“That which costs little is less valued.” – Miguel de Cervantes
“The value of achievement lies in the achieving.” – Albert Einstein
The value we ascribe to a given artistic idiom or practice, and by implication the individual pieces that result therefrom is arbitrary at base, right? There’s no Platonic “Ideal Music” floating around out there. One man’s hideous is another man’s beautiful. You can’t, with complete, utter and timeless authority, say “X is better than Y.” Right?
You probably see where I’m going with this. Just to forestall the accusation that I’ve erected a straw-man, let me acknowledge that, indeed, most folks who walk around spouting “de gustibus non est disputandum” every chance they get would also say that, of course, within the artificial system under consideration there are right and wrong, or at least better and worse ways of proceeding. We designed the system to operate according to certain rules. Their claim is that it’s the non-arbitrary justification of the “betterness” of the entire system that’s at question.
While we may recognize that the universe can’t tell us what we ought to value, i. e., that there is no external source of value independent of human thought and desire, we also recognize that the nihilism expressed in the above paragraphs is fallacious. Real and valid criteria for judging something can be arrived at by considering any number of human variables: physiology, biology, biochemistry, neurology, psychology, ecology, etc.
Personally, I find sufficiently compelling, as a refutation, the argument that the attitude in the first paragraph ultimately leads to catastrophic artistic deflation. If we have to take everything equally seriously, and give every artist equal credit, our praise and attention become meaningless. If everything is great, then nothing is great. If everything is outstanding, nothing will stand out.
Also compelling is the idea that relativists are essentially saying the value of the manner in which a composer arranged the notes on the page is somehow dependent on what the calendar above the composer’s desk said on the day the piece was written. This is nonsense. What if Bach’s D-minor Ciaccona had been written yesterday? Would it cease to be one of the towering musical achievements of all time? So why is it that we can revere tonal/contrapuntal music of the past, but must, on pain of excommunication, dismiss music written in that style today? But an even bigger problem for the relativists is that if we concede that a practice which nearly completely defined “good” and “bad” in the past (say, voice-leading) need not be heeded here in the present, we’re really asserting that the practice was in fact an unnecessary conceit. This, again, leads to depreciation of works written in the past. “Silly Mozart! Didn’t he know you don’t have to worry about parallel motion?!”
Please don’t misunderstand. I’m not trying to argue that if it doesn’t sound like Bach, it’s garbage. There are many modern innovations which I consider welcome additions to the composer’s arsenal. My own music would certainly never be mistaken for Bach’s. I’m simply pointing out the inconsistency (among other faults) of the prevailing approach to artistic evaluation: anything produced with an eye to the past is automatically awful, anything novel is automatically wonderful. The very same feature that makes a piece written in 1700 good, makes a piece written in 2000 bad. It’s too superficial; the content itself is not objectively judged.
I think, however, the best argument for the non-arbitrary nature of “value” is supply and demand. Really. Yes, even in the arts. Supply and demand is a concept that can be (and is) applied to ALL human endeavors. Why do we value rare stones/minerals/natural resources etc? Because they’re rare. Why do we look back fondly on experiences we don’t often get to have? Because they’re rare. Why do we value exceptional athletic ability? Because it’s rare.
Let’s look closer at that last example. Why is exceptional athletic ability rare? Because it takes hard work to develop it. Most people don’t have the determination it takes to achieve it. We respect that about exceptional athletes (even if we may hold many of their other characteristics in contempt). Consider what a relativist might say about track and field: “Why does the fastest person have to be the winner? Where is that written? Let’s mix it up and hold races in which the slowest competitor wins!” Well, there’s nothing stopping us from doing this, true. But ANYBODY could win that race. You’d have to hand out gold medals to the entire world.
And this is why a Bach fugue is, objectively, better than John Cage’s 4′ 33″, or Ligeti’s Symphonic Poem for 100 Metronomes, aleatoric music, danger music, obsessively canonic or ostinato-driven minimalism, or any of a host of other shallow novelties dreamt up by musicians who know they wouldn’t be able to win an actual race. These are all examples of “slow races.” No special ability is required.
There may not be a Platonic “Ideal Music.” That doesn’t mean there is no better/worse distinction to be made. Basing our evaluations on the skill required for a piece of music’s creation seems a good place to start. You can’t claim to celebrate human achievement and also be pro-4’33”.