Post from 554, September 2010

Likes, Dislikes, and Quality

Sunday, 5. September 2010 21:50

I remember explaining to my English professor that I just did not like the (American) romantic poets.  She informed me, in her British accent (which gives any academic an air of authority), that it was not important what I, or anyone for that matter, liked or disliked; what was necessary was that I understand what made those particular poems good.  It was one of the most valuable pieces of advice I ever got.

I find that students often dismiss a play or a movie or some other work or art that they do not like as not worth the time it would take to understand it, or at least figure out how it works, or know why it might or might not be important. And I think that many of us who are not formally students do the same thing.  We often confuse what we like with what is good, thus making the individual, educated or not, the arbiter of quality.  Without troubling ourselves to really examine the work in question, we fail to apply some standards outside our own personal feelings to determine quality.

I moved on in the course, and I remember how pleased I was with myself when I finally figured out exactly what those romantic poets were doing, how their poems worked, what made them good. I still did not like them, but I understood the difference.  And that was important.

My taste has changed since those days; the quality of the romantic poets has not.  My opinion of at least some of the romantic poets has modulated; the quality of the poems remains unchanged.

The capability to make that distinction between quality and personal appeal is an ability that every critic must have, and by “critic” I mean everyone who renders an opinion. That ability is even more important in today’s world of instant electronic, often uninformed, opinion than it was when I was learning it as an undergraduate.

You may be saying, “But my opinion matters. What I like and don’t like is significant.” Of course it is. It’s called taste. It’s part of what you bring to the art work. And it is important to you, and maybe even to the people you hang out with.  It is not, however, the determinant of the quality or worth of a piece of work. That is something that the artist puts in.

I am not suggesting that, like Phaedrus in Robert M Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, we spend our lives and our sanity in the pursuit of the nature of quality, although I think that is quite possible. I am suggesting that, before we spout our opinions about a piece of art, that we learn enough, educate ourselves sufficiently to have some foundation to begin to determine the quality of that piece.

Category:Aesthetics, Criticism | Comment (0) | Author: