Saturday, April 11, 2009

Variety is a Good Place to Start Figuring Things Out on Your Own

I have written before about the illusion of freedom of choice as it pertains to the cinema. Rosenbaum calls it a conspiracy; I recognize it as the invisible hand of the market. Yet it speaks of something else as well. Just look at the Oscars: Kate Winslett, Sean Penn, Ron Howard; Nazis, oppressed minorities, important historical moments – the same people doing the same thing year after year. If it is a conspiracy it is one that we are all too happy submit to. It is every bit as much a psychological yearning as cultural one that is answered by repeatedly rewarding the same people for the same accomplishments. Quite simply, we (do I mean “Americans” or do I mean “humans?” I am not sure) like to be reassured that important stuff is important, that our tastes are refined and that we are in on the good stuff. Any stream of criticism that interrupts the flow reassuring hegemony (never recognized as hegemony of course) is quite naturally met with resistance. That there is a wide world of endless variety not sanctioned by the forces that shape cultural norms is denied at seemingly every level of discourse.

I know this is true because I read guitar magazines. There are basically two of them that dominate the scene, Guitar Player and Guitar World. After reading both for a number of years, I have reached the conclusion that they exist to put Eddie Van Halen, Randy Rhoads, Jimmy Page, Dimebag, Zakk Wylde and Metallica on various lists: fastest guitarists, most influential guitarists, greatest song, greatest album etc. It is not just the uniformity; it is that they would give the impression that they are inclusive. Of course they are anything but. In a recent anniversary issue the editors apologized for being caught up in the “grunge” moment in the early nineties and over-estimated the importance of the likes of Thurston Moore, Lee Renaldo, Kim Thayil and Billy Corgan. Thankfully they found the way back to real guitar players like Zakk Wylde.

For the moment my point is not whether one kind of guitar playing is better than the other. My discussions with people about movies and music often lead to the accusation that I must not like anything. “You don’t like Van Halen? You don’t like Nickelback? You don’t like Steve Miller? Jesus, you must not like anything!” Part of this is the simple problem of equating what one likes with all that is available to be liked. But beyond this is what I would call the real problem we have culturally and psychologically: all that different stuff we like really isn’t that different from each other. That is what drives me crazy about these guitar magazines. They occasionally give us a break from the onslaught of Eddie Van Halen and Randy Rhoads to talks about the guitarist from Disturbed or Slipknot or Avenged Sevenfold. What about Peter Buck? Robert Smith? Ian MacKaye and Guy Picciotto? Is playing a lot of notes really fast the only standard by which we judge?

I have been thinking a lot lately about the meaning of taste, and all I come up with is that the word needn’t be used anymore. Most people cannot really be said to have “taste” since all that they “like” is all that is familiar to them, and everything is judged by how well it fits in with what they already know/like. Little wonder that most of us the same things i.e. sports, sitcoms, reality shows, Grammy music, McDonalds. That isn’t really taste. It’s just cultural conditioning. Taste is never a meaningful position; it is always an out. We use phrases like: “Not my cup of tea,” “Not my thing,” “not what I’m into” and the like to insulate ourselves from criticism and avoid reflection and conversation. For most people not liking something amounts to a rejection of that which is unfamiliar. It is easy to see how we conflate this with taste, because it lends itself to an analogy with food: I don’t like this flavor in my mouth because it is unfamiliar to me. That’s why little kids and a lot people we grew up with spit out new bites of food. The problem with the word “taste” as it is used in common parlance is that it conflates a sense of cultivation and erudition with taste buds on the tongue. It attributes taste buds to eyes, ears and ways of thinking.

Thinking about taste led me to go back and re-read a chapter from Giorgio Agamben’s Man without Content about the “Man of Taste.” Agamben has his own ideas about the role taste plays in aesthetic consciousness and how that role has changed over the last 350 or so years, and some of them are interesting. I recommend this book to any interested reader, as I am not interested in summarizing Agamben’s thoughts, but in a path not taken in his essay. Early on he says that what has developed into something called “aesthetic judgment,” in our times, began in seventeenth century Europe (mostly France and Italy) as something called “taste.” I would emphasize the notion of development because it would mean that aesthetic judgment is the cultural maturity of taste, NOT that aesthetic judgment is ultimately reducible to taste. The significant conclusion to draw from this, for my argument, is that we don’t really have “taste” anymore. There is no substance to the notions of good and bad taste, and in any event we don’t use the word to mean anything like what it meant when it first appeared. I think what we have now is a spectrum of better and worse aesthetic judgments, and we call them personal taste to avoid submitting them to the kind of critical inquiry one would expect of an aesthetic judgment.

Let me save aesthetic judgments for another time. The point is not that I like R.E.M and U2 better than Slayer and Metallica, but that I can listen to both. Life is about being open to the new and the other. It is about trying food that you would not normally eat, going places you would not usually spend your time, talking to people you may not immediately like and soaking up all the art you can find. But this is not merely an issue of quantity vs. quality. Rather I would argue that one learns about quality from quantity. The curator of the Metropolitan does not think that all the paintings in the collection are equal. A place is made for all of them so that people can learn by comparing and contrasting. A lack of difference atrophies perception and clouds experience. A person who listens to nothing but the fast guitarists that Hard Rock and Metal have to offer will lack not just appreciation of Music in general, but will ultimately lack any real understanding of Hard Rock or Metal either!