Many people lay claim to high standards of one kind or another. Everyone from the president on down has an opinion about what constitutes a proper level of performance in [insert name of activity]. Among educators, it’s probably the paramount subject. In my 37 years in that profession, hardly a day went by without a conversation about the matter.
Sometimes setting standards isn’t so hard. In areas one can quantify easily, like arithmetic, for example. Even in math and science, however, determining the height or even the location of the bar gets more difficult the deeper you get into the subject. It’s not terribly difficult to test for facility in quadratic equations, but what about the ability to set up lab experiments and evaluate the results? What about the ability to work with a team when the experiment can’t be done by one person? Things start to get hazier. And when it comes to the arts and letters, the situation becomes positively murky.
We English teachers can pretty much agree on what constitutes a decent essay and even give you a pretty good idea of why it’s good or why it doesn’t measure up. Essay writing is almost a quantifiable skill. It’s also not difficult to assess whether a student has understood the essence of something they’ve read. Such matters are the arithmetic of literacy. What about fiction, though? Or movies? Or plays? Or symphonies? Or operas?
I recently saw my first opera world premiere–Appamattox, music by Phillip Glass, libretto by Christopher Hampton. I knew little about Glass but his name. Hampton I remembered with admiration from Les Liaisons Dangereuse. Since the setting was the Civil War, I was primed for excellence. This, despite the fact that Joshua Kosman, the Chronicle critic, was lukewarm. But oh, was I disappointed. I thought the music redundant and dull, the libretto–drawn largely word-for-word (apparently) from dull historical documents–tedious and awkward when it wasn’t preachy and irrelevant. Performances were fine. Settings ditto. But the whole experience registered as mediocre. Susanne’s opinion matched mine, as did that of two friends who saw the same performance. And I wasn’t just going on impressions. I had a sturdy rack of standards to hang my critical hat on.
Along came my friend, Anne, who has seen more operas than I would want to. She and her recently-deceased husband were known to fly to Europe for the opening of a new opera house, or anywhere at all for a new production of The Ring Cycle. So, her opera-assessing credentials are more solid than mine ever will be. And she loved Appomattox. And so did the people she went with. I tried briefly to talk her out of her admiration by pointing to its obvious flaws, with (of course) no success. “Isn’t it wonderful that we’re all different?” she said. So what are we left with here? Two (three, counting the Chronicle guy) relatively well-informed and conflicting opinions? Which of us is “right”? Or is it all just taste? And if that’s so, where do the standards come in? Beats me.
I think I’m a bit more clear about writers. I am able to admire and appreciate certain authors without warming up to them. That, I think, is a matter of standards. Ishiguro is a good example. A fine stylist. For writing, qua writing, you won’t find better. And I know some people who adore his work. I don’t. I see what’s terrific about it, but it doesn’t move me much. McEwen, to a lesser extent, is another. The modern writers I like are people like Zadie Smith, Louise Erdrich, Isabel Allende, Barry Unsworth, Cormac McCarthy. These are all people with juice. Their books live in the dark, swampy regions of life where things drip and rub up against each other and shudder and smell. Ishiguro tends to dwell in the intellect and the ether. Looking at my “best-liked” list, I also notice that some of the writers on my list are probably among the second tier of scribblers in the opinion of the literati pundits. Does this mean I have low standards? Is that why I am so often out of tune with the prevailing critical opinion about so many works? Beats me. But don’t try to talk me out of my affections. You won’t have any more success with me than I did with Anne.
And let’s return to Anne for a moment. We recently visited her in Washington D.C. and she insisted we see the J.W.C. Turner exhibit at the national gallery. (It didn’t take much persuading.) However, while viewing the displays, we began to notice that Anne was drawn toward the landscapes dominated by blues and whites, whereas Susanne and I gravitated toward the browns and yellows. Earth paintings and sky paintings, we began to call them, though there were plenty of examples of blue earths and yellow skies. In this case, there was no disagreement about the worth of the paintings in question. It was a matter of taste in an environment of high standards.
Anne is plenty earthy, so I don’t want to suggest that she’s an ivory tower egghead. I believe Appomattox is a sky painting. I didn’t find much juice in it. Unlike my assessment of Ishiguro, however, I also found plenty not to admire. So I will hang on to my insistence that it’s a work inferior by artistic standards as well as by mere taste. But I still wonder where one stops and the other begins.
Of course, I’m talking so far about situations where there is no question of technical competency, not a matter of amateur night or junk. But now, a few words about junk.
I think we all have junk that we love. I could make no critical argument for the virtues of Louis L’Amour’s novels except that they do have juice, humor, and action–formulaic and predictable action. Pretty good characters, too, though stereotypical and shallow. But I’ve read every book, and some of them twice. And I don’t apologize.
I like a few television series. Not necessarily the Sopranos, which is Yuppie “junk,” and undoubtedly fine but which never quite moved me enough to watch more than a couple of times. I like The Shield, for which I can make some of the same arguments about writing and character that everyone else makes about The Sopranos. But it’s still TV cop drama, no matter how high class. A friend of mine likes Ugly Betty. I think it’s trash. But to each his own trash and don’t mess with mine. I’ve seen all the Bourne movies. I like Wesley Snipes’s work as long as it’s not the phony martial arts stuff. When it comes to junk, produced to make mass money, practically everything is taste, and forget the standards.
I write to clarify, and usually a thousand words will buy me some insight into my subject. Doesn’t seem to have happened in this case. It still seems that separating taste from standards is practically impossible once you get past some high level of quality. I believe I’ll continue to think that–barring being completely baffled by something as complex as Finnegan’s Wake, for example–I can tell dross from gold. I’ll continue to insist that I can discriminate between my standards and my taste and give due credit even to high quality works I don’t especially like. Finally, I’ll continue to insist that Appomattox is a dog, and Anne will continue to insist it’s wonderful. Posterity will decide, but neither of us will be around for the decision. Even if we were, we wouldn’t change our minds about that any more than we’d change our minds about the atrocity of the decision to nominate Little Miss Sunshine for an academy award.