In the old days, before “long-haired music” came to mean the Beatles, those unfortunates who did not like “classical music” would just shrug and say that they were sure it was wonderful, but it was not for them. This diffidence has been replaced with the erroneous assertion that everything is a matter of taste and everyone’s taste is just as good as anyone else’s. This seems democratic and, to some, obvious, but is it true? I think not. There must be some difference between informed taste and mere prejudice.
Let me argue it this way. While it may be impossible to prove that one work of art is “better” than another, it is possible to adumbrate it. If one were to ask all organists who can play with both feet who the great organ composers were, one could draw a Venn diagram with Johann Sebastian Bach enshrined in the center. Almost all organists worship the pedals over which Bach danced. Similarly, if Eric Clapton were flying in to hear the rock band of a friend of yours, you would be impressed. The point is that, even if one cannot prove that Bach is wonderful by some logical aesthetic, the fact that those who have the skill to play Bach’s music are besotted by it is a good indication that Bach is objectively great.
This is what I call the sanior pars argument, showing that taste is more than a matter of taste. In the Middle Ages, civic government was hardly democratic; it was in the hands of those who had social weight. One guild master was worth any number of apprentices. This is surely true of taste as well. Sometimes this is difficult to understand: When the artist Charles Ryder assures Lady Cordelia in Brideshead Revisited that indeed modern art was “very great bosh,” he has a point. Even so, when art critics swoon over a Picasso that looks like the artist suffered from visual impairment, one still needs to look again. Perhaps one can be informed into Picasso. There may be something analogous in art to the mandatory school figures in ice-skating. Picasso would be hard to dismiss because at least he could draw. This, too, has its limitations, say when it comes to Jackson Pollock. (I would love a Pollock! Christie’s would get a telephone call at once.)
There is bad art, or at least incomprehensible art, such as the upside grand piano exploding from the ceiling of London’s Tate Modern. Some emperors are actually naked, but it is better to be a bit informed before one starts to point and laugh. When I was working on my second of many degrees, I had to read Madame Bovary. At the time I though it among the dreariest books I had ever read. In my thirties, I found myself having to discuss it again. All I can say is that either Flaubert or I had improved immeasurably since we first met. (We teach great works in the University out of fear our students will otherwise never read them. Relatively few undergraduates are ready for King Lear, but we are so afraid they will stop reading when they are graduated that we teach them things that perhaps even their teachers are not yet ready to understand.)
Developing one’s taste thus necessitates not only a good education but the willingness to try things more than once. This is sometimes a hard sell. I never wanted to take Lady Gaga away from my students – indeed, she now sings with Tony Bennett. What I wanted to do was to increase their delight. I still like the Beatles and even the Four Seasons’ “Oh, What A Night,” though it is probably a bad idea to try to explain why I like a song about male defloration. But I would like to add to my student’s listening what I consider the greatest of all musical compositions, Bach’s B Minor Mass. It would increase their pleasure and their knowledge. To dismiss it without a hearing is to diminish both one’s knowledge and one’s informed pleasure.
In the end, Bach, Michelangelo, and Shakespeare, and for that matter, Josquin, Zurbarán, and Christopher Fry are in an artistic class by themselves. They may be an acquired taste, but one should make the attempt to acquire that taste. There is bad art in all genres, e.g. the “Marshmallow Poets” are in bad taste because they lie about the human condition, emoting rather than understanding. To paraphrase my reaction to them, “The sun’lI come out tomorrow, / I’ll be dead, but the sun’ll come out tomorrow.” Unlike the author in Die Vierde Mann, they do not “lie the truth”; they lie a lie and thereby treacalize the world.
It is fairly rare in the history of the Humanities that a great figure is completely neglected. Vivaldi’s current popularity is arguably a modern revival, but Bach transcribed his works. Even Bach, considered a great organist in his age, was neglected in the concert hall until Mendelssohn conducted his masterpieces, yet the composers who came right after him knew about him. There is a story that Mozart attended the Thomaskirche in Leipzig and heard the choir singing one of Bach’s motets. After the service, he asked to look at the score and was seen turning the pages and smiling.
Of course, there is also mere taste when it comes to what one likes – I lack what C. S. Lewis would call the maturity to appreciate Paradise Lost. I can tell you why I am not fond of it, but I would be a very great fool to think that, because I am not a fan of Milton, that the fault is all Milton’s. On the other hand, to think the zeitgeist can replace the Old Masters (who “were never wrong about suffering,” as Auden reminds us) is a folly that only uneducated lumpenstudenten could believe, and then only in a barbaric age.