By Sam Wilkinson
In my (unpopular) arguments about the relativism with which I approach art – that all art is equal, that all consumers are equal, and that nobody is substantively wrong – I have repeatedly struggled to find a way to make the argument in a persuasive and compelling fashion. This, I suppose, is my own failing.
If I have remained ineffective at convincing people of the rightness of my position, I have remained equally unconvinced by the positions they have presented to counter my own. My own response to arguments about hierarchies within art are that such structures tend in almost every example to overlap with remarkable consistency to whatever the person doing the advocating happens to personally enjoy. It is just the damndest coincidence. (I have, predictably, other objections, but they are not for this post.)
Instead, I present the video below. It is a video of a man who seems to spend most of his days detached from the world, a detachment that can seemingly only be broken by what would appear to be the music of his younger, healthier days:
His before (a quiet man with his head down, either unable or unwilling to speak) and after (a dancing man with his eyes open, answering questions), is as simultaneously shocking as it is uplifting. While the playing of music certainly would not do for all people what it does for this man, the idea that it might is pleasant thing to think about. If we can agree on nothing else, we can almost certainly agree upon this.
But there are implications even here for our back and forth about art. Specifically, how do we deal with the fact that this man’s favored music is performed by artists (like Cab Calloway, whose most famous song is below) who do not appear on the lists compiled by the sort of aficionados that various people here (including, most compelling, Rose Wodehouse) generally reference when it comes to the assemblage of canons that ought to be understood as bodies of work superior in nature?
Is it that this man is simply ignorant to the greater music available to him? Perhaps. Is it that this many is simply intellectually incapable of understanding how much better other music is? Perhaps. But surely we can agree that both of those are egregiously ugly conclusions. The problem with insisting upon the hierarchies of art though is that one of these two conclusions has to be true. If the hierarchies are true, then there has to be some problem with the man or else he would not preference Cab Calloway in the way that he obviously does. But if these hierarchies aren’t true? Then this becomes simultaneously easier and less judgmental. We can acknowledge that, for this man, Calloway is the peak of the musical achievement, even if this is not the experts’ conclusion. Understanding Calloway’s superiority within this man’s world then might help us to understand how the music can be important enough to him to literally open his eyes.
Why then pivot from that bit of reasonableness back to a conclusion where this man’s experience exists as some sort of outlier, as if arts of all kinds do not create precisely the same emotional response in all of us? For the record, when I argue for relativism, I am not arguing against the ordering of works of art within given critical schemes, but rather, the acknowledgement that those critical schemes are the creations of human beings almost certainly driven by their biases, their preferences, their pleasures, and their pains. They have arrived at their own lists of accomplished jazz (like this one,or this one, or this one). But the man in the video is driven in precisely the same way, by his biases, by his preferences, by his pleasures, and his pains. He has arrived at Cab Calloway.
Neither of them is right generally. They are, instead, right for themselves specifically. Instead of insisting upon the superiority of some of those conclusions, we should revel in the peculiarity of our individuality which, incidentally, seems to exist long after the suffering of life takes over physically.