Mike Schilling

Mike has been a software engineer far longer than he would like to admit. He has strong opinions on baseball, software, science fiction, comedy, contract bridge, and European history, any of which he's willing to share with almost no prompting whatsoever.

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161 Responses

  1. Avatar NewDealer says:

    Based on the trees in the background, you are posting this 4 months late or 9 months early. 🙂

    It sounds lovely. Baroque is not one of my favorites but this was very nice. I think I can Handel it.Report

  2. Avatar Stillwater says:

    Awesome Mike. Thanks for sharing.Report

  3. Avatar Sam says:

    Was this meant to get my attention, what with your phrasing? Because it did, before immediately putting me to sleep, because it is so impossibly boring. I can’t imagine voluntarily listening to this a second time through. I can’t imagine, frankly, what would be lost from the world if this recording disappeared from it forever.

    How do we prove which of us is right? Or do we agree that have different things that we prefer in our art and that neither is better. I like that latter solution as a more workable one. If this is your jam, fantastic, but given my response, it’s hardly universally true that this is what angels sound like. Or, perhaps, angels DO sound like this, at which point, I have a lot of sinning to catch up on if it means avoiding this in the afterlife.Report

    • Avatar NewDealer in reply to Sam says:

      Can’t you even admire her skill?Report

      • Avatar Sam in reply to NewDealer says:

        You’re catching me in a bit of a mood. My apologies in advance. My thoughts about her skill, such as it is:

        1. Sure, she’s good at playing the harp, I guess, although I have no idea what that means, in that I don’t actually like the piece of music I’m listening to or do I like the harp. But I guess she’s good at playing it although what does that mean coming from me?

        2. But of course, she SHOULD be good at playing it, because all she has to worry about is recreating the notes that somebody else somewhere else wrote for her. What an achievement. So really, am I praising her the harpist or the person who wrote the music (Handel, in this case)? Or am I being disingenuous if I claim the appreciate either her work or Handel’s, in that I don’t really like either of them, and can’t for the life of me imagine voluntarily consuming either?

        3. And speaking of my mood, I get a little sick and tired of the endless insistence that European Art Music is the highest form of musical achievement. If you’d like to better understand the underpinnings of my own disbelief in objective artistic truth, we can start with this absurd notion that Europeans figured it all out from 1600-1900 and everything else is at least a step behind. Oddly, it tends to be an academic elite who encourages this view, and much of that academic elite also happens to have European ancestry. Damdnest thing. Most certainly unrelated. Pure chance really.

        4. And one of things I find so utterly infuriating about the insistence of European Art Music’s superiority is its fans aggressive unwillingness to treat anybody else’s music with the same level of respect and appreciation that they demand of their own. So I’m supposed to fake being impressed by an incredibly boring piece of music played on a remarkably boring instrument because of what exactly? History? Tradition? A neverending series of high-minded culture types asserting that it was their ancestors that got it right?

        5. So in the end, she made that (incredibly white, incredibly soulless, incredibly boring) audience happy. I can certainly recognize that achievement. And she made Mike Schilling happy, and although I don’t know Mike, I recognize what it feels like to be made happy by art and appreciate that Mike has apparently had a similar experience with this. I draw the line at the notion that what she did in that room is proof positive of anything more than what it was: a performance of a piece of music that was great to some and not great to others.

        6. Oh, and just to reinforce this point, even though I feel 1-4 quite strongly, I’m not willing to assert that my own position is correct. It’s my own position. Nothing more, nothing less. I can accept that. Just as I’d be much more tolerant of Mike’s post if it had said, “Here is a thing that I really, really love, and I want to share it with you…” with none of the rest of it included. We can love the things we love without using those things to lash out at others. I can love X and you can love Y and we can do so without being in conflict. It really is possible.

        Again, sorry. Bit of a mood. And NewDealer, nothing personal.Report

      • Avatar NewDealer in reply to NewDealer says:


        Yeah, you are in a bit of a mood and it is causing you to make all sorts of leaps and assumptions that are unfair, biased, and absolutely incorrect. Perhaps you should take a step back and not comment when in a mood.

        Where did Mike Schilling say that classical music/European music/or whatever is the highest expression of music? He is simply posting about a piece of music that he enjoys and wants to share with others. Your sneer seems like you dislike classical simply because it is European and think that everyone who likes classical is some kind of right-winger. This is not true and you know it. One can like jazz, classical, and rock. Politics does not demand that one dislike classical unless one insists on following a very silly set of politics.

        The exclamation point would put this in the mindless diversions category which means no politics and you seem to be in one asserting politics.

        Different types of music demand different modes of listening. So what if classical and opera demand sitting down and paying attention? So do many forms of jazz. The great midcentury jazz musicians like Charlie Parker, Theolonius Monk, Sonny Rollins, Dexter Gordon, Chet Baker, and many others purposefully created jazz that was meant to be listened to instead of danced to like the proceeding swing. Does this put them in the boring music category?

        You are making very silly assumptions here.Report

      • Avatar Sam in reply to NewDealer says:


        The front-page blurb about this post appeared to poke at people who hold beliefs similar to my own. I would not have replied if it hadn’t.

        And I’m not responding to Mike personally. His enjoyment of this piece bothers me not in the slightest. I am responding more generally to front-page prompt. And I’m responding in an over-the-top way which I thought I indicated when I included various apologia throughout my post.Report

      • Avatar Chris in reply to NewDealer says:

        I’m pretty sure it wasn’t “right wing” he was implying, to the extent that he was making a point about politics at all.

        And he’s right about European art music. It is treated as a singular achievement, to the exclusion of all other musical traditions, usually by people who haven’t had much experience with other musical traditions.

        That said, I think the piece is an objectively amazing artistic and technical achievement. I think that was all Mike was saying, too, and saying so doesn’t prevent me from appreciating amazing artistic and technical achievements from other traditions. Hell, Mike’s a big Beatles fan. Maybe one week he’ll give us assume amazing sitar music.Report

      • Avatar Michael Drew in reply to NewDealer says:


        It bums me out to find out that your stance on objective artistic merit turns out to really just be resentment of classical music. I had previously respected your position.Report

      • Avatar Sam in reply to NewDealer says:


        1. I don’t “resent” classical music although I do find much of the culture that surrounds it objectionable on very predictable grounds: it treats the music as if it is a superior achievement to all other musical traditions. It isn’t exactly surprising then that my own advocacy of all-art-as-equal would run headfirst into the culture that surrounds European Art Music.

        2. As I’ve argued before, my position doesn’t bind me to like/appreciate/enjoy/tolerate everything. We all have preferences. Mine have influenced me away from European Art Music. It also influenced me away from almost everything that gets played on modern country stations. This isn’t about me having an axe to grind. It’s simply about what I do and don’t like personally.

        3. If you don’t respect my position anymore, there’s nothing I can do about that. I’m not going to waste my time explaining the classical music that I do like, and I’m not going to wonder how you could respect my position when my position has always been that individuals are going to like what they like, alleged objective truths about art be damned. So, my apologies, I suppose, or something, but I’m not a fan of the culture that surrounds supposedly high art.Report

      • Avatar Michael Drew in reply to NewDealer says:

        I understand, Sam. Your comment put me in a mood, is all.

        And, yeah, clearly people are going to like and dislike what they will regardless of whether we damn any ideas out there about objective artistic merit, so if that really is the extent of your position, then in fact I agree fully with you (and I hadn’t even thought that was true before). But I respect the source of your view a lot less now that you’ve articulated it.Report

      • Avatar Kim in reply to NewDealer says:

        Might I ask you to listen to Love Solfege’s The Note of Satanism?
        I am curious to know what you think about it…Report

      • Avatar Mike Schilling in reply to NewDealer says:


        There are far more people who think that classical music is boring, stuffy, and something only poseurs listen to than people who place it on a pedestal.Report

      • Avatar Chris in reply to NewDealer says:

        Mike, that is undoubtedly true, and those people are idiots. However, they tend not to be the sorts of people who think that their tastes are coextensive with the aesthetic ideal, and I think that’s what Sam’s reacting to (I don’t think he’s reacting to classical music, as Michael suggests, but to a certain breed of classical music fan).

        I remember this one time, when I was 20 or 21, when I picked up a woman I was dating to go out to the movies or something. I had Time Out in the CD player, and when she got in the car she asked me why I was listening to “grandpa music.” I can’t imagine what she would have thought if I’d been listening to Bizet. “Why are you listening to great, great grandpa music?”Report

      • Avatar Jaybird in reply to NewDealer says:

        Dude, I listen to old music! Linkin Park, The Killers, Evanescence…Report

      • Avatar Chris in reply to NewDealer says:

        My son went through a Linkin Park phase around age 13-14.Report

      • Avatar NewDealer in reply to NewDealer says:


        When I was between my sophomore and junior years of college, I was reading Hamlet at a job and a co-worker said “Ew…that’s a book you read in school.”Report

      • Avatar LeeEsq in reply to NewDealer says:

        Chris, the inability for a lot of people to appreicate old things is really frustrating.Report

      • Avatar Stillwater in reply to NewDealer says:

        people who think that their tastes are coextensive with the aesthetic ideal, and I think that’s what Sam’s reacting to (I don’t think he’s reacting to classical music, as Michael suggests, but to a certain breed of classical music fan).

