15 September 2012

Theme 4: Excellence Trumps Taste

If I gave a 5-talk series on Christians and the Arts, the fourth theme would be:
4. Excellence Triumphs over Taste

[part one]

The worship wars are ugly and divisive. I understand this, and I don't want to exacerbate them by insisting for “my taste” over somebody else's “taste.”

I'll bet you're thinking of MUSIC right now, especially in the context of a discussion of the arts in church. Yes, matters of taste do tend to get most passionately expressed in discussions of worship music, but I also think they get in the way of deeper conversation on many of the arts.

You see, there are many differences between taste and standards. The differences are important. I strongly believe that discussions about the inclusion of various works of art in worship should almost ignore taste and should instead focus on standards.

Taste is superficial, individual, personal, subjective, and cultural. Taste most frequently reveals itself in the choice of genres and of individual artists. Someone has a taste for, say, Broadway show tunes or Schubert song cycles, just as someone has a taste for buffalo wings or fine claret. They may be a matter of genetics or of social construction: where, when, and by whom the person was raised and educated. They can be developed through education, exposure, patience, and the enthusiasm of others. They are strictly sub-cultural. They have to do with likes and dislikes, rather than with quality.

Standards are also cultural, but in the sense that they have evolved from the collective wisdom and experience of an entire tradition. They arise from a culture and are therefore “universal” within the (large) limits of that culture, and so are not sub-cultural, but are rather one of the more important forms of cultural capital.

While some “standards” may still be subjective, they are communally subjective, rather than individually. For instance, measures for evaluating whether one composer's counterpoint is more skillful than another's are not purely based on what a critic or scholar “likes”: they are based on how well the composer handles the rigorous rules of his craft, which in turn are based both on cultural concepts of what sounds good and on strict mathematical relationships between intervals and so forth.

Let me repeat and strengthen that last point: there are some elements of standards that are scientifically objective. Some have to do with the proportions of sound waves or architectural lines; some with the realities of human anatomy; some with the physical properties of paints and canvas and brush strokes. For example: One may judge an artist's drawing of a human nude based on, among other this, how correctly it renders the realities of human anatomy. Of course there are other criteria as well, and there are cases in which realism was not a goal. But there are cases in which that standard may be applied, and it is at least partially objective.

Here is another example. The human voice, especially the untrained singing voice, has certain physical realities, including limitations, that the songwriter must take into account. For instance, there is something called the “>passaggio
,” a place where there is a kind of “break” or shift in the singer's voice as he or she sings upward through a scale. Trained singers learn to negotiate this change in register smoothly, and to sing above it with strength and power. Untrained singers—the congregants in any church—cannot negotiate it as well. This is simply a fact of anatomy. Therefore, songwriters who are writing for congregational singing MUST shape their melodies so that the melodic line does not hover around or stay in the passaggio. The melody may use those notes, but usually as high points in the musical passages.

Here is another example. Because of the physics of breath and voice, spoken words always have both pitch and accent. You cannot speak a word out loud without giving it a musical pitch (whispering is precisely speech without pitch). In English, pitch usually doesn't matter: a word does not change meaning if you say it on a higher or a lower note. Therefore, composers who are setting English texts to music do not need to take pitch relationships into account for expressing the meaning of the text; they are free to use whatever pitches they deem beautiful or dramatic, etc. There are languages which are>tonal languages
, such as Mandarin Chinese, in which speaking a word higher or lower, or with a rise or fall in pitch, does change its meaning. Obviously composers working with those texts need another whole set of compositional tools.

But English does, of course, use stress—accented and unaccented syllables—in the making of meaning. The word REcord is different from the word reCORD; CONtent is not the same as conTENT. So a songwriter needs to set the accented syllables on the strong beats of a measure. This is, then, an “objective” standard that can be applied to the evaluation of music.

Let me circle back around again to my distinctions between “taste” and “standards,” and I'll continue using worship music as a sort of touchstone for examples and application.

Taste determines which genre is used in worship (say, praise songs vs. hymns): choices of taste should be made by the worship committee based on the demographic of the congregation (age, education, geographic location of origin or present residence, ethnicity, etc). All genres are valid for use in worship, and the demographic of the congregation—its collective “taste”—should determine which genre(s) a particular church uses.

But standards determine which pieces (from within that genre) are chosen for worship, and how they are played, with what instrumentation, and by whom: choices of standards MUST be made by professionals and highly-trained amateurs in the field, not by pastors or by congregational surveys regardless of what people “like.” Those who know about the setting of texts to music should evaluate songs based on how well they join meaning and melody, accents to measures. Those who know about the singing ability of a congregation should choose songs that fit the untrained human voice. Those who know about the history of music should decide on the instrumentation that best fits each piece. And so forth.

OK, I'm planning to follow this up with another post about the theological importance of excellence, but that's almost enough to be going on with today, eh? Here's the question of the day: What standards for evaluating art are “objective”? Which are nearly objective? And which are culturally subjective, meaning that they have been created by a very great number of highly-educated people over a very long time, so that they have come to be accepted and applicable to all the works within that tradition?


bob jetson said...

