Yes, we Canon!
Given that we have serious anxieties about ranking the objects of aesthetic taste, such as paintings, movies, songs, foods, poems, and so forth, why can’t we stop doing so? Why does the cultivation of taste seem to lead us inevitably to the creation of hierarchies? Is it possible to conceive of a democratic canon?
In a provocative Film Comment article on the film canon*, Paul Schrader makes this interesting comparison about why we don’t like the notion of artistic canons, while still making them:
Canon formation has become the equivalent of 19th century anti-sodomy laws: repudiated in principle, performed in practice. Canons exist because they serve a function; they are needed. And the need increases with each new wave of films.
And we can’t seem to help it. The thing about artistic and literary canons, of any sort, is that we say they’re subjective but behave as if they’re objective. In our hearts, we suspect that our favored works of art aren’t objectively superior, perhaps mere reflections of our culture, historical moment, or personal quirks; and yet we feel compelled to act as if they are, in the same way we hide our fears that perhaps our children aren’t particularly brilliant and our partners aren’t especially attractive. We’re a sanctifying animal. Equally, we’re not comfortable reducing aesthetic judgments to “personal preference” or just another sort of consumer choice. Not all art is created equal.
Nor are all judges. There seems to be a difference between opinion and educated opinion. And the tastes of people who share a high level of cultivated familiarity with genres of art tend to overlap in ways that suggest these preferences are not mere opinion. An avid cinephile, I tried making my own list of the 25 best movies I’ve ever seen before reading Schrader’s 25 film canon and 21 of them were on his list. Am I unoriginal? Are we both unoriginal? Is taste a matter of consensus, or repeating “educated opinion”? Maybe so. But, regardless of the conventionality of my tastes, I know that movies like Vertigo, Persona, and Pickpocket still completely buried me when I saw them. Conversely, I can listen to a drunk at the bar explain why the Fast and the Furious is the greatest film ever made and be convinced that he’s objectively wrong.
Why is that?
First, a digression…
We’re rolling languid like sun dazed lions in my disordered bed on one of those mornings in which two o’clock still feels like “morning” and “Monella” is attempting to explain wine to me. This is no easy task because I have a feeble grasp on the subject and wouldn’t know a Bordeaux from a Zinfandel from a fine Lector Chianti. But she is patient and pleasant to listen to and, to borrow Faulkner’s words, “like honey poured in sunlight.” We’ve been talking for months now with very short breaks, our words like a wire winding through our days with little sparkling lights attached.
Wine is one of her many passions, a certified one. She’s a longtime oenophile and licensed sommelier. Her palate is sufficiently developed tha she knows what wines go with what foods, what vineyards have superior wines in general, and what vintages have particularly strong qualities. Blindfolded, she can tell types, vineyards, and labels, and frequently vintages, and she is considering getting her master’s sommelier license, which would put her in a group of a few hundred in the world. At the restaurant where she works, she selects the wine for countless customers. When we drink together, as we often do, she is, naturally, the one who picks the wine.
The process of refining one’s tastes is fascinating. I am better versed in beer, which is a nice way of saying I’m a musician, and I feel much more comfortable distinguishing between types and brews and brands by taste. But, we’re talking about two types of distinction here: being able to distinguish between varieties and types and being able to make distinctions of taste, both of which develop over time with experience and seem to be intertwined. The latter sort of distinction is ultimately subjective, and yet certain people’s opinions carry more weight because they’re trained at the former sort.
And, of course, Monella has her favorite wines, which we drink when we can, so I am now asking her the tougher question: “hey, if you’re a licensed sommelier, does that mean you could tell me which wines are the best?” She laughs softly and replies, “I can tell you structurally which ones are the best.” I feign some understanding of what this means (a man never wanting to look oblivious in the presence of a naked woman and seldom able to avoid it) but after further discussion, I catch the drift: yes she can, but only to a point, beyond which it becomes a matter of personal preference.
This is something that used to be pretty common in merchant-customer relationships, but has become less so with the rise of the retail model; merchants ideally increase the value of a transaction by their expertise. In theory, you can enter a bookstore or a record store or a tailor and find someone whose opinions are sufficiently educated that they can point you in the direction of what items suit your needs. You don’t pay the haberdasher just to offer an array of hats and ties, but to tell you what looks good on you. In matters of aesthetics, in other words, trained opinions tend to carry more weight. This isn’t exactly snobbishness. To take a stab at defining it, I would say there are two aspects to expertise: 1. a great deal of experience with the thing in question, and 2. demonstratively intelligent insights.
As we gain experience with any art form, we start making distinctions of taste and refining our original opinions. We also learn to pick out more qualities, make finer distinctions, and organize those distinctions better. So, when you say that Back to the Future is the greatest film ever made, I expect that you will either make an argument that will radically shift my perceptions, or that you have not seen many films. Both scenarios are possible. And, don’t get me wrong, I like that movie.
We return often here to this debate about whether tastes are subjective or objective, but it seems like the dichotomy is a bit false. Our canons aren’t as universally accepted as the periodic table of the elements, but they aren’t exactly random and individual either. It is possible to set commonly accepted and quantifiable criteria for works of art and therefore say that certain ones are particularly well-executed or accomplished, but that can only take us so far. Think of it as an exclusive club, but not so exclusive that we have no choice about who to go home with. Another model would be something like a series of drawers at different levels and we select from what works of art are in the top drawer, second from the top, and so on.
The advantage of this model is that it seems to describe what we actually do as we cultivate aesthetic tastes. The disadvantage is it seems somehow undemocratic, which is not a problem since works of arts have no intrinsic rights that could be discriminated against, but seems like it might have undemocratic implications.
*Yes, one from 2006. I am not what we call a fast blogger.