        Well, if that’s the case his argument is even crazier – and more childish – than Michael thought it was. It’s the equivalent of a tantrum.Report

      • Avatar Chris in reply to NewDealer says:

        Eh, I don’t think that’s his argument, but I think that’s where his tone comes from. Maybe that’s a tantrum, though it’s a tantrum I’m likely to throw in certain company as well, because there’s a type of snob that irritates me like fingernails on a chalkboard.

        I’m pretty sure it’s that kind of snob who writes every single description for symphony programs, too. God, those things are awful.Report

      • Avatar Sam in reply to NewDealer says:


        She probably would have assumed that you were hoping that you’d be getting Bizet by the end of the date. Huh? HUH? Hello?


        Like busy. Like getting busy.

        It’s a play on words.Report

      • Avatar Chris in reply to NewDealer says:

        Humor is definitely relative. 😉Report

      • Avatar Glyph in reply to NewDealer says:

        @chris – I’m pretty sure it wasn’t “right wing” he was implying, to the extent that he was making a point about politics at all.

        I’ve been pondering Sam’s reply since last night, trying to figure out if there’s a way to respond to it that does not contravene the “no politics” rule, since it’s apparent to me that racial issues are often part and parcel of political issues, and Sam’s comments w/r/t European ancestry…incredibly white, incredibly soulless, incredibly boring make it seem to me that part of his objection boils down to this.

        Which is of course a much different statement than It is treated as a singular achievement, to the exclusion of all other musical traditions, usually by people who haven’t had much experience with other musical traditions – basically, the default assumption that “no, they are the BEST!” that was enshrined by law in our culture for some time, and vestiges of which remain despite the dismantling of many of the legal structures enforcing that idea, and the blessed promulgation of alternate competing cultural channels.

        IOW, even though I agree with some of the sentiment behind the point I think Sam is making as summarized by you (and I think he’s generally made very good arguments w/r/t lack of objective superiority in art – arguments that discomfit me in part because they are generally strong), I think he treads really, really close there to making the same type of mistake that some of the people that he is criticizing make, which is to denigrate a certain type of music based on unfamiliarity with/dislike of it, and the presumed melanin content of the majority of the music-makers and listeners.

        Which is understandable as a reaction to the way things are (and as a reaction to getting poked in a post), but philosophically is no more defensible than its opposite number.

        But if all of that contravenes the “no politics” rule, let’s try to drag the discussion back onto more color-and-cultural neutral ground. Let’s at least compare red delicious apples to granny smith apples, rather than to brussels sprouts.

        Do we seriously think that this, fun as it may be:

        (and yes, I chose it in part for the video, what with the powdered wig and all.)

        …is anywhere near the equal of an artistic achievement of a great singer/songwriter like Marvin, or a great rapper like Rakim? I just don’t see how we can say “yes” – and if we can’t, then it follows that some pieces of art are superior to others, right?

        (And does it then follow that some artistic traditions or ideas are superior to others, if they more reliably lead to superior art? Or not?)

        If I am wrong, and we DO say they are artistically equal – do we see any contradiction there, and how do we resolve it? Must we discard the idea of “art” entirely and simply make reference instead to the “craft/skill” of a thing – the technical aspects of it that are easier to judge objectively, and attempt to disentangle from objects all the emotional/subjective preference intangibles that the word “art” implies? (That risks leading us all straight to prog rock!)

        BUT THEN to go the other way – @mike-schilling – “beautiful” certainly wouldn’t be the first word I would apply to the Pistols – but for what it was (a raucous fart in church) it was remarkably effective, and there’s a certain beauty in ruthless efficiency. I may not think a man-eating shark “beautiful” in the same way a brightly-colored aquarium fish might be, but something about its singular purposefulness and sleek effectiveness certainly is “beautiful”. (@dhex – get that “ugliness in art” guest post together!)

        Anyway, this got rambling, and probably political. My apologies to all. Feel free to respond to any or none of this as you feel moved.Report

      • Avatar Chris in reply to NewDealer says:

        I think you managed to avoid making it political pretty damned well, Glyph.

        That said, a “politics of taste” post for the main page would be pretty fun, and bloody.Report

      • Avatar LeeEsq in reply to NewDealer says:

        Aren’t a lot of ND’s posts basically about the politics of taste?Report

      • Avatar Mike Schilling in reply to NewDealer says:

        DId you ever read the book The Princess Bride? Towards the beginning, there’s a scene where the fictional William Goldman, who narrates it, tracks down a copy of S. Morgenstern’s classic The Princess Bride [1], which his father used to read to him. It’s unreadable, because most of it is social satire and literary parody of things that have been gone for who knows how long. [2] The book he loved, his father had read him, was just the good parts [3], about swordfights and pirates and true love, and that part is going to be amazing forever.

        “God Save the Queen” might have been needed at the time. Hell, something like it might be needed today. But there’s a large gulf between “Listen to this: it’s beautiful” and “You have to understand that pop music got gotten bloated and over-produced, and this was a knife between its ribs.” Because the latter, without that specific context, is pretty horrible. It’s not one of the good parts, and if you don’t give a crap about the state of pop music in the late 70s, it’s lost its point.

        1. Yes, it’s a fictional character reading a fictional book written by a fictional author, in a book of the same name written by an author with the same name at the character.

        2. Since before Europe, but after cough drops. At least.

        3. Hence the full title: The Princess Bride: S. Morgenstern’s Classic Tale of True Love and High Adventure (The good parts version)Report

      • Avatar Sam in reply to NewDealer says:


        What is your measure that Rakim trumps the Biz? How are you quantifying that finding? Or is it simply being asserted on a nebulous standard that can shift whenever we need to promote the superiority of the next favored artist, a standard, incidentally, that will conveniently arrive at a finding already established by the person creating it? This isn’t to deny Rakim’s work. It’s simply to say that one person can say Rakim is great, a second person can say the Biz is great, and both can be true for the individual and the broader conclusion (that one is objectively better than the other) will remain unproven because it cannot be proven.Report

      • Avatar Mike Schilling in reply to NewDealer says:

        “I want you to L’Arlesienne me. Carmen get it!”Report

      • Avatar Glyph in reply to NewDealer says:

        @sam – well, I guess I’d refer in part to “craft/skill” – the idea that most people just can’t do as well what Rakim can: skillfully utilize words rhythmically, and metaphors conceptually, to engage his listeners.

        But above and beyond that, I’d make reference to the fact that, as others have alluded, Rakim *asks* more, of both himself and his listeners – I am in no way familiar with the entire oeuvre of both the Biz and Rakim, but it’s my distinct impression that Rakim rewards close and repeated listening in a way the Biz just doesn’t – I could be wrong, and it’s a great party track, but once you’ve heard “Just a Friend” once, it seems to me you know pretty much all there is to know about it.

        I expect you can poke holes in this on the basis that “more complicated/densely-layered/skillfully-made does not always equal better”, and I have no answer for that, since I believe that myself. 😉Report

      • Avatar Mike Schilling in reply to NewDealer says:

        However, they tend not to be the sorts of people who think that their tastes are coextensive with the aesthetic ideal

        There’s another kind?

        “Classical listeners wear suits. They pretend to like boring things , because they’re so terribly phony. I’m really awfully glad I’m a rock fan, because I can listen to good music. And then we are much better than the rap and country fans. Rap fans are thugs. They all wear gang colors, and country fans wear cowboy hats. Oh no, I don’t want to hang out with country fans. And dubstep fans are still worse. They’re too stupid to be able …”Report

      • Avatar Chris in reply to NewDealer says:

        It seems that through careful study of culture, human psychology, art (in all its facets), and history, we could come up with some pretty strong criteria for measuring the quality of art on multiple dimensions, for multiple purposes. Granted, these criteria would be influenced by culture and politics and history themselves, but that doesn’t suggest we’re not onto something, merely that we have to use the criteria in a constant state of critique.Report

      • Avatar Chris in reply to NewDealer says:

        Also, those criteria should in no way be seen as telling people what they should like, or what they should prefer, merely point to works that warrant further attention, study, etc.

        And again, state of constant critique, admitting new voices, etc.Report

      • Avatar veronica dire in reply to NewDealer says:

        I fucking love the Sex Pistols. I mean, I don’t listen to them as often as I once did, for all kinds of reasons. But from time to time, fuck yeah.Report

      • Avatar Glyph in reply to NewDealer says:

        @mike-schilling – it’s POSSIBLE that the only thing that makes the Pistols “beautiful” (let’s stick with that word for a minute even though it may not be entirely appropriate) to me is historical cultural context, but I was a suburban American in footie jammies when they came out.

