I double park in a construction zone because we’re going to be late. Walking up to the theater and the around-the-block crowd, I notice a group of women taking a photo under the marquis and mischievously suggest that while their attention is elsewhere we jump the line. Quickly inside due to our ingenuity – or deceit – we take our place among the standing crowd, soaking in the significance of our luck and the imminent show.
Smith and her band take the stage, and I’m transported to age 13, sitting in the car with my father. Pulling out his iPod Classic, my quiet and book-ish father tells me he’s going to play a song, quipping that he’s glad he’s not wearing shoes because his socks are about to be blown off – a statement which elicits a groan on my part.
Expecting Randy Newman to burst into a Harps and Angels-like ballad, I was taken aback at the low chord progressions interrupted by a gravelly masculine female voice declaiming “Jesus died for somebody’s sins but not mine.” The irreverence pleased me, the slowly building, increasingly manic sounds excited something in me. I didn’t know music could sound like this. It was queer and raucous and frenzied and joyous.
As an aspiring concert pianist and school theater participant, my music interests had strayed little, encompassing a limited world between Chopin preludes and Rogers and Hammerstein. The song, Patti Smith’s “Gloria,” ended in the composed manner in which it began. I’m always in awe of music which ends so calmly, regaining composure, as if so sure of its greatness it eschews the need to prove it by ending with a bang. The transcendence of Smith’s “Gloria” forming one experience integral to my musical socialization, I’d say that I’m abnormal by most formulations. Certainly, Smith was not popular – or even known – at my suburban middle school, just as I’m sure she eludes most Jewell students.
I’ve always taken a certain amount of pride, not to mention unwarranted superiority, in my unique tastes, whether it be my penchant for Billy Wilder films, my secret obsession with Handel opera or my unconditional love for gritty folk music. While there’s nothing wrong with cultivating one’s own taste in a purely subjective sense, problems arise when one’s subjective taste is construed as universal or superior. The notion of taste, after all, is rife with class connotation. In appearance it is an innate gift, but in reality it is exposed as the product of social class, education and many other factors.
In Kant’s third critique, “Critique of Judgment,” he explains his concept of beauty as being a disinterested aesthetic judgment which, while subjective to each individual, is somehow universally communicable. That is, following Kant, if two people are viewing the same painting with different opinions about its beauty, one of them is wrong and one of them is right. In a way, Kant’s 18th century system of aesthetic value is reiterated in today’s artistic discourse, particularly in educated, academic circles. While, of course, artistic value – or beauty – is a subjective judgment, it is often seen as properly judged only by “cultured” individuals.
My high school dance experience consisted of one-half of me dancing badly in a gym or hotel ballroom and one-half of me yelling over the blaring music to ask the song’s name and artist, a query which was most often returned with a mixture of shock and pity from my peers. While I did feel a real kind of exclusion due to the gap in my popular music knowledge, I mainly felt a deep sense of satisfaction that I had avoided the music of the masses.
Despite general agreement about superiority surrounding the subjective realm of artistic taste, most people would still agree that the category of art needs clear criteria in order to function. My worry is that these criteria end up sliding into the land of value.
Don’t we automatically assume a work is better if it’s in a museum, or if it has a label like “classical” attached to it, than if it’s not, or if it doesn’t? Basic as it may seem, we need to question the underlying assumptions which not only critique, but classify art. Too often we take for granted that art in museums deserves to be there without any analysis of the material and social conditions which put it there.
Though the idea of art might not fundamentally deal with value, it’s an unavoidable side effect of the label in contemporary culture. We need to be painfully aware of the connotations of seemingly benign words like art, culture, taste and the class and race divides which they actually embody. Although I’m able to joke about my feelings of superiority tied to my personal artistic taste, we need to realize the falsity of such notions of superiority and the harm their proliferation can cause.
Just as art cannot be separated from its historical, social and political context, we can’t be separated from our own personal context when judging art. Although I’m allowed to claim a deep hatred for pop music, excluding Lizzo and CupcakKe, where the line needs to be drawn is in deriving a sense of superiority, moral or intellectual, from that judgment. This isn’t to say that all music is good in its own way, and that we need to make space for everything – just that the criteria for art, and for judgments of value around art, are not universal or objective.
I have yet to meet anyone who dislikes Jeff Buckley’s version of “Hallelujah,” so maybe there are exceptions. There are, however, clear criteria for what makes something racist or sexist or bigoted; Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines” does feed rape culture, and Toby Keith’s “Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue,” is dangerously nationalistic. There’s no getting around facts like that, and there’s no claiming that these elements don’t affect a work’s artistic value.
Although I desperately want to generalize about older generations here, I’ll abstain. While it may be true that statements like “I don’t like country music, ” or “I don’t like rap/hip-hop” are more often uttered by baby boomers or members of Generation X, it would be wrong to say I’ve never heard anyone under 40 say something to the same effect. Statements like these, couching their dislike or exclusion of certain music in subjective, individual terms, often betray unevaluated bigotry.
Hip Hop and rap historically belong to the black tradition, finding their roots in South Bronx DJs and continuing the vast oral tradition central to black culture. To say “I don’t listen to rap,” or “I don’t like hip-hop” is to discount an entire subculture, and is a claim which in most cases involves unconscious racism. Debating the intricacies of white involvement in rap and hip-hop accessibility is the subject of an entirely different essay, but it is safe to say that the blanket exclusion of rap or hip hop from your music library is a form of racism.
Blanket statements about country music operate in a similar way; these are usually grounded in classism, manifesting in a distaste for the supposedly unrefined, rural and hick-ish. Neither of these examples is to acquit pop, hip-hop or country music of any of their flaws, or to say that work categorized as such is good. Instead, we need to step back and evaluate our dislikes, examining whether we dislike certain things for valid reasons or due to our subjective tastes, or whether we dislike certain things because of unconscious and unevaluated bigotry or feelings of superiority.
Every time I glimpse a red ball cap, I immediately recoil, frantically trying to read the text on the front to confirm my sinking suspicion. And despite my leftist sympathies, I’m never quite reassured when the hat reads “Make Racists Afraid Again” or some equally reductive, “liberal,” reversal of MAGA. Nor am I pleased by the cloying “Love Trumps Hate” and the current discourse of pandering call-in culture.
Of course I want racists to learn not to be racist anymore instead of crawling back into isolation where their racist views, though out of the mainstream, foment. But that doesn’t mean I want to put them front and center in some sick national sharing circle, forcing people whom they’ve wronged to perform the emotional labor of reliving and explaining their oppression.
Fine art is one of the most important aspects of any given culture, and too often we forget the gargantuan role it can play in forming our opinions, shaping our worldviews and even writing our policy. Art and society are mutually constitutive. Thus when we exclude large swaths of art from our attention, we effectively exclude those parts of society as well.
While I’m certainly not advocating the idea that everyone must like and listen to all music, we must at least recognize its existence and the role it plays in forming what we do like, or, perhaps more importantly, how it works to create what we dislike. Even then, we need to remember that taste is constructed and created to serve specific material and social purposes.