I've been thinking about this topic for a few weeks, ever since that day I spent without internet, forced to read different articles I had saved to my hard drive for use during those college classes inconveniently located in regions lacking wi-fi. But Rock Band, the start of baseball season, and some ancient Jewish rituals have distracted me from writing inside this blog.
Oh yes, the topic: how do people recognize quality?
It's not a new question, and even the article which spurred this thinking isn't new; in September of 2007, Gene Weingarten and a phalanx of Washington Post reporters placed Joshua Bell--if not the LeBron James of the violin, then at least the Chris Paul of it, or so the article implies--in a Washington Metro station and told him to play three widely-acknowledged works of violining genius (stuff like, "Chaconne" from Johann Sebastian Bach's Partita No. 2 in D Minor--y'know violining genius). The resulting article garnered a whole bunch of attention, and with good reason: it's an excellent thought experiment, well-executed, and a really fun read. I'll let you read the article to find out if commuters would stop during rush-hour to hear a world-class musical performance for free (short answer: with few exceptions, they did not), but I think this claim of Mark Leithauser, a senior curator at the National Gallery, is worth sharing here:
Let's say I took one of our more abstract masterpieces, say an Ellsworth Kelly, and removed it from its frame, marched it down the 52 steps that people walk up to get to the National Gallery, past the giant columns, and brought it into a restaurant. It's a $5 million painting. And it's one of those restaurants where there are pieces of original art for sale, by some industrious kids from the Corcoran School, and I hang that Kelly on the wall with a price tag of $150. No one is going to notice it. An art curator might look up and say: 'Hey, that looks a little like an Ellsworth Kelly. Please pass the salt.'
So is there any situation in which people can assess art taken out of context?
I'm fairly certain that I would not like certain books or websites (that I do like) if they were written by someone other than a person I already know I like. And I think that makes sense in a way; when I say that I like Don DeLillo I don't mean his personality, his character, or his actions--I like to read the things that he writes. Which is to say, once a piece of writing (or acting, or music, etc.) meets a certain basic level of quality, maybe I just like writers or actors or musicians that I like, and it doesn't really matter that there may be other, better writers out there that I don't like, because I don't know about them. I'm not sure I like the best writer--I like the one that I like.
Because I wonder how these things can even be measured. Even sports--one of the most exhaustively measured pursuits in human history--maybe aren't as clear cut as we may think. Michael Jordan, for example, is completely untouchable. He has all the accolades you could imagine. But wouldn't his reputation be even a little bit diminished if he got called for that offensive foul on Russell in 1998?
Jordan, if this foul was called, goes down in history not as a guy who was invincible, but as someone who lost in his prime, just this once. This completely subjective officiating call makes a huge difference in how Jordan is perceived.
I guess the point is to like what you like. If you like Tom Waits because he sounds like a cross between Harry Chapin and Cookie Monster, he wrote what would become the theme song to The Wire, and because you wonder how he ever worked up the nerve to go into signing with a voice like that, then keep on liking him. Even if your roommates complain that the sound coming out of your iPod isn't technically music and doesn't taste like apples.