        When the riff to “Pretty Vacant” starts, then the galloping drums – or the raunchy guitar tone of “God Save”, followed by Rotten bleating like a bad-tempered tasered goat, I’m not thinking of rioting in Brixton or Emerson, Lake and Palmer. I’m just thinking “this is an exciting* sound that makes me want to jump around the room”.

        *is “exciting” a quality of “beauty”? Always? Sometimes?Report

      • Avatar Mike Schilling in reply to NewDealer says:

        *is “exciting” a quality of “beauty”? Always? Sometimes?

        I’d say “sometimes”, and you’ve given me an idea for next week’s piece.Report

      • Avatar Chris in reply to NewDealer says:

        I suspect that one of the confusing things about art, one of the things that lends itself to a casual relativism, is that historical, cultural, and psychological factors influence our reaction to it, including our sense of its beauty. Imagine someone with a time machine taking a Pollock back in time and hanging it on a wall in the 17th century. How would people react? I suspect that they’d think some birds that had eaten bad berries had gotten in.

        But the influence of culture and history and psychology don’t, by themselves, mean that there are no objective artistic and aesthetic standards. It could simply mean that we have to figure out how those things interact with such standards, or how such standards express themselves through those things. There’s a missing function in the model that connects differences in preferences to relativism.Report

      • Avatar Kim in reply to NewDealer says:

        Just skimming:
        I’m finding evidence for your position, and for Sam’s.Report

  4. Avatar Mike Schilling says:

    I’m glad we’re having a conversation about this. I’ll just make a few points.

    Stillwater, New Dealer, and I all found this to be lovely. It’s in my wheelhouse, because I love Baroque music, but ND prefers other sorts of music, and IIRC Still has pretty wide-ranging tastes. And, honestly, none of us is part of a conspiracy to inflict classical music on the rest of you. (Well, maybe ND. But he’d pick something more intellectual, like Stockhausen 🙂 The fact that it moved all of us argues that there’s something in the music itself that’s appealing.

    And it’s a bit unfair to call the audience “soulless and boring” because they’re sitting and listening attentively and quietly. That’s actually necessary to fully appreciate the music. The harpist, at times, is playing three different voices all at once (melody, counter-melody, and bass), and it takes concentration to hear all of that. And the fact that they’re clearly different voices rather than just a collection of notes is a tribute to her skill at turning the notes on the page into music.

    I intend to do a weekly series of pieces I consider to be exceptionally beautiful. Suggestions are more than welcome, and they can be music of any kind at all. (Though if it’s the Sex Pistols, I’m going to assume you’re fishing with me.)Report

    • Avatar Sam in reply to Mike Schilling says:

      Three people agreeing to something isn’t evidence of truth. It is evidence of overlapping preferences. It isn’t difficult to imagine that three people might share a love of something. Hell, there were probably, what, a hundred-thousand people in that concert space? (Note: I may be bad at estimating.)

      As for listening quietly and attentively…I don’t usually associate that with music I find enjoyable. Again though, that’s just preference talking. If you enjoy sitting ramrod stiff in uncomfortable clothing while you’re locked into a seat surrounded by unmoving people all around you, by all means do so. But that doesn’t mean it’s universal.Report

      • Avatar NewDealer in reply to Sam says:

        Not everyone is required to like every piece of music that is posted to OT. There is a lot of stuff that Glyph, John McCleod, and Chris post that I dislike but I don’t go on a rant about it.

        You aren’t making a political point and showing how left and modern and multicultural and anti-Imperialiost you are by disliking classical music.


        Baroque is not my favorite. For classical music, I would pick Mozart, Mahler, Shostakovich, Ravel.Report

      • Avatar Chris in reply to Sam says:

        You don’t like everything I post?! Off with your head!Report

      • Avatar Kim in reply to Sam says:

        Who doesn’t dance to classical music?
        … well, at least I do.Report

      • Avatar Jonathan McLeod in reply to Sam says:

        That “John McCleod” don’t know jack about music. 😉Report

      • Avatar LeeEsq in reply to Sam says:

        Rococco is nice if a bit elaborate and fussy at times. I prefer the 19th century composers like Tchikovsky and Chopan for European art music.Report

      • Avatar veronica dire in reply to Sam says:

        @sam — Fine. Mostly I agree. But it was out of line to call that audience “soulless.” Who are you to lay something like that on them?

        (And saying “just my opinion” won’t get you far. Yes, many people have horrible opinions of other people based on bad reasons. Being an “opinion” elevates such things not at all.)

        Perhaps you can get away with calling them “boring,” since we can take that to mean boring to you. About which, fine, whatevs. That shows you to be rather incurious about other human beings.

        Which, thing is, I don’t thing you typically are so closed off and incurious. Instead, I think you are being mean-spirited and pissy. This is not admirable.Report

      • Avatar Sam in reply to Sam says:

        Veronica Dire,

        It is interesting to me that there is such hostility to judgements visited against classical music fans. Judgements visited against fans of other music – such as, they’re not truly “listening” – escape similar judgement. Again, that’s just the damndest thing and I’m surely one that is entirely unrelated to broader cultural issues.

        Meanwhile, they’re obviously not soulless. They enjoy what they enjoy. I’m fine with that. But their enjoyment of it isn’t evidence of a broader truth. It’s simply what they like.Report

      • Avatar veronica dire in reply to Sam says:

        @sam — Maybe file this under “two wrongs don’t make a right” or something.Report

      • Avatar Mike Schilling in reply to Sam says:

        It is interesting to me that there is such hostility to judgements visited against classical music fans.

        No one could have predicted that people would dislike being called “boring”, “soulless”, and, worst of all ,”white”.Report

    • Avatar NewDealer in reply to Mike Schilling says:

      How about a post on the Kinks?Report

    • Avatar Kim in reply to Mike Schilling says:

      When I listen to music that is impossible to play with mortal hands, it does NOT demand rapt attention. I may choose to give it such, or work on other things at the same time.
      Heck, even listening to “Flight of the Bumblebees” on the piano doesn’t Require Attention — though the pianist needs to induce tremors in their hands in order to play it.Report

  5. Avatar LeeEsq says:

    This is addressed to Sam.

    The reason why European Art music is sometimes considered to be the epitome of good music because it can not be passively enjoyed. To appreciate it, you need to sit down and listen with concentration and engagement. This somewhat limtis its appeal but at the same time, at least for myself, when I listen to a really good piece and performance of European art music like what Mike posted, I experience more euphoria than I do listening to good art music. There is also a greater sense of craftsmanship when listening to European art music, you can tell that the performers spend countless hours practicing. There is a techncial proficiency in art music and jazz that is sometimes lacking in a lot of more popular music.Report

    • Avatar Kim in reply to LeeEsq says:

      Do you like tonal or atonal music better?
      If you cannot answer that question, I struggle to understand how “European Art Music” can even make bloody sense to you, except on an intuitive level. This is NOT to deride your intuition, but…
      I doubt most music lovers could come up with an answer to that (me? i am just learning. and the book is very boring).

      What components of European Art Music do you find require this concentration and intense “listening”? Because, me? I’m not seeing it.

      Gamelan is something that I can listen to intensely — it is complicated enough that it’s like listening to multiple waves synching and desynching. it is MUCH more complicated than European Art Music (and I’ve spoken to a well-known composer on the subject).

      I swear to god, if I listened to one opera of Donizetti’s, I would see the LACK of craftsmanship on display, not the skill of the singers. And this is not just my opinion — it is the opinion of learned experts in the field.

      Would you deride a work that could never be played by mortal hands? Does that somehow make it bad, because one cannot display technical proficiency by playing it?Report

    • Avatar Shazbot3 in reply to LeeEsq says:

      You have to concentrate even harder to like Bryan Adams,.Report

    • Avatar Creon Critic in reply to LeeEsq says:

      I swear to god, if I listened to one opera of Donizetti’s, I would see the LACK of craftsmanship on display, not the skill of the singers. And this is not just my opinion — it is the opinion of learned experts in the field.

      Let’s see the learned experts write a workable climactic sextet.


    • Avatar Michael Drew in reply to LeeEsq says:

      One thing I would say is that it’s a crucial distinction to make between explicitly elevating “European art music” as a genre whether above all others or just above many, and maintaining that various pieces or composers are respectively objectively great or geniuses. I would agree with Sam that the first is not much more than cultural chauvinism masquerading as a claim about artistic merit. Classical music is basically everything written in Europe before 1900 and much of what was written after. It makes no sense to try to argue for its superiority as a class – the agenda there is clearly more one of cultural essentialism than assessment of musical artistic value.

      It doesn’t makes sense to me to try to compare genres or traditions. People will do it, and in some cases I probably won’t react to it as strongly as others. But it ultimately just not that profitable, and it’s fraught, as Sam and Glyph sugget, with politics and power issues.

      What makes sense to me is to try to assess the merit of works, and, to a somewhat lesser extent, artists. As I say, and like Glyph, ultimately I think the arguments for a kind of ultimate aesthetic relativism are pretty strong, but I’m not completely persuaded. There are ways to look at what, both within the devoted audiences of various genres, and for people encountering styles anew, give the most pleasing experiences as consumers of art. Rewards to multiple hearings/viewings, extended analysis, layers of meaning, etc. Alternatively, no works of art objectively create more joy for the humans who encounter them du to their own qualities at all – everything is purely contingent on the subjectiveness of the encounterer. That’s a debate that can continue (in some sense I believe oth things.)

