Five Notes About Preferences
~ by Sam Wilkinson
1. I will happily argue with you about the best hot-dog in the world. I’ll tell you that it is served at Gene’s in my hometown, and that the idea way to eat one is with chili, ketchup, and raw onion. If you want to argue about this – if you think you’ve got some superior hot dog that you can offer me that has a superior combination of preparation and toppings – you should know in advance that you are wrong.
You should also know in advance that I know that I am wrong.
Not about the relative quality of a Gene’s hot dog because seriously, they’re delicious, but about my entire argument. I know it to be wrong because I’m not making statements based upon factual truths. I’m making statements based upon a set of personal preferences (my own) that happen to align perfectly with a specific hot dog (a Gene’s hot dog). The same, incidentally, can be said of whatever hot dog you’d offer to me as better. You’re not telling me anything about the hot dog itself; you’re telling me about what you prefer.
2. One common mistake we make when encountering preference is to assume the reasoning behind it. I have written about that elsewhere. But another mistake is to conflate individual preferences for a thing (no matter what that thing is) with fact specific to it. For instance, when I describe a Gene’s hot dog with chili, ketchup, and raw onion as being the best hot dog in the world, I’m not telling you anything about the hot dog itself. I’m telling you about my preference for it and where I rank order it with all of the other hot dogs that I have ever consumed. But the hot-dog though? It is just a hot-dog, and although I can tell you facts about it – how it was cooked (steamed), what kind of bun it was served on (steamed), what kind of ketchup goes on it (Heinz) – my declarations about it have no, substantive meaning.
A conversation about hot-dogs though isn’t particularly compelling. Food, perhaps, is one of the easier topics to acknowledge preferential divergence; we can all agree that we’ll probably never know whose mom’s meatloaf was the best. But what of other things, as we might collectively describe them? What of art? Or music? Or movies? Or thought?
3. I clench whenever I see mention of “High” or “Low” art, both because the concepts are almost always employed in conversations designed to make somebody feel badly about themselves and because they are wrong. There is no such thing as “High” or “Low” art. There is only art. And all of it, regardless of what we think of it, has a value of null.
This, make no mistake about it, is relativism. I am specifically arguing that all artistic production has no intrinsic, inherent value beyond an individual’s consideration of it. For the sake of conversation, please understand that my endorsement of this relativism comes before we even begin to reflect on the particular and inherent biases that exist within the promotion of particular canons, ones which are often comically imbalanced in favor of certain traditions, cultures, skin colors, gender, geographic region, etc. It also comes before we begin to consider what effect blind consumption of art would have versus influenced consumption of art, by which I mean: is there an example of what a person preferences if they’re dropped into a genre without preconceived notions of any kind?
There are, of course, factual realities about art: how much the piece sold for, how many people have viewed the piece, how many times it has been cited as an influence, how long it has survived, etc. These are tangible, reasonable measures that we can assign to artistic achievement that might have particular meaning. But we rarely reach for that information when we speak about art. Instead, we make declarative comments about the thing, spouting statements into the world that as if they are unassailable truths and not simply our own preferential understanding of the object.
For example: when somebody says that Citizen Kane is the greatest film of all time, they’re almost certainly reflecting their belief that Citizen Kane is the greatest film of all time as a result of the way in which it lined up with their own needs and wants of a movie. However, they are no more right than the person who says Adam Sandler’s latest is the peak of cinematic achievement, even if a thousand critics and a thousand scholars line up in opposition. That person prefers the one to the other. It is as simple as that.
What comes next is often worse, because it generally isn’t a tolerance for our differences, but rather, a lecture about the ignorance particular consumers. “Oh, if only the person listening would just watch Citizen Kane, they’d understand its transcendent achievement in the world of film…” as if the person who prefers watching Sandler’s latest is now not only wrong, but ignorant too. And here I should admit that while Sandler is not now nor never will be my preference, neither will I trend toward Citizen Kane.
Maybe this makes me a double-snob.
4. The thing we all try to do to take the subjective reality out of our analysis is construct frameworks – often elaborate, complicated ones – that allow us to claim that our preferences for things are in fact correct. (I am, for the record, just as guilty of this as the next person.) We do this because we want to be right. That’s a fair thing. But the frameworks themselves represent nothing more than a collection of our preferences expressed through a particular collection of facts that we assemble in the attempt to buttress our own beliefs. So if, for instance, we believe that Citizen Kane is film’s highest achievement, we might look to RottenTomatoes for its aggregate scoring of the movie, IMDB’s overall rating of the movie, and the evaluations of several highly considered critics. But all we’re doing is selectively choosing the data that makes our point for us while intentionally ignoring all of the data that does nothing of the sort. We are not engaging in the pursuit of truth itself, but rather, truth that we prefer, one that reflects our own critical evaluation of whatever piece of art we want to discuss.
5. I have never found a better and more concise endorsement of this sort of relativism than Duke Ellington’s, “If it sounds good, it is good…” and I have yet to see a substantive rebuke of that argument, nor do I imagine that I ever will. Art of all kinds is in the senses of the beholder. In Ellington’s case, he was describing music – something so dominant, so prevalent, so necessary for our very existence. Without knowing any of you, I am certain that each of you has particular music of specific importance to your life. Who am I to tell you otherwise? Who am I to tell you that your preference for particular music – no matter what that music might be – is wrong? Yet that is the argument that the person arguing against relativism makes, implicitly or explicitly. It is a fool’s errand. Or, to put that another way, we can preference the things we preference for our own peculiar reasons without needing an objective scale to tell us our pleasure is justified.
The things that affect us are individual to us and often cannot be accounted for. In fact, the world would be a worse place if they could be. Can you imagine the boredom of knowing that there were right answers in music and literature and movies and performance and hot dogs? I can’t. Nor do I want to.