the practice of criticising a work of art in itself that occurred during the last century and the overwhelming focus on the person of the artist that we have at present makes it very difficult to criticise something without implicitly criticising someone. Debating whether Rachmaninov or Stravinsky was a more important composer can reveal much about what we want as a society, but it should have nothing to do with Sergei or Igor.
Similarly when we decide to rebalance things, or shift the focus of our criteria we should be clear whether we are giving something more attention to redress an imbalance or whether we are assessing something anew, finding new value in it, regardless of the historical circumstances. There have been many occasions where these two legitimate desires to change perspectives have been conflated or confused. If we give more attention to someone because they have been discriminated against it is fair enough, but it does not in itself make their music more valuable - if we are claiming that some piece of music has been neglected in spite of its high worth then we must be prepared to judge it by the same criteria as everything else, and do so openly and clearly. If we do not wish to adopt the existing criteria, for instance because we believe them to be the product of unjust authority or historical mistake we can suggest new criteria, but will be reliant on expressing these clearly and persuading the rest of society to adopt them instead. Either way we have to measure things in some way that others can understand and follow. Unless of course we dismiss the whole hierarchical notion as illegitimate and irrelevant, which then has the effect of making any statements about artistic worth as meaningless for the new perspective as for the old. If there is no basis for the claim that Beethoven was a great composer then the same is true of any other, and no composer is great, or even good, outside my own back garden. Moreover, other than the social injustice of discrimination we will have nothing to complain about since the forgotten music will be of no more worth than the remembered. In fact it will be of no worth at all since there is no such thing.
These questions concern classical music in particular because it is largely a product of the past, a past with which we might have many disagreements. Society in the time of the great composers was very different, and they naturally reflect this. We cannot change the past - we can examine it, judge it, hopefully improve on it, but what was produced then, under those circumstances, is all it has left, much of it astounding. We can try to rebalance our image of what it contained, but we can't make anything appear that wasn't there if we don't want to end up like the emperor when he wanted new clothes. We can of course do better in the present, but the problem with classical music is that as far the music is concerned the present is of far less interest than the past, whether deservedly or not. That may of course change, and perhaps it should. But for the time being this is the case. That leaves the main focus of change on present day performers, in an industry which has been in a long term decline and commands less and less interest even in its heartlands, the educated elites. Involvement in classical music is thinning out constantly, with most schools in the UK only marginally interested or even aware of it, and even many elite private schools shifting their attention to jazz and musical theatre as a more readily accessible form of music. Clearly we are witnessing a change of criteria, a reassignment of value in music, which is of course what society is all about. But we should be open-eyed about what is happening, and we should be careful about abandoning the concept of a canon, or just the readiness to clearly express what we value and to criticise our art accordingly, enabling a discussion to involve as much of society as possible.
The interesting thing about classical music is that never claimed to be targeted at the wider population. It was always a minority pursuit, albeit one that declared itself available and accessible to anyone, offering something that other types of music could not. Beethoven, through Schiller, addressed the entire human race, knowing that only a small part of a small part of the world would listen. This consciousness has placed the classical tradition in a curious bind - if few people are interested it is because it is a minority pursuit, but equally why not branch out and appeal to a wider range of listeners? Does it revel in its relative obscurity or does it go for mass appeal? The humanistic messaging inherent in the music supports the latter while the complexity and technical demands make the former more likely. Whichever way one looks at it classical music will never win the numbers game, and this is perhaps where the difference lies in the matter of quality. When we judge the iPhone to have the edge over Lenovo we can list the criteria in which it performs better, but to a large degree we are using the sheer number of people who would agree to this as a backstop. In classical music there is an inbuilt block on using numbers in this way as it would be self-defeating: if we were to judge it on numbers it would lose every time, since it is never trying to appeal to as many people as possible. This goes both for the music itself and for the criteria by which it could be judged - it would be very difficult to justify a list of qualities good classical music should have that most people would agree on, and it must also be uncertain whether that would be desirable. For this reason classical music has suffered from a form of schizophrenia over the years, especially since the nineteenth century, where it claims to be speaking to every ordinary person but expressing itself in a highly complex stylised language that requires much effort to internalize.
So what about these criteria, where do we get them from, and how do we know we are choosing the best ones? We cannot choose those that appeal to the largest numbers of people as that is not really what classical music is about. Obviously we are not going to list quality criteria that appeal to as few people as possible. There is no answer. But perhaps the closest clues we have are in those works that have interested people for a long time, values that have stood the test of time, as the cliché goes. If people found Mozart valuable and meaningful in 1830 and still do now, there is probably something to it. So we can interrogate his works and try to isolate features that might make him special. We can discuss which features might be more relevant than others. We can debate whether his music is in fact that special or not. In short, we can do what critics, philosophers, amateurs and musicians have always done and keep it alive. But we should do this with reference to his music alone, that is the only thing that stands above the passing of time and fashion, and we should be prepared to argue our case with more than just our personal likes and dislikes, or no discussion is possible. It is not enough to rail against perceived illegitimate judgments carried over from the past: if we are to replace them we have to spell out what we are replacing them with, and if this includes judgements on quality we have to be clear what these are measuring.
Where does all this lead us? Perhaps to the conclusion that the changing of values and criteria need not mean abandoning the idea of quality and the discussion of what it looks like. If we can debate what is important to us, argue about it with reference to actual works, we may be able to transfer such debates to the wider issues that our societies face. If we can distinguish between what we accept for our society's sake and what we personally like, without the feeling that either is illegitimate, we may find it easier to navigate the tumultuous changes our lives are witnessing. Without such acceptance there can be no common ground, and without common ground no debate. Without acknowledgement that some constructs, be they musical or political, ethical or legal, are better when measured against specific criteria, there can also be no debate. If we wish our societies to remain social they need a common ground to debate on - and that common ground can be described as the difference between quality and taste.
Copyright © 28 April 2023