      But none if that is illuminated, in my view, by focusing on the relative merits of genres, at least not as a primary focus. People who do that are really missing the point of artistic communication in my view. That being said, it’s been a long time since I’ve heard any devotee of “European Art Music” (Sam’s term not theirs) make a general claim about the superiority of that tradition over others. I don’t know who we’re talking about doing that.Report

      • Avatar Kim in reply to Michael Drew says:

        I’ve heard it, and often. Mostly from high school music teachers. “Why don’t we learn XYZ??”Report

      • Avatar Kim in reply to Michael Drew says:

        And sooner or later, you’ll find yourself elevating to the level of genius something that the author himself hated, considered incomplete, or Would Not Stop Revising.Report

      • Avatar Michael Drew in reply to Michael Drew says:

        Interesting. I do recall one teacher trying to say classical music is called “classical” because as “the most refined” form of music. But he was teaching a class on Arts & Ideas in western civ. It wasn’t a music class – we spent most of our time sketching from slides of frescoes and sculptures. The whole class was basically about elevating Western culture. This is an example of why, in my view, dealing with these things at the level of genre is a mistake (which was my point). (Beyond that, the whole question of why the Western canon gets special treatment in academic settings in Western schools is more complicated than a simple claim of the artisitc/cultural merit of the works.)

        Also – saying a certain kind of music is more “refined” is at least somewhat a descriptive and not (just) an evaluative claim. Generally a person is going to link value and “refinedness,” but they’re not strictly the same, and I’m sure this guy didn’t regard other styles as (too much) inferior to classical music.

        Also, it was twenty years ago – when were you in high school?

        Certainly, history does come to regard certain works that artists reject for themselves as masterworks. I don’t think there’s any problem there myself.Report

      • Avatar Kim in reply to Michael Drew says:

        Nobody teaches the shamisen (or the bongos) in most American Schools, let alone the shruti box. (or even the fiddle or accordion!). A lot of the Western Culture bias is baked in… My choir director would only sing christian songs, claimed they were inherently better than others (and eventually got reamed on local tv for being that much of a dick).Report

      • Avatar Michael Drew in reply to Michael Drew says:

        Kim, again, the tendency for schools in the West to emphasize Western (i.e. European/white American) culture/art is not simply a collective assertion of the superior aesthetic merit of the cultural product, which is the contention under discussion here. That tendency is a social and political phenomenon with a complex system of social, political, and cultural causes.Report

  6. Avatar Sam says:

    Bumping this down so I can follow up with several comments:

    1. Michael – what would be a more appropriate source for my beliefs? Since being turned off by rank cultural elitism based upon nothing more substantive than “Our stuff is better than everybody else’s stuff!” is insufficient, would is sufficient?

    2. Stillwater – why am I throwing a “tantrum” (in your words) if I find cultural elitism objectionable in all of its forms? Note that my conclusion isn’t that something else somewhere else isn’t objective better; it’s simply that all things are equal. I’m not saying, “European Art Music is garbage and Hip-Hop is best!” I’m saying that both are of equivalent worth and that declaring one superior to the other is silliness at best.

    3. LeeEsq – The definition you’ve offered here is precisely the sort of hooey that I’m objecting to. The idea that fans of other genres are somehow consuming their music differently is hogwash. And the idea that the musicianship is superior? How on Earth is that going to be measured? Do we really believe that the harpist above has achieved a higher level of competency than the world’s greatest guitarists, or are we to believe that because that is some of the mythology that surrounds this particular genre of music?Report

    • Avatar Kim in reply to Sam says:

      we can certainly measure the vocal range, vocal strength and adornment (creativity) of opera singers.
      This is how I know that listening to Donizetti in this day and age is getting a far worse representation of his music than listening to Wagner.Report

      • Avatar Sam in reply to Kim says:

        Of course we can measure those things. What do those measurements provide us beyond a number? I could say that the artist who has sold the most is the best artist, but I doubt there are many people willing to go along for that ride.Report

      • Avatar Kim in reply to Kim says:

        If we wish to value the time and effort one puts into the act of creation, then, yes, we ought to value those who have put the time and effort into developing skills.

        This is not to say that Jody Calls are not excellent in their own right, but they are not skilled in the same way that an Opera Singer is skilled.Report

    • Avatar Michael Drew in reply to Sam says:


      That reaction is perfectly supportable as a reaction the the way some people (apparently) talk about classical music (though not something to hold against the music). It just has nothing to do with an analysis of the possibility of objective artistic merit. I respect a positive philosophical interest in that question more than an interest that stems from an angry reaction to the way a small portion of the audience for one form of music happen to venerate it. As far as sufficiency is concerned… I suppose whatever took you to the point of looking at the question… is what took you there. It was sufficient to do that, so what more is there to say? I wasn’t speaking to sufficiency, I was speaking to my own respect for your motivations.Report

      • Avatar Sam in reply to Michael Drew says:

        I am interested in the idea that we can separate art (music, in this case) from the culture that surrounds it, although that might be a conversation for another day.

        I’m still not clear on what an acceptable set of motivations would have been, if it wasn’t for taking serious issue with the alleged superiority of one type of art despite overwhelming evidence that the overwhelming majority of people had artistic interests elsewhere.

        Also, let us not pretend that we’re just talking about a small segment of (European) Art Music’s audience here, because it matters very much in this discussion who comprises (European) Art Music’s audience.Report

      • Avatar Kim in reply to Michael Drew says:

        European Art Music is consumed all over the freaking place, and by tons of people who aren’t European.
        LOTR has European Art Music in it (I know because the Symphony plays it).
        Heroes of Might and Magic had European Art Music in it.
        I can cite 10 animes off the top of my head that have European Art Music in them (if we take that to mean use of the stylings, and not that the people have to be European).

        Hell, China teaches a lot of kids violin, I hear…Report

      • Avatar Sam in reply to Michael Drew says:

        Cool. I don’t know what any of that proves.Report

      • Avatar Michael Drew in reply to Michael Drew says:

        Your motivations are acceptable. I just don’t respect them very much (meaning I do respect them to some small degree).

        I’m fairly comfortable pretending that what you have in mind is perpetrated by a small segment of the audience until it’s proved that that pretense is in conflict with the facts.Report

      • Avatar Sam in reply to Michael Drew says:


        Do you really believe that (European) Art Music is held in no higher regard than any other musical form?Report

      • Avatar Michael Drew in reply to Michael Drew says:

        “Is held”? I mean, the passive voice completely eliminates the issue we’re discussing, which is who/how many people hold that. Presumably every genre & tradition of art is held in higher esteem than other forms – by someone. At least, I presume that.Report

      • Avatar Michael Drew in reply to Michael Drew says:

        Also, aren’t you fine with people holding particular artworks/artists/genres in higher esteem than others? Isn’t the issue just asserting that some are objectively superior? What is it to hold something in higher esteem than something else in this context, if it is objectionable?Report

      • Avatar Michael Drew in reply to Michael Drew says:

        …Oops, sorry. “Regard,” not, “esteem.” That seems even less objectionable – more like just personal appreciation.

        I realize I’m sort of playing word games, but my point is to show how hard it is in practice to separate the human response to art that is the component that simply causes a positive reaction in us from the sense that this is because the work has merit. What’s important to note is that, in many people’s experience of art, they have a sense that in some cases a positive response is due to a personal connection or affinity that doesn’t necessarily reflect their sense of aesthetic merit, while in other cases, they have a sense that their enjoyment derives from what they regard as something that holds aesthetic merit. People go to lengths to distinguish these senses, and the notion that there is no objective merit in art requires that they are pursuing a distinction without any correlate in the world. Which is possible. But I think it goes some distance toward bringing the idea into question, or at least showing how it is problematic in practice, if the language that is used to dismiss ideas about merit starts to bleed into language that just ends up dismissing personal enjoyment. For those who say there is only the latter, you’d think the language would remain clearly distinct.Report

    • Avatar LeeEsq in reply to Sam says:

      Sam, I find the idea that everything in taste is subjective and that there is no objective when it comes to things like the arts hooey. I’m a fan of a lot of pop culture to, most of my movie tastes tend towards the mainstream rather than the artistic as long as they aren’t too dumb. The problem is that if we make everything subjective or at least only criticizable when compared to other things in the same genre is that you have to accept a lot of trash.

