Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Two Posts on Creativity, Quality, and Taste

Cultural anthropologist (and my much-loved partner) Robert Philen has two recent posts on his always fascinating blog that I think will be of particular interest to readers of this blog.

The first, "A Democracy of Creation and Taste (But Not Quality)," he points out that while "In much of the world today, there is something like a democracy of creative expression, where most everyone can say what they want about whatever, even if some people are better able to have their voices heard and are more influential," at the same time, though "There’s no single way to evaluate the quality of and other instances of creative expression do have objective qualities – meaning that they are objects in the world with empirical qualities"--qualities that can be analyzed, evaluated, and judged.

In other words, the democratization of creativity is not equivalent to a democratization or leveling of judgments of artistic quality: as Robert writes, "the fact that there’s no single way to evaluate the relative quality of works of art, doesn’t mean that all creative expression is the equal of every other." The aesthetic world is not flat.

Robert's second and more recent post of interest is called "In the Long Run Our Culture Has Good Taste," in which he points out that "People often have the impression that pop culture and the arts used to be better. This impression comes from the fact that in the long term, we actually have good taste, and this skews our memory of the past." We are very aware of the ephemeral dreck (my phrase, not his) of our own time, but that of the past has fallen away, and all that remains or tends to be remembered are the high points--Frank Sinatra's soulful ballads, not his duet with a talking dog.

As he points out, and this is a way in which the two posts are directly related, "Objects of creative expression (and I would include scholarly expression as much as art here) that maintain the interest of many for very long, though highly various, tend to have objective qualities that reward repeated reflection and rumination (i.e. they’re actually at least somewhat profound) and that are not overly determined by the moment of their creation, allowing them to communicate across temporal contexts."

I encourage everyone to read these stimulating and insightful pieces.


Anonymous said...

Both of Robert's pieces are, in fact, stimulating and insightful, although the argument is an old one and (I suspect) not open to resolution. His principle argument depends on time: "Objects of creative expression ... that maintain the interest of many for very long...." I agree, but the implication is that antiquity is a guarantee of quality. This may be true as we look back into a past preserved by oral transmission or scholarly anthologies, but in the explosion of texts that followed the advent of moveable type, which the digital age has merely amplified and extended, I'm not sure that time will ever again be a meaningful measure. Audiences have been atomized, because culture itself has been atomized, and I see no end to it—at least until the global dead-dinosaur engine rattles to a halt and the screens go dark along with their cities. Assuming that does in fact happen at some point, we may return to a kind of culture in which time can once more matter as a sieve for quality. For now, though, we're all adrift. Robert says the Mozart is superior to Punk Rock, and I agree—but that broadly accepted judgement may not last. In the end, I think the question of quality has to depend on a clear idea of what creative expression is for, what it's supposed to do, both for the artist and for his or her audience. What is that, exactly? I'm preparing a blog post of my own on that question, taking off from a point Ted Hughes makes in his letters, but it'll be a few days! Anyway, thanks to you and Robert for the brain-fodder....

Troy Camplin said...

Isn't this where the role of the critic comes in? ANd isn't that what English departments are supposed to be teaching students: how to make better evaluative judgments of literary works? Sadly, too many critics have declared all works to be of equal value -- meaning they all have no value.

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