Friday, March 25, 2011

Vox Populi, Vox Dei

"... all music which has the power of purifying the soul affords a harmless pleasure to man."
- Aristotle, "On Music"

"Everything that pleases has a reason for pleasing..."
"The Beautiful is always strange."
- Baudelaire

I exchanged emails with a friend who saw Yusuf Islam's later output as less compelling than that of the heyday of the then Cat Stevens. I saw it the same way - but then started thinking about how thorny the problem of evaluating any such thing for someone else becomes, clear though your outlook on it might be.

Consider these two images:

Even considering that their subjects are completely different, is there something you could categorically say about their qualities of purification, pleasure, beauty, or strangeness? They both are fairly unmistakably American, and moreover probably to most, unmistakably in the canons of their respective creators, Thomas Kincade and Norman Rockwell. Both would be recognizable as very popular work. But there are clear divergences as well: the theme of the former is fairly vague, and has the feel of something you might see on a box of Christmas lights; and the latter clearly has a pretty specific theme, and doesn't have any obvious commercial orientation.

Now consider Robert Bechtle's Marin Avenue - Late Afternoon or many others, and contrast that with these two. What is it about that car, and that street, that has a sense of strangeness for me palpably greater than Rockwell's, and much greater than Kincade's? For the Kincade fan who might say, "I don't know art, but I know what I like", what might I say to him that would express a sort of continuum at one end of which is Kincade, and at the other Bechtle - or van Eyck, or van Gogh, or Duchamp, to somehow assign attributes to indicate some substance or profundity irrespective of taste?

Someone once said to me, in connection with a singer named Roger Whittaker, "I dare you not to like this guy!" He proceeded to play for my edification Whittaker's rendition of "Both Sides Now", during which I reflected that it would be hard for a competent singer to more effectively rob the song of its essence than he did. It actually distressed me, and made me quite sad for a while. But the source of my sadness was really that I heard Judy Collins' version, then quickly after, Joni Mitchell's original, well before having heard Whittaker's, and it was the negative contrast that colored everything. Had Whittaker written the song, and performed it exactly as he does, he would have been due no small songwriting kudos, and the fact that a Judy Collins did a more definitive performance than his would not have removed that much from the authorial glow. It was easier to consider the peculiarities of timing when I thought about Paul Siebel's song "Louise", and its power in the hands of Leo Kottke (a quick YouTube search reveals the de facto vote on which has "stuck".)

And yet there is fairly common agreement among at least critics on which is superior between the author's "Red Red Wine" and UB40's, Whittaker and Joni Mitchell, or Andy Warhol and Mr. Brainwash. But, even given limiting the criteria to originality or distinction, is it so obvious how to evaluate the various "You Really Got Me" versions, or Bechtle vs. Banksy, or Five Easy Pieces vs. Pulp Fiction? I know what I prefer instinctively for all of these, as surely as I can recognize a non-native English speaker or distinguish artificial banana flavoring from natural. But I'm not sure I would want to put much money on posterity's view of any of them a generation hence.

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