      I’m sorry but I’m not enough of a post-modernist to do this. I can’t accept an ideology where Thomas Kinkaid and August Renoir are considered equal artists because people like both. Renoir had genuine insiparation as an artist and superb technique. When you look at a Renoir painting you get lost in the work and can imagine yourself in La Belle Epoque enjoying a Parisian sunday. Thomas Kinkaid’s inspiration was his love of his pocket book and there is no beauty in his painting. It is kitsch and deserves to be treated as such. The same goes with any form of art from music to books.Report

      • Avatar Kim in reply to LeeEsq says:

        Perhaps kinkaid only loved his pocketbook!
        But Donizetti only worked to get paid, as well, and his works stand high in the eyes of most. I’m rejecting Wagner’s formulation of an artiste and his Thunderbolt Inspiration — many artists have done excellent work without thunderbolts of inspiration.Report

      • Avatar Sam in reply to LeeEsq says:


        You’re very wrong when you write “When you look at a Renoir painting you get lost in the world and can imagine yourself…” What is more accurate is that “When LeeEsq looks at a Renoir painting he gets lost in the world and can imagine himself…” Just because art encourages a particular reaction in you doesn’t not then make that reaction universal. Because when I look at a Renoir painting, I do not feel any of that.

        Supposing our own reactions to art onto everybody else is hugely unfair.

        However, would it be safe to assume that the art which you love the most (which inspires the most reaction in you) also happens to overlap with what you consider to be the highest artistic achievements? Because that’s a remarkable coincidence, isn’t it? That you have happened to corner the correct evaluation of all art?

        (And as a sidenote, Renoir painted for money. All of that is perfectly clear in this history of his career. He also regularly churned out paintings. Now, I’m no fan of Kincaid, but I fail to see why Renoir’s work for money is worth ignoring while Kincaid’s is meant to be held against him.)Report

  7. Avatar veronica dire says:

    This thread reminds me of a passage from Impro that sticks with me:

    One day, when I was eighteen, I was reading a book and I began to weep. I was astounded. I’d had no idea that literature could affect me in such a way. If I’d have wept over a poem in class the teacher would have been appalled. I realised that my school has been teaching me not to respond.

    (In some universities students unconsciously learn to copy the physical attitudes of their professors, leaning back away from the play or film they’re watching, and crossing their arms tightly, and tilting their heads back. Such postures help them feel less ‘involved’, less ‘subjective’. The response of untutored people is infinitely superior.)


    • Avatar Kim in reply to veronica dire says:

      The Japanese deliberately mask their reactions to films (it’s a part of the culture).
      [The psychologist studying this would note their reaction — before they masked it.]Report

      • Avatar veronica dire in reply to Kim says:

        @kim — Seems to me, what Johnstone is talking about above is a real thing. I sense it much as he does. And I bet Japanese people do as well.

        So, then, I ponder this: we in the west have ways of processing this. We conceive of social conventions as a cage, we speak of “breaking out” or “being free” — which are pretty transparent metaphors — and we do it, by dancing, by shouting at the stage.

        I wonder how Japanese people process this stuff?Report

      • Avatar Kim in reply to Kim says:

        I’m not one to talk… as much.
        But I think that the Russian style of coherent clapping is one way to be “part of the group enjoying the art” — and that the Japanese chanting of “Hamburga Hamburga” or “encore, encore” at concerts is equally a way of interacting (supporting the musician).

        Americans don’t like being part of a group, much. It’s hard to even start a wave at stadiums.

        Japanese seem to be pretty free at karaoke, and other places where it isn’t a large group thing.

        (Can ND or someone else with more cultural experience chime in?)Report

      • Avatar veronica dire in reply to Kim says:

        @kim — That makes sense.

        I take the view that human are neurologically quite similar, and thus probably have certain deep similarities in our dispositions. But then culture steps in and shapes how we view stuff, including ourselves.

        The interactions between these forces is, to me, profoundly interesting.

        (This of course shapes my approach to gender theory. But that is a separate conversation for a separate time.)Report

      • Avatar Chris in reply to Kim says:

        Americans don’t like being part of a group, much. It’s hard to even start a wave at stadiums.


      • Avatar Kim in reply to Kim says:

        I take it I’ve been going to the wrong games?Report

      • Avatar Glyph in reply to Kim says:

        Americans don’t like being part of a group, much.

        But we love being in mobs!Report

      • Avatar veronica dire in reply to Kim says:

        Well it seems far too easy to get a bunch of drunk American jocks to start chanting “USA! USA! USA!”Report

      • Avatar Chris in reply to Kim says:

        Kim, maybe Pittsburghians (Pittsburghites? Pittsburghese? Pittsburghandians?) are just boring. I don’t think I’ve ever been to a sporting event — which is, if you hadn’t noticed, a huge gathering of people, and which are really, really, really common in America — that didn’t feature multiple waves. Waves are stupid, but they’re inevitable, and Americans seem to love them.

        See also: rock concerts.Report

      • Avatar Glyph in reply to Kim says:

        Pittsburglars (robble robble).Report

      • Avatar Jaybird in reply to Kim says:

        The whole “chant” thing is an American version of a universal tendency. In England, they sing songs about Great Britain and the Queen and whatnot and you’re there for the WHOLE SONG.Report

  8. Avatar Glyph says:

    I wouldn’t be me if I didn’t add a couple tracks linked by nothing more than the free-associating jukebox that runs 24-7 in my head, triggering off of words and phrases and post titles and sounds and songs, leading to yet other songs:

    Kiwis represent! (It’s just what it says on the tin):

    And space manatees, because why not:


  9. Avatar Maribou says:

    You know, I rather like this performance (though the sound quality is at times dubious), but if you say “Try, after listening to this, to argue that there is no such thing as objectively great art. You’ll feel quite foolish.” – when there is someone you know is reading whom you KNOW has argued at length that there is no such thing as objectively great art, lo, on this very website has he argued it – and who very explicitly disallowed the existence of any one thing that the perceiver perceives to be astoundingly good as counter-evidence to his theory – dude, you’re basically calling the man a fool. Worse, you are telling him that he will call HIMSELF a fool. Which is usually obnoxious behavior, and the only reason it doesn’t bother me in this case is ’cause I figured Mike was being his usual several-layers-of-irony funny self and knew exactly what kind of stick he was poking Sam with, and was including himself in the poking. (I live with such an ironist. It can be trying, betimes.)

    Does it really surprise anyone that Sam’s response to this features a certain rudeness in return?

    If someone posted a main page blurb that was all “Try, if you will, to argue that free will is meaningful after reading this incredible neuroscience paper. You’ll feel quite foolish,” I would spend at least 5 minutes wanting to punch them in the face while yelling about how I AM VERY FAMILIAR WITH NEUROSCIENCE AND I HAVE A BIOLOGY DEGREE, THANK YOU VERY MUCH. And they wouldn’t even have had any REASON to expect I was feeling personally attacked, since I haven’t written a bunch of blog posts on the same site arguing that free will is meaningful. And then I would either decide not to even read the post, because I really don’t want to deal with people driving me up the wall, or I would heatedly defend my position in the comments.

    I mean, I don’t even agree with Sam on this topic, but I think being surprised that the front page blurb made him grumpy (as people keep saying they are! surprised! disappointed! how unlike him! jeez people) … I think the bafflement is a lot more baffling than his grumpiness is.Report

    • Avatar Sam in reply to Maribou says:

      1. Thank you. That is a very nice thing to have written.

      2. I knew that my response was grumpy and tried to mitigate by mentioning as much in my first reply.

      3. I also emailed Mike behind the scenes – HUMBLEBRAG – to apologize for being so grumpy.

      4. All of which is to say, I’m happy to battle about this (obviously) but nothing personal is intended to any of you. I know that we disagree about this. I’ve tried to allow for that in what I’ve written about the subject.Report

  10. Just getting around to listening to this. It was lovely, and gave me something delightful to listen to while dealing with the usual nonsense of my job,Report

  11. Avatar kenB says:

    ” all she has to worry about is recreating the notes that somebody else somewhere else wrote for her. What an achievement. ”

    So I suppose you don’t think there’s any art in acting either, since it just involves reciting lines that someone else wrote for them, right? Except for improv theater — that must be the pinnacle of acting, I guess.

    Perhaps you might compare what a professional musician does with a piece of music to what you get by programming the notes into a synthesizer — I suspect that you’d notice the difference.Report

    • Avatar Kim in reply to kenB says:

      no, I don’t notice much difference. Then again, when I listen to works done with a synth, they tend to be impossible for humans to play.Report

  12. Avatar Rufus F. says:

    Isn’t this objective/subjective business a bit of a false dichotomy anyway? Do any of us really think aesthetic preferences are purely subjective or purely objective? I mean, it seems really weird to say, “if tastes are not 100% objective, they’re 100% subjective, and if they’re not 100% subjective, they’re 100% objective.”

    Let’s take this Biz vs. Rakm question, which means absolutely nothing to me as someone not well versed in rap. There are, however, people who are very well versed in rap, who have exposed themselves to a great deal more of it than I have- not because I particularly dislike the music, but, well, life’s a too-quick thing, isn’t it? Let’s say we get together 100 people who are very well-versed in rap and ask them if Biz or Rakim is a better rapper? Do we really think the vote would be split roughly 50/50, which is what you might expect if it was a purely subjective matter? Do we, conversely, expect that zero of them would or could make a compelling argument for whichever one is less popular, which you might expect if it was a purely objective thing?

