In defense of art critics

My main Covid posse has been a group of musicians riffing on Facebook Messenger about music and whatever. Opinions fly and the tenor of the talk is brusque, full of vinegar and bristle. Feelings get hurt, and then everything is cool again.

I think we all experience personal taste as a mysterious function of our essence. Why we like what we like is a complex accident of culture, history, experience, genetics, identity, class, and an element of will. We like to believe that our taste is organic and true, our one infallible guide to the genuine within us and around us: affinity-based, truth-seeking, aloof to the persuasions of culture and crowdthink. We can’t articulate what we like in one theoretical formula, but we know it when we see it.

Yeah, I am not sure. If we poke around people’s qualitative opinions of art looking for some degree of consistency and philosophical coherence, as I have been doing in nearly ten years as a publishing music critic, what we usually find is a chaos of contradiction, incongruity and expedient rationalization.

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Is there such a thing as objectively good art? Or is “quality” a sliding cultural standard and the pooled investment of an audience? Track people’s judgment over time and you will find most people believe both. They believe in absolute, in-dwelling genius and greatness when it is convenient, and then they believe there is “no accounting for taste” and “it’s all about what you think it means” when it serves their emotional or argumentative purpose in the moment. A working theory of art has little to do with why what we like.

Great artists, it has often been noted, are almost always wrong about why their art is great. And so it is with audiences too — wrong about why we like what we like. Clueless, even. Still, so much is illuminated in the process of arguing about it. I believe wholeheartedly, as a matter of religion, almost, in the functionally fruitless act of debating the quality, the relevance, the meaning, and the influence of art. Nothing is decided and no one ever wins, but arguing about it serves its own oblique and enriching purposes. It is a uniquely human kind of fun, though people will get hurt.

Read more installments of Village Voices by John Burdick.

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