As you yourself noted, while you (arguably) provide some differentia for distinguishing 'tastes' from 'standards' (or 'stands' if I am to believe that last word in the 3rd paragraph); this is all highly irrelevent without FIRST establishing that 'better' or 'more excellent' music/art is necessary in worship.

Why should I bother to apply your criteria and sort music into categories of 'better' and 'worse' if in the end these categories bear no relation to worship? As it stands now, I understand your argument to be 'we should use better (as defined by the criteria here) music over worse music because this suits my tastes'. I know you intend to address exactly this in your next article, but of all the possible arguments I have considered, I do not find one that argues 'better' music is truly BETTER music for worship. of course, this is based upon my presuppositions and interpretations, etc.

I look forward to your next article, for the sole purpose of discovering whether I indeed missed something in my analysis of the situation.

jfutral said...

Ultimately they are all subjective. I may argue that excellence does not equate to standards (see, you've already imposed a subjective definition to "excellence", since the question that should be asked is "excellence in/at what?"), and I would certainly argue (and have) that excellence or standards do not trump or define art.

Even in your example "One may judge an artist's drawing of a human nude based on, among other this [sic?], how correctly it renders the realities of human anatomy." this will depend on how well it depicts the particular nude being painted. Even the realists would often play fast and loose with the human form, exaggerating to highlight a part they favoured, such as Rubens and elongating the female back, or Bottecelli's Venus and her anatomically impossible shoulders, neck, and elongated torso.

I am not saying craft is not important. My point is that craft is not art. Something can be well crafted and have absolutely no impact. Rothko once said about something being well painted:

"It is a widely accepted notion among painters that it does not matter what one paints as long as it is well painted. This is the essence of academic painting…. However, there is no such thing as a good painting about nothing”.

C. S. Lewis once said in God in the dock, "I disliked very much their hymns, which I considered fifth rate poetry set to sixth rate music. But as I went on I saw the great merit of it. I came up against different people of quite different outlooks and different education, and then gradually my conceit just began peeling off. I realized that the hymns (which were just sixth rate music) were, nevertheless, being sung with devotion and benefit by an old saint in elastic side boots in the opposite pew, and then you realize that you aren't fit to clean those boots."

It would be hard to argue that B. B. King's technique is equal to Segovia's. But King's work is no less worthwhile.

If I accept the argument that excellence is somehow equatable to scientific fact, then I can only add that facts without context is pretty meaningless. So, excellence or standards without taste is equally meaningless. Taste can give us the context of judging the value of the standards.

To me it is kind of like trying to argue that only one quality of the three—beauty, truth or goodness—is important or most important over the others.


jfutral said...

As for English and pitch conveying meaning, pitch may not change the _definition_ of a word, but I can't think of any linguist that would argue, even with the English language, pitch does not play a part in conveying _meaning_.


Iambic Admonit said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Iambic Admonit said...

Good chat! Great ideas.

Just a reminder to try to stay cheery in our tone & diction as much as possible, y'all. Thanks.

@bob jetson: Why does one need to establish the necessity of excellence BEFORE discussing the difference between taste and standards? Either is a reasonably logical method of proceeding (especially in a blog, which is a casual forum for trying out ideas). Defining terms before arguing about their application is a classic method of proceeding.

I'll address some of your other thoughts in my follow-up post, when I can. Thanks!

bob jetson said...

I don't believe there is a "need" to "establish the necessity of excellence BEFORE discussing the difference between taste and standards" in the sense that as a blog, the author of that blog obviously may present their thoughts in any progression they desire.

This being said, it does seem out of place to present first the tool for doing a job that hasn't been demonstrated as needing done. In order to be most efficient, it makes sense to only craft tools for jobs that need doing. Therefore, to craft a tool for a job we are as of yet incertain needs doing appears premature.

In other words, you proposed a solution for a problem that hasn't been defined yet (or rather, for something that hasn't been defined as a 'problem' yet). This begs the question:'is it reasonable to expect the reader to appreciate the proposed solution to a problem that doesn't currently exist?' (meaning that it is only a problem if evidence is provided to demonstrate it as such).

Therefore, I do think it is "necessary" to present your argument for the position that 'art in church should be excellent' (or at least, 'excellent art in church is better than non-excellent art in church') before giving us the criteria we are to use to discard/minimize 'non-excellent' works of art within the church.

jfutral said...

Really, only time and people are the standards which judge art. Bach was not considered all that great in his time, even somewhat common. It was centuries before Vermeer was rediscovered and proclaimed master artist. The jury is still out and debate still rages on artists such as Bourgereau and Pollock (two diametrically opposed styles).

As far as I am concerned, and to reiterate, the preaching for objective standards whether from the pulpit, the secular world (such as Scruton), or even from the galleries and museums, is so fraught with power struggles as to make the debate all but useless. It is the Modern dilemma of a human created system taking on more importance than that which the system was created to support.

If the discussion was more along the lines of "What are some objective ideas that might come into play when assessing a work of art?" rather than "What objective standards will dictate what is and isn't art?" I would be more amenable to such a discussion.

Ah, the irrational drive for certainty and quantifiable "truth". What a tragic siren.