    It’s weird- I was working on a post about this very topic because me and my lady friend were discussing whether she, as a licensed sommelier, could say one wine was better than another. I suppose that will be my post for next week though!Report

    • Avatar Sam in reply to Rufus F. says:


      If those experts broke 99/1 in Rakim’s favor, I’d be shocked at the conclusion. I wouldn’t bet my house on 100-0 but it would be close. But those 100 experts are speaking only for themselves, not for something that’s universally true. For the record, I wouldn’t object to something like, “100 experts agreed that Rakim was better than Biz.” I’d strongly object to somebody taking the conclusion drawn by those 100 and then asserting it as a factual thing and not simply the conclusion off those 100 people.Report

    • Avatar LeeEsq in reply to Rufus F. says:

      Your right that nothing is every purely objective and subjective in the arts but I still believe that if art and music are going to be of value beyond simple pleasure than we need a way to talk about them besides you like what you like and I like what I like and its all good. Some people think this sort of belief is respectful but I find it debasing because its arguing that people shouldn’t be expected to strive for anything greater than whats easily accessible to them.

      Shakespeare wasn’t the only guy writing plays for the Elizabethan stage but more than any other play writer, his managed to survive and thrive through the ages and many cultures. It could be the beauty of his verse or the timelessness of his themes or simple luck but Shakespeare’s plays are still inspiring people through out the world in myriads of ways.Report

  13. Avatar NewDealer says:


    “2. But of course, she SHOULD be good at playing it, because all she has to worry about is recreating the notes that somebody else somewhere else wrote for her. What an achievement. So really, am I praising her the harpist or the person who wrote the music (Handel, in this case)? Or am I being disingenuous if I claim the appreciate either her work or Handel’s, in that I don’t really like either of them, and can’t for the life of me imagine voluntarily consuming either?”

    1. How many hours do you think she spent practicing the Harp alone to master her instrument? I played an instrument from 4th to 12th grade. I hated practicing on my own. It was long and tedious and boring and lonely. It is hard to do this and draining. It is also an incredibly complicated piece of music and required many hours of practice above and beyond what she did to master her harp?

    2. The didn’t write it comment is used by many rock fans against pop music which tends to be dominated by female singers. The rock fan argument is often called sexist when used against female pop stars. Do you agree or disagree?


    • Avatar Sam in reply to NewDealer says:


      -I fully acknowledge that this performer spent a lifetime learning her instrument. So did the exceptionally strange Buckethead. What is the substantive difference between them other than the response they would get for the music that they would choose to play?

      -Why is the person who prefers individual creativity to rote repetition wrong? Why should we celebrate this person who did nothing more than master the instrument instead of the person who both mastered the instrument and used it to create something new? Please note: there isn’t a correct answer to that. It’s up to every individual to decide. But those who choose differently than you aren’t wrong for having done so.Report

      • Avatar Creon Critic in reply to Sam says:


        Why is the person who prefers individual creativity to rote repetition wrong? Why should we celebrate this person who did nothing more than master the instrument instead of the person who both mastered the instrument and used it to create something new?

        This is not meant to evangelize. I want to point out that cadenzas do exist in classical music and have a long history. So long that sometimes the improvisation element has been reduced by the fact that other composers’ embellishments have been written down and can be practiced of a piece with the original work itself – for instance, cadenzas by Liszt and Fauré, among others, for Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 3 in C minor. But this institutionalizing of cadenzas exists alongside their ongoing improvisation as well, altogether a continuing process that involves later composers, performers, and performer-composers of the music.

        I also have to take issue with making individual creativity and rote repetition mutually exclusive. The so-called rote repetition occurs in a context where the performer makes all sorts of decisions – even when given instructions in the piece – on dynamics, tempo, coloration and timbre… Depending on the instrument a performer can be making decisions about vibrato, bowing, and accents. This stuff will show up for the listener.

        Putting the divide the way that you have is akin to saying that every performance of Shakespeare is the same because the text is the same. Just as the actors, the direction, the staging, and other elements of production bring value added to a performance of a play, there are value added components that the performer and conductor bring that’re woefully unacknowledged by “rote repetition”, “nothing more than master the instrument”, and “all she has to worry about is recreating the notes that somebody else somewhere else wrote for her”.

        (Again, not meant to evangelize for classical music. You like what you like and you don’t like what you don’t like. I’m not sure what point there is in me saying ‘don’t like that’ or ‘do like this’. There certainly can be a fun conversation that goes along those lines, but the tenor of these threads has a kind of earnest character.)Report

      • Avatar Sam in reply to Sam says:


        I think I need to emphasize this: I don’t think either person is wrong. People like what they like. But if you look throughout this thread, you’ll see objections being raised to critique of European Art Music performers, as if the notion of questioning what they’re playing is simply beyond the pale. You’ll also see people tacitly agreeing with claims being made that people who listen to European Art Music are somehow listening “better” than everybody else. The absurdities are endured in one direction and forsaken in the other.

        I’d much prefer neither. I’d much prefer one where we acknowledge that there aren’t right answers here, that people get to like what they like without being denigrated for doing so, that people who enjoy hip-hop aren’t thought to have less of an understanding of beauty than people who enjoy Handel, etc.Report

  14. Avatar NewDealer says:


    I thought you would appreciate this:



    This is the power that classical music can have. It is not just soulless and boring.Report

    • Avatar Sam in reply to NewDealer says:

      I cannot emphasize enough how telling it is that I am continually being bombarded with the insistence that classical music is good while nobody rushes to any such similar defense of other types of music, even when it is criticized within this thread. That part is the most telling thing about this.

      To reiterate: I am fine with the concept that classical music is neither soulless nor boring, even if I personally find it to generally be both. It is very possible, incidentally, to easily hold both positions. But can the people outraged by my criticism of classical music acknowledge that it is just music, the same as any other genre, no better, no worse? Or is treating every other genre with reverence demanded of classical music simply too much?Report

      • Avatar Kim in reply to Sam says:

        You find the music in Star Wars to be soulless and boring?
        The Imperial March is so evocative that they used it in the Occupy Encampment in Pittsburgh (when they were being served a request to leave the grounds).

        Personally, I find a lot of classical music to be earshattering. I dislike listening to earshattering music, as I find myself deafened afterwards. (it’s more tolerable if I turn the music down. some might say I’m defeating the point, though).Report

      • Avatar Mike Schilling in reply to Sam says:

        How many different types of music have you insulted here? (Answer: one.)Report

    • Avatar Mike Schilling in reply to NewDealer says:

      Naah, they could have done the same thing playing “Build Me Up, Buttercup”.Report

  15. Avatar Rod says:

    Whatever objective truths may hold in the realm of aesthetics (and morality/ethics for that matter) they’re of a fundamentally different nature than the truths of mathematical logic or the findings of scientific inquiry. Given axioms and the rules of the logic I’m guaranteed, if I make no error, to arrive at the correct conclusion. And science, while making no pretensions to bearing absolute Truth, the findings of scientists are, in principle at least, accessible to all and replicable by anyone.

    But aesthetics?

    “This is beautiful.”


    “Isn’t it obvious?”

    “Not really. What are your criteria for determining beauty?”

    “Well don’t you see it? The such-and-such, the so-and-so, and the yadda-yadda. And the blah-blah above all else.”

    “Okay… I’ll grant you the piece satisfies those criteria. But why did you choose those particular criteria?”

    [Starting to lose patience…] “Because… that’s just the proper criteria to judge a work of art. Everyone knows that!”

    “I don’t.”


    “Furthermore, I don’t think I agree. You say that’s the correct means to judge a work of art. What proof have you of that?”

    “Proof? I need no proof. It’s self-evident.”

    “Not to me it’s not.”

    “You haven’t devoted your life to the study of Art. You sir, are not an Expert, as am I.”

    “If your answer was ‘ Cuz I said so.’ all along, why didn’t you just say that up front? Woulda saved a lot of time.”Report

    • Avatar Chris in reply to Rod says:

      I’m not sure why you would compare science to what, if we’re being extremely charitable, might be called lay aesthetics. Undoubtedly science and formal logic win the battle of rigor and formality in such a battle. Equally undoubtedly, the comparison is irrelevant to the larger questions of the reality and nature of beauty and aesthetic/artistic judgment.Report

      • Avatar Rod in reply to Chris says:

        It speaks to the claim of objectivity. I’ve read countless claims in the comments of the two posts on the subject that I’m aware of, claims that assert, directly or indirectly, the existence of objective criteria for distinguishing great art from the merely good from the mediocre and the bad. But what is the grounding for these judgments? You need to do more than just assert their existence. The truth of a mathematical theorem is grounded in the premises and the logical system. Science is grounded in the results of experiments. What grounds the alleged truths of judgments of artistic merit?

        May I suggest that the best you’re likely to find is a kind of objective consensus of subjective opinions?Report

      • Avatar NewDealer in reply to Chris says:

        I might have to write a post about subjectivity and the politics of taste. It seems to me that a lot of taste is subjective and most people recognize this on some level but we also find some issues of taste are very political.Report

      • Avatar Jaybird in reply to Chris says:

        Objectively, can we measure responses to art?

        It seems to me that, in some loosey-goosey sense, we can. I’ll go to my “go to example” example that I use all the time when we discuss this sort of thing:

        Is there a song that has ruined more lives than this one?

        Now, I suppose, we could argue that it’s silly to argue that art can be “good” or “evil”… but it isn’t obviously silly to me. In that same way, it’s not obvious that aesthetics can’t be similarly judged.

        Now if you want to go down the whole “good, evil, I’m the guy with the shotgun” road, that totally makes sense to me and it’s just as justifiable a position as “no, there is a moral fabric”. But not more.Report

      • Avatar Chris in reply to Chris says:

        @rod , if you’d like to read some serious works on aesthetics, I can point you to some. I can even point you to some in the Anglo-American analytic tradition, if that’s the sort of philosophy you prefer.Report

      • Avatar LeeEsq in reply to Chris says:

        Jaybird, do we have a precise idea on then number of people that tried heroine and other drugs because of that song? I think when it comes to judging whether something is good or evil, books provide an easier measuring tool than music or the plastic/fine arts. We know that there have been lots of books that provided inspiration for myriad of acts both good and evil like the Turner Diaries somewhat inspiring McVey’s act of terrorism or Uncle Tom’s Cabin increasing the support of the abolition movement. Music and the plastic arts, not so much.Report

      • Avatar Glyph in reply to Chris says:

        I hold “Why Don’t We Get Drunk and Screw” responsible for the epidemic of alcoholism, STDs and unwanted pregnancies in this once-great nation. Unlike “Heroin”, it’s not just an account of events, it’s a recommendation.Report

      • Avatar Kim in reply to Chris says:

        depends on what you want to measure. If you think that great art causes people to think more deeply (something that a lot of people would support), you can simply measure pupil dilation. That will get you a combination of emotive and cognitive affects of the art.Report

      • Avatar Chris in reply to Chris says:

        Having been to a Buffett show, I’m pretty sure the very existence of Buffett is responsible for those things.Report

      • Avatar Rod in reply to Chris says:

        I’m very skeptical (basically reject) the notion of beauty as a property of things out in the world.

        Thought experiment: Aliens arrive on earth and are given the grand tour. Would they stand there on their pseudopods, stare with all five eyes, and wave their tentacles in rapture over the beauty of the Mona Lisa? I strongly doubt it, though I can’t say definitively without doing the experiment (Science!). Even if every human being on the planet agreed that X was a great work of art, that still wouldn’t establish the universality it seems to me is required to claim objectivity of property.Report

      • Avatar Jaybird in reply to Chris says:

        A precise idea? No, not at all. That said, my ignorance of such a number doesn’t preclude its existence.

        If you’re willing to grant the existence of such things as “Good” or “Evil” (and, of course, you’re willing to apply such concepts to people doing a good job of wrecking their own lives with illegal drugs during a period of drug prohibition), I don’t see why it’s any less silly to apply them to such things as art.

        And Glyph, while that’s a funny counter-example by absurdity, I would say that if you have a song that results in something that would not have resulted otherwise, the song can be said to share in the moral stature of the result. If it has good results, yay, good art. If it has evil, boo, evil art.

        Assuming some form of consequentialism, of course.

        And the fact that it is possible to pick silly examples shouldn’t, I think, detract from the fairly straightforward ones.Report

      • Avatar Kim in reply to Chris says:

        some of the symmetric properties of beauty would require an alien race that was not symmetric in order to contradict. So… yeah. Unlikely but possible. (Alien Flounder!)Report

      • Avatar Chris in reply to Chris says:

        Rod, if it has to be exclusively a property of things in the world, then your skepticism is well-founded, though in that case you’ve got a conception of subjective and objective that won’t get you very far in aesthetics or elsewhere.

        In addition of your comparison between science and “lay aesthetics,” here’s another example of your bias against the latter: while you would not consider yourself qualified to do serious physics, say, because you’re not a trained physicist, you have decided that you can answer basic questions about aesthetics without really even thinking that hard about it, much less reading the literature or consulting some experts.

        You’re not alone in this. I blame Ayer.Report

      • Avatar Glyph in reply to Chris says:

        @jaybird – we’ll, you’re right that my example’s a reductio, but I see no reason that it is any more absurdum than yours. More people have probably wrecked their lives (and cars) following Buffett’s advice than Reed’s accounts, for the simple reason that more people have heard Buffett.

        Not to mention, “Heroin…will be the death of me” and impatiently standing on a corner in a bad neighborhood jittering, sweating and itching while you Wait For Your Man sounds like no fun at all, but getting drunk and screwing? That’s just good fun.

        What’s the worst that could happen, right?

        For me to call a work of art “evil”, mere consequentialism isn’t enough. Intent also matters. Perhaps Reed was trying to warn others not to make the same mistakes he had (a common theme in pop music – hell, in human communication) – if so, even if he failed in that aim, and more people tried heroin and got hooked than were frightened away, I can’t call the work itself evil, only misguided or unsuccessful.

        And that’s not even getting into the idea of whether or not we can say that a work of art is the (or even a) prime motivator in the person that does the evil, any more than the mere knowledge or existence of a drug can be ‘blamed’ for people taking that drug. (Hmmm… the intimate metaphorical ties between the snake, the tempting apple, knowledge, art, drugs, and ‘The Devil Made Me Do It’ are all swimming nicely into focus here. Appropriate that this post is titled what it is).Report

      • Avatar Jaybird in reply to Chris says:

        “Intent also matters.”

        Perhaps on the part of the artist if/when we wish to judge him/her. When it comes to the work itself, why can’t we look at what the work itself inspires?Report

      • Avatar dhex in reply to Chris says:


        “Is there a song that has ruined more lives than this one?”

        easy – the national anthem.Report

      • Avatar Jaybird in reply to Chris says:

        I don’t know that there are *THAT* many people who were inspired to a different action by The National Anthem, at the end of the day. Your point is well-made, however and I plan on exploring that kind of thought in a post soon.

        Maybe even tonight.Report

      • Avatar Kim in reply to Chris says:

        some works inspire heart attacks. does that make them the evilest of art?
        [have actively killed people, after all.]Report

      • Avatar Glyph in reply to Chris says:

        @jaybird – even taking that approach (which as I said, I disagree with), how can you ever answer that? Maybe more people were scared away from heroin by “Heroin” than were enticed by it. Or they were able to get sufficient vicarious voyeuristic jollies from listening to “Heroin” without having to go out and try some heroin for themselves, with all its attendant risks.

        Like porn.

        To the extent that it makes sense to call any inanimate object “evil”, though, I still need intent. When we last discussed this, it was in the context of that Muhammad movie that supposedly prompted Benghazi. I took the position then that I am comfortable calling something like Protocols of Elders of Zion evil, because it was written with ill-intent/deception (that is, it was knowingly intended to be a frame-up, and facilitate pogroms). Had enough people seen through Protocols as a fake and it had NOT resulted in pogroms, it’d STILL be evil, even though it had failed in its intent to deceive and harm.

        But conversely, if the author was mentally ill, or deceived/deluded into truly believing the account he wrote, or had intended it as fiction but people didn’t understand that when they read it, then the work itself is not “evil”, *even if* it helped prompt pogroms. That evil’s solely on the pogrommers.

        I don’t know if there’s some philosophical view underpinning this – “transitive property from maker’s intent to made object” – or if it’s just superstition on my part, but that’s how I see it.Report

      • Avatar Jaybird in reply to Chris says:

        how can you ever answer that?

        The fact that I don’t know the answer to this question doesn’t mean that there isn’t an answer to the question.

        To explore more, are there people who were chased off of Heroin by the song? Surely we can weigh that against the people who were inspired to try it, can’t we? And even if we agree that you and I can’t know what the moral status is, that doesn’t mean that it doesn’t have one.

        But we can make some fairly educated guesses and say that this song probably did good in aggregate, that song probably did evil in aggregate, and, sure, we can come to conclusions about paintings, movies, plays (The King In Yellow!), statuary, and so on.

        I mean, assuming that good and evil exists, of course.Report

      • Avatar Sam in reply to Chris says:


        I left a comment below regarding aesthetics. It starts a new thread. I have trouble keeping track.Report

      • Avatar Glyph in reply to Chris says:

        The fact that I don’t know the answer to this question doesn’t mean that there isn’t an answer to the question.

        I see the hair you are trying to split and acknowledged it in my last response, but (as my reference to hairsplitting might indicate) don’t see how it matters if an artwork could, in abstract theory, be judged good or evil by its effects if we acknowledge that in practice, judging by effects is impossible. A cumulative consequential difference that cannot be unambiguously detected not just by you, but by ANYBODY, is no difference at all. At least under my “intent” model, one person (the artmaker) can judge what he meant to do…

        assuming that good and evil exists

        …aaaaaand there’s the rub. One reason these arguments so discomfit me is for the same reason that ones totally outside of the aesthetics category and into morality/ethics/meaning do: that I fear my position may truly be that they DON’T exist objectively, but that it is dreadfully important – if we selfishly want our own lives to be anything other than nasty, brutish and short – that we maintain the fiction they do, at all costs.

        Basically, I fear that I am faking my romantic idealism, and I am really an existential nihilist who’s too cowardly to face up to the reality.

        But like Fox Mulder, I want to believe.Report

      • Avatar Kim in reply to Chris says:

        There is one fundamental truth:
        “Life is short, and then you die.”
        After that, there are many smaller truths — and many bigger lies.

        How’s that for a truth even an alien can understand?Report

      • Avatar Jaybird in reply to Chris says:

        But there are a handful of assumptions that are important:

        Good/Evil exist
        It’s possible for us to know what is Good/Evil
        It’s possible for us to choose between Good/Evil
        It’s possible for us to act in a Good/Evil way (or a way that results in Good/Evil)

        After swallowing those camels, the whole “can art be good/evil” question is a gnat.Report

      • Avatar Glyph in reply to Chris says:

        @jaybird …but I DID swallow the gnat, and all those camels too (and now I feel kinda sick…urrrp). I even gave an example of an artwork I would consider “evil”. I just think “Heroin” is not a good example. Since art is, essentially, communication/speech, I have a very high threshold based on the “sticks and stones may evilly break my bones, but Jimmy Buffett’s just kinda lame” model. I’m afraid we pretty much have to go Godwin, example-wise, before I will concede a work of art as evil.

        To bring it back around to your original derailed point though, in which you were pointing out that if “objective” moral qualities could theoretically adhere to the art, then “objective” aesthetic ones maybe could too…well, I want to believe. What camels and gnats must we dine upon to get there?

        The problem as I see it is that the camels may be even bigger – too big for Sam to swallow. Almost everyone can look at certain actions (the murder of a child, say) and say “that’s evil.” But there’s almost nothing from an aesthetic point of view with anywhere even near that universality. I may look at a painting and think it beautiful, and you may look at it and think it’s hideous because it reminds you of a person or place or feeling you hate.Report

      • Avatar Kim in reply to Chris says:

        oh, hell yes, of course there is.
        Any art that causes death in the audience is evil.
        Any art that demeans the audience severely (aka most people pee themselves while experiencing it), yeah, I’m pretty sure most people would call that “bad art”.Report

      • Avatar Jaybird in reply to Chris says:

        well, I want to believe. What camels and gnats must we dine upon to get there?

        I don’t think it’s *THAT* difficult… we can run with the whole “you know a tree by its fruit” rule. If aesthetically “good” responses come from a piece of art, it’s aesthetically “good”. If bad, bad.

        Now we just need to hammer out what an “aesthetically good” response would be… It shouldn’t be *THAT* hard to come up with some. Flourishing among those who see/hear it, inspiration to create, that sort of thing. I am wondering how I’d work Goya into the definition… but it doesn’t seem impossible (maybe we could go back to Aristotle and talk about catharsis and junk).

        The fact that we don’t agree on Heroin being a good example doesn’t necessarily strike me as a dealbreaker. We just have to agree that there would be examples in theory.Report

      • Avatar Glyph in reply to Chris says:

        Now we just need to hammer out what an “aesthetically good” response would be… It shouldn’t be *THAT* hard to come up with some. Flourishing among those who see/hear it, inspiration to create, that sort of thing. I am wondering how I’d work Goya into the definition… but it doesn’t seem impossible (maybe we could go back to Aristotle and talk about catharsis and junk).

        I dunno man, I am still skeptical. Because every example you come up with seems to present an obvious, immediate counterargument.

        Take “inspiration to create”. This one sounds good, the old saw about how everyone who bought the VU started a band. Yeah.

        Problem is, many, many, (many) more were probably inspired to create by Bieber’s new album. As a bonus, very few of them are heroin addicts.

        And if you therefore argue for Bieber as better or more beautiful art than the Velvets, I’m coming through the screen after you.

        Or “catharsis” – depends on what catharsizes you, versus what catharsizes me.Report

      • Avatar Jaybird in reply to Chris says:

        I honestly don’t know that anyone was inspired to create by Bieber’s latest. Now, granted, I’m sort of out of the loop when it comes to Tweenie music but I don’t know that I’ve ever encountered any of his music in the wild.

        If anything, he seems to be one of those rock stars that is more popular because of the pictures taken of him than the music he is asked to perform for others.

        His art seems to feel good but it doesn’t seem to produce life.

        “Ah, but what about those people who are inspired to make Justin Bieber webpages with all sorts of emoticons and glitter and hearts flying out of Justin Bieber’s eyes and whatnot?”

        Sure. Do those pages inspire others to create? Or are they mules?

        To use the VU as an example of a group that inspired thousands of others, can we look to see how those others inspired yet others? I think we can. How about (proverbial) grandchildren? (Proverbial) Great-grandchildren? I think we can and we can.

        If there’s a better definition of “flourishing” in action, I’d like to see it. (To be honest, I think that the VU was incredibly fecund… and created good things with its album as well as bad… but Heroin remains the first thing I think of when I meditate upon whether a song can be good or evil.)

        Bieber is Lief Garrett. He’ll soon be replaced by someone younger and cuter with better hair… who will go on to produce about as much life as his type tends to. (One Direction! Woo!!!)

        Of course, the possibility exists that he’ll mature and actually start creating “good’ art rather than mules. How will we measure this? By his fruit.Report

      • Avatar Glyph in reply to Chris says:

        Look, I want to believe it. It’s certainly how I conceptualize things. But it’s probably just a comforting and/or self-flattering myth. I know nothing about Bieber other than he seems incredibly popular. Anyone that popular makes other people say “I want to be/do THAT.”

        This isn’t a slam on the Monkees, but I would lay good money more people started bands because of Davey Jones than David Bowie. Even if they retroactively claim it was Bowie that inspired them. Hell, that’s probably the way they remember it. But it’s not true. It was Davey they saw first.Report

  16. Avatar Sam says:


    Is there an example of a philosophical exploration of aesthetics that ends up with the thinker drawing the conclusion that things s/he loved were in fact not beautiful, not good, not worthwhile, etc? Because one of the biggest problems I have with any sort of objective measure of things like beauty/quality/etc is that it always seems to end up at precisely where its creator happens to already stand.

    In other words, “I think the Mona Lisa is beautiful. Here are a list of objective criteria that prove that. And if you follow those criteria, you’ll happen to end up at the Mona Lisa, the thing I love. I HAVE AWESOME TASTE!” Well, maybe not that last part. Explicitly anyway.Report

    • Avatar Kim in reply to Sam says:

      yes, if we give one person one vote. Look at the psychology of art link above, there’s a pronounced “handedness” to folks appreciation of art.Report

    • Avatar Chris in reply to Sam says:

      Most philosophical treatments of aesthetics deal with evaluations abstractly, to the extent that they deal with evaluations. That is, I think it asks the wrong question of people who do aesthetics. They’re more interested in what such evaluations are, what properties and factors — subjective and objective, cultural, psychological, neurological, historical — what it means to be a art, what it means to have aesthetic reactions to something, what the goals and purposes of art are, what art’s larger role in society and in the lives of individuals is, etc. Then these things get played out in critical theories, which may deal with individual artistic media, or even individual genres, and then get applied to individual works by critics. And it’s the mark of a bad critic that he or she lets his personal opinions of a work or of an artist, that is whether he or she personally enjoys that work or artist, get in the way of a fair evaluation of the work as a piece of whatever type of art it is.Report

      • Avatar Kim in reply to Chris says:

        This entire comment is making me laugh.
        Thanks for brightening my day!Report

      • Avatar Sam in reply to Chris says:


        Unfortunately, I think the concept of separating personal opinion from critical evaluation is essentially impossible. So I doubt we’re finding any middle ground here. Thanks though for the excellent explanation.Report

      • Avatar Chris in reply to Chris says:

        Sam, yeah, we do disagree on that. I agree that it is difficult to evaluate things on a critical level without letting one’s non-critical reactions to it get in the way, but part of what makes a good professional critic is developing the ability to do so.

        Though I have known some people who have gone into professions that require them to read or view critically who will say that they can no longer enjoy whatever it is they’re evaluating critically, because they automatically take a critical stance.Report

      • Avatar Glyph in reply to Chris says:

        Though I have known some people who have gone into professions that require them to read or view critically who will say that they can no longer enjoy whatever it is they’re evaluating critically

        Yeah, I kind of steered clear of ever reviewing records for a paycheck for that reason; my friends who did do it said that very thing. Though maybe they were just trying to discourage me, so they could keep all that free swag for themselves…

        Also, I was going to throw this out tomorrow in comments of Linky Friday, but I thought this was interesting:


        Of course, as a non-musician and Bangs fan, I can’t help but feel it was aimed at me…Report

      • Avatar Kim in reply to Chris says:

        You are fortunate that you were never forced to spend 20 minutes watching someone cry into